January 25, 2018

Why Eating Less Carbs And More Fat Can Help Your Health And Performance

Eating fewer carbs and more fat can help your health and performance. Here’s why.

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I ended my racing career at the end of 2007 as a carbo-loaded athlete.

Over many years, the dietitians I worked with had all advocated a high carb, low fat diet and I happily obliged eating lots of bread, pasta and other sugary things.

When I moved to Singapore at the beginning of 2008 to begin my journey into coaching, I had little interest in nutrition and no intention of making any changes to my diet.

A diet I had eaten for the previous 25 years or so.

Soon after arriving in Singapore, I opened our first lab and started experimenting with the “fat burning” software that came with the machine we use for VO2max testing.

It soon became apparent that I was not in an optimal metabolic state.

While I could burn fat reasonably well (a result of the aerobic training I had done), I was also heavily reliant on sugar, even at rest and low intensity.

A Catalyst For Change

As I continued my transition from professional athlete to “working stiff”, I also started to put on some weight.

As the owner of a new fitness company, this is obviously not ideal, but it was just the catalyst I needed to begin making some changes.

Based on the reading I had been doing, I began to experiment by lowering the carbohydrate in my diet and used our lab to monitor progress.

One of the first changes I made was to swap toast for breakfast with bacon and eggs. Within 2 weeks, I had halved the fat on my stomach, and my fat burning improved. Interesting!

The Role Of Insulin

I didn’t know it at the time, but what you eat is so important because of the way it affects hormones. Specifically, insulin.

Insulin is produced by the pancreas. It helps in the regulation of nutrients and energy around the body and is best known for helping move glucose (carbs) into cells so it can be used for energy.

Too much insulin in your system and your fat burning will switch off. Elevated insulin also promotes nutrients (both carbs and fat) to be stored away in fat cells, and as a result, weight often increases.

Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

Lower Carb, Healthy Fat (LCHF)

By lowering the amount of processed carbohydrate and upping the amounts of healthy fat (think avocado’s, olive oil, coconut, nuts, fatty fish) in your diet, you will be better able to control your insulin. This will turn on (and keep on) the switches that allow you to generate energy from fat.

You’ll notice I used the term ‘lower’ carb above.

Lower is a relative term and from my experience, everyone has a different threshold for the amount of carbohydrate they can comfortably eat.

Just as I did, you’ll need to experiment with your diet and find a level of carbohydrate that works for you given your genetic makeup and level of physical activity etc.

1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories, 1 gram of fat has 9 calories.

When you lower the carbs, you have to increase the good fats so that you are taking in enough energy. Protein should remain at a moderate level.

A Look At My Energy Profile (Before and After)

The graphs below are snapshots of how I used to get my energy and how I get my energy today.

Orange represents fat being used for energy while blue represents sugar.

While I am still not perfect and continue to work on making improvements to my diet, I am in a much healthier metabolic state these days and I am enjoying the benefits.

Before I wrap this up, there are a few interesting observations that I would like to draw your attention to.

  • Both tests were completed in a fasted state.
  • Sugar burning in graph one started at around 45 grams/hour and went up from there. In graph 2, sugar burning stayed low in the beginning and only reached 45 grams/hour at around the 10-minute mark.
  • Fat burning reached a peak of 34 grams/hour about 2-minutes into the test in graph 1, before gradually declining over the remainder of the test.
  • In graph 2, the fat burning peak reached just below 60 grams/hour at about the 9-minute mark and was sustained at close to that level until the 13-minute mark.
  • The crossover point (where the body goes from burning primarily fat to primarily sugar) was not really evident in graph 1 because sugar usage was so high. It was reached at the 12-minute mark in graph 2.

In Closing

As you can see, that’s a significant change in metabolic function.

Here are some of the effects this change has had on me:

  • I can sustain a consistent body weight with little to no exercise.
  • I have more energy.
  • I suffer significantly fewer colds and flu.
  • My food cravings have changed significantly.
  • I don’t get hungry.

Start today. Lower the amounts of processed carbs you are eating and see what happens.

Just be aware that sugar is highly addictive and coming off it can have some side effects.

Don’t be surprised if you feel pretty rotten for the first couple of weeks. Don’t be deterred, you’ll bounce out the other side and will feel much better as a result.

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.