Not intended as medical advice, please consult with a doctor before starting any new diet.
The following is an opinion piece courtesy of the Swim Viking, and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam’s staff or management.
THE VIKING MANIFESTO: Piecing Together a New Approach to Nutrition and Training for Swimmers from Scientific and Anecdotal Evidence.
Part 7: How Do I Get Started on the LCHF Diet?
If you are still following along with the Manifesto at this point, then you must at least be intrigued enough to want to know what the low-carb, high-fat diet would look like in real life. You may not quite be ready to drop the traditional nutrition info recommended by USA Swimming in articles like this, and presentations like this, but you at least want to know how different this might really be. I doubt anyone wants to take it as far as I have, which means going almost completely carnivorous, but if you read below you can see that it doesn’t have to be that extreme. This cat lived to be age 39 on bacon, eggs, broccoli and coffee. It can’t be that hard, right?
The question is, do you have the nuggets to give this a try long enough to adapt and see if the low-carb, high-fat diet is really for you?
If you were to just jump in and try a low-carb high-fat or ketogenic diet, you would most likely feel miserable for a while and your performance in practice and meets would tank. My contention throughout this multi-part series is that if you stick with it long enough to adapt your performance will recover in every way, and will improve significantly in some of the most important parameters of swimming training. Add the correct training and this effect can be enhanced even more. So far though, I haven’t really gone into detail about how you would go about making the switch to LCHF in the most safe and efficient way. I believe that this is optimal for everyone, but I also know that people who don’t have the force of will to be meticulous about it at first may have a bumpy ride.
My basic advice?
- Do not jump into this in the middle of a season. Use the time between seasons to get started because it is best to give yourself some adaptation time without the stress of a heavy training load. There will also be a period of time where performance in practice and meets may suffer. To give yourself the best chance of sticking with it you should use the pre-season to adjust.
- Make a doctor’s appointment. Talk to your doctor about the change you want to make. If you are nervous about taking nutrition advice from a stranger with an obsession with Norse culture, ask the doc for a full metabolic panel so that you have stats to compare later to know if there are any issues that come up that would cause you to need to adjust what you are doing. This is not just about cholesterol. Thyroid stimulating hormone, C-reactive Protein, A1C and other measurements can be included and monitored as well. You will see some details below on why this might matter, but honestly, I wish I had done this myself just so that I could have shown off my improvements with some real stats. Be prepared for push-back from the doctor though– this is not what they were taught in med school so once in a while they might try to talk you out of it just because they don’t know much about it. I printed stuff to bring to my doctor but she didn’t need to see it. She was immediately on board and encouraged me to keep it up.
- My Fitness Pal and Runkeeper are your new best friends. It is vital that you track your calorie burning and food intake, at least for the time that you are learning how to manage this diet. This is not just for calories sake, and not just to monitor your macro-nutrient percentages. It is also important to track sodium and potassium due to the water-shedding effect of LCHF. If you want to see what I really eat and how I really train, ask to be my friend within these apps. These apps are now just a routine part of my day.
- DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ADOPT THIS LIFESTYLE WITHOUT THOROUGHLY READING UP ON IT. Think about it. You are taking nutrition advice from a stranger on the internet who you know nothing about except that he likes his hats to have horns. Do your damn research and don’t just take my word for it. At the bottom of this post will be a list of recommended reading. Some of it should be considered REQUIRED READING and they will be marked with a **. Do not skip these!
When someone asks me what it is I did to lose all this weight, I ask them “do you really want to know, or are you just making conversation?” I don’t want to suck any unsuspecting friends into the rabbit hole with me just because they were being nice. If they want to know, I send them this brief write-up I have saved on my phone:
Target around .8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight. ( I calculated that by subtracting my % body fat from my actual weight.) More protein is okay sometimes, but less is not if you are working out. Stay between 0 and 150 grams carbohydrate. The rest of your calories should come from fats. This is where you get your energy from. On the days you don’t work out, stay at the lower end of the carbohydrates. When you are working out consistently and you have reached the weight you want to be at, it probably won’t hurt to have more. Between ten and thirty percent of calories is plenty even for an ultra-endurance athlete. A ketogenic diet is normally considered to be one that stays below 50 grams of carbohydrate, but in heavy training you can probably be in ketosis without going quite that low.
Recommended foods: fatty meats (too much lean meat is high protein, low fat); olive oil (cold); coconut oil (the only one to cook with besides animal fats like lard); butter; heavy cream instead of milk; nuts, but not peanuts; seafood (get some canned sardines in olive oil, shrimp, etc.); lots of eggs; avocado; green leafy vegetables.
AVOID: partially hydrogenated oils; wheat, beans, rice, potatoes, legumes; sweets; sugary drinks, including sports drinks; anything deep fried and breaded is from the devil. It is easy to over-do fruit: fructose refuels liver glycogen, which stands in the way of fat adaptation a little. Ideally the carbs you eat should go toward refueling muscle glycogen rather than liver if your goal is to stay in ketosis. The more fibrous fruits, like berries, are best.
ELECTROLYTES: you will want to drink lots of water because the lower you go on carbs the more it is like a diuretic. This causes you to pee out electrolytes. The recommended supplementation is 5000 mg sodium, 1500 mg potassium, and 300 mg magnesium although sometimes it helps me to go higher. If you get leg cramps at night take another magnesium and/or back off the water a little and see if it helps. I have even been adding a half-teaspoon of baking soda to my water once in a while and it seems to help with my leg cramps as well.
Basically, keto looks like this:
Once you get used to eating this way, you may not feel hungry as often as you did before. Part of the reason I started tracking with My Fitness Pal was because I could go so long without eating that I worried I wasn’t eating enough. I now have to double check to make sure I am getting enough food to maintain my weight. I am not kidding. I no longer have the blood-sugar dips, afternoon sleepiness or food cravings that were once a normal part of my day. Yes, the carb cravings eventually go away. The hardest part of this diet is social: you will be amazed at how much carbohydrate is thrown in your face every day, and you will eventually marvel at how much of what others eat is stuff that you no longer even consider to be food. The guilt trips people lay on you over not eating a cracker can be sheer lunacy.
But, Viking… none of these foods come in a box?! How am I supposed to do a ketogenic diet around my crazy work schedule? This was actually the hardest part for me at first. I thought this diet would be expensive and I assumed I would not be able to do it since I am at the pool for most of my meals. When I did the math on the two or three fast food combo meals a day I was eating before, I realized pretty quickly that keto could be cheaper… but then I had to prepare my own meals. How do I manage that?: Simple– I have a mini-fridge, a microwave and a George Foreman grill. Easy peasy. I stop by the grocery store on Monday mornings on the way to work and get my food for the week. If I have time to stop by the butcher I stock up there as well. (They sell individual 8 oz club steaks for $3.75!) I learned to make some really kick ass scrambled eggs in the microwave and the rest is pretty easy. Plus, anything can be made yummy with either cheese or Frank’s Red Hot all over it. Am I right?
Also, there are a million places online with keto friendly recipes, and many of them are creative ways to have your favorite non-keto meals in a low-carb way with substitutions. You will see a lot of things like crushed pork rinds used as breading, or pizza crusts and taco shells made of bacon or cheese, which is better than bread anyway. I mean, really… if you think even the Doritos taco shell beats a bacon taco shell, you got issues.
Can there be dangers associated with going low carb? Well, yeah, but they can be managed. Electrolytes are something that need to be taken seriously. They are vital for heart function, and too much potassium can be even worse than not enough. I supplement daily with magnesium and potassium just to be sure I stay in a good range and I pay attention to MFP to make sure. I also do not avoid salty foods. Ben Greenfield wrote an excellent article about what he believes are the four dangers of going low-carb, and fortunately he is a guy who not only manages this in his own triathlon training but is also a personal trainer who helps other athletes as well. In this article, he recommends between 100-200 grams of carbohydrate for those who train with high-volume for a few reasons, which is still very low. (He trained and rocked an IronMan this way.) When he did his AMA on reddit I asked him how many carbs are necessary for my particular low-volume training regimen and he said I should be fine with 40-60 grams of carbohydrate which is about where I land naturally. Of course, there are those out there doing high volume training with carb counts lower than mine, and Dr Attia is one of them, as he tells us in this podcast interview he did with Ben Greenfield. In that interview Dr Attia goes into detail about electrolytes, heavy training, and many other details about mistakes he made in managing the diet and I consider it mandatory listening. Unfortunately, in that interview, Dr Attia also says he wouldn’t recommend ketosis for a pool swimmer, but on that point I disagree with him simply based on my personal experience. (I don’t think he has ever heard of USRPT.)
Paul Jaminet, author of The Perfect Health diet, has also written a series of articles laying out what he thinks can be dangerous, even going so far as to speculate that there might be a “carbohydrate deficiency disease.” He also claims that there are “nitrogen balance” issues with eating too much protein. These are worth a read. I am not trying to scare you away, of course, but I want you to see some points on the other side of the argument, so that if you should run into any problems you might have a resource to seek out changes that can make this diet more beneficial to you.
Are carbs gonna kill me if I eat them every once in a while? Nah… Mark’s Daily Apple has an 80% rule, meaning that we are creating good habits and if you change your lifestyle to eat right 80% of the time you are probably doing just fine. I still enjoy ice cream with my kids once in a while. I do avoid grains as much as possible, including rice and corn because they make me feel like crap. Beans also give me stomach issues. To be honest, most of my carbs are from fibrous green veggies, nuts, dark chocolate and red wine. Plus, Dr Attia claims that after exercise we may be able to eat some carbs without interfering with ketosis at all by calculating the glucose deficit based on workload, which is pretty handy for when you just feel like scarfing down something sweet. There are also variations of the diet that are outlined in the /r/keto FAQ that incorporate carbs on a schedule so if you are struggling with straight up keto you can look into those to see if they work better for you. Of course, after adapting for a while you may not feel the need.
What about cholesterol? Well, just last week our government announced they will be removing cholesterol rich food avoidance from their guidelines. Yup, eggs are back. I recently wrote a post on cholesterol that has some links embedded within it if you are concerned and want to read up, but in the list of resources below I have the ** next to the /r/keto FAQ. It is required reading and goes into detail about cholesterol and what to watch for when you get that metabolic panel at the doctor’s office. Essentially, high cholesterol isn’t as great an indicator of heart disease as we have been told. Here is a nice chart that shows how a typical person changing from the standard American diet to LCHF will fare regarding risk factors for heart disease:
A typical day of eating for the Viking?
Breakfast: six eggs scrambled in the microwave with Kerrygold butter, heavy whipping cream, Morton’s light salt, and occasionally some bacon cooked in the microwave as well. Lots of coffee.
Lunch: Steak. Usually not over $5 worth. I don’t avoid the fat and gristle. The cheap cuts are actually healthier most of the time as the expensive ones are often too lean. Once a week or so, I add 4 oz of liver, and butter to go with my steak.
Dinner: Salad made from raw spinach, nuts, olive oil, avocado, and some kind of seafood like sardines, salmon/ tuna from a pouch or shrimp that just need to be thawed with running water.
If I am busy and get stuck hitting the drive thru?: Many burger places just lettuce wrap their burgers and that makes it pretty easy. Some, like Wendy’s let you order combo’s with side salads and ranch dressing rather than fries. Hardee’s and Wendy’s also put great coupons in the Sunday paper, and Wendy’s also puts coupons on their receipts. Occasionally I can get two ⅓ pound burgers at Hardee’s for $4, and a triple baconator can be $4 as well if you pay attention to your coupons and deals. Hardee’s is so keto-friendly that they have a low-carb breakfast bowl, and Sonic will even let you just order bacon and eggs if you sweet talk them. Dollar menu burgers are great too with no bun and no ketchup. Sometimes I even use the meat from McDoubles as the bun for my grilled chicken club.
Also, in my town every BBQ place does all-you-can-eat ribs on Tuesday nights. They all know me by name.
Snacks to put in your swim bag? Quest bars are keto-legal even though they list as high-carb, simply because most of the carbs are fiber, leaving only three or four grams of active carbohydrate. (Some people doing this diet subtract the fiber carbs from the rest to come up with “net” carbs.) Quest bars are pretty common in supplement and nutrition shops. Even better though are KETOBARS. This is a company that was started by a redditor who saw a need and I love them. If you order some, leave them a note that the Viking sent you.
I plan to keep writing on this topic, and may post a bit more at SwimSwam, but a lot of additional posts will continue to be made at The Swim Brief, as they will be supplemental and will often be about my own personal second-swimming-career adventure. I love discussing this stuff so please don’t hesitate to shoot questions my way, and if you see me on deck feel free to grab my attention. I learn new things every week and I love to share. I don’t expect everyone out there to have read every detail of the Manifesto, but I hope that a lot of coaches have it saved in their browser to go back and catch up if they haven’t kept up. I also hope that readers take time to browse some of the many links throughout the articles as there is so much more info out there if you just keep following the science. As you can see, this stuff is slowly hitting the mainstream so my ideas here may not seem so far-fetched in the near-future.
I am not the only low-carb swimmer out there, and I have a feeling that soon we will start seeing more and more keto swimmers crawling out of the woodwork. Until then, I hope to swim fast enough to make more SwimSwammers and SwimBriefers do a double-take and go back to read up on how I am getting the job done. Wish me luck.
Recommended Reading and Resources:
- A Guide to Ketosis
- Diet Doctor’s LCHF for Beginners
- The Weston A Price Foundation
- Mark’s Daily Apple
- The Eating Academy, Peter Attia, MD
- Ben Greenfield interview with Peter Attia**
- http://www.reddit.com/r/ketogains **be sure to read their FAQ as well!
- http://www.reddit.com/r/keto **be sure to read the FAQ and Keto in a Nutshell!!
- The search function within all of the keto subreddits can also help you find answers to just about any questions that come up!!
- Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD
- Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter
- The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney
Movies and Videos: (lots more are listed in the /r/keto FAQ and “nutshell”!)
**and of course, you can always contact me through SwimSwam or the Swim Brief if you would like to learn more.
Keto Diet, Runkeeper and MyFitnessPal:
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. This series is being published concurrently on SwimSwam and SwimBrief.net.