In late 2010, one of the most accomplished and celebrated sports scientists in the world was at a personal crossroads. South Africa’s Dr. Tim Noakes, MD, had spent more than three decades conducting research on peak endurance performance, and a center to his work had been research on metabolism. The belief that Noakes and other research scientists seem to prove over and over was that carbohydrates were the premium fuel for long-distance athletes, runners, cyclists and triathletes.
The basic line of thought was this: While even the fittest athlete has plenty of fat stored in the body, fat was too inefficient as a fuel for distance running. So the smart runner was one who worked hard to make sure that his body’s carbohydrate reserves—in the form of glycogen in the liver and the muscles—is always topped off. The studies demonstrated that the distance runner who was able to consume 60 grams or more of carbohydrate per hour was the distance runner who wouldn’t hit the so-called “wall” or the Tour De France cyclist who wouldn’t bonk.
The research was a driving force of an entire new industry: sports drinks and energy bars became multi-million dollar businesses. If you had run the Boston Marathon in the 1960s, there was no such thing as an aid station. Now most half-marathon and marathon events have an aid station every mile—each chock full of Gatorade and GU. There’s also the pasta-loading party on a night before the race and endless tables full of “recovery” carbs at the post-race party.
The boom of the sports drink, bar and energy gel industries funneled more money back toward the researchers focused on carbs. A conventional wisdom took hold and almost no one did anything in the way of looking back or questioning the underlying assumptions.
But in 2010, after years of struggling with weight gain and having been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, he had to question his assumptions. If a high-carb diet was the right diet for an athlete, why was he fat and sick? He had been a runner all along, competing in more than 70 ultra-marathons. He didn’t smoke; he didn’t drink.
The questioning of his assumptions led him to the work two fellow research scientists that he respected, Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek—two scientists that had not followed the beaten path. Phinney and Volek had followed a different line of thinking—what if we thought of fat as premium fuel? In fact, stored body fat WAS the premium fuel for our caveman ancestors. It had to be. Carbohydrates were barely available in the age of hunting and foraging. It was a treat to find a handful of berries.
Noakes took up the high-fat/low-carb diet that Phinney and Volek were advocating. Their essential line of thinking was this: The body responds to the environment. If it’s getting hundreds of grams of carbs every day, the signal is that there’s no need to burn fat. Fat-burning metabolism shrinks away. So the metabolism becomes shaped around dealing with the huge amount of sugar being dumped into it several times (or more) per day. The big problem is insulin. The carbs/sugar dumps triggered huge insulin spikes. Insulin is a storage hormone, and so the excess carbs get stored as fat. And in time, an insulin resistance problem is expressed in the form of type-2 diabetes and obesity, precursors to chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
Noakes went on a low-carb diet. He had a stunning experience: In two months he lost 35 pounds. He’s also said that he burned off 20 years when it came to his running. Noakes has since done a complete 180 in his thinking. A high-carb diet is going to produce the best performance for an athlete who—through eating a high-carb diet—is adapted to it. So if you’re trapped in the cycle of energy highs and lows that a high-carb diet entails, you need to keep feeding that beast to not bonk. It’s also within the machinery of a high-carb diet that, even after a massive meal of pasta for lunch, you’re hungry again two hours later.
But if you have gone through an adaption phase to making fats your premium fuel (by eating a high fat, low-carb diet), it’s an altogether different thing. Hunger vanishes, for one thing. The human body has approximately 7 times the amount of calories stored as body fat than it does as carbohydrate, making it a virtually inexhaustible source. Volek and Phinney’s work has been catching on: Ultra-runner Tim Olson (world-record holder of the Western States 100-mile run), Olympic gold medalist triathlete Simon Whitfield as well as cyclists in the Tour de France. One of the best age-group triathletes in the world, Sami Inkinen, has become such a fierce advocate of Volek and Phinney’s work that he and his wife rowed their way from California to Hawaii, 2750 unsupported miles, on a carb-free diet.
In reassessing the science on sports nutrition, Noakes has come to believe that he would have been able to sustain better athletic performances in his 20s and 30s if he hadn’t been damaging his overall system with the inflammation-producing high-carb addiction.
Call it the low-carb diet, or the Ketogenic diet or the Caveman diet, whatever, it’s less of a diet than a simple way to live and eat. I do it and it goes like this: I eat real food, grass-fed beef or organic chicken, fish, veggies from multiple sources, eggs, some fruit, healthy oils, nuts and seeds. I avoid processed foods and sugar as much as possible. I eat when I’m hungry, and tend to fast from 7pm until 10:30am the next morning. I often train or work through the lunch hour and never think about counting calories. My energy is high and level throughout the day – and I never experience a bonk or post lunch fatigue.
The bottom line? There’s a cause and effect scenario when it comes to diet. Your energy level, your athletic performance, the quality of your sleep, your mood, your body composition: All of these are expressions of how clean you’re eating. If you’re not enjoying these things on a daily basis, then it may be time to reexamine your assumptions.
P.S. If you’re not enjoying great energy and performance, and think that a clean-up of your diet is long overdue, join us for a SEALFIT-style “Six-Week Clean Eating Challenge”…kicking off next week. This is a great opportunity to see for yourself what the diet I’m describing can do for you.