Guest post written by: Sarah Strange
I’d like to share with you my recent journey out of the low carb maze, which I’ve been more or less stuck in since 2010. My initial launch into Paleo started off like most people’s as a 30 day reset 4 years ago. I fell for Robb’s used car salesman pitch and gave it a shot. I felt so great and I liked it so much that it’s still going on today and now I even work for the guy! Imagine that!
When I started this whole thing, I consciously decided that I wanted to try no starches or fruit for the 30 days, really only because I found it interesting (thanks Vilhjamur Stefansson) and wanted to see what would happen. I’m curious that way. I was having amazing results at 30 days, so I extended it to 60. Then I planned on reintroducing starches and fruit, and including them regularly from then on forward. I tried… but it didn’t go so well. I was a little surprised.
(I wish I was smart enough to turn that “and then I got high” song into something that would cleverly explain what I was going through every time I tried to bring the carbs back in, but I know my talents and rappin’ ain’t one.)
Basically, trying to eat modest, normal amounts of fruits and starches sucked for me. It seemed to reverse all of the joy and warm fuzzy feelings from my initial Paleo high. I’d experience a whole grab bag of symptoms: joint inflammation (I have some creaky worn out business from all the ballet and hypermobility plus carpal tunnel), 5lb’s of instant water retention, wicked PMS… and I mean every symptom there was, aaand weight gain- which was always hard to gauge with the stupid water retention, but when I’d return to low carb and shed the water there was some undeniable extra weight. I wasn’t in freak out mode about it I just thought, “Boy, carbs F’ing suck!”
At the time, it was still cool to think “carbs F’ing suck” because insulin was still taking all the flack in the blogosphere. Then, as things always seem to do, the paradigm got more layered and complex. Calories started making people fat again with lots of eye rolling and arguing, and low carb started to fall under closer scrutiny. In my eyes low carb and ketosis are still great, but as a therapeutic treatment for those that need it or as part of a PHASE of weight loss or tweaking your endurance fuels. For the rest of us that are healthy and don’t live in the pre-civilized Yukon; it’s a no-be-there and has the potential to get you stuck in a funky rut.
I say this because I got stuck in such a rut myself. I didn’t need to go Eskimo Paleo to begin with, but I did, and now it seemed like I had to stay there because to my body, and for the first time in my life, carbs officially messed me up.
For my whole life up until I went Paleo, I hadn’t been eating enough protein and I had been really high-carb. Wheat carbs and booze carbs. I didn’t have any overt blood sugar regulation problems or any symptoms of metabolic syndrome. I looked healthy enough- I just knew I could be doing better and that if I didn’t make some changes, it was going to start catching up to me. You know that general sense of foreboding that slowly creeps on once you turn 30 that you can’t just keep burning the candle at both ends? That was happening.
The wealth of information demonstrating that carbs aren’t the problem in healthy individuals made sense to me. I had a number of clients who had unintentionally been under the impression that their 4 cups of romaine lettuce and handful of nuts counted as lots of carbs, some of whom were unintentionally following a ketogenic diet by eating this way in addition to more moderate protein intakes.
There also seems to be a glut of innocents out there trying to make it through CrossFit Games prep programming on 1, 9oz sweet potato and a scoop of whey protein! Whoever programs these cycles should be obligated to post some sort of Paleo starch currency as the buy-out component at the end of each workout. “Bro’s and Bro’ettes, this bad boy right here, is gonna cost you 3.75#’s of Japanese yams.”
Needless to say, especially for the people training to be Superheroes, having them add in a LOT more carbohydrate practically gave them their Red Bull wings overnight. The regular folks in accidental ketosis just generally felt “Wow! So much better! I’m losing weight again!” But for some damn reason, my body seemed incapable of implementing my own advice. I wasn’t asking for a pint of Coconut Bliss washed down with a 4 pack of Crispins here, just a freakin sweet potato and maybe a banana after dinner.
I remember tinkering with Carbnite and Carb Backloading. I felt like absolute dogshit. I played with it for a while and figured I needed to dial the carbs down until I stopped feeling achy, inflamed, bloated, “fat”, lethargic and foggy. The only successful Carbnite I could handle was basically having 5th Fry Fridays. Somehow I don’t think that’s what the good Kiefer intended. The more I went for the recommended insulin spiking carbs, even Paleo-permitted, the worse I felt. I was a sad panda; a sad, bloated, fat gaining, water retaining, joint creaking, high maintenance panda.
I know I’m not alone; I’ve met a number of low carbers that fall into this mysterious group of many that just “don’t do well with carbs”. How’d we get to be mysterious? We’re not diabetic. No symptoms of metabolic syndrome or other such maladies. We’re actually pretty healthy… we’ve just been low-carb for so long that we no longer play well with fruits and starches. We read the blogs, the readable research, we know what’s up; we just can’t seem to make it work for us so we stay where we are. If we want to loose a little weight or have some sort of cocktail dress or poolside function coming up, our only option is to not go near a carb for a week. You know who you are. We sound ridiculous to our boyfriends explaining that carbs make us “puffy”.
The biggest bummer for me was that I wasn’t feeling so great anymore stuck on the low carb Paleo station wagon. It would be one thing if I continued to feel amazing, but I didn’t. I was COLD and my carb-experimental weight gain stuck around and wasn’t responding to the usual tricks. My energy levels weren’t great. My brain felt like it was “buffering” half the time. My thyroid was probably flipping me the bird.
So what’s a gal to do? I had decided to try a few months straight in ketosis (of course) to see if that made any difference. It didn’t. The only inexplicable fun part was the weird brain nirvana on days 4-6 of keto-adapting, otherwise I was starving all the time whether my calorie intake was 3500 or 1500, which I found bizarre and suspected the lowered protein intake. I started tracking my macros and measuring my blood ketones because I found it hard to stay in ketosis without doing so. I didn’t gain weight or lose weight. I played around with lowering my calories the last month and no response. After 2 months, I gave up on ketosis because it just seemed like the same old shtick topped off with a mean old appetite. I kind of felt deflated and rejected at both ends.
I caught a big glimmer of hope when the news of people’s success with resistant starch started to build steam. I figured my gut bacteria population was probably pathetic. I had high hopes for the potato starch being my ticket off the stationary wagon, but it wasn’t. At least it didn’t seem to be. Maybe it’s because I can’t handle enough of it without feeling like I could power a small town on my own methane emissions. I’ve been supplementing for 3 months and I still can’t tolerate more than 1 TBSP a day without rendering my home a hypoxic zone.
I added carbs and monitored my blood sugar. I went from 20g of carbs in ketosis to 50g out. It was a typical mess. The only thing that felt better was my energy during my workouts, which are pretty mild: 4 minutes of intervals 4 times a week plus 3-4 days of weightlifting. I have no big dreams of winning anything. I had some blood glucose strips that came with my ketone/blood sugar meter so I figured what the heck, lets see how it’s doing. My blood sugar in ketosis was in the low 80’s and once I had a “moment” with banana chips and my blood sugar only went up to 95 1 hour post- it was back to the low 80’s within the next hour.
Out of ketosis, on 50g of carbs, my fasting blood glucose was averaging 115. Ok, so I got a little post-ketosis, low carb insulin resistance and no big post meal spikes worth worrying about. Google said rats were back to normal blood sugar control in a week. I took 3 weeks: so much for rats. One day it just finally started to fall, right around the 3-week mark, and then within 4 days it was back to the 80’s. Once my fasting blood glucose started to fall, my carb symptoms from Hades started to fade.
50g still wasn’t really where I wanted to be so I started playing around with more carbohydrate; I ratcheted up to 75g, with the symptoms popping up as expected: FML.
This is why I don’t think the modest amount of fart fuel (potato starch) I’ve been consuming has yet to have an effect. I was on it throughout ketosis and through the reintroduction and re-upping with no noticeable effects, other than the amazing gas, of course.
Right around this time, I discovered Dr Layne Norton, whose life’s work I’m going to paraphrase in 2 sentences. The gist of it is something he calls “reverse dieting” where he adds back 2-5% of calories from carbs and fats per week over a long period of time, say one year, to recover his clients’ metabolisms from the depths of contest prep dieting. He tries to get them to tolerate as much carbohydrate as possible during the off season without gaining much more body fat than 5 pounds- and some of his clients lose weight during the reverse diet. He claims that going too fast with adding back carbs and calories, and trying to diet too many times a year leads to a higher body fat set point. Ok, that was 3 sentences. Anyway, I said WTF I’ll try it.
I added 10g a week and went from 75g of carbs to 125g over the course of 5 weeks with ZERO symptoms. Oh, and I lost 6 pounds or so. I’ve had my first few symptom free periods with carbs in God knows how long, Hallelujah! (sorry dudes). Whenever I added carbs at the beginning of the week, my FBG would go up a little bit, but within 4 days it would be back in the low 80’s. I can eat any kind of carb I like now, Keifer carbs or diesel sweet potato and I don’t get any reactions as long as they’re within my gram setting for the week. I went to Nopalito in San Francisco and gorged on homemade hand ground organic masa chips, and I was totally fine!! This is night and day for me- normally this would have caused an explosion of inflammation. I ain’t afraid a no carbs!
(Just in case you’re wondering if I had ever tried adding carbs back in and sticking it out long enough for my body to adapt: yes I have. The longest I endured was a phase of 3 months, which was awful. It was just regular old “eating carbs” with meals and a fruit here and there, maybe 3 times a week, and the occasional load of something like dates.)
So what am I trying to say with all this? I’m saying that for any of you out there struggling to reintroduce carbs and continually hitting the wall, that carefully measured, small incremental increases a week might just set you free. I know about 75 of you out there just had an anger-seizure when you saw the word “measured”. If you can’t measure, then don’t measure, but I have to say that eye-balling a sweet potato is a lot harder than it seems and I’m not able to say that I would have been able to do this without a food scale. What I need to still see, moving forward, is if I can go back to free-balling it and not have any reactions. I’m not sure if the tolerance at this point just has to do with the meticulous consistency or what. Perhaps this means… to be continued!
Until then, if any of this information helps any of you feel better and get out of the carb free zone, I’ll be happy: lets all be happy and free!
Sarah is a trainer at Norcal Strength & Conditioning where she heads up the Olympic Weightlifting program. Her athletic and coaching background includes Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit, Pilates, martial arts, yoga, triathlon, and a pretty long stint as a ballet dancer.