Low-Carbs and CrossFit
I received an email from Nicholas Hahn last week in which he described his experience using a VERY low carb diet with a CrosFit template. His results are interesting and pretty impressive as he appears to run better on less than Zone levels of carb intake. Whooda-thunkt-it?
Some of the other benefits appear to be improved leanness and better insulin sensitivity. Long term it seems like throwing in more veggies might be good to maintain a net alkaline balance. is this the right Rx for everyone and every situation? No, obviously not, but it’s interesting how much adaptation there can be towards this lower carb approach.
Who might benefit from an approach like this? Anyone with insulin resistance. If you read Light’s Out and buy into the concepts they talk about in that book, perhaps everyone would benefit from a few months each year of ketogenic eating. Whatever the case, give this a read and kick this around: How effective are we when we live purposefully? If we know WHY we do something in training, nutrition or financial investing is that a BETTER or WORSE approach vs a random un-directed approach? When and where is a random, undirected approach appropriate?
Before starting a weighed and measured, Paleo (ala Loren Cordain) diet, I was between 240 and 245 lbs. Within a few months, I dropped to my current weight of 205 lbs at 6’4”. I’ve been doing CrossFit seriously for about 2.5 years and maintain a paleo diet, plus butter and the occasional cheese.
After reading Mat Lalonde’s post about his experience with a very low carbohydrate diet (VLC) and CrossFitting, I decided I would push the envelope a bit further. I had read Good Calories, Bad Calories and read about the controlled study involving Vilhjalmur Stefansson and his cohort on a meat-only diet for one year. That intrigued me enough to read his book on the subject Not By Bread Alone (http://tinyurl.com/yzcvwv5). Like Cordain, he recounted the high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets of various Native Americans and recounted his experience with the Inuit. Not only did the meat-only diet not cause scurvy, Stefansson’s cohort actually experienced improved health.
My experiment was simple. I strove to mimic Stefansson’s diet as closely as possible for the month of November. I ate only meat and eggs (which are meat by definition) with seasonings like salt, pepper and the like–nothing, though, that would contribute any carbohydrate or nutrients other than the meat did. I also ate a good amount of grass-fed tallow in order to ward off the dreaded rabbit starvation, which occurs when protein constitutes too much of one’s diet, and to get enough omega-3s. I naturally fell into an 18-20 hour intermittent fasting schedule, since it seems like I just never felt hungry. The common question is “How were your BMs?” They were fine. Daily, sometimes twice daily. The biggest concern with the diet is the acid-base balance, which Cordain talks about in the Paleo Diet. I haven’t heard of epidemics of osteoporosis in the Inuit, but we’re in the business of health optimization.
The only downside to the diet was the fact I couldn’t have red wine and other tasty foods. I felt no negative side-effects like headaches or lethargy, after the first couple of days, which typically accompany VLC diets. After my first time eating too much fat, I did have indigestion, however, I quickly realized where to cut the fat down.
I did three test WODs to see my change post-diet. Again, I am not a top-tier athlete by any means.
WOD Time (Paleo diet) Time (Ketogenic diet)
Annie (RX) 7:01 6:46
Helen (RX) 11:23 10:46
Christine (RX) 14:59 13:41
All the WODs were performed 2-3 weeks into the diet, which I timed to coincide with other people’s accounts of acclimation to VLC diets (cf. http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/1/1/2). WODs in the longer domains felt difficult, but I continued to place in the range of the same people I had before the diet. In a few cases, I happened to place near the top of the gym.
As for strength, the lifts I tested were the back squat high, bar (275 lbs x 3 reps) and low bar (325 x 1), and the press (155 lbs). They did not move, but I had also not practiced those that month. I focused, instead, on gymnastic strength that month and I finally conquered the “big kids’ muscle-up” and was good enough to finish “Nasty Girls” as RX’d at the behest of Sage Burgener who was at our box doing a cert. I also got my first legit one-legged squats. Additionally, I tested my 1000m row and I PR’d at 3:12.5, which is down from 3:15.7 my previous time.
At least for some people, a VLC or ketogenic diet can not only help individuals feel better, but can allow them continued performance gains. At a minimum, I found that a zero carb diet didn’t inhibit performance, and even allowed gains. Personally, I visibly leaned out and lost 2 pounds in the space of a month. If the liver makes glycogen for recharging muscles and feeding the brain, many people probably don’t need to be eating so many carbohydrates—especially not the 162 grams/day I was eating on the Zone. We need to think about this in light of the deleterious effects of sugar in the longer term, which can lead to high oxidative levels and decreased insulin sensitivity. Fructose and glucose aren’t necessarily beneficial substances for our bodies—especially for athletes who may have pre-existing conditions.
I suspect a decreased need for sugar is especially true, if the athlete adheres to a WOD-ME-WOD template, since ME days likely don’t use much glycogen. The case may be different if working out 2+ times a day or competing in an endurance event. As Robb suggested to me, adding in some low Glycemic Load veggies would be a great way to shore up micronutrient intake and keep acid-base balance without adding too much carbohydrate. What I’ve come to realize is that the Zone, or Paleo, may be sufficient for fitness, but not necessary.