Food for thought

So, it’s now a month since RAW. All my luggage and bikes have finally returned but the feeling in my feet hasn’t! The legs have recovered and training has resumed (as has my propensity to injure myself whilst doing my Crossfit workouts with my coach Jules!)

As anyone who followed my race and reports knows, I was plagued with GI issues during the race, as I was during Ireland and a couple of other longer events. It is clear that my nutrition strategy doesn’t work.

I’ve tried very hard to hone my diet over the last couple of years and have always believed that I eat healthily (albeit with the occasional treat). Like most athletes I’ve fuelled myself with carbs, watched my fat intake and eaten a decent amount of protein. I’ve used Torq’s performance nutrition as it has generally worked for me in training.

A few years ago, I listened to Prof Robert Winston give the keynote speech at BSAVA and speaking about carbohydrates being the downfall of modern man. Scientifically it was very interesting but I slightly dismissed it with “I’m an athlete, I need carbs”

The week before RAW I stumbled upon Prof Tim Noakes’ book “The Real Meal Revolution”. It’s a hard-hitting book which hammers home the science about why we don’t need carbohydrates and how we should eat a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. As a vet, the science resonated with me to the point that it made me very uncomfortable. I couldn’t, however, reconcile myself to the idea of abandoning everything I’d believed in up to now, or putting butter in my coffee!

In the days after RAW, I thought long and hard about nutrition. It was clear that a) my body needed real food not lots of highly processed sports nutrition and b) it was time to go back to first principles and turn everything on its head. An email from Jeremy Waite, my sports therapist a few days later was the catalyst for that wholesale change. He’d been listening to a podcast by Grant Schofield, the author of a book called “What’s the Fat? Sports Performance”. This introduces you to the science behind the benefits of a low carb, healthy fat diet as well as guidelines for implementing it as an athlete. I devoured both the books in the series and have since followed them up with “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney who are responsible for a lot of the research in this field.

This low carb diet doesn’t just mean cutting down, it essentially means cutting out carbs almost entirely. The reason for this is that what you are trying to achieve is something called “keto-adaptation”, teaching your body to burn the ketones from fat as fuel rather than the glucose from carbohydrate. Our bodies are perfectly capable of doing this, it’s just that they haven’t had to as we give them a constant stream of glucose through carbohydrate. Even an incredibly lean person has a fat store of around 400,000kcal which is available for us to burn as energy; the problem is we can’t access it. We are instead reliant on the 2000kcal or so which we store as glycogen in the liver from carbohydrate or excess protein. There is a metabolic switch which needs to be flipped to force your body to change it’s fuel source. This is done by going into ketosis; depriving your body of carbohydrate, changing the composition of your diet to around 75% fat, 15% protein and 10% (or less) carbohydrate. You are aiming to consume less than 50g of carbohydrate a day and ideally around 25-30g. Trust me, this is difficult. You also have to limit your protein intake as any excess protein is just stored as carbohydrate. You are looking to do this for at least 6 weeks to allow the metabolic changes to bed in, then you can gradually add back in a little carb. And I mean a little. It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t the Atkins diet, which certainly originally was very high protein. This isn’t good for you for several reasons. This is low carb, moderate protein and high but healthy fat.

Flipping the switch and going through ketosis isn’t fun. Your body does some odd things due to the metabolic changes taking place. Your fluid and salt levels are also affected and it can make you dizzy, light-headed and sluggish (it certainly did me). You should get into ketosis within the first two weeks, measurable by the level of ketones in your blood stream. I’ve been pricking my finger at least once a day to measure (as has Kyle as he’s doing this with me!). Anything over 0.5mmol means that you are in ketosis and you are aiming for 1-3mmol. I should say that this is TOTALLY different to the levels that you get in ketoacidosis due to uncontrolled diabetes. Nutritional ketosis is not dangerous; ketoacidosis is life-threatening and the two should not be confused.

I’ve gone back to eating meat for several reasons, but particularly because going very low carb is difficult as a veggie as pulses, sweet potatoes and a lot of root veggies are too high in carbs for this initial stage. When I’m allowed to add back in some carbs, they will be back! I never thought I’d miss lentils and chickpeas!

In some ways, the ketogenic diet is great – I love eggs and cheese, cream is well and truly on the menu and “full fat anything” is the way forwards. It does involve a lot of counting at the moment to ensure I don’t go well over on protein (which for me is the big challenge as it means one of my 3 meals a day I usually don’t have very much protein at all which is hard to get used to psychologically). Initially, eating a lot of fat was difficult as well. Obviously there’s lots of olive oil and avocado but you also have to think about whether the fat comes with any carbs (like avocados) or any protein (like cheese). There are people who will be worrying about the levels of saturated fat…. the truth is that we have all been taken on a bit of a merry dance about saturated fat. It isn’t bad for you and it won’t give you high cholesterol and heart disease. One of the major charities, the National Obesity Forum, has stepped forward and inverted its traditional food pyramid (that one we are all used to with lots of carbs at the bottom and tiny amounts of fat at the top).

So what is the point in all of this? This is partly about nutrition for RAAM and partly a life choice for the long term health benefits. Fat is a cleaner burning fuel. It should aid recovery from sessions and allow me to work harder (albeit in a slightly different way). If I can tap into that 400,000kcal then I should be able to ride much longer without needing to eat and when I do eat, I should need to consume less meaning my stressed body and GI tract won’t be faced with digesting and absorbing lots of concentrated carbohydrates (which are know for causing GI distress). I already know the power output and heart rate that I switch from burning fat at low intensity to burning carbohydrate at high intensity – these numbers should go up so I should be able to work harder on a better, cleaner fuel source.

Without the constant drip feed of carbs, your blood sugar decreases and so do your insulin levels. My insulin sensitivity should increase, which also helps your body to burn fat. There are fewer cravings as you aren’t having the sugar highs and lows and fat makes you feel full. I can testify to this – I’ve stopped needing to snack every couple of hours which I have found genuinely liberating.

To give you an idea of what I’m eating:

Breakfast:
2 egg mushroom omelette with a little cheese, spinach and tomato
or
Full fat yoghurt, few blueberries, double cream, flaxseed, other seeds

Lunch:
Lettuce assortment, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, half an avocado, possibly a little cheese or tuna or few sardines

Dinner:
Fish/ meat
Lots of green vegetables
Cauliflower or celeriac mash
or
Steak and salad
or
Curry with cauliflower rice
or
Roasted veggies with pesto

Dessert:
Few berries with desiccated coconut with cream
or
Piece of dark chocolate

Snacks:
15g almonds
Coffee with cream

This is all hugely in the face of everything we have been taught about nutrition, and indeed what I have preached for several years. The science, however, is compelling as are the results of keto-adapted athletes around the world. For me, it is an experiment and it is also a risk. I’m not sure if anyone has ever done RAAM with a low carb, high fat “ketogenic” philosophy but I firmly believe that if there is a way around my GI issues then this is it. I believe that if I can get it to work for me then the benefits for my health and my performance will be enormous. It is a big “if” but I’m keen to learn and am digging into the resources available including a forum of kept-adapted cyclists who have made this work for them.

It’s hugely exciting…. Watch this space!

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