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Welcome to Part 2 of the calorie counting chapter from Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life. If you missed Part 1, in which you learn the 5 best ways to track your diet, 4 steps to logging your diet the right way and whether it’s OK to be hungry, just click here.
Today, you’re going to learn 3 reasons why calories don’t really matter, and find out how much carbohydrates, proteins and fats you should need to stay lean, stay sexy and perform like a beast – and also get a sample week of eating to support ideal levels of performance, endurance and exercise.
3 Reasons Why Calories Don’t Really Matter
Earlier, you learned how to count your calories and log your diet the right way. But it’s important to realize that it’s the nutrient density and quality of your food that truly matters – not the calorie content.
But wait – a calorie is a calorie, right?
In the most recent such study to date, two groups were compared (26). One group ate slow sugar release, low glycemic index foods (think raw nuts or beef jerky) and another group ate faster release, high glycemic index foods (think white rice or wheat bread).
But both groups ate identical amounts of calories.
Researchers then monitored blood sugar levels and appetite of the subjects, and found that those consuming the high glycemic index foods had a blood sugar level crash just a few hours after eating, and were hungrier sooner compared to the group that ate the slower release foods. In other words, an identical amount of calories consumed from a sweeter food triggered food addiction symptoms and appetite cravings.
Entire books have been written on the subject of why calories matter much less than we think. A good place to begin is Gary Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories“.
But just in case you don’t have time to read an entire book on why calories don’t matter, I’ll give you 3 quick reasons why your primary focus should not be on counting calories:
Calories technically don’t even exist. A calorie is just a unit of measurement used to describe the amount of heat produced when a nutrient is burned in a metal oven called a calorimeter. And your body is much, much different than a simple metal oven. The process of burning fat or turning nutrients into energy or stored matter is way more complex than counting fictitious calories – and as you’ve learned from the study above, something as simple as a slight speed of sugar release difference results can result in massively different hormonal and metabolic reactions to a food.
2. Calories Aren’t Our Fuel For Exercise.
Human motion is not fueled by calories. It’s fueled by the nutrient derived chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The problem with simple reliance on counting calories – besides the non-existence of a calorie – is that this somehow makes us believe that our bodies are using exactly what we ate before the workout for fuel. In reality, your own storage fat provides the most concentrated source of energy – and there are athletes out there (find them on sites like RunKeto.com or Jack Kruse’s forum) who are exercising at a steady state for entire days with zero actual calorie intake. Their body is simply produced it’s own ATP from fat.
3. Nutrients Are What Really Matter.
In reality, nutrients matter far more than calories, and nowhere is this more true than in exercising individuals. When the focus is on calories, everything becomes about the numbers rather than the nutrition – and you can easily end up missing key vitamins and minerals.
For example, a highly processed (but relatively nutrient empty) Tacquitos snack pack advertised as just 100 calories seems like a real deal if you’re counting calories. But in choosing the snack pack, you might pass on a calorically equivalent large apple that rings in at roughly the same amount of calories. Compared to the Tacquitos, the apple delivers Vitamin C, folate, fiber, potassium, Vitamin B6, thiamin, and riboflavin.
So the apple beats the Tacquitos. And incidentally, 100 calories of wild salmon beats the apple. And (although you may not like to hear this), 100 calories of organic, grass-fed liver beats the wild salmon.
Go back and read Chapter 11. That’s where you’ll find nutrient dense foods that allow you to quit counting calories.
Where To Start
Great Ben, I’ve got a bunch of nutrient dense meals now.
I’m following the rules.
I’m not incessantly counting calories.
I’m paying attention to the way I look, feel and perform more than scales and numbers.
I’m paying more attention to nutrients than calories.
But how do I know how many carbohydrates, proteins and fats I should actually be eating to fuel my active lifestyle, without destroying my body in the process?
I’ve got news for you: definitely don’t start with the typical food pyramid.
Since 1974, when the first food pyramid was appeared in Sweden, triangular or pyramid-shaped nutrition guides have been used by 25 other countries and organizations. There is a great graphic on Huffington Post that depicts some of the more popular food pyramids from around the world, and although America now uses the new MyPlate design (see http://www.choosemyplate.gov/) many countries around the world still use a food pyramid to dole out nutrition advice.
In 2011, the USDA Food Pyramid (pictured right) was with replaced with MyPlate, which is very similar to the old food pyramid in terms of nutrient percentages.
Interestingly, a consistent pattern in food pyramids around the globe, from China’s Food Pagoda to Greece’s Food Pyramid, is the appearance of cereals, grains, bread, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates as the base of the diet – and fats near the top of the pyramid, as a “use sparingly” category.
But this type of pyramid can lead to some serious health problems. After all, dietary fat from healthy sources has been shown in many studies to actually help to increase weight loss, reduce heart disease risk, lower blood sugars, lower cholesterols and maintain proper brain function (especially in kids)(34).
And if you listened to the interview on my website with Dr. William Davis, “The Shocking Truth About Wheat”, or my interview with Paul Jaminet about his Perfect Health Diet, you learned that consumption of carbohydrates can cause serious issues with everything from weight gain to fuzzy thinking to heart disease.
But the issues don’t stop with the predominantly “high carb, low fat” recommendations of most food pyramids. Frequent consumption of featured and recommended foods such as commercialized modern whole milk and hamburger has been linked to heart disease…
…dairy is extremely overemphasized – although calcium is important, many vegetable and meat sources contain plenty of calcium with a lower number of calories….
…there is no differentiation between “good proteins” and “bad proteins”, “good carbs” and “bad carbs” or “good fats” and “bad fats”…
…and the minimum serving of fruits is 2-4, which is a great way to send your blood sugar levels on a roller coaster ride all day long if you’re not careful.
Furthermore, at least when it comes to the American food recommendations, we’ve barely scratched the surface of how food and agricultural institutions can exert lobbying and political power on the USDA to feature and prioritize subsidized industries such as dairy, corn and wheat as heavily featured or highlighted recommendations (a great book to read more about these shenanigans is “Food Politics“).
So what should a good food pyramid actually look like for an athlete?
Although I have yet to be convinced that a food pyramid is the best, most functional way to dynamically depict dietary recommendations, a couple years ago I acted on hundreds of requests from readers and listeners and created a “Ben Greenfield Endorsed” food pyramid that is rich in the best nutrient dense foods that support an active lifestyle
I call this design the Superhuman Food Pyramid, and this new food pyramid address all the issues above, ties in my personal nutritional philosophies that I’ve expressed many times in blog posts and podcasts, and also gives you a spectrum of choices from “Eat” to “Moderate” to “Avoid” for each food group, so that you don’t have to deal, for example, with “Fats” lumped into just one category, or “Proteins” just lumped into another category.
To make it easier to practically apply my Superhuman Food Pyramid to your diet, I’ve also included in the pyramid several pages listing each food category and the Eat, Moderate, and Avoid foods within that category, so you can simply print, grab and go to the grocery store or farmer’s market with your Superhuman Food list (the print version of this book will include that same grocery list for you).
How Many Carbohydrates Should An Active Person Eat?
Now that you’re equipped with a list of meals, a good way to choose which foods are nutrient dense, and a handy grocery shopping list from the Superhuman Food Pyramid, it’s time to dig into how many carbohydrates you should actually eat.
After all, isn’t the answer to the “how much carbohydrate” question the holy grail of proper athlete fueling?
First, I’ll readily admit it: I’m known as the “low carb, high intensity” guy. Based on what you’ve learned so far in this book, there are probably no surprises there – train hard, eat healthy, don’t stuff your face with too much sugar.
After living on a high carbohydrate junk food diet and then switching to the high-protein, low-fat, low-carb diet you read about in Chapter 1, I’ve put myself through months of the Paleo diet, a vegan diet, an Atkins diet, and even a ketogenic diet, and the one prevailing characteristic that defines how good or how bad I feel is the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates present in any variation of diets I’ve tried.
My own personal experience with a low carbohydrate diet began with an attempt to lose holiday fat pounds, followed by the stark realization that contrary to my expectations and what I had been taught in traditional sports nutrition classes, my performance, focus and energy levels actually improved despite a lower carbohydrate intake. That was when I personally started digging into this stuff.
Turns out, it’s not just me.
Every month, I gaze at dozens of lab results from clients and athletes who I consult, and the same pattern pops up over and over again – the higher the sugar and starch intake, the higher the blood triglycerides, the greater the inflammation, the worse the sleep, the most difficulty controlling body fat levels, and so on. Once the relatively nutrient-void carbohydrate sources such as energy bars, whole wheat bread, granola, cereal, meusli and pasta are replaced with more nutrient-dense and healthy fats, proteins and vegetables, then biomarkers and performance begin to take a turn for the good quickly. Of course, there are other nutrient void foods that we also cut, like vegetable oils, egg whites, industrialized beef and chicken and commercial dairy – but, especially for athletes, the carbohydrates are the biggie.
This is because what I’ve discovered, and what you’re about to learn, is that maintaining high blood sugar and constantly “topping off” storage carbohydrate levels to fuel your body for optimum performance may not actually be worth the health trade-off especially if you can get the same results by eating lower amounts of starches and sugars. There are proven health and longevity advantages of controlling high blood sugar, and I don’t know about you, but if I can get those advantages and still maintain performance – I’m all in.
To illustrate these advantages, I scanned and pasted here a compelling image from Life Extension Magazine (I don’t know about you, but I want to be around to see my grandkids, and considering my 23andme.com genetic testing has revealed higher risk for Type II Diabetes, I doubt that shoving any more gooey gels and sugar sports drinks into my gaping maw is going to do me any favors).
But (shocker!), despite the information above, I still do not recommend a low carbohydrate diet for everyone, and I usually do not recommend it blindly for:
1. Athletes in the heat of competition, such as during an Ironman triathlon, need a higher carbohydrate intake than they would on a typical easy training day. Duh. If you’re going to go destroy yourself for 9-17 hours, you may need some added glucose on board. Interestingly, research suggests this may be more due to a need to stave of neural fatigue then a direct carbohydrate need for the actual muscles (19). But more on that in the upcoming chapter on a healthy race day nutrition plan. For now, just realize that sometimes you need some extra carbohydrates if you’re going deep into the pain cave.
2. Athletes going through an extremely heavy block of training that is a higher load to which they are accustomed, such as a triathlon camp that involves 25-40 hours of training per week. In this case, you usually also need a higher carbohydrate intake. I’m not saying this volume of training and carbohydrate intake is not healthy, but in some cases, it can a necessary sacrifice for injecting large doses of endurance into the body. In other words, if you’re going to go put a crap-ton of unnaturally heavy work into your body, at least eat some sweet potato fries or an extra helping of white rice, for cryin’ out loud.
3. Individuals with diseases or conditions that disable the ability to properly metabolize fats and proteins. For example, if you’ve had your gallbladder removed, a high fat diet full of Kerrygold butter, coconut oil and bacon may not sit so pretty in your gut.
However, if you’re the average athlete putting in an average amount of training (e.g. following the Ancestral Athlete rules you learned about earlier), you need far fewer carbohydrates than the amount that is widely recommended. There are three primary reasons for this.
1. Eating fewer carbohydrates can help you get lean or stay lean.
A key component of weight loss is tapping into storage fat (adipose tissue) for energy. This fat access simply cannot happen if the body is constantly drawing on carbohydrate reserves and blood glucose for energy (20). In a moderate to high carbohydrate diet, not only does the utilization of fat for energy become far less crucial, but the body never becomes ideally efficient at using fat.
There is a growing body of evidence that a high fat, low carbohydrate diet causes faster and more permanent weight loss than a low fat diet. Furthermore, appetite satiety and dietary satisfaction are significantly improved with a high fat, low carbohydrate diet that includes moderate protein intake.
2. Eating fewer carbohydrates can increase health and lifespan.
When glucose is used to create energy, a high number of free radicals are produced. Free radicals are dangerous molecules that can damage normal cellular processes (9). The burning of fat for energy does not create this same cellular damage. In an athlete who is already creating a high number of damaging free radicals from exercise, further damage from high blood glucose levels becomes a nasty one-two combo.
In addition, the constantly elevated levels of circulating blood sugars that can be caused by a moderate to high carbohydrate diet are associated with nerve damage, small dense cholesterol particles (the culprits for heart disease), high morbidity, bacterial infection, cancer progression and Alzheimer’s.
As you will learn later in this chapter, simply getting these your energy levels from non-blood glucose based energy sources can directly improve your quality of life, and allow you to ensure that you live longer and healthier.
3. Eating fewer carbohydrates can increase energy stability and eliminate gastrointestinal distress while training or racing.
Because of genetic predispositions, some athletes are much more sensitive to the fluctuations in blood sugar caused by carbohydrate intake (13). Often, the result of this sensitivity is a short-lived initial increase in energy levels after consumption of a sports bar, sports drink, gel or other carbohydrate source, following by a sharp and drastic drop in energy levels. But the calories from fats and proteins are utilized at a far more stable rate than carbohydrate sugar, resulting in more stabilized energy levels.
In addition, uncomfortable amounts of gas and bloating in athletes can be due to the high rate of bacterial activity caused by carbohydrate fermentation in the digestive tract. Many athletes experience an even greater degree of gastrointestinal distress from food allergies or intolerances to common carbohydrate sources, particularly wheat.
But Wait! Don’t I Need Carbohydrates to Fuel Endurance?
Ah…the million dollar question.
Here’s the thing.
If you eat mostly carbs, your body will run on mostly carbs.
If you eat mostly fat, your body will run on mostly fat.
But despite this very cool ability to change the fuel you burn depending on what you eat, carbohydrates are consistently the darling of most modern sports nutrition advice. The standard recommendation to athletes engaging in regular training and racing, especially in endurance sports or extremely physical demanding exercise, is to consume a daily diet of 7-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight for optimal performance and during prolonged activity to consume large amounts of sugary drinks, gels and bars to keep blood glucose elevated. And many carbohydrate loading protocols call for up to 85% carbohydrate intake in those last few days leading up to a big workout or event. Talk about keeping cereal companies in business!
In other words, the holy grail seems to be to protect carbohydrate stores at all times. These recommendations can be readily found on sites such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (no surprises that the latter would steadfastly promote high carbohydrate consumption, preferably in neon colored solutions).
The general argument for carbohydrate consumption goes something like this:
-Fatigue during training and racing is thought to coincide with the carbohydrate fuel tank approaching empty (the infamous bonk, as is humorously demonstrated in the best cartoon I’ve ever seen on running).
-Because it is thought that you can’t burn fat as a primary fuel at training and racing intensities, all focus is on looking for ways to increase the size of the carbohydrate fuel tank (despite even the leanest of athletes having tens of thousands of calories of readily accessible storage fat).
-This entire process is partially driven by the inexpensiveness of carbohydrate sources, government subsidization of grains and carbs, and a mistaken belief that eating high amount so fat, no matter how healthy, may have deleterious health effects.
So based on this advice, you roll out of bed and glance at your watch. You’ve got a 12 mile run or some other big workout on-tap for the day, and limited time to get it in. Do you lace up and head out without grabbing a banana, bagel or handful of sports gels, or…
…do you make sure you have some valuable sugar to consume before and during the effort, so you don’t “bonk”?
If you’re a good little athlete who heeds popular nutrition advice, you probably raised your hand and said “Eat!”.
Now don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no argument against the fact that high-carbohydrate intake before an endurance exercise session can postpone fatigue and improve performance. So it’s no surprise that the “gold-standard” recommendation from most sports nutritionists is to consume a diet that provides high carbohydrate availability before and during exercise.
But when it comes to finding the ideal combination of both performance and health, I have another question for you: how superior is a high-carbohydrate intake to the polar opposite – a high-fat, low-carbohydrate intake?
Turns out, this stuff has been looked at scientifically.
-A study in the 2010 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Journal suggested the answer to this question when it coined the term “train low, compete high” in response to results that showed untrained individuals achieving better training adaptations and aerobic capacity after 10 weeks of training with low carbohydrate availability, compared to subjects who had high carbohydrate intake before and during exercise (21).
-Another study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that trained individuals who performed twice a day training sessions without eating for 2 hours after the first session (thus depleting carbohydrate stores with the first session) experienced a better ability to store carbohydrate, use carbohydrate as energy, and burn fat – with no loss in performance compared to a group that only trained once per day and ate carbohydrates afterwards.
-Yet another follow-up study in trained cyclists performed high intensity interval training with no carbohydrate intake showed improved fat utilization and an increase in the enzymes involved in energy metabolism, again, with no loss of performance.
-Additional research shows that when carbohydrate stores are depleted by almost 50%, there is evidence that there is actually increased stimulus for enhanced enzyme activity in skeletal muscle, which is a good thing, since it means you can more efficiently produce energy from fuel.
I could fill an entire book. Literally. I actually have written the book “Low Carbohydrate Diet For Athletes” – which was not just written for triathletes, but for any person who leads an extremely active lifestyle and wants to dig into the science, value and practical hands-on application of a low carbohydrate diet.
You can also read:
1. Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney’s book “Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance“.
2. An really good article by a Norwegian exercise scientist entitled “High Fat Diets & Endurance Exercise Performance“.
3. An excellent series of articles at ThatPaleoGuy entitled “High Fat Diet For Cyclists” (don’t worry, it’s applicable to more than just cyclists).
Those latter two resources really dig quite thoroughly into how your fitness is enhanced when you train with low levels of storage carbohydrate or low levels of carbohydrate intake during the exercise session. And because I just can’t hold back from giving you just a little extra lower carbohydrate ammo, here’s the cliff notes for you:
-In trained individuals, a large amount of fat oxidation takes place at intensities well above 80% VO2max – giving an athlete the ability to get up to even very higher intensity efforts without having drained their carbohydrate stores getting up to that point, and also allowing athletes engaging in steady stage exercise (e.g. Ironman triathlon) to be able to tap into fat fuel stores even when going at a relatively fast pace. This also means that you have more carbohydrate stores available when you really need to access them, such as for an all-out effort.
-There have been incredible gains demonstrated in metabolic efficiency and economy when using fat as a primary source of fuel and also doing high intensity interval training, with this one-two combo causing potent decreases in the oxygen cost of cycling of up to 3-5%, which is extremely significant. Translated into real world numbers, this increased fat utilization from carbohydrate restriction and high intensity interval training would allow you to pedal a bicycle at your lactic acid threshold at 315 watts, versus a high carbohydrate-based, aerobic-only program (e.g. the way most people train) would only allow for 300 watts. And 15 watts is huge in a sport like cycling.
-A high fat diet trains your body to burn even more fat during exercise, even at high intensities. Fat gets released faster and in greater amounts from your storage adipose tissue, and transported more quickly into your muscles and the mitochondria. In a fat adapted individual, the muscles also store more energy as fat and use this fat-based fuel more efficiently and quickly. Even more interestingly, a high fat diet can cause a shift in the gene expression that code for specific proteins which increase fat metabolism and cause very similar adaptions to exercise itself. So the mere act of shifting primary fuel intake from carbohydrates to fat begins to make you more “fit” even in the absence of exercise.
-Most studies that compare carbohydrate utilization to fat utilization fail to take into account the fact that full adaptation to gaining all the benefits of using fat as a fuel takes time – often more than 4 weeks. And since most studies comparing fat and carbohydrate utilization are short term studies, we rarely see the benefits of fat adaptation fleshed out in research – and exercise intensity/fat oxidation graphs such as the one below only rely upon data from athletes eating a typical high carbohydrate diet.
And guess what else? This one shocked me when I first realized it, but eating fewer carbohydrates during a workout can actually help you recover faster.
How is it that reducing carbohydrate availability during exercise might actually increase the fitness-boosting effectiveness of the actual exercise session?
Without delving too deeply into the nitty-gritty science, it all comes down to the fact that the repair and recovery of skeletal muscle tissue is dependent on the “transcription” of certain components of your RNA. And a bout of endurance exercise combined with low muscle carbohydrate stores can result in greater activation of this transcription. In other words, by training in a low-carbohydrate state, you train your body to recover faster.
So sorry, Wheaties, but it’s true: you don’t actually have to be a carbaholic to be a good athlete.
Despite the handy sports gel chamber enhanced water bottles on those fancy new bikes, and the tray for your sports gels on the gym’s treadmill, as long as the training session is not performed in a carbohydrate depleted state, and does not exceed about 2 hours, there is zero evidence to show that avoiding carbohydrate during the session will reduce performance, and there is research that actually shows quite the contrary – no loss of performance!
Whether these benefits are due to decreased carbohydrate utilization or increased fat utilization is unclear, but there are obvious benefits to going low carbohydrate before and during training. And if it isn’t going to hurt your performance but is going to increase your quality of life, why not eat fewer carbohydrates?
So let’s sum things up:
If you moderately restrict carbohydrates before, during or after training you may:
1. Increase activity of the biological mechanisms responsible for building and repairing lean muscle tissue.
2. Increase your ability to preserve and ration valuable carbohydrate stores.
3. Increase your fat utilization during exercise.
4. Increase the activity of the enzymes responsible for metabolizing carbohydrates during high intensity exercise, such as racing.
5. Increase your ability to recover fast.
6. Increase your health and your lifespan.
In just a moment, we’re going to dig into some of the common objections you may get from your pasta-pushing, Gatorade-guzzling friends when they find out you’re eating fewer carbohydrates, but first please allow me to emphasize…
...I am not endorsing a zero carbohydrate diet. I am not even encouraging the popular “fewer than 50 grams a day” carbohydrate diet. In most cases, when I say low carbohydrate diet, I’m referring to around 100-200 daily grams of carbohydrate, and I’ll explain in a moment the reason why. There is the one special exception to this rule called ketosis that we’ll get into in the next chapter, but for most active people (and especially for females) please do not go raging into your kitchen and mark an evil poison face on your potatoes unless you want to do some serious metabolic and hormonal damage.
In other words, just because fewer carbohydrates is good, that does not mean trace amounts to none is even better. Read this excellent article “Carbohydrates for Fertility and Health” by my friend Stefani Ruper if you want more details on this.
Once your training partners, family or other friends learn that you’re eating fewer carbohydrates – or once you begin skipping the obligatory pre-event pasta party – you’re guaranteed to hear several objections and see some raised eyebrows. Typically, the criticism of a low carbohydrate diet falls into three categories of questions:
Objection #1: Isn’t glucose and carbohydrate necessary for energy during exercise?
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, directly burning blood glucose for fuel causes a significant amount of free radical damage compared to burning storage carbohydrate, storage fats, or circulating fats in the bloodstream. This type of fuel utilization occurs in the athlete trained to eat a gel every 20 minutes during every single training session, or to constantly have sports drink on the edge of the pool and a bowl of pasta waiting at home to re-fuel after the workout.
While cells can certainly burn glucose for energy, fat is a preferred energy source in nearly every cell, and especially for the mitochondria, which are the energy-creating organelles within most cells. Until extremely high exercise intensities are achieved (rarely the case among endurance athletes) or until the human body has exercised for 2-3 hours continuously, fat is completely useable as an energy source. Specifically, natural saturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and medium chain triglycerides are extremely dense energy sources that produce very little damaging byproducts from their metabolic use for energy.
The specific parts of the body that do need glucose on daily basis are the brain, the nerves, special proteins called “glycoproteins” (which form compounds such as mucus), and cells within the immune system, the gastrointestinal tract and the kidneys. But the total daily amount of glucose calories required by these parts of the body is about 500-700 carbohydrate calories, and not the 1500-2000 carbohydrate calories consumed by most athletes.
Objection #2: Isn’t fat dangerous for cholesterol-related heart disease, as well as increased risk of weight gain?
No! Not only does a high fat, low carbohydrate diet perform better for weight loss compared to a low fat, high carbohydrate diet, but there is no evidence that the cholesterol particles derived from fat increase risk of heart disease – unless fat consumption is paired with a moderate to high intake of starchy, sugary carbohydrate sources. It is at that point that cholesterol can become oxidized and lead to risk of heart disease.
The entire idea that high cholesterol causes heart disease is a flawed hypothesis, and entire books have been written on it. A very good place to start your journey into learning about the positive and healthy properties of fats would be the website http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/ (which is in no manner affiliated with this book – it is simply a helpful resource).
Objection #3: Don’t you need to load with carbohydrate before a race?
We’ll dig into this a little more in the chapter on racing, but once you begin eating a low carbohydrate diet, your body will, within about 10-14 days, begin to become more efficient at burning fat. Although it takes 1-2 years to fully adapt to a low carbohydrate diet to the extent that you will be a fat burning machine who can go out and ride a bicycle for hours on end with zero fuel (listen to my “How To Live Like A Polar Bear And Eat Like A Great White Shark” podcast episode with Jack Kruse to learn why), you get basic fat adaptations more quickly than that. This means that you will need relatively fewer carbohydrates during race week or the day before a race, since your body develops an enhanced ability to conserve storage carbohydrate and also an increased ability to utilize fat as a fuel, both during rest and on race day.
What this means is that an entire week of carbohydrate loading and high sugar intake will not be necessary, and if your goal is weight loss, health, or longevity, may actually end up doing more harm than good. Since I have personally shifted to a lower carbohydrate intake, I have found that the 85-90% carbohydrate diet I was eating during race week is no longer necessary, and actually leaves me sick to my stomach and full of blood sugar roller coaster rides all week long.
The only real nutrition changes that you need to make during race week are A) a slightly more carbohydrate dense breakfast the day before and the morning of the race; B) moderate amounts of healthy starches with dinner, such as sweet potato or white rice and C) carbohydrates during the actual race. This would still be considered “carbohydrate loading”, but not in the common tradition of loading, which typically includes 7-10 days of high carbohydrate intake before an event. The simple fact is that the advice you’ll find in infographics such as the one below are all based on non-fat adapted, high-carb intake athletes. Sure, this loading protocol obviously boost performance – but what are the health implications of 8 cups of cooked pasta and 500ml sports drink for dinner alone?
More Low Carb Resources
Just in case that’s not enough ammo for you to answer common objections coming from others or from own brain, and before I give you some actual carbohydrate, protein and fat ratios, I have even more articles I have written that I just don’t have space to add to this increasingly long chapter.
Knock yourself out…
Give Me Some Numbers, Ben!
Yes, if you’ve been reading closely, you may have noticed that I haven’t actually thrown any exact carbohydrate, protein or fat percentages and ratios at you. Based on the way I feel about incessant counting of calories, and also the fact that these percentages tend to vary widely across daily activity levels, it probably will come as no surprise to you that I do not recommend fretting too much about your macronutrient ratios.
But having a ballpark idea of what is healthy and optimal can be useful. So here we go.
I’ve got a secret for you. When it comes to the ideal ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats for the average human machine, the book has already been written.
The particular book to which I’m referring has been featured on my blog multiple times, particularly in the podcast episode “Is There One Single Diet That Is Best?” and “If You Could Eat Fat All Day, Would You?“.
It’s called “Perfect Health Diet“. Written by an astrophysicist and a molecular biologist, it bridges the gap between a natural ancestral eating approach and actual hard data based on scientific evidence.
In a nutshell, the diet is based on the nutrient-rich foods you’ve already learned about, such as whole eggs, liver and other organ meats, bone broths, seafood, seaweed, dark, green leafy vegetables and fermented foods. It also includes a number of other meats, natural fats, healthy oils, and safe starches such as rice and potato to provide adequate protein and calories for the average person.
And yes, it has actual numbers.
To many people who eat or want to eat low carb, 20% carbs may seem high. And to the person eating the average recommended athlete diet of 55-65% carbohydrate intake, 20% may seem low. But the reason that 20% is used for carbohydrates intake is because of what you’ve already learned about the body’s need for glucose as a structural molecule, a brain and muscle fuel, and an immune booster. So in a 3000 calorie-a-day diet, 600 of those calories, or 150 grams, would come from carbohydrate – and that would be enough to satisfy the body’s basic energy needs (although there are specific instructions in the book about how to implement a very low carb, ketogenic diet safely, and get carbohydrates as low as 50 grams per day).
The reason 65% fat intake is recommended is due to the body’s inherent need for fatty acids as a primary fuel source for the majority of our natural activity levels, and also the need for fatty acids as core structural components of the human body, especially the brain and nervous system. If you care to get into the nitty-gritty, the diet delves into actual percentage recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, saturated fats, monounsatured fats, etc.
Finally, the 15% protein recommendations are based on the idea that the body needs enough amino acids for repair and recovery, but that excessive protein intake can cause ammonia waste from protein metabolism and toxins produced by gut bacteria that ferment protein.
Anyways, that’s just a basic overview. If you want more details, go buy the book (I highly recommend it as a companion to this book). And if you really want to immerse yourself in the diet, check out the 30 day Perfect Health Diet retreats in Austin, Texas – where myself and a bunch of other nutrition experts teach you the Perfect Health Diet and train you on how to tweak the the diet to your specific needs.
But there is the one problem with the Perfect Health Diet. The book wasn’t written by a hard-charging athlete. It was written by the brilliant, yet very mild-mannered astrophysicist Paul Jaminet, and his molecular biologist wife Shou-Ching Jaminet. These are not people who are powerlifting, Crossfitting and doing Ironman triathlons. So there can be some adjustments that need to be made to the diet if you’re exposing your body to extreme levels of physical activity – specifically:
1. Some athletes need more than 15% protein intake on difficult “eccentric” muscle breakdown days, such as a day with hard weight training or running intervals. The same goes for athletes who want to put on lots of muscle quickly.
2. 20% carbohydrate intake sometimes needs to be “cycled” with higher carbohydrate intake of up to 30-40% on longer, higher volume training days, especially if your goal is not ketosis, or 24-7 fat burning, which can have some health risks if you’re not careful.
Once these two variables are taken into account, daily carbohydrate, protein and fat intake tends to fluctuate quite a bit based on the day’s activity levels. So an easy training day might follow the Perfect Health Diet’s 20:65:15 ratio exactly. But a long weekend workout, such as a 100 mile bike ride, may incorporate a slightly higher carbohydrate and protein intake, and a 30:50:20 ratio. A harder day of weight training or running may require more amino acids for repair and recovery, and might be a 20:50:30 ratio. In the sample meal plan at the end of this chapter, you’ll see how the ratios can slightly vary from day to day based on activity levels.
So I’d be lying to you if I gave you an exact percentage of carbohydrates, proteins and fats that is “perfect” for the extremely high and variable activity levels of a very physically active individual. I personally don’t pay much attention to my ratios at all. I just base every meal around fats and oils, add moderate amounts of healthy protein, and pay close attention to not overeat carbs.
Conveniently, any of the 40 easy meals for athletes you’ll find in Chapter 11 will fit well into a Perfect Health Diet model, and there are some great websites that post Perfect Health Diet-compatible recipes, including:
- The Domestic Man.
- Nutty Kitchen.
- Francesca Eats.
- Ancestral Chef.
- Living in the Ice Age.
- 10 Minute Meal.
Finally, if you don’t have time to read the Perfect Health Diet book, you can absorb in well under one hour via the Underground Wellness audio podcast a fascinating interview with the late Dr. Barry Groves, in which Barry delves into ancestral, biblical, mythological and biological reasons to eat something very close to that 65:20:15 ratio. It is well worth a listen and will give you a really fantastic foundational understanding of why humans are so much different than many other animals when it comes to our ideal nutritional ratios.
Now, before we get into a sample week of eating, there’s one more important question to tackle…
Are You Sure I’m Getting Enough Protein?
So you now understand the health importance of limiting carbohydrate intake.
You know how important fat is for human cells, brain and nervous system.
But when it comes to protein for athletes, you simply hear the same mantra over and over again:
“Athletes and exercising individuals need more protein.”
“Protein is crucial for muscle repair and recovery.”
“Eat more lean protein.”
Phrases such as this quite frequently get thrown around in sports and exercise nutrition geek-speak. The problem is that while you certainly do need amino acids from protein for repair and recovery, neurotransmitter formation, avoidance of self-cannibalization, etc., the importance of protein is usually blown way out of proportion.
To determine how much protein you actually should be getting, you need to be familiar with a term called “nitrogen balance”.
Here’s how nitrogen balance works:
Nitrogen enters your body when you consume protein from food or amino acid supplements, and nitrogen exits your body in your urine as ammonia, urea, and uric acid (all the breakdown products of protein) When the amount of protein you eat matches the amount of you use, you’re in nitrogen balance (3).
As you can probably deduce, if you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll be in negative nitrogen balance and quite unlikely to be able to repair muscle after a workout (a “catabolic” state). If you consume too much protein, you’ll be in positive nitrogen balance, and while you’ll definitely have what you need for muscle repair (an “anabolic” state), there can be some health issues that arise when you achieve too positive a state of nitrogen balance. This is because your body gets overfilled with ammonia, urea and uric acid, which have some nasty side-effects we’ll get into that in just a bit (32).
The current US recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (0.8g/kg), and was designed for most people to be in nitrogen balance – without protein deficits or protein excess. While athletes and frequently exercising individuals need more protein than this, you’ll frequently see bodybuilders, football players, weightlifters and other big strength and power athletes taking this to the extreme and consuming far in excess of this protein RDA (in some cases up to 2 grams per pound!)
But studies suggest that even for athletes, there really isn’t much additional benefit of exceeding 0.55 grams per pound of protein (1.2g/kg) if you want to maintain nitrogen balance (23). If you’re trying to exceed nitrogen balance for the purpose of putting on muscle or recovering from more extreme exercise sessions, studies also indicate that you don’t need to eat more than 25% above that 0.55 g/lb, which would be 0.55×1.25, which is 0.68 g/lb, or 1.5g/kg. For simplicity, I prefer to just round that up to 0.7 g/lb (35).
So let’s put those numbers into context. I weigh 175 pounds. If I don’t want to gain muscle, and I just want to make sure I’m getting enough protein for muscle recovery and body repair, I should eat a minimum of 0.55×175, or 96 grams of protein.
Rounded up to a nice even number of 100 grams, that means I could have a couple scoops of protein powder with my morning breakfast (which I do), a can of sardines over my salad at lunch, and 4-6oz of grass-fed beef with dinner. That’s easily 100 grams, and doesn’t even count the other protein I get from seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, etc. If I’m eating about 3200 calories a day, which is a typical calorie intake for me, that puts my protein intake at about 13%.
Frankly, this is about exactly what I would eat on an easy exercise day, and the rest of my diet is healthy fat (which keeps me smart, keeps my joints healthy, feeds my brain and maintains high levels of hormones), along with large amounts of vegetables and light amounts of fruits.
And if I wanted to gain muscle or I have a day for which I’m doing a large amount of muscle damaging exercise such as a long, hard run, I would eat 0.7×175, or about 125 grams. So I would basically just add in a couple handfuls of raw almonds and a dollop of full fat yogurt, or a couple extra scoops of protein powder and I’d be good to go. And this would come closer to about 16% of my daily calorie intake.
I’ve worked with some athletes who have difficult putting on muscle or recovering properly if unless they eat 0.8-1.0 grams per pound of protein, which often puts them in the 15-25% protein range. While this does allow for optimum repair and recovery, these athletes are also at risk of ammonia toxicity (5). This is why I personally rarely exceed 150 grams per day of protein, unless I happen to stumble upon a really, really good Korean BBQ joint.
This brings me to my next point. What are the actual risks of eating excess protein, or having your nitrogen balance too great?
First, consider that ammonia is a toxic compound to the body. Once you get close to about 1000 calories a day of protein (that’s about 250 grams), you can no longer convert ammonia to urea, and you begin to build up this toxin within your body. This is extremely stressful on your internal organs, especially your kidneys.
Next, excess protein can cause dehydration if you do not drink enough water. This is because your kidneys need more water to convert ammonia into urea.
Finally, mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) is a gene in your body that is directly correlated to accelerated aging. Decreased activity in this gene can be caused by moderate caloric restrictions and slightly lower amino acid intake (14). So excessive protein intake and a constantly positive nitrogen balance could actually shorten your life!
So the take-away message is this: eat as much protein as your body needs for repair and recovery (about 0.55g/lb) eat a little more if you want to put on muscle (up to 0.7g/lb), and then take in the rest of your calories from healthy fats and vegetables, with limited amounts of fruits and safe starches for fueling intense bouts of physical activity.
A Sample Week of Eating For Endurance
So now you know that if you want the ideal combination of performance and health, the ballpark values you’re shooting for on most days are 20% carbohydrates, 65% fat, and 15% protein.
Remember the sample Ironman training week from Chapter 3?
Let’s revisit that training week, and take a look at how the nutrition concepts you’ve just learned apply. The eating plan outlined below is designed for a higher healthy fat intake, carbohydrate “cycling” with slightly greater carbohydrate intake on more active days, and and avoidance of excessive protein. And of course, it conveniently relies upon many of the nutrient dense quick and easy meals from Chapter 11.
-Monday: 30 minutes easy bicycling skills & drills, 20 minutes easy swim drills.
Breakfast – Green Smoothie
Lunch – Sardine Salad
Snack – Chia Slurry
Dinner – Steak & Roasted Vegetables with Grass-Fed Butter
-Tuesday: 20 minutes heavy barbell lifts, 30 minutes run HIIT workout.
Breakfast – Green Smoothie
Lunch – Leftovers wrapped in bok choy, swiss chard or kale
Snack - Protein Powder in Coconut Milk or Raw Dairy
Dinner – Scrambled Eggs
-Wednesday: 30 minutes bicycling HIIT workout, 30 minutes swim HIIT workout.
Breakfast – Green Smoothie
Lunch – Sardine Salad
Snack – Pemmican or Jerky
Dinner – Cobb Salad
-Thursday: 20 minutes heavy barbells lifts, 30 minutes easy run drills.
Breakfast – Green Smoothie
Lunch – Leftovers wrapped in bok choy, swiss chard or kale
Snack – Protein Powder in Coconut Milk or Raw Dairy
Dinner – Steak & Salad
-Friday: 60 minutes injury prevention and core training, yoga, or an easy swim.
Breakfast – Bulletproof® Coffee
Lunch – Nori Wraps
Snack – Liver Pate with Flax Seed Crackers
Dinner – Poached Salmon & Steamed Vegetables
-Saturday: 2.5 hours of 20 minutes on, 5 minutes off cycling intervals at race-pace, 3x1000m swim at race-pace
Breakfast – Hot Power Cereal
Long Workout Fueling - Raw Seeds & Nuts with Dried Fruit
Lunch – Grocery Store
Snack – Pemmican or Jerky
Dinner – Sushi restaurant with sashimi and seaweed salad
Dessert – Coconut Ice Cream
-Sunday: 60-90 minutes of 9 minutes on, 3 minutes off running intervals at race-pace.
Breakfast – Waffles or Pancakes
Long Workout Fueling - Chia Seed Slurry
Lunch – Eating Out – Mexican restaurant with guacomole and beef
Snack - Protein Powder in Coconut Milk or Raw Dairy
Dinner – Easy Chicken Dinner
Dessert – Dark Chocolate and Red Wine
Throughout the day, I recommend you supplement the sample plan above with several servings of the “liquid” snacks from Chapter 11, such as bone broth, green tea, kombucha, kvass, coconut water, etc.
You’ll notice that meals – especially breakfasts and lunches – repeat quite frequently. This is a practice I recommend to allow you to stick to tried and true meals for which you know your body’s exact response, to avoid excessive time spent in meal preparation, and to avoid dietary confusion of never really having a plan you can stick to. In most cases, especially for the busy athlete, the simpler the better.
Now you have a basic idea of how many calories you need to eat, the best tools for tracking your diet, how to log your diet the right way, and why calories don’t matter much anyways, why your diet should be skewed towards higher fat intake, how many carbohydrates you should be eating, how much protein is necessary, and if it’s OK to be hungry, you know exactly what works for 99% of the endurance athletes and extreme exercisers I’ve worked with.
But some of us are special flowers. So in the next chapter, we’re going to move in the next chapter to how to make important nutrition decisions when you fit into some unique scenarios, namely:
And of course, the final version of this book will include a comprehensive meal plan that lays out a full menu for you for every phase of your training year, along with a handy grocery shopping last based on my Superhuman Food Pyramid.
In the meantime, leave your questions, comments and feedback about how many calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fats you should be eating below!
Links To Previous Chapters of “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life”
Part 1 – Introduction
-Preface: Are Endurance Sports Unhealthy?
Part 2 – Training
-Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance - Part 1
-Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance - Part 2
-Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect - Part 1: Strength
-Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect - Part 2: Power & Speed
-Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect - Part 3: Mobility
-Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect - Part 4: Balance
Part 3 – Recovery
Part 3 – Nutrition
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