This is Part 2 of the dietary experiment discussion. As you’ll recall from Part 1, my intention was to raise the question of individual dietary optimization, to report on some of my personal culinary explorations, and to encourage you to consider your own diet’s impact on your health and performance. That last edition has some stories of my eating evolution, and now I want to discuss some additional topics of relevance.
Tracking and counting of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), and calories is — or can be — an interesting pursuit. As part of a number of experiments and programs, I’ve weighed, measured, recorded, and monitored food intake with great scrutiny. This practice can be quite revealing and educational about what’s in your food, and how much of it you are actually eating. That stated, while there is a place for this type of behavior, and it may have distinct relationships to personality, I actually don’t do this on a regular basis all the time. My feeling is that once you’ve eaten and logged data on a few hundred eggs or avocados, you know what they contain. It’s a learning curve. Tracking can be very helpful in understanding dietary makeup, but over time it may not be as necessary.
Protein intake opens up a whole can of worms, which are very high in protein, but I don’t eat worms. I’ve been consuming more protein over the past several years, and this practice seems to enhance my recovery from exercise and the ability to build and maintain muscle mass. That’s consistent with the literature. Animal-based protein is proven to be significantly more bioavailable, or assimilable, than plant-derived sources and I seem to find it easier to digest. My intake definitely goes up and down, but it averages around 2.5g/kg lean body mass, or just under 200g/day since I weigh about 77 kg (170 pounds). Some would say this is an excessive amount or is hard on the kidneys, but neither my experience nor current research supports those opinions.
One of the major objectives with my higher than typical protein consumption is my intention to stave off age-related sarcopenia, or the muscle loss associated with advancing chronology. I regularly perform strength training exercise and coupled with my protein intake, the results are favorable. New research indicates that we may actually have increasing protein requirements with age. This is related to at least three factors that occur in most individuals with aging: 1.) we have decreased amount and acidity of stomach acid, 2.) our amino acid transport and uptake mechanisms become less efficient, and 3.) older muscle fibers show a tendency to have “anabolic resistance” in which they require a higher amount of amino acids to be present to trigger them to undergo muscle protein synthesis.
With consideration to protein sources, I get my amino acids from meat, eggs, and fish, pretty much in that order. I do my best to acquire the highest quality proteins whenever possible, and terms like wild, grass-fed/grass-finished, cage-free, etc. are usually applicable. I don’t eat vegetable protein sources like soy, rice, pea, hemp, and others because they don’t work as well for me…causing digestive issues, bloating, and the addition of unwanted things such as phytoestrogens. I’ve always been a big meat eater and proponent of that practice. I grew up with farming and hunting and this is a very natural position for me. Animal products in general have been shown to be the most nutrient-dense and non-inflammatory foods in the human diet. Claims that meat is somehow bad, dirty, causes cancer, rots inside of you, and others are totally unfounded. Sure, we need to look at many environmental and ethical issues with meat production, but this is true with all food products in the modern world, including plants.
This discussion segues nicely into one of the hottest topics in nutrition today, and that’s the carnivore diet. Thousands of people are embracing an all-meat diet, and anecdotally reporting profound effects on health and performance. Research is just beginning to take hold on this topic and it will certainly be ongoing. Proponents of the all-meat diet cite reduction or elimination of health, gut, joint, and skin problems, and many even promote carnivorous eating for the treatment of disease, including diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and even cancer.
Here’s where my experience can be described. I like meat and I eat a lot of it. But I also enjoy a few other foods that are plant-derived, mainly cruciferous and root vegetables, and berries, in small to moderate amounts. I’ve tested eating only meat in several periods for as much as 6 weeks, but found that my blood markers and subjective assessments were about the same as when I have my limited veggie intake. I just have to be very careful to avoid nightshade plants, and most grains and legumes (even when fermented or pressure-cooked). Your mileage may vary, of course.
My meat-heavy and veggie-lite platters are based on my instincts and palate. However, and this is my opinion (not published fact), as I look at ancestral biology and anthropology, I believe the human to be a preferential carnivore and an obligate omnivore. In other words, many of us do best eating mainly animal products, but some humans appear to have a greater tolerance to some amount of plant intake, with the ability to extract nutrition from it. I base this supposition on a very simplistic view that ancestral humans feasted heavily from one megafauna harvest to the next, and survived the interim foraging for whatever they could consume that carried them to the next successful hunt. In most cases this could have potentially been seasonal plants, insects, and other sustenance. This is my interpretation of the term “hunter-gatherer.” I realize these statements are in discordance with the views of many vegans, but I don’t mean to be offensive. I’m just reporting on what I have tested to work best for my health, performance, and longevity…as well as my opinions on human physiology.
Now it’s time to give fat the attention it so richly (in texture, flavor, and nutritive value) deserves. Based upon what I feel is an overwhelming abundance of literature, I made a concerted effort a number of years ago to avoid the consumption of the industrial seed oils (canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, sunflower) which are exceedingly high in omega-6 fatty acids, prone to oxidation, and shown to be pro-inflammatory to a great degree. Unfortunately, this is not always easily done when eating away from home. Most salad dressings and sauces have a base of these oils, and practically all restaurants use them in their cooking. I can usually tell when I inadvertently get a dose of these oils, even if relatively small. I’ll awaken the next day with low-grade inflammation characterized by a slight achey, fatigued sensation not unlike what can happen with a poor night’s sleep. I’m sure I probably had this feeling for years and didn’t realize it, but now that I’ve found out what feeling terrific practically every morning is like, I do my best to avoid so-called vegetable oils whenever possible.
In my diet, as the carbs had gone down, the fats naturally went up a bit, and some of this was integral to the meat, fish, and eggs I was consuming. However, I have enjoyed the liberal use of many natural fats, and have benefitted from all the fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients they contain. Lard, tallow, and coconut oil are my choices for cooking, and I like pastured butter and extra virgin olive oil as an addition to food where appropriate. What I noticed most about moderately increased fat consumption (along with the protein) was how it made dining much more savory and satisfying. That fat adaptation process I’d mentioned in Part 1 had amazed me for its fuel utilization effects, but what really stuck out was the regulation of my appetite. Eating more fat wiped out my cravings and stabilized blood sugar levels. Back when I was carb-addicted, I’d often have those ravenous hunger episodes where eating was an emergent necessity. I haven’t been hungry like that in years. Now I have these very mild, subtle indications that it might be nice to have something to eat. I love dining and enjoy food immensely, but eating is now a much more calm and deep experience.
During several measurement phases, I tracked fat consumption (type, percent of daily calories, total grams, etc.) and correlated my intake with frequent blood tests. I explored fat intake at levels from 30% of daily calories (low for me) to as much as 80% (ketogenic level). Interestingly, I found that when fat comprised 50% or more of my daily intake, inflammation markers tended to be at their lowest. I was intrigued whether this was due to lower levels of plant matter alone, or possibly that a threshold level of fat intake was ideal for me. To further test this hypothesis, I periodically ate diets with varying ratios of macros and aligned them with bloodwork. As long as fats stayed near 50% of total daily calories, and carbs didn’t exceed about 25%, my inflammation trended lower. Keep in mind this was replicated multiple times with relatively static levels of training, sleep, etc. I’m hesitant to report a constant macro ratio, as my diet is indeed dynamic, but on average I seem to do best when my dietary makeup is about 55% fat/30% protein/15% carb. These levels occasionally fluctuate in response to movement levels and seasonal eating patterns.
An interesting spinoff with the dietary fat analysis was the effect on cholesterol levels. This topic can be a huge rabbit hole (more like a cave dug by a badger for a family of elephants), and I’m going to reserve a deep-dive discussion for other works. When I keep my fats north of 50%, I have an average total cholesterol level of about 230. This is with HDL at around 84 and LDL about 135. Ever since I got off processed carbs my triglycerides have been approximately 70. When I don’t eat enough (>50%) fat in my diet, my total cholesterol drops below 200 and the ratios of the other constituents become slightly less favorable. Where this data has meaning for me is in testosterone levels. Testosterone is made from cholesterol, and I tend to see normal to high levels for a guy my age when total cholesterol is near 230 or so. Dropping my dietary fat drives my cholesterol, and my T levels, downward…and I don’t feel as good (less energy and impaired recovery ability).
I’ve evolved my consumption of carbohydrate quite a bit over the last decade. I once viewed carbs as a staple in my diet…now they are a strategic tool. I used to be in the carbohydrate-loading sports nutrition camp, as we all were once taught was the way to go for high performance and health. Carbs before, during, and after exercise were just a part of the routine. But this whole strategic tool concept stems from eating fairly low-carb and being metabolically fat-adapted. Unlike essential amino and fatty acids, which we must get by consuming proteins and fats, there are really no essential carbohydrates. The body can make glucose via the process of gluconeogenesis, and the relatively small amount of glucose we need in circulation (5 grams or about one teaspoon) can be produced by the liver from the byproducts of fat and protein metabolism. Whatever minimal quantity of ingested carbs and possibly their associated micronutrients (i.e. vitamins in vegetables) I need, I seem to be getting it based on my health measures.
But it’s in the realm of performance where I’ve experimented with carb intake quite a bit. This has relationship to the type of exercise or training I’m involved in, the subject of pre/post workout feeding, and the aspect of recovery. Not every expert agrees in this arena, with some being adamant that low carb/keto works for every athlete, and others feeling that purposeful use of carbs in the metabolically flexible trainer can be immensely beneficial. My experience approximates the middle ground between these arguments, and I’ve seen quite a bit of variance in this area with clients.
The type of training which can indicate an increase in carbohydrate in the diet is glycolytic training. This is the anaerobic, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that many of us do in sports or in the pursuit of conditioning goals. Glycolytic exercise burns glycogen, which is the storage form of sugar in our muscles and liver, and which can be rapidly utilized to meet energy demands. Glycogen breakdown is required when the energy demand of the session exceeds what can be supplied by fat alone. While fat-adapted and well-conditioned athletes can fuel their motion with primarily fat at a higher output level than sugar-burners, even they will reach a point of intensity when they need to start tapping into and combusting their high-octane glycogen stores. These are limited depending on your body size, muscle fiber type, and conditioning level, but this only amounts to about 500 grams on average.
Here’s where things get interesting. If we exercise hard enough, and long enough (such as a series of 30-second to 5-minute intervals, or a moderately hard/long steady state effort), we are burning up glycogen in that breathless, anaerobic effort. Really easy workouts such as a long, slow jog don’t tap into glycogen very much in the trained individual. And very intense, very brief (<10 seconds) bouts like short sprints or heavy lifts don’t tax this system either. These rely upon the alactic, or phosphagen, system. It’s all that moderately hard, moderately long (in relative terms) type of mojo that is so glycolytic. And the byproduct is lactic acid, which we immediately recognize as that burning, incapacitating sensation that puts a very clear limit on anaerobic performance.
If we only exercise within the limits of our glycogen storage capacity, there is no real need for consideration of supplemental carbohydrate during exercise to stave off exhaustion. But make intensity and duration significant enough to drain your glycogen tank, and intra-workout carbs, often in liquid forms, can be of benefit. Going beyond 90 minutes in a run or bike ride, or doing a high volume of reps with intervals or weights, may necessitate a few carbs. I actually exercise with high intensity somewhat frequently, but I almost never extend the duration or volume to the point where I need to utilize intra-workout carbs.
Next let’s consider pre-workout fueling. When timed right…a small, easily digestible fuel source can temporarily make a limited amount of circulating blood glucose available to the working muscles. This has been shown to spare muscle glycogen to a slight degree, thus potentially giving the athlete an extension in time to exhaustion. I’ve experimented with using a 400-500 calorie shake about an hour before training or competition, something that was agreeable to my system, and that had about 50-60 grams of carbohydrate in it. I’d do this when I was serious about putting up a number, as in hitting a time or weight as a performance marker. Sometimes this seemed to help a bit. It didn’t make me perform better, but occasionally I thought it helped me to keep going a little longer or do a bit more. Much of that may have been placebo. I’ve gradually faded away from that practice, really enjoying training in a fasted state and without the sensation of having anything in my stomach. I know a lot of people who swear by their pre-workout meals, and this is a great place to conduct personal experiments.
Post-workout feeding is another opportunity for testing. I’ll generally wait until my appetite returns after training to have a meal. If I do a long, slow, steady-state workout (rare for me), I’m generally hungry pretty soon afterward and I’ll chow down. Doing heavy or high-intensity training tends to blunt my appetite for several hours afterward, so my feeding window naturally extends a bit. This is where the carb content goes up and down for me. An easy workout, or a brief/intense one will result in me craving and eating a steak. I’m not sure that is my body saying it needs to repair muscle tissue or something like that…it’s just a common signal to eat a desired food. But if I do enough of that glycolytic exercise we were talking about previously, I crave carbs and I’ll usually be looking for a sweet potato or turnip with my meal. Sometimes, if training is hard enough, I’ll even have an increased appetite and need for carbs the next day. But this is rare because this pattern only seems to follow mega-workouts, and I just don’t do those much anymore.
Finally, this is where the subject of recovery, with respect to carb intake, comes into the picture. Once depleted of our emergency glycogen stores, our bodies go on a mission to replenish that fuel. Studies show that athletes with carb-dependent metabolisms (sugar-burners) do indeed benefit from immediate post-event fuel intake. This window appears to be less necessary for metabolically flexible exercisers, who research indicates may actually be more efficient at glycogen synthesis. The important consideration is with frequency of glycolytic training. If an athlete needs to go long and hard, day after day, in back to back sessions, many if not most authorities will suggest that supplemental carb intake is beneficial. Having enough fuel to refill the energy stores as rapidly as metabolically possible, in order to prepare for the next training session or competition, can be valuable.
For me, that last paragraph has little relevance. I love exercise and I train in some fashion almost every day. However, I rarely extend my high intensity workouts far enough to be massively glycogen-depleting. I also almost never do back to back hard days anymore. I seem to get better results and better health when I balance a “fitness maker” session with a few technique, recovery, and mobility days. I like to train in what feels like a natural cycle and going hard all the time not only seems unnatural from a biological perspective, it puts me into a pro-inflammatory and potentially carb-focused existence that I no longer desire or believe in. I fully recognize that everyone is different, has unique goals, and that training and eating patterns may not be the same for a 55 year-old amateur athlete as compared to a 20-something pro.
I think that’s enough information for this time around. I’m going to allow you to digest (couldn’t resist) the reports of Part 1 and 2, and I’ll come back in the future with additional data and perspectives. I want to share some of my findings with dairy, supplements, allergic reactions, and other tests in addition to blood which include saliva, urine, stool, DNA, and graded exercise tests. I realize this stuff can get a little dry, like melba toast or a saltine cracker on a hot day, so I’ll give you a break. The main reason I got inspired to delve into dietary experiments was to share some personal examples and encourage each of you to combine the application of basic healthy eating with personalized investigations.
I’ll provide a quick review of what I’ve discovered so far, and I’ll flesh this out as though I’m making action statements to myself. Don’t eat junk food. Eat a Planet-Based Diet of whole, fresh, natural foods that employs the Just Eat Real Food (JERF) principle. Measure and track your food intake until you really know what you are eating, what’s in it, and how much you are consuming. Keep a journal of data to go along with your food diary, and record subjective and objective information that you feel is pertinent. Use tables, spreadsheets, and graphs to your heart’s content.Get lots of blood and other tests, and coordinate these with your dietary experiments. Work with your healthcare provider(s). Find the eating pattern that gives you the most ideal health markers, the highest energy, the best body composition, the lowest inflammation, and the most joy. Eventually try to make all this instinctive and effortless. Keep an open mind, never stop experimenting, and recognize that your needs will invariably be dynamic as you go through life.
If I summarize the message in these communications, I’d say without wanting to seem boastful that I’m enjoying excellent health and outstanding performance at this point in my life. I feel much of this is due to my personalized approach to nutrition. I don’t want to hog up all this excellence. I want to share it. I want you to look, feel, and perform your best also. I sincerely hope you’ve taken something valuable from these words. Let me know what you think and please share your comments and questions.