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Friday, October 5, 2012

High Carb vs. High Fat

Earlier this summer I heard that bacon is the number one food that causes vegetarians to break out of their diet. I am not sure if this is statistically true or not, but it certainly got me thinking about bacon.

Mainstream health shakes its finger at bacon, saying it's the reason people are gaining weight, cholesterol is rising, and heart problems plague an increasing number of people. How could a food in its natural state (bacon, being a single-ingredient food item found in nature) be so bad for our health? In my opinion, it isn't. I am by no means a doctor or dietitian, but I can offer some personal experience that might be intriguing to those of you who also wonder why a society that trumpets a high-carbohydrate diet in the form of whole grains, fruits, and veggies would have such a rise in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

At this time last year, my diet could have been described as high carbohydrate, low fat, and moderate protein. When I got my health assessment in Fall 2011, there was no cause for alarm. I was considered in great shape by all medical definitions (see results of blood work done in September 2011 below). However, I wanted more. I had just come off what I considered a pretty heavy racing block of three 50-milers in nine weeks. I wasn’t feeling exhausted or burnt out, but I couldn’t help but think that there was a way to speed up recovery. It was then that I decided to try switching up my diet. After speaking in detail with Peter Defty about the effectiveness of Vespa, he told me that its effects, which I already believed in, would be more prominent if I supplemented it with a high fat diet. This was a bit of shock at first. I had to wrap my head around a total overhaul of what I had been eating the past few years. Nevertheless, I love experimenting, so I thought I would give it a try.

I shifted gradually, but ultimately I settled on a diet that is rich in fat (a minimum of half my caloric intake). It can simply be described as high fat, low carbohydrate, and moderate protein. Moreover, most of my carbohydrates are consumed during or around workouts. The majority of them come from non-starchy vegetables. I do not eat a lot of fruit, but when I’m looking for a quickly digestible carb source, I usually turn to fruit or starchy carbs like potatoes or sweet potatoes.

The most interesting thing of all is the type of fat I consume. I aim to consume half of my fats from saturated sources (butter, meat, cheeses, yogurts, coconut oil, milk, etc.). When I tell people this, they often ask about my cholesterol levels or make comments about high blood pressure and heart attacks. The problem with this assumption is that they don’t take into consideration that I am not mixing these saturated fats with excessive amounts of carbohydrates. My body is using the saturated fat to feed my brain and heart—not to curtail their functions.

As the results seen below clearly demonstrate, my overall health in terms of cholesterol has improved with a switch from a high-carbohydrate to a high-fat diet. My overall cholesterol increased, but you have to look at why: My HDL (good cholesterol) went up from 53 mg/dl to 81 mg/dl. My LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) went from 96 mg/dl to N/A. I asked the nurse why she wrote N/A for my LDL and she said it was because it was so low the machine didn’t register a number. In terms of cholesterol, the high fat diet has improved my health.

Health Assessment Results 2011

Health Assessment Results 2012


  1. Zach, that is awesome. I have always felt there was a benefit to drinking whole or raw milk. What has happened to your body fat % over the year? What are your sources for protein?

    1. My body fat percentage has always been around 5 so it didn't really change much. That is more so due to the pure amount of activity. I have noticed much less inflammation, water retention, and bloating. The high carb diet caused all those aformentioned issues from time to time. My protein sources come mainly from meat, dairy, and nuts.

    2. How do you vary your fat/carb intake the week and day before a race? Would beans be too low in fat as a protein source? Great discussion.

  2. I've enjoyed following your blog for awhile. We'll I only consider myself a recreational runner I've had pretty much the exact opposite results over the last year. Last fall I was mostly following a high fat paleo diet and I kept getting sick. So for the month of February I decided to try eating, high carb, low fat, raw vegan. Basically tons of fruit and some veggies. After a couple of weeks I felt amazing, and soon was having my best races. Anyway you still beat me by 3 hours at Ice Age so I can't argue with your results.
    On days when I run twice I eat nothing but fruit and usually feel like I've recovered by that evening. I've started eating cooked food(rice, etc.) but still kept it vegan.
    As far as heart issues I personally know 2 ultra marathoners that have had heart attacks in the last year(scary stuff). I truly believe that only reason heart disease is so rampant in this country is due to our consumption of animal fats. You should do some research and check out what Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn did with his patients. The people that stuck with his plan reversed there heart disease. Your cholesterol is probably great because you run so much, but that doesn't mean you still aren't having atherosclerosis. That may take awhile before you start seeing any affects of that. I'm curious if you continue to eat high fat in the off season, or do you even have an "off" season?

    1. Hi Marcus! Thanks for the comment. I think the idea here is that my cholesterol didn't remain the same because of my high level of activity. It actually improved. My activity level remained the same. The large jump in good cholesterol can only be linked to my diet as that is all I changed.

      Atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries actually is more so linked to high levels of uncontrolled stress (excersice induced heart attack). If my arteries are hardening I don't personally believe it is from animal fats, or any fats for that matter. Some excellent doctors who are NOT being funded by outside sources (Jeff Volek, Steven Phinney, Peter Attia) have all pretty much debunked the "animal fat" myth. Also, not a doctor but extremely credible source, Gary Taubes has dispelled much of the, "fat is the enemy" argument.

      With that said, I do believe people are individuals, and no one diet or health plan is universal. Maybe for you this just isn't the best protocol. However, I must say my diet is definitely not paleo (too much protein). I would be curious if you would have different results if you tried high fat, low carb, moderate protein. One must also remember that changing to high fat has a transision phase while your body becomes fat adapted (learns to use fat as main fuel source). I just have seen marked results from the high fat diet in myself and many others. At the end of the day I recovered from Mad City 50k, Ice Age 50 Mi, and WS100 in a matter of days and was running at full throttle in less then a week. This is something I couldn't have physcially expected while eating high carbohydrate. Thank you so much for following the blog! I hope you post more comments in the future!

    2. It's awesome that a top level athlete responds to these kinds of questions! :) I do think everybody needs to get on a similar page to at least start eating real foods.
      It seems the more I learn about nutrition the more confusing it gets haha. There seems to be a lot of science pointing in every direction. I'll definitely research some of those Doctors.
      I think you may have a very valid point as to that I was getting way too much protein on Paleo. I basically shot a couple of deer and some antelope and was living off mostly that (and uncured bacon for extra fat and calories) in the fall. Well I felt like I had lots of endurance, I never felt like I could move very fast without crashing.
      So I figured I'd try the Michael Arnstein approach since it was basically the complete opposite.
      Do you think that the source of carbohydrates has anything to do with high carbohydrate diets not working?
      I seem to do much better eating tons of fruit as opposed to when I was eating a more traditional diet of lots of wheat, pasta, grains and such. Certain grains and refined sugars seem to cause inflammation and other issues.
      Also just out of curiosity do you take any other supplements to aid with recovery and such?

    3. I've done a lot of trial and error with my running in the past, so I love to help out when I can :) I do think the carb source is huge! For example, wheat and gluten are horrible (especially gluten). Wheat in its pure form is not as bad but we have changed it so much in the past 100 years that it is extremely tough to actually digest efficiently (check into the book called Wheat Belly if this intrigues you).

      If you are curious about the high fat facts check out the Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, by Volek and Phinney (met these guys at WS100 they are great). Also, if you want to see the flaws in the anti-fat argument check out Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes.

      Back to carbs :) I don't want people to think I eat no carbs. I do eat them I just do it strategically (before, during, or right after a workout). This might help with your "sluggish" feeling. I know when I dip completely into ketosis for recovery purposes after a big race I notice I don't have a top gear. Howver, doing this makes me extremely insulin sensitive because my insulin receptors are not constantly being flooded with glucose. When I do take a gel, or a peice of fruit I feel like I just got shot out of a canon. High fat makes carbs your friend again.

      The issues that I see happening is heavy mixing of carbs and fat. When I am not going to burn them at a super high rate immediatley I stick to high fat sources of foods. This is also when you might see some of the ill effects from the fat (if the carb is being restored as fat because of over consumption of it).

      I totally agree with the whole food appoach. I try to follow a philosophy of, "if man made it don't eat it" (Dean Karnazes). I don't follow this rigidily but feel it is a good place to start to make sure I'm not constantly taking in a bunch of nasty additives. It makes it a little harder when picking out brands of diary and some meat sources, but usually I can find something with minimal intrusion by man. Hope this helps!

    4. I think that it would be interesting to see some research on how Vespa effects cholesterol metabolism and oxidation in the body. Since Vespa, isn't well established as a medical supplement we might find some interesting things...who knows, maybe someday Vespa will be used as treatment for people with cholesterol problems...

      Zach, I enjoy your holistic approach to your sport. I look forward to reading more about your experiments and the philosophies you develop.

    5. Thanks Mitchell! I know I love how Vespa has helped with recovery, and mental focus. It would be neat to see some general health studies done with it.

  3. Good stuff. I spoke with Defty last night and he pointed out this blog post. I am almost converted and things are changing in noticeable ways. I found it hard to figure out what to eat at first, but I latched on to a few staples that get me by: elk steak fried in butter, eggs, sardines, salmon, avocados, olive and coconut oils. The 2 keys seem to be:
    1. Broth: Boil a chicken in a pot (or just skin/bones). Add mineralized salt. Drink it whenever you feel like eating junky carbs. You will be full and happy.
    2. Elk liver. In September, when I told Defty I had just arrowed an elk, the first thing he said was, "Did you get the liver?" I had no idea how important this would be. Instant recovery. I don't care for the taste that much, but the effect is incredible and I gobble it down. My next hundo is in 8 days and I will eat liver at least twice more before the race. Try some grass-fed cattle liver if you don't have game.
    3. Bulletproof Coffee/Tea: Add 1 TBS butter AND 1 TBS coconut oil to your coffee or tea with cinnamon. Money! I'm drinking mine as I write this.

    1. Right on! I am a chronic self experimenter (for better or worse). I have been my whole life. Being that running is such a joy to me I have always tinkered around with nutrition. I remember last year when I reached out to Peter about Vespa. I was totally unfamiliar with the diet aspect of it, but now it's the best thing I've done!

      I eat a lot of the same things you mentioned. The bone broth and liver are huge for feeling good and recovery. I've actually done the coffee mixture too! Butter by accident. I melted butter in a glass cup one night and used it for tea afterwords. Was amazed at how delicious it was.

      Liver reciepe: Fry some bacon (2-4 strips), fry liver in bacon grease, fry onions and cabbage in left over grease (add a little butter if grease too low), table spoon of sour creame, add turmeric, sea salt, and a little bit of bone broth. I challenge anyone who hates liver to try it and reassess their view on the taste of liver :)

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  6. I was a bit puzzled by the pictures that you posted of your test results, so I looked up the total cholesterol formula.

    Total cholesterol is the sum of LDL, HDL, and 20% of the triglyceride number.

    If you do the math on your original test (LDL = 96, HDL = 53, triglycerides = 61), you get 96 + 53 + 0.2*(61) = 161.2, which checks out on the sheet.

    If we assume that all of the numbers that are on the second test result sheet are correct (and just taking the triglycerides to be 45, as this would minimize the LDL number required to give you the stated total cholesterol, thus giving you maximum benefit of the doubt), a little bit of basic algebra implies that LDL = 179 - (81 + 0.2*45) = 89. If your triglycerides were 0, then your LDL could have been as high as 98. (But since we don't know the triglyceride number exactly, any LDL between 89 and 98 would be possible with the numbers that we do know.)

    So it's not clear that this diet significantly reduced your LDL, if it did at all. If somehow your triglycerides were 10 or less, then your LDL would have actually increased slightly.

    It seems more plausible that instead of the LDL being so low that the machine didn't register it, there was a machine error that caused the LDL not to be recorded. And that suggests that the second test results may not be valid anyway, and that you should probably be re-tested using more reliable, accurate test equipment.

    Anyway, if your diet works for you, that's great. But I think that posting these test results as evidence of its effects could be misleading to a lot of people, who might simply assume that the apparent conclusion (that you're doing well because of your diet) is correct from the outset, and accept anything that is presented as evidence of this hypothesis without stopping to think whether or not it passes the "common sense" test.

    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for commenting and visiting my blog. The Friedewald Equation is the standard way LDL is measured, however, it is a best-guess estimate. This is the method you are citing as it is the commonest and cheapest way to go.
      However, there is a growing awareness of the severe limitations in using the Freidewald Equation. My blood samples were run using an ultra-centrifuge method to determine LDL.....this method could have very well come up N/ is not that I don't have any LDL particles just not a significant amount. I was in a fasted state when the blood was drawn, and being well fat-adapted this could very well have been the case. In short, I was fasted, fat adapated, and had recently worked out, so likely during this time the LDL's were being metabolized by the cells as fast as the liver was spitting them out.

      I remember when the nurse was entering the numbers onto the sheet in which I scanned and uploaded onto this blog. When she wrote N/A for my LDLs she told me that when a patient has LDLs BELOW A CERTAIN NUMBER they are required to enter N/A on the form. This would rule out my LDLs being higher than the year before. If that were the case they would have recorded the number not put N/A. The organization that did the blood draw was the same organization, and same nurse in fact, that did the blood draw the year before. This wasn't some basement experiment I ran on myself. Granted, I did not record my conversation with the nurse, so you can chose to accuse me of being dishonest, but that is your choice. Just like it is my choice to write a blog outlining my training, racing, and diet as it evolves over time.

      I don't think people are reading this blog and saying to themselves that they need to do exactly what I am. I think they are reading it and taking note that my diet resulted in some positive results for me. These include less inflammation, much better sleep, consistent energy throughout the day and quicker recovery. It's up to everyone else to do their homework and find what works for them. After all, the human body is not a math equation. It is biological organism and we are all unique and the same thing does not apply to everyone.