How does the body’s energy system work? You eat food consisting of carbohydrates (sugars), fat and protein. These get digested and go into your blood. Carbs and fat get burned up as fuel and protein generally gets used for repairs. If you eat more than your energy needs these get stored first as glycogen in your liver and muscles and then as fat. When you eat less than your energy needs the body first burns the glycogen and then the fat. This is very simple and the basis of the calories in calories out idea.
So just eat less and move more and everything will be rosy, right? This would be true if the body wasn’t very stubborn about hanging onto its resources. It annoyingly reacts to a dearth by making you hungry, miserable and, by prompting your base metabolic rate to drop, it allows you to become cold and tired. But there are ways to beat this system.
One of the biggest health problems in the world today is metabolic syndrome. This is due to a change of diet over the last half a century. We are eating too many processed carbs, constantly in energy storage mode and getting fatter and sicker as a result.
This is where the ketogenic diet comes in and why it has been such a success. By eating fat instead of carbs you switch your body over to fat burning. That in itself makes you more metabolically flexible but is not the main advantage. In fat burning mode the body easily transitions, when you eat less, to burning its own fat. Also, not eating carbs you lose the insulin spikes and crashes that result in cravings. Carbohydrates are addictive. We all know, during a meal, that though we can’t eat another lump of meat or cheese, we can happily consume a thousand calories of dessert on top. The keto diet makes you less hungry.
My venture into it on this occasion came about when after months of weight training and eating anything I reached 200lbs and had acquired an extra chin. In February of last year I first did a fast that burned up the glycogen (dropping about 5lbs) and cut the carbs. I wasn’t strictly keto because I did not replace all carbs with fat but increased the amount of protein I was eating too, which is apparently a good idea for someone my age. I was also exercising hard (6 hours weight training plus long walks each week).
Everything went great. In six months I dropped 30lbs while putting on muscle and took 7 inches off my belly measurement. For me, this was not just about appearance but I also wanted to reverse some of the damage from 40 years of smoking, eating crap and going on the piss. After of six months I hit a weight loss plateau, tiredness and low mood, and then seemingly all at once aching tendons/joints throughout my body with the worst being my right shoulder. I assumed I was ‘over trained’ and started taking rests from heaving weights about. But the malaise would not go away and I still had to put a hot beanbag on my shoulder and take pain killers.
Now, here’s the thing. Bringing down your insulin, which is a driver of metabolic syndrome on a high carb diet, is a good thing. But insulin is also a driver of growth and helps the body to build and heal. A mistake many make in the keto community and one I was prone to as well is that it’s a kind of slow poison and for your health you really need to keep those ketone readings up and thus your insulin down. Well, no, it’s in the body for a reason. Regarding it as deleterious is as ludicrous as the present day regard for cholesterol. So in the back of my mind I suspected I might need some carbs while, at the same time, felt that perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently ‘fat adapted’, that I was still addicted to carbs and I needed to suffer further to attain that goal. Then, still feeling like shite, I read someone on Facebook suggesting carbs and decided fuck it, and went shopping.
I didn’t start with the best of carbs, eating a Snickers bar while walking out of the supermarket then inhaling two packets of cookies when I got home, then a chocolate bar later. The effects were very fast. First I lost a nagging headache that had been recurring for some time. In the evening when getting up to go to the toilet I noticed my joints didn’t ache so much and my shoulder felt a lot better. This morning there’s just a slight nag in my shoulder and nothing elsewhere. I feel warmer, clear headed and the low mood has dispersed. And now, as is ever the case with stuff like this, 20-20 hindsight is kicking in.
I realise now that, over those six months, though I was losing fat and gaining muscle, I was also declining in other ways. At the start I was weight training three days a week and on other days either going for long walks or shorter ones during which I was jogging longer and longer distances. The longer walks stopped about three months in along with the jogging on the short walks. Maybe a month or so after that what I could do in the gym reached a plateau and later began to decline. The short walks became less frequent and increasingly arduous – knees, hips and ankles not feeling great. Meanwhile my mental function was going down. My mood was increasingly low and it seemed the only way I could raise it was exercise. Writing was getting harder and plot threads slithering from my grasp. My practicing Greek declined and more recently stopped.
Now, could this be because I simply wasn’t getting the required calories to function at optimum? But . . . I was eating low carb/keto, getting ketone readings every day between 2.0 and 3.0mmol/L. Obviously I was fat adapted by this point and burning my own fat and even now have plenty of calories available there. Surely I should have been fine?
One of the premises behind a low carb diet (keto, paleo and carnivore) is that it is, in essence, a return to something closer to the ancestral diet. For hundreds of thousands of years as hunter gatherers we would grab up what was seasonal in the vegetable world without a lot of carbohydrates involved, but preferred meat and fat because they gave us what we needed. Inventions like bread are anathema since grains are only a recent thing in terms of human history. Our fruits and vegetables have been bred to be too loaded with carbs (sugars) and are bad for us. So why, I wonder, did I go into a steady decline over those months while eating what my body really required? Other people do fine on this kind of eating – thrive in fact. Well this is where I think the keto, paleo and carnivore advocates have got things a bit wrong.
We have evolved under agriculture. A prime example of this concerns milk. Beyond the milk we had as babies the stuff was not part of our ‘ancestral diet’. A hangover from this is that many people are lactose intolerant. However, many are not. Grains not being part of the ancestral diet fall into the same category. A small number of people are gluten intolerant (plus a larger number because it’s fashionable) but most are not. Think on the tens of thousands of years it took to selectively breed our crops. Did we remain static and unchanged during that process? Of course we didn’t. The child whose body rebelled against any of these products when they were all that was available sickened, maybe died or maybe survived but didn’t breed – rejected as being unhealthy, dying young or dying in childbirth. The one who was fine with them lived, perhaps into robust breeding health. Darwinian.
But it’s complicated. It is true that some will do well on keto, paleo or carnivore. That they do well is probably not as some claim because it is ‘the proper human diet’ but because genetically they are more closely related to those ancestors. Then there’s adaptation and age. Maybe you can by epigenetic means easily adapt to these diets when you’re young, but likely it’s not so easy when you’ve been eating carbs as a staple for five or six decades. Maybe I could adapt but how much misery do I want to go through to do so? It’s quite possible I would need to do it for ten years, sacrificing my health in more deleterious ways in the process. I could end up perfectly fat adapted with my internal organs clear of the dangerous fat, and my knees needing to be replaced.
I’ve come to the conclusion now that carbs are something I require. I’ll either include a small amount daily or cycle them – maybe eating low carb for three weeks then snaffling pasta and bread for a week. I just have to keep a close eye on the process. I’ve no regrets about the six months low carb and am pleased with the results. I experimented and found out that it’s not sustainable, at least for me. Perhaps you disagree with all I’ve written here or some of the points made and that’s fine. Maybe I’ll disagree with it in a few months time too.
You do you and I’ll be me.