Not intended as medical advice, please consult with a doctor before starting any new diet.
THE VIKING MANIFESTO: Piecing Together a New Approach to Nutrition and Training for Swimmers from Scientific and Anecdotal Evidence.
Part 1: The New Science of Healthy Eating
Nutrition can often be like politics and religion. People tend to dig their heels in and stand up for their long held beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Sometimes they don’t even know how they first formed those beliefs. Unfortunately in America, when it comes to nutrition, much of our base knowledge stems from advertising.
Feel free to add nutrition to the list of things you shouldn’t talk about when you’re drunk. I am not drunk right now but you might think I am when you hear me out. I came here to tell you that the standard nutrition advice you have heard all your life might just be completely wrong. The 60-70% carbohydrate, low-fat ideal is something that I have hardly heard anyone question in my thirty years of swimming, so I am taking it on with a few posts at SwimSwam along with more at the blog I share with Chris DeSantis, The Swim Brief. A lot of what I will have to say here will be speculation based on things I have read, but all I can ask is that you follow along and form your own opinion as we go. I understand that I am not a world-class swimmer and I would qualify as merely a mediocre high school and club coach at best so it is hard to consider me any kind of an expert. I also understand that I am not a nutritionist, and I am aware that many of the links I will direct you to are blogs and such, but if you follow them you will find all the science you need. I can also direct you to more if you have questions. This has become a passion of mine, as it was the launching pad for an unexpected and surprisingly successful comeback to swimming in my forties that would not have happened if I had never changed my relationship with food. I hope you can keep an open mind and follow me as I present the other side of the story regarding advances in the science of training and nutrition.
I have always felt there was some sort of disconnect between the advice I was given in my exercise physiology and nutrition courses while pursuing my degree and what would be truly optimal for me as a swimmer. I remember being frustrated that most of the studies referred to in the textbooks were done on marathon runners or power-lifters, with us 1-2 minute racers in the middle being ignored. I was genuinely interested in the science and wanted someone smarter than me to just tell me what to do. I was the kid who liked reading the textbook even when it wasn’t assigned. I remember being a little uneasy when we were told to keep our blood sugar high to enhance performance, and to eat small snacks often or have sugary sports drinks to avoid dips in energy, partly because most of that advice came from studies done at the Gatorade institute which seemed to be a conflict of interest, and also because that advice seemed to work horribly for me. Carb loading and sipping Gatorade made me feel awful. The “carb-carb-carb-gotta-keep-blood-sugar-up” plan backfired on me more often than not. The first meet where my school provided Powerade on deck was the worst shave meet I had in four years of college– but who was I to question science, right? I was a twenty year old kid with a mohawk. I looked pretty stupid trying to argue with a professor who used to run marathons. I still remember going to a doctor about my unreasonable fatigue and being told I need to “choose better carbs” and eat them more often, as though they just assumed I was eating skittles for most of my calories.
So imagine my surprise when at age 38 I stumbled upon the concept of ketones as a legitimate energy source. Suddenly I felt as though I had been lied to about food all my life, and the more I researched, the more that feeling reached conspiracy-theory levels. Ketones were hardly mentioned in my degree program. They were presented as an inefficient fuel created by breaking down fatty acids during starvation to help us get by. So then why are there so many runners, cyclists, triathletes, and power lifters out there on the web claiming that ketones are a super fuel that keeps them from bonking on ultra-endurance races, promotes better recovery from workouts, and are starting to become the basis of treatments for several chronic diseases? Huh?
Here’s how it works. A normal, healthy metabolism will typically produce a small amount of ketones overnight or any time you fast. Some people, if they knew this, might freak out thinking this could be dangerous considering the problems that can be associated with low blood sugar and the fact that one of the worst complications from diabetes is called ketoacidosis, which is often confused with nutritional ketosis. Ketones are a natural energy source from burning fat. If you lose a few pounds of body fat your ketones have been elevated– no question. The problem is that we gradually lose the ability to do this efficiently as we become insulin resistant. Insulin can block our access to fats for fuel and stands in the way of ketogenesis, so essentially, when our blood sugar is up, our fat burning ability is turned down. This is a safety mechanism: we have to burn glucose in the bloodstream first since high levels can be toxic, therefore fat tends to be stored when glucose is freely available in high amounts. If we become insulin resistant, our blood sugar and insulin levels are chronically high which leads to many complications over time. Insulin resistance is strongly correlated with metabolic syndrome. The weight you gain as you age, even though you might feel you are eating healthy, is not necessarily normal. It is often tied to the level of insulin resistance you have developed over the years, and when that becomes strong enough, you are on the edge of diabetes. There is a clinic at Duke that treats obesity and diabetes simply by replacing medication with a ketogenic diet, which flies in the face of our medical industry’s standard treatment but has had tremendous success. And oh yeah, did I mention that the ketogenic diet has also been known as a treatment for epilepsy for over a hundred years and is now being seriously studied as a potential treatment option in a wide range of ailments from Alzheimer’s to cancer? There are numerous health benefits that come with removing carbohydrate from our diets and increasing our fat intake, and ketones are now being researched as an anti-aging mechanism. My stomach issues (among other things,) cleared up immediately after dropping carbohydrate from my diet, and I now wake up at 5am ready to rock every day rather than suffering my way out of bed–, but hey, maybe it’s the 35 pounds I lost that are just making me think I feel better, right?
But what about your heart, Viking? Won’t it explode if we get rid of whole grains and add fat? You might as well attach a rocket to your cholesterol numbers, right?! Well, in the next few years you are going to see more articles like this one, and this one, almost apologizing for getting it completely wrong over the last few decades. If you follow the most recent science you will see saturated fats and cholesterol being vindicated, with sugars and other carbohydrates now being blamed for heart disease. The tide is turning and it is fascinating to watch. Old science, food politics and our food and medical industries are being taken to task by a more informed public. The cascade of problems above, many of them accelerated by our obsession with sugary drinks and other sources of high or hidden fructose, is also the reason we now have children with Type 2 Diabetes even though it was once called “Adult Onset Diabetes” and is also why we now have children turning up with Fatty Liver Disease like an alcoholic. Fructose is primarily processed in the liver, which is why it tends to have a higher correlation with diabetes and with the creation of visceral fat. Fructose is a much greater contributing factor to heart disease than saturated fats and cholesterol, but don’t try telling the American Heart Association that.
Check out this great exchange between a columnist and a spokesman for the AHA. Situations like this are the reason Max Planck once said “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Add money to that mix and you can imagine why it might take a few more funerals to get our political, education, food, pharmaceutical and medical industries on board with a new approach to healthy eating.
I get approximately 75 percent of my calories from fat, mostly saturated, and eat no grains whatsoever. My cholesterol did go up, but I am not worried about heart disease and neither is my doctor. Studies have shown that most people who switch to low carb move to more favorable lipid profiles, and for people like me whose cholesterol goes up, it is usually a short-term side effect. Cholesterol is considered one risk factor for heart disease, and it is not necessarily a risk factor in and of itself. As a matter of fact, it was recently shown that in the elderly, higher LDL scores are correlated with lower all-cause mortality. Oxidized LDL is proving to be the problem, and if we avoid the most easily oxidized fats and reduce inflammation we reduce risk. Here is a great blog from a heart doctor who switched to a paleo diet and happened upon something that urges new studies to be done. He has excellent N=1 evidence that even with a high LDL particle count, which is considered a dangerous indicator, scans show that his levels of arterial thickness might have reversed. The significance here is that the medical establishment doesn’t really believe this can happen. It is accepted that build up in the arteries is cumulative and does not reverse itself. This doctor seems to think that this diet that pulls fat from cells so efficiently might also pull it from the walls of arteries in the same way. If that is true, we might be on to something that could change our entire medical system.
If you want to read more about this stuff, I can recommend all sorts of great links. Watch for more to come at SwimSwam and feel free to save http://www.swimbrief.net in your favorites to check in there once in a while as well. The rabbit hole is deep on this topic. My swimming comeback has really been a fantastic journey of self-experimentation and thorough investigation and I want to share a whole new world of nutrition knowledge with all of you, my friends in swimming.
My next post will be a brief review of some of the science that we coaches learn early on in our careers to help lay a foundation for future posts, where I will sum up why I believe the low-carb high-fat diet is not just a healthy option for the average Joe. I believe LCHF is the way we Homo Sapiens were designed to eat, and I think I can make a great argument about why it is also optimal for swimmers. Even more, I will argue that because of the specific metabolic adaptations related to LCHF, there is also an optimal way to train and prepare for races. Please stay tuned.
The Viking is a delusional swim blogger who has made a commitment to train for the next sixty years to breaking every masters swimming record in the 100-104 age group. Watch for his masterpiece, “A Completely Made-Up History of Competitive Swimming” to hit bookshelves soon.