LCHF…why isn’t it working for me? (Part 1)

It’s about this time of year that I start seeing people come through my doors needing some minor (or major) tweaks to their LCHF eating approach. There are usually one of two scenarios.

Scenario #1: When they embarked on LCHF they saw ALL of the benefits they heard about, effortlessly shedding body fat, boundless energy (in training and afterwards), improvement in skin tone, hair condition, sleep and digestive problems. But lately the opposite is true. Despite seemingly nailing this LCHF lifestyle, they’ve noticed they are lacking energy, gaining weight (especially around the middle), latest blood tests have seen their cholesterol levels have shot up (and perhaps triglycerides), they are unable to sleep… … yet if anything, they’ve instigated (and nailed) the hacks they’ve read to optimise their LCHF eating approach. What gives??

Scenario #2: They’ve given it a good go on their own for the last 5 weeks, following it to the letter and despite this, it’s ‘not working for them.’ Worse, their husband/workmate/training partner has taken to it with ease.

Frustrating, much?

While we are all individual as to what is going to work for us, the LCHF approach is a really good one for most people, most of the time. Despite that, there are small things that can derail your best efforts to improve your diet, so I want to cover off the basic (and more nuanced) reasons people don’t fare well on a LCHF approach, and some tips on how to overcome them. I’ve ended up splitting this post into two parts as it was so long!

  1. Too low carb. The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing – information is everywhere, everyone is an expert and the version of paleo/LCHF/JERF that you’ve adopted based on what others are doing may well be too low carb for you. LCHF is a spectrum, and what is low carb for one person may well be higher carb for someone else – generally speaking, anything up to 200g of carbohydrate/day could be low carb. It all depends on context. I see a lot of people who are trying to stay strictly below 25g of carbohydrate a day – too strict (and unnecessary) for most people. Even Prof Tim Noakes, staunch advocate of a LCHF approach to eating (“banting”) has loosened up on this. The people who really benefit from a diet this low would be those embarking on it for therapeutic reasons: diabetes (both types), epilepsy, cognitive health (Alzheimer’s, for example). That’s not to say that others out there can’t make this level of carbohydrate work for them. But if you’ve noticed fat gain (especially around the middle), irritability, hormone imbalances (such as a missed menstrual period), lack of energy (past the initial phases of the LCHF approach), irregularity of bowel motions, sleeplessness – to name a few symptoms, then you may have gone too low. What to do?
    1. Track your diet for 4-5 days to get an average of the grams of carbohydrate you eat per day. If it’s on the very low end of the scale (less than 50g*, for example), then try adding back in some good quality starch to see if any of your symptoms improve. Don’t be pedantic about vegetables. Really. That includes carrots and tomatoes. To be honest, you don’t have to track your carbs if you’re not a numbers person – but it can be a good way to assess if this really is the problem. Use My Fitness Pal, Cron-o-meter, My Net Diary or Easy Diet Diary as nutritional tracking tools. (If you’re embarking on a lower carb diet, this is a good first step regardless, so you don’t make the jump from 400g a day to 60g a day).
    2. If your carbohydrate intake is in the realm of 80-100g carbohydrate, you may not be too low, it might be more of a timing problem – ensuring you have carbohydrate in the meal after a high intensity (i.e. CrossFit or F45) or long duration exercise session can help improve recovery and alleviate a lot of fatigue/irritability. If you’re struggling with insomnia, then adding in some kumara or potato into your evening meal increases production of precursors to melatonin.
    3. Is it more protein you need? Protein can help keep you fuller for longer, stabilise blood sugars (therefore has implications for focus/energy/concentration), promote recovery and help with sleep. Many people fear protein because of the potential for it to be converted to glucose in the body (via gluconeogenesis). For someone following a LCHF diet this isn’t an issue. Try upping your protein portions by 1/3 – ½ at each meal.
    4. If it’s in the initial phases, then up your intake of sodium – to levels more than you think you need. When we drop the carbohydrate content of the diet, we drop a lot of water stores too (hence a rapid loss on the scales) – this is because for every gram of carbohydrates stored, we store an additional 3g of water. Add salt to your meals, a pinch in your water bottle, make a miso drink or drink bone broth.
  2. Not low carb enough. I see this a lot. People equate carbohydrate to bread, pasta, rice and cereal and don’t think about other foods that are predominantly carbohydrate –fruit, dried fruit, ‘green smoothies’ with a fruit base, bliss balls, natural fruit and nut bars… In addition, many products are promoted as ‘sugar free’ when they contain dried fruit, maple sugar, rice malt syrup or some other type of natural sweetener. This may seem elementary to you, but I know many people are confused by this point. Regardless of what you hear, sugar IS just sugar – that one sugar is lower in fructose doesn’t mean it’s not going to influence your blood sugar levels, it’s likely to affect them more. This has to be my biggest bugbear of the ‘real food’ movement; not that these products contain sugar – but that they are marketed as not. This is no better than being told that Nutrigrain is healthy. We all know that’s not true.
    1. Again, track your numbers (as per above) via a tracking tool. A lower carbohydrate approach is not a fixed number, it’s a spectrum. But if you’re still consuming over 200g a day and not engaging in regular physical activity, then something might need to be tweaked (especially if you’re not seeing the results you’re after).
    2. Get rid of the bliss balls, the dried fruit, the paleo muffin or the smoothie from your favourite juice bar that you thought tasted suspiciously sweet for something ‘green’.
    3. Read the ingredient lists on the packages you buy. Sugar has over 56 different names. You probably don’t need to know them all, but it would be good to have an idea, right?
  3. Too many processed foods or snacks. Even if you’ve found a sweet spot with your macronutrient intake, having too many processed ‘low carb’ snacks can continue to drive your appetite hormones in a way that favours eating more than you need. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that tells the body when we’ve had enough to eat, and is involved in the regulation of calories we burn and body fat that we store. A consequence of being over-fat is high circulating leptin levels in the bloodstream, and the brain stops reading signals sent by leptin that we’ve consumed enough food. Instead, it incorrectly believes that we are starving, thus we feel hungrier. Excess body fat increases Inflammation in the body, and is one of the drivers of leptin resistance, and processed food can drive inflammatory pathways in the body – even low carb processed food. And if you’re not over-fat? Well, vegetable oils and certain additives and preservatives found in these foods can drive inflammatory pathways in the body. In addition, an overabundance of processed flours may cause disruptions to our gut microbiome as they are easily digested, perhaps not even making it to the gut bacteria in our lower digestive tract. This can mean we are starving our good bacteria and instead feeding bacteria that release endotoxins, causing increasing inflammation. This can have a secondary effect of increasing your cholesterol level (see this post here). These foods are created in such a way to send signals to your brain’s pleasure centre and drive your appetite for more food that you just don’t need. One of the benefits of a real food approach (which naturally lowers your carbohydrate intake) is that inflammation reduces, insulin drops, gut bacteria can rebalance and the signalling pathways in the brain that regulate your appetite hormones can begin to normalise.
    1. Get rid of most foods or snacks that come in a package with ingredients you don’t recognise.
    2. Eat real food. Base your snacks around hardboiled eggs, cheese (for the dairy tolerant), vegetables, leftover meat, macadamia nuts, egg muffins.
    3. Drop the nut flours. Just because they’re low carb does not mean it’s a free for all with these processed flours.
    4. Increase foods that help balance out your fatty acid profile: more fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) and (grass fed) meat for omega 3 fats. Consider taking a fish oil or algae omega for those who don’t eat fish – and be picky about the supplement!
    5. Take care of your gut: consider a probiotic for 30-60 days (such as Lifestream Advanced, Inner Health Plus, Syntol or Prescript Assist) to help populate the gut with the good guys, but also keep them fed with fermented foods such as sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar, water kefir and an abundance of vegetable fibres.

I’ve got more – quite a bit more actually! – but will post that in Part 2 so as not to risk losing your attention ;-). These are three of the basics that people can get wrong (particularly in the initial phases), and the next post will cover some of the more nuanced reasons, and what you can do to correct them. If you’re not sure whether your LCHF diet is working for you, why not jump on and book a consultation with me? An expert eye can help take the thinking out of it for you and save a lot of stress long term.

*50g still pretty low actually! Again, it’s all context 😉

low-carb-zone

Are you in the zone? (PC: http://www.tripfitness.com)

Spice it up

One of the benefits of eating real food is that it minimises the amount of processed refined foods that drive the inflammation pathways in the body which, as you know, is the underlying cause of modern chronic disease. From a general health perspective, this is awesome. From an athlete perspective it is even more so – given that the training derived oxidative stress causes cell damage and breakdown, increasing recovery time from sessions. Anything that impedes recovery is not going to allow you to make the fitness gains you are looking for. Of course, it’s more than just diet you have to consider.  I’m three weeks post-marathon and am up to running around 50 minutes every 2-3 days, with calf and foot niggles making me more cautious that what I’ve needed to be in the past. It’s frustrating for me to tell you the truth; yes I enjoy gym work and swimming, but there is nothing I love more than running and when the weather is blossoming into summer and the choice is between a Smith squat machine or Auckland Domain, I’d know where I’d rather be. Worse is that I really only have myself to blame. I’ve pretty much got my diet dialled in (as to be expected – though, no, it’s not perfect as I am human 😉 ) and I honestly have been taking the return to running seriously and listening to both Coach and osteo advice to ease into it. But it’s slower than what I would have imagined. Where I fall down is the recovery out of training – you know, the wind down time, getting enough sleep – that kind of thing. Hence I’ve been making a real effort this week to get to bed early, to practice diaphragmatic breathing whilst driving and to invert my legs up onto the wall at the end of the day and just ‘be’. So it got me thinking about additional ways to support the body outside of the diet, exercise and lifestyle. What other dietary factors can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body outside of a reduction of processed food and the free-radical scavenging properties of fruits, vegetables, animal protein and eggs?

A lot of athletes are heading into heavier schedules with the Christmas holidays allowing for some block training to occur. This is (for some) combined with the increased indulgences of additional alcohol at end-of year drinks and caffeine to get through the day. In combination with late nights and early starts, it’s no wonder that we hang out for December 23 as this time of year can wreak havoc on the body. It’s too easy to think you can pop a Voltaren or Neurofen tablet before going out and training (or at the end of a hard session) to mitigate the niggles and strains you feel that come from a lack of recovery. This might not seem like a big deal at the time but it really does more damage than what you think. I know – I used to be blasé about these things too – I had a ‘stomach of steel’ that was Impenetrable to even the most harshest of substances (there’s few things harder on the stomach than a mixing bowls worth of green gooseberries that I’ve successfully put this away with no ill effect in my younger years). But the older I’ve become, the more digestive issues I’ve struggled with around training, the more aware I’ve become of the impact that anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals can have on the gut and subsequent health. Training in itself has been found to increase gut permeability. The decreased blood flow to the gut through even moderate steady-state exercise has resulted in intestinal injury and elevated liver enzyme parameters – and that’s an acute effect of just 60 minutes training. You can imagine what your normal high intensity effort or Sunday bunch ride does in relation to tearing up your insides?*  This increased gut permeability is a big deal. The once tight junctures that should not allow foreign matter to travel through are now not-so-tight. When we have foreign bodies allowed into our system this sparks an auto-immune response. Inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defence against injury, and over time this acute inflammatory response can become chronic which leads to deleterious health effects moreso than just impaired recovery. So the training in itself loosens the guts main defence against foreign proteins, which can increase inflammation – and when you throw ibuprofen on top of that, the effects on the gut and inflammation over time are even worse. It’s an easy thing to do, certainly, and a lot of people do it – however over time this can cause sensitivities to foods that you once had no problem digesting. Think grains, milk, certain types of carbohydrates in the FODMAP spectrum. Our gut has just one cell thickness protecting it from the outside environment. It doesn’t take a lot to upset the balance.

Of course, I’m speaking mechanistically here and everyone is different – some people will go through their athletic career and not have an issue at all despite a regular habit of popping vitamin V; others though, will notice that their tolerance to certain foods is now lower, the time taken to recover from training sessions is greater, and they are not able to get as fit as fast as they used to be able to. Is it an age thing? Sure. You’re not as bulletproof as you were in your 20s. But it could be more than that.

So I thought I’d mention some spices that can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. This isn’t going to dive into the ins and outs of that information – this post is already verging on being too long.

Tumeric (active ingredient curcumin): (particularly in the presence of fat to help absorption) – my friend Chris loves eggs with a heaped teaspoon or two of turmeric, and avocado and butter in the morning.

Ginger (I love ginger tea, just grating it fresh into hot water) and in green smoothies with lemon.

Cinammon: known for helping blood sugar control and also for its anti-inflammatory properties – I always like to include this in my breakfast meals, as a sweetener for baked rhubarb (no sugar required), in a slow cooked meat recipe or mince.

Garlic a member of the sulfur family, a well known anti-inflammatory compound.(okay, not a spice, but worth a mention)

Cayenne and chilli (active compound capsaicin) – chilli flakes and cayenne pepper are great on eggs, in salad and have you tried chilli chocolate? it is Christmas after all.

The beauty of these spices is that they are cheap, readily available and complement perfectly your real food lifestyle. This post is not prescribing anything more than the liberal inclusion of them in your everyday food. Every real food pantry should regularly utilise these in cooking, baking and barbequing. They are not a panacea to burning the candle at both ends – but it is worth your while to spice things up a little bit in the kitchen if you’re not already doing so.

Not tonight, honey. I’m exhausted.

Have you heard the term ‘ironman widow’? Where someone’s husband (or wife) is basically invisible for the better part of 12 weeks as they prepare for an upcoming race. This not only relates to being physically present (which is diminished when the training time is upwards of 15-20h a week) but also ‘present’ when at home. Often exhaustion sets in, particularly nearer the end of the week or after a heavy training day, where the mere thought of moving from the couch is akin to another 6h ride. Sex? Don’t even go there. It’s a fairly common (yet usually unspoken) phenomenon that rolling around in the sack is off the agenda in the lead up to the event. And I’m not talking about the day before an event; it’s more like as a general rule because they are too damn tired. Does this sound familiar? Yes, being tired is a natural (and expected) part of the training cycle – however, much as we talk about adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance in women – this is not an uncommon occurrence in men. It’s just not often talked about.

When we talk hormones, I know that I’m guilty of just addressing women. You know – the stress hormones, thyroid hormones and sex hormones. However men are not exempt from the debilitating effects of overdoing it. Just as a ‘rushed’ lifestyle can affect the thyroid and sex hormones in women (including testosterone), men who undertake endurance sport are at risk of poor testosterone status.

Testosterone: a sex hormone (also present in women too) is a chemical messenger. It declines as we age, and some studies have found a that testosterone levels for a male in their late 30s are down by as much as 50 % on the levels that were present in their 20s. Just as oestrogen is controlled by the hypothalamus, it is the same for testosterone; when the hypothalamus detects a deficiency of testosterone in the blood, it secretes a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GRH). This is detected by the pituitary gland that in response starts producing follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These travel to the testes where testosterone is produced from cholesterol by the leydig cells with just a small amount produced by the adrenal glands. It’s then sent back into the blood stream and either attaches to sex hormone binding protein (SHBG) and becomes biologically inert, or remains free in the bloodstream.  Normal levels are between 300 ng/dl – 1200 ng/dl (10.41)-41.64 ng/dL. The three types of testosterone you might see reported are:

  • Total testosterone- As the name implies, it’s how much testosterone available and is the sum of free and bound testosterone.
  • Free testosterone is the most biologically active form of testosterone. Free but low biologically active test and therefore still have signs/symptoms of overall low testosterone.
  • Bound testosterone-This is the testosterone bound to the protein Sex Hormone Binding Protein (or Globulin) (SHBP/SHBG). A high amount of SHBG will usually indicate a low free testosterone.

Testosterone is not just important for reproduction and sex drive – it has a number of other roles including supporting bone mass, regulating fat distribution, muscle size and strength and red blood cell production. If you are a typical endurance athlete who tends to push themselves and have had stress fractures that can’t be put down to a lack of calcium, it could well be that low testosterone is a contributing factor. As we know, testosterone increases during training and contributes to overall energy levels; a low production of testosterone contributes to the fatigue that can be felt under a heavy training load, making someone feel worse than they should. It’s difficult though, to know what is a normal byproduct of a heavy training load (because, let’s face it, endurance sport requires longer and harder training than, say, golf). Below are some common signs and symptoms of low testosterone.

  • Decreased/absent early morning erection
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Loss of facial or pubic hair
  • Testicular atrophy
  • Low bone mineral density/fractures
  • Night sweats

Phew! That’s not you? Well, you may not be out of the woods just yet. Less specific (or earlier signs) include:

  • Decreased energy or motivation
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Moody
  • Reduce muscle/increased fat mass
  • Reduced performance

You can see that the early signs of a reduced testosterone level could be summed up by being a bit ‘tired’ and are fairly non-specific. The best way to know what is going on with your testosterone is to get it tested through your doctor (noting that the free testosterone is the important measure).

Thankfully there is plenty you can do with your diet to ensure you’re optimising your ability to produce testosterone without getting a prescription for the pharmaceutical type. Unsurprisingly, these come down to pretty much what I write about on a weekly basis:

  • Ensure adequate vitamin D – this is involved in the production of the corticosteroid hormones and it’s important we have enough available to support the production of our thyroid, stress and sex hormones. Food sources are full fat dairy products, a small amount in butter, liver, animal protein and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Taking a supplement (that also contains vitamin K2) is warranted for a large part of the year in New Zealand, but particularly as we come out of winter and into spring, where the UVB rays are diminished and we’ve been spending the vast majority of time inside on the windtrainer to dodge the weather.
  • Ensure adequate zinc intake (through oysters and animal protein, and brazil nuts too) – a note here is that iron can reduce our overall ability to absorb zinc, and this may need to be looked at if you’re taking an iron supplement.
  • Ensure adequate selenium intake (seafood, Brazil nuts) and vitamin A (full fat dairy products, liver, eggs, animal protein)
  • Saturated and monounsaturated fat: Again, most of the foods mentioned above are good sources of saturated fat in the diet, and monounsaturated fat is found predominantly in olive oil, eggs, avocado and raw nuts. The reality is, all fats contain the range of fatty acids we need, and are labelled ‘saturated’ or ‘monounsaturated’ fats due largely to the amount they contain. Coconut oil (which has had some bad press of late, despite a lack of evidence of a relationship to heart disease) is particularly rich in saturated fat.
  • Cholesterol: another important co-factor in the creation of the sex hormones, and forms the backbone of these. Foods of animal origin help supply dietary cholesterol for this role. If you’re someone who has followed a low fat diet or vegetarian diet and has a low cholesterol level, then potentially your testosterone could be lower than ideal.
  • Ensure adequate B vitamins and magnesium also (present in the foods mentioned above and in abundance in vegetables).

Finally – on the life side of things: sleep more, ensure adequate recovery from training and have more sex. That will increase your testosterone.