Low Carb and Paleo: My Thoughts Part 1
I often wonder what it is in me that is drawn to conflict, because truth be told, I actually hate conflict. Long ago I tinkered with veganism, and suffered the consequences of what was for me, a very pro-inflammatory diet. The concepts of paleo and low carb (LC) got on my radar, and to say that it was life changing event is a massive understatement. Life-saving, more like. So, armed with this knowledge that Paleo/LC might be of benefit to people, I’ve been on a 13 year long educational tour trying to get folks to consider the perspective of Ancestral Health. I’ve had many a tussle promulgating this way of life, with folks ranging from militant vegans to MD’s who are convinced there is “no science to support this line of reasoning.” Drama!
Then, I had to come out of the political closet and declare my fealty with Libertarian principles. Lost Cause!
As annoying as it’s been to see the media shit the bed on the paleo concept, or to realize I’m talking to an academic that has not bothered to read the research, I’ve always seen a clear path before me: Education and the Greasy Used Car Salesman’s pitch of “try it, tell me how it goes.” This approach works pretty well, so I’m not usually too flustered about the process.
Chop Wood, Cary Water…as it were.
But one topic has been painful for me: The constant tussle over LC or not LC in paleo-land. I could be brief but cryptic, and simply say that this discussion is smart the same way arguing over hammers vs. screw-drivers is smart. But…I don’t think that will move things forward much, and I will continue to be annoyed; so I guess I’ll need to put a little more effort into this piece than that!
My Story, Part Deux
I was vegan, I was sick, I lost tons of muscle, and pretty much wanted to die. I think most of you are more or less familiar with that story. I don’t know that I’ve ever described my exact route out of that hell however. The concept of paleo/Evolutioanry biology as applied to nutrition came to me after learning that my mother’s autoimmune diseases were likely an outgrowth of her celiac and assorted grain intolerances. For a sprouting, fermenting, pressure-cooking vegan this was about as far afield from what I thought constituted healthy eating, but I was desperate. I found a little research from Art Devany and Loren Cordain ( this was 1998 mind you), but there was not much to go on. I sifted through list-serves and the few message boards of the time, and most of what I found focused on Low Carb (ketogenic or there-about). I picked up an Atkins book (Gasp! Shock!), read it, and it made a hell of a lot of sense. So, I tried it. I ate meat, veggies and fat, and I felt better than I ever had in my life. My GI problems went away, and I started to gain muscle again (I was about 140lbs due to malabsorption stemming from ulcerative colitis caused by my vegan diet, and I’d wager, super low vitamin D levels). I continued reading and tinkering, and eventually came across the work of Mauro Di Pasquale, MD who was/is pretty famous in the powerlifting/bodybuilding scene. Dr. Di Pasquale had gained notoriety not only as a world champion powerlifter, but also for his work in “phase shift” diets, specifically, the Anabolic Diet. The basic premise: Eat LC throughout the week, carb load on the weekends. Depending upon ones activity level this would likely be good enough, but for some, more frequent carb-loads might be necessary. At the time I was doing Capoeira 5 nights per week for about 2 hrs a class, I did Brazilian jiu-jitsu 2-3 days per week, and I did some power lifting and gymnastics training. I’ll try to track down a photo from this time, but I was lean, strong, and had great performance in the activities I was tinkering with. When I look back at my food intake, I was not eating what most would consider a LC diet at all, as daily carbs were 75-100g from things like onions and carrots, and every 2-4 days I took in 200-300g of carbs in my evening meals. I was also not eating a low protein intake, which is normally recommended in a ketogenic approach (I’ll touch on this in a bit). On average I was probably getting 150-200g per day of carbs and a whopping 5,000 cals total. I was easily eating as much calories as I’d ever eaten, yet I was leaner than ever in my life.
This created a bias on my part that made me believe the notion that one cannot store fat if insulin levels are low, one of the still bandied about precepts of LC eating. It sure looked like this was the case for me, but in fact what I had was a level of carb intake that was healthy for me, AND I had a very high total activity level that allowed me to plow some serious food. My activity level was very conducive to this way of eating, as everything was of short enough duration that I could get by on what most athletes would consider a pretty low carb level (75-200g/day max/on average). When I found CrossFit in late 2001/early 2002, I instinctively time-indexed the workouts to be on the shorter side…I think this plays to my fast twitch make-up and it certainly played to the way I was eating. When I started pushing the time of the workouts longer, I noticed I did not have enough gas to do well in the training, AND I started to gain body fat. Some people can do CrossFit and remain skeletor lean. Not me. One of CF’s most prominent people, Pat Sherwood observed the same thing, so please, no comments from the Russels.
This was to be a tough number of years in which I tried to “Forge Elite Fitness” while remaining as lean as I had been previously. For me, it was a dead-end street. I could not do that volume of training AND remain as lean as I had once been. I’d categorize that as at best annoying, but my next step in training, or lack thereof was damn near deadly. Where once I was doing several sports, running a gym, and running around like a mad-man, eventually I found myself more and more sedentary (writing stuff for the blog, doing the book, and traveling), and I had a tough time remaining lean. I’d cut carbs…but to no effect on body composition. Slowly I realized, both by experimentation and by really looking at the literature: CALORIES MATTERED MORE THAN CARBS FOR BODY-COMP.
I have to say this was a pretty big shake-up for me. I’d assumed one could eat as much fat as one desired and STILL get leaner. As I mentioned above, when I first started eating LC, or more specifically, cyclic low carb (CLC) I was leaner than ever in my life. I know based on blood work and fat deposition that I had insulin resistance while vegan, and CLC helped with this immensely, but it was my new-found energy and activity level that drove my leanness, not an inability to store fat in the absence of significant insulin. I think this is one of the most damaging messages that comes out of the LC camp to this day, I was duped by this, so I’m not going to do what a lot of other recovered LC writers do and make folks out to be idiots for still believing this…but, it is time to face facts. In every damn study it is clear that for fat loss we’d like adequate protein, and a calorie restriction scenario. LC is fantastic for this in that one typically feels satisfied on high protein, moderate fat, loads of veggies. If one is insulin resistant, this approach can be nothing short of miraculous. HOWEVER! If one manages to cram enough cheese, olive oil and grass-fed butter down the pie-hole, this is in fact, a “mass gain” diet.
LC is fantastic for the insulin resistant individual, as it addresses both glycemic load and satiety. But if one manages to bypass normal satiety mechanisms, or if one can find some combinations of highly palatable, but low-carb foods, it’s still a ticket to Fat Camp.
The insistence on the part of the LC community in adhering to the “no insulin, no fat gain” dogma ends up discrediting the real therapeutic benefit of LC and hurts us all. The insulin resistant, crack-addicted individual really benefits from LC, I cannot say that sufficiently, and the ease with which people lose weight (fat) on these programs is remarkable, but insulin control takes a backseat to calorie reduction via highly satiating foods. This whole situation further damages the ability to push ketosis as a therapeutic treatment for everything from cancer to neurodegenerative disease. It’s a tool folks, not en end all-be-all.
If you have not checked out the Paleo Transition supplements Chris Kresser and I put together in Paleologix, give it a looksie.