Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nutritional Ketosis (or: Why I don't eat any carbs. Ever.)

     So a few months ago I had a long talk with Mike Morton who is an elite ultrarunner and we chatted about a bunch of things but one stood out, nutritional ketosis. You can google it, but here is the short loosy-goosy scientific explanation.

     When you eat sugar/carbohydrates, your body converts this into stored energy in the form of glycogen in your muscles. This form of fuel is what you need to sprint, run up a flight of stairs or throw a baseball. Generally, you can only store enough glycogen in your muscles for about 3-4 hours of heavy use (running) which is A. why people carbo-load before marathons and B. why people 'bonk' at mile 20 of a marathon. 'Bonking' is what happens when your body runs out of glycogen and your brain (needing that energy) no longer has it. You go fuzzy and get really tired. Your body has run out of the primary fuel source it is used to using (sugar/carbs) and then goes into starvation mode, burning fats.

      Now, you can only store 3-4 hours of fuel in the form of glycogen in your muscles, but there is literally DAYS worth of fat energy stored in, well, your body fat. Your body has that (literally) for times of starvation. Most people know you can go a few weeks without eating any food (but you need water for the conversion) no problem. generally, in modern society we never have to tap this storage because there is plenty of food to go around. 20,000 ago people were not eating 3 square meals a day. Nor were they eating processed food, but I digress.

       So this 3-4 hour issue is a big deal for ultra runners like myself. When you are running for 18, 24, 30 hours at a shot you obviously have to be continually jamming carbs down your gullet to get enough calories (because your body has that pesky glycogen as a primary fuel source) which is not an easy feat.\r\n\r\nSee, anyone who has ever been to a big family dinner knows you eat your food, then your body wants to sit and digest it. Nobody goes to Sunday dinner with the fam then immediately goes and runs a marathon. Your body is good at turning digested food into stored fuel OR turning stored fuel into burnt fuel. You were never built to do both at the same time.

     There are work-arounds such as finding things that your body can digest easily (fruit works great for me, gels for other people) but it is still fighting your bodies natural processes.

     So here is where ketosis comes in. Put simply, you convert (adapt is the technical term I guess) your cells to burn fat as the primary source of fuel, not the back up. It takes some time (a few weeks) of eating a low-carb diet (<50g per day total which is the amount of carbs in 1 Milky Way candy bar) for your body to make the switch, but then, when you go out for a run your body is burning fat from the get go, the fuel source that you have oodles of just lying around.

      You obviously have to be very very careful, eating the right food and keeping close track of your diet and such, but it is doable. It is different than the Adkins diet in that A. it is a long term solution, ketosis being more of a lifestyle instead a of a temporary diet change and B. people do Adkins wrong. Many people cut down on the carbs and increase protein intake too much which harms their liver. It is counter intuitive, but on the ketosis diet you need more fat, and not the kind you would think. Butter, lots of butter. Bacon, too. Yum.
        Not to get medical, but ketosis has been used for decades to treat people with epilepsy as well as diabetics and is now even being looked at as a treatment for cancer. And, I am not the only person looking into this for athletics reasons either as cylclists and elite gymnasts have been doing studies into the effects of ketosis and endurance activities. Oh, and the long term effects are not negative when used to fight obesity. In short, it has been 'proven' enough for me to try it.

      So, in March I decided to try it myself, knowing it would take a few weeks to make the transition, and I wanted to be 'over the hump' before my next 100 mile race in mid April. I dropped my carbs to around 100 for a few weeks (so as the cut off would not be THAT harsh) by removing all sugary snacks, chips, soda, etc. That part was not that hard with my only problem being a craving for sugar, but I seem to have enough self control to get over that. Then, in mid-March I dropped below 50 g.

Initially I lost about 6 pounds the first week and felt a little groggy, that was about it. The weight loss was all water weight and is common for people making the transition and I did gain most of it back . Now, by now you might be saying "That CANNOT be healthy". Well, I am not going to try to convince you that it is ok based on studies, or that many cultures have followed it in the past with no big problems. I will only say that you should trust me. Trust me, that as a scientist I have done my homework as well as monitoring myself very carefully. I have done all the blood tests and consulted with a few doctors while I do this. This is not being done on a whim, so please, have some faith in me.

       Changing of diet, and living it everyday takes a lot of preplanning. I eat lots of salads, eggs, butter, olive oil, meat. Having a paleo-diet-following wife who is a great cook helps a lot. As ketosis becomes more well-known, the internet is a great resource for recipes. My morning fried egg with onion, bacon, shredded cheese cooked in butter is delish. Travelling is the biggest pain as you can;t stop at McDonalds or Subway for really anything. You have to haul it all with you or go to a grocery store. I will mention you can eat a big salad prepared in a 1 gal ziploc bag easily :)

     Ok, so lets get back to the why of this project. A classic training run for marathons is carb-depleted runs where you on purpose do not carb load before a long run to 'bonk' early in the run and get practice running post-bonk. You are giving your body practice burning fat. Well, now I was -always- post bonk, since I had no glycogen to speak off. My body is trained to burn fat as its primary fuel source, not as the backup.

      But since I can store DAYS worth of fat fuel in my body (as opposed to 3-4 hours of glycogen) so I can run for hours without getting tired. Three weeks after I made the below-50 switch I did my first real solid ketosis-adapted run. It was 25 miles of constant rolling hills done in 3:42. That is nothing fast, and this diet (and my minimalist transition) mean I run a little slower than I used to, but I am giving up speed for endurance. The 25 mile run is actually 3 trips around an 8.3 mile loop. Before the run I drank only a few cups of coffee. During the run I consumed water and electrolyte pills. That was it. No gatorade, no gels, no stockpile of food the night before. Ok, so I did it fueled only by fat I had on board, but I will also mention that the time for each loop were 1:15, 1:14, and 1:13. Yup, I negative split the workout (that never happens) -and- after I was done, I felt fine. I was not tired, or sore, and I really didn't even feel like I had been running for almost 4 hours.\r\n\r\nI am still in the early stages, and the real test of a 100 mile race is coming up soon. So far, everything is going the way it is supposed to. Again, I am not trying to convert anyone to this diet. It takes a lot of self-control and support, and pre-planning. I seem to have enough to do it and I have seen (at least initially) awesome results. We are all an experiment of one