Running on Diesel
Tuesday, June 07, 2011
I've switched my body to a different type of fuel.
For many years, I understood that our bodies prefer glucose from carbohydrates. When we eat carbohydrates, they all break down into glucose. Whole wheat or white, it becomes glucose. If you eat a teaspoon of sugar, it breaks down into glucose. Our brains love glucose.
I was so scared of the low carb diets because I was told that it deprives your body of glucose, and shuts down. Well, this is only partially true. It does indeed deprive your body of glucose. But here's what I didn't know. Your liver is capable of producing all the glucose you need. In the absence of glucose from carbohydrates, fat and protein can be converted to glucose. This glucose is then used by our brain and other organs.
So in the absence of glucose, what do we use for fuel? Ketones. Ketones are the by-product of when your liver and kidney converts stored body fat. Your brain and all other organs will run on ketones, when there is no glucose. Your body CAN use either. If we couldn't, there would be NO point in the body storing fat for energy during fast and famine. The minute glucose was unavailable, we'd drop dead like a car out of gas.
Since I carry more bodyfat than I should, what I have done is simply rearranged my food so I switch from running primarily on glucose, to mostly running on ketones.
I am not doing an Atkins style low carb, where the goal is to get your body running 100% on ketones. I'm not sure what my fuel mix is, but I've structured it so I get a small amount of glucose, then let my body dip into ketones to make up the difference for my energy needs.
We've often heard about how low carb forces the body to go into starvation mode.
This is true.
Wait, wait. Stay with me! Yes, it is true. The body burns ketones when it is starving. However, IF you eat the right amount of protein and fat, your body will burn ketones, but it will NOT consume your muscle tissue. It will use the incoming protein instead. I trick my body into burning stored fat like it was famine, but there is plenty of incoming calories. I am not nutritionally starved.
The body requires amino acids from protein in order to function. If you were to suddenly stop eating, your body would create ketones, AND consume your lean muscle tissue for the amino acids. It will eat itself.
If you stop eating carbohydrates so there's no incoming glucose, BUT eat a good amount of protein and fat (fat is required!!), then your body will produce ketones, and break down the incoming protein for the amino acids. It will leave your muscles alone. In some cases, it will take the extra protein and actually add to your muscle mass!
This is how Eskimos, Mongolians, and Masai people can eat diets of 80% protein and fat.
What this means is, instead of running on sugar, I am running on fat. If you want to be a fat burner, you have to eat fat. But here's the big caveat. You can only eat mostly fat in the absence of carbohydrates! If a carb load raises your insulin, then all that incoming fat will get turned into cholesterol, triglycerides and body fat, instead of fuel.
The experts were right in that sense. Fat can indeed raise cholesterol and triglycerides, but they fail to mention that only happens in the presence of a LARGE amount of carbohydrates.
Burger, bun and french fries, anyone?
It was a REALLY big leap for me to feel comfortable eating as much fat as I have. I kept thinking about the "Omnivore's Dilemma". The part in the book where Michael Pollan discusses his hesitation and fear about eating a chanterelle mushroom he harvested. Plants have evolved many defense mechanisms to prevent being eaten by other things. Humans and rats have evolved to observe and remember whether certain foods and smell make us ill. We also observe others of our species consuming things to see if they keel over and die. Every once in a while, one of our brave will attempt to taste something, to see if it is a new tasty morsel.
It's this defense mechanism that made it really hard for me to take the leap and feel comfortable eating full fat cottage cheese, butter, and a meat portion with every meal. It's silly, but for many days, I felt guilt with the pat of butter on my broccoli. "I shouldn't be eating this," I'd think. I'd wait for like an hour after a meal, wondering if my heart would explode. Totally irrational.
Even still, I always thought it odd how we avoided fatty foods. Unprocessed foods suddenly became processed foods. Skim milk. No fat cottage cheese. Reduced fat cheese. Margarine instead of butter. Egg whites without the yolk.
So after a month trial on myself, I am running on fat. I eat vegetables and fruit for carbohydrates. No grain or starches. I increased my protein and fat to supposed "unsafe" levels. I still eat high quality protein and fat, though. Common sense. Chicken, pork, salmon, tuna, crab, shrimp, beef, eggs, etc. Not hot dogs or chicken nuggets.
If they were right, I should be getting worse, not better, right?
In one month, I have dropped my bodyfat from 38% to 32%. Something I have been unable to do for 2 years on the traditional diet.
My resting heart rate has dropped from 76bpm to 60bpm.
Here's the scoop on my exercise performance. Despite the warnings that eating fewer carbs would destroy exercise performance, I have actually got better. At least for the type of exercise I do. Take a look at my photo gallery. I am a long distance, endurance performer. I do activities that take more than one hour, or all day. Snorkeling, diving, hiking, biking, kayaking, sailing, etc, etc. Switching to fat burner has made my endurance activities EASIER.
Maybe because my heart is working more efficiently? Maybe because I have stored fat available, my body has plenty of sustained energy available? When running primarily on glucose, when I run out, I crash. We went snorkeling recently, and despite some pretty choppy waters, I never got tired or ran out of steam like I had in the past. I felt like I could go forever.
I get the same on my daily elliptical exercise. For steady state, I can sustain my rate continuously in a way that I never did before. I used to have to sustain for a little while, then slow down to recover, then start up again. Now, I can maintain continuous the entire 30 minutes (or longer). It's wonderful.
On the other hand, I have read that those who use primarily ketones for fuel do have decreased sprinting performance. Sprinters do better with glucose. Just how the body work. Glucose gives fast bursts. Ketones sustain.
I feel like I'm running on diesel.
So going back to the "Omnivore's Dilemma". I've eaten the mushroom, and I got a positive response. This encourages me to stick with it. It is true I don't know what the long term risks are. I'm hoping my high vegetable/fruit consumption will offset any potential increased cancer risks. However, I feel I am getting the right feedback to reduce my diabetes and cardiac risks.