I have done many diets in my life. I’ve done a high protein bodybuilding diet, and I’ve been a vegetarian. I’ve done intermittent fasting, IIFYM, bro dieting, pure bulking, and long term juice cleanses. I do not jump from diet to diet because of any personal goal. The only goal I had in mind for most of these was to experience these diets so that I knew what they actually did. This was part of my self-imposed training as a coach.
I am not here to preach as if I am some guru or all knowing being when it comes to nutrition and I am not here to proselytize anyone into my diet cult. It is my firm belief that nutrition is one of the most personal choices that one can make. It has a huge impact on how you feel, how you think, what you can do, and on who you are. My purpose here is to discuss my experience with low carb, high fat dieting and to discuss the evidence that persuaded me to adopt this paradigm as my personal nutrition plan.
For those of you who have followed me the last few years, you know that this story begins several years ago while I was competing as a bodybuilder. You can read about this experience in my blog, Fit but Rotting Inside: Changing our Thinking about Fitness . The long and short of it is that my bodybuilding diet made me look great, but also contributed to worsening symptoms of my ulcerative colitis (read the blog if you want the details).
Over a long period of trial and error in trying one diet after another to appease the misery of uc (up to 40 bloody bowel movements a day), I came to fat adaptation – using fats as fuel rather than carbohydrates. This decision did not come easy. You have to remember that I come from a bodybuilding/powerlifting paradigm that is completely focused on protein and carbohydrates. The prevailing wisdom on high fat low carb at the time was that, anyone who switches to such a diet, would waste away into a skinny fat bean pole. In the end, it was pain that drove me to it: any time I ate anything with bulk it drove me into another episode of diarrhea. My digestive system simply could not handle it.
I describe much of the ensuing transition in the previously mentioned blog, and the health benefits I obtained, but there was another remarkable element to the switchover. After several weeks of waiting for my muscle mass to deteriorate and my lifts to enter the Les Mills “body pump” zone, neither happened. My muscles grew harder, denser, and actually appeared to be growing. As for my lifts, I PR’d at almost every workout for an entire summer, most of the time on days when I had eaten nothing at all yet.
This puzzled me for a very long time, and I decided that I wanted answers as to why this worked so well. One reason is this: using carbohydrates for fuel makes us dependent on a constant supply of carbs as energy. On the other hand, using fats as fuel allows us to use our own fat stores as energy. This is because the human body has limited space in its muscle and liver cells to store glycogen, while its capacity for storing fat is unlimited. This means that we carry with us our greatest source of energy: fat. There is also a large and growing body of evidence to suggest that high fat, low carb diets are not only beneficial for performance, they are also healthy! To get a good review of this literature and a solid explanation for the science behind low carb dieting for athletes, check out The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney.
I am not a scientist, and I do not pretend to be. I am a trainer and practitioner of fitness who reads voraciously and attempts to assess methods for their value. So I will summarize the benefits that I got from going high fat, low carb, and then you can read this book and make your own decisions.
- Greater strength: for a solid six months I PR’d in the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and front squat several times per month. I did this often with no food in my stomach whatsoever. This compares to when I was not fat adapted, and felt like I could not lift weights optimally without having first had a few meals.
- Better endurance: recently I’ve added endurance to the mix. I am running 3 to 5 miles each day, doing barbell and kettlebell complexes, sprints, burpees, long distance loaded carries, and calisthenics. I’m running better than I did when I was a US Marine in my 20s (I’m 36 today), and I have lost only 5 lbs. My squat is still well over 400lbs, I can still rep 315 on the bench, and I can rep 185 on the overhead press. The one lift where I am having problems is the deadlift, but that is due to the fact that I now train in a gym where the bars are thicker than those I used at Metroflex.
- Better sex drive!
- Clearer thought processes – when I was on a high carb diet, my brain often felt like it was in slow motion. On this diet, I can focus and my productivity is through the roof.
- No need to count macros, calories, or to eat all day – with my diet of 70% calories from fat, 20% from protein, and 10% from carbohydrates, I do not need to worry about being fanatical with my diet. I eat twice a day with a diet consisting of vegetables, nuts, avocados, oils, and a little bit of meat.
Needless to say, this is just anecdotal evidence, and should not be taken as gospel truth. It is my experience with this diet, and you might be different. Nevertheless, I do want to go into some of the objections you might have about doing an experiment with low carb high fat dieting:
- I’ll feel like crap – yeah you will, but only for the first two weeks. If you can get through two weeks of under 50 grams of carbohydrates a day, then you will feel great after that period is up.
- I’ll lose muscle – actually, if you check out page 33 and 34 of Volek and Phinney’s book, they list a number of studies that demonstrate that low carb ketogenic diets actually stimulate muscle growth. These studies are a bit dated, but I can confirm that this was also my experience.
Done with no carbs in my system for days and no food on this day:
- I’m vegan – that’s fine, you can still maintain a high fat keto diet through the use of some vegetarian protein powder, mct oil, coconut oil, avocadoes, vegetables, and nuts. I have vegan clients who use this method and their results have been absolutely remarkable in both body composition and muscularity. They also report feeling fantastic.
If you want to learn more about how I implement my diet and get some sample meal plans, check out my online mastermind training group. I will be putting up a full tutorial in the forum tomorrow!