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Pseudo-KETO: Three Months on a Low Carbohydrate and Low Sugar Diet

Some say that “sugar is more addictive than heroin” .

I cannot attest to that claim, since I have never use heroin and never will. But I can say that breaking the sugar habit can be very difficult, particularly the first week, and especially with intense exercise involved.

I’ve been on the road for 3+ months in my Sprinter van, doing my usual photography field work. During that time I eliminated all added sugar with few exceptions. I also cut my carbohydrate intake way down.

On the whole, I can say that eliminating sugar and most carbs has worked out very well. But I cannot attribute any health gains to it, and recovery and performance are impaired without some carbs.

Exception, candy bar frenzy, early March: after a double century where I did not eat much after finishing, the next day I bought ten (10) candy bars and promptly ate eight (8) of them in two hours (Payday and Milky Way)—about 2400 calories. No ill effects and I finished off the other two the next morning for a total of 3000 calories. The drive to eat those bars was powerful and I yielded to it, though that was supposed to have been a ten day supply. My suspicion is that it is far better to binge-eat than to drag it out, hence my historical habits with See’s Candy (chocolates).

Carbs ===> Fats

The only way to cut back carbs successfully is to greatly increase the intake of fat. For that purpose, I use nuts, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil @AMAZON, MCTs from coconut oil @AMAZON, wild salmon, eggs, grass-fed ghee @AMAZON, whole fat yogurt from high-grade milk preferably grass-fed (Strauss Greek Whole Milk is superb) and animal fat from grass-fed meat*. All organic. I do not eat factory food.

For me it takes 7-10 days for the candy/sugar craving to go away. After that, the craving is reduced to a ghost of its former self, but this trip I found that it was not completely gone even after a month. I have concluded that intense exercise reawakens candy/sugar craving on a short-term basis, so the key is to eat nutrient dense foods that have low but significant carbohydrates in them—e.g., whole milk yogurt, fresh fruit and veggies, etc.

Sugar equivalent while riding

Tailwind Nutrition sports drink endurance fuel

The key with moderately high intensity endurance exercise is to maintain both blood glucose levels and electrolyte levels. For that, I use Tailwind @AMAZON. Any left-over I use post-workout, as the muscles need some carbohydrates (along with protein) for recovery.

I find it difficult to exceed about 2.5 hours of riding without some energy input. Plus I will have lost at least 2L of fluid, and as much as 6L if intensity is high in high heat. Thus it is critical to hydrate, and water sucks since it absorbs much more slowly than a proper sports drink. For that, I swear by Tailwind @AMAZON, which contains both electrolytes and mostly dextrose (turns directly into blood glucose). BTW, do NOT use products like Gatorade for endurance exercise (lacks key electrolytes and contains way too much sucrose or fructose which burden the liver and forestall immediate availability).

UPDATE 2022: Tailwind has never let me down or upset my stomach, great product! BUT the Tailwind folks are less than forthcoming about what sugars it contains—they do say that it contains both dextrose and sucrose but they will not specify the proportions, which is BULLSHIT. And they write about sugars and still avoid the discussion, which is disingenuous . I want to know what is going into my body. That said, judging by taste and how most of it dissolves very quickly, my guess is 20% or less of sucrose and maybe as little as 10%. Sucrose is one glucose molecule + one fructose molecule.

Carbs in our endurance fuel are simple sugars, like glucose, which need little to no digestion and which go directly to energize your muscles. This allows athletes to power up with minimal impact to the gut. Is sugar necessary for endurance athletes? Absolutely! But the key is the type and quantity of sugar you ingest during exercise. Tailwind has nailed this carb balancing act with just enough fast-absorbing and fast-acting sugars to keep you moving – and stave off the depletion of your glycogen stores — without any lingering sweet aftertaste or residual carbs to mess with your gut.

Above, note the unwillingness to give even vague proportions: is it 10% sucrose (which is half fructose!) or 20% or what? The rest is clearly dextrose, which is a glucose equivalent. BTW, Tailwind folks claim that the dextrose they source is free of excitotoxins, which I hope is true. But being corn-derived, a lot of dextrose can have excitotoxins in it.

High exercise levels not compatible with pure Keto

The biggest problem I have faced in cutting back on carbohydrates (“carbs”) is that under a training load averaging 1600 KCal per day, my body cannot restore its glycogen stores in 24 hours. Too little carbohydrate leads to impaired recovery and impaired energy levels. So far, my body just cannot do enough gluconeogenesis in 24 hours to restore muscle and liver stores of glycogen to full levels. So the “tank” is not full the next day and over a few days, performance drops quickly.

I just do not believe the Keto folks who make their near-zero carb claims—let them eat fat and see if another 55 year old can keep up with my workouts, and then we’ll talk. Keto in a serious athletic context sounds like an out of balance dogma. As to “office-chair Keto”—sure, why not since glycogen demands are modest.

While I have a very highly trained aerobic system capable of burning fat for daylong events, the aerobic system is insufficient when energy demands increase beyond aerobic inputs. That means using glycogen for a substantial part of energy production. At age 55 my power output is down 15% or so versus age 46, but even so we are talking about 250 watts or so on a 8% grade (when well rested).

By around 8000' elevation, my lungs are heaving and totally maxed-out to maintain ~250 watts—there is not enough oxygen to produce the required power any more—total power drops regardless and lots of glycogen starts being utilized. The anaerobic energy demands rapidly depletes glycogen stores. This is true even on the flats—the body will always “burn” some glycogen. Plus the visual system of the brain has very high demands for glycogen to cope with image analysis on a bicycle—just try having a concussion and you’ll figure that out quickly.

Over the past 3 months, I have experienced intense cravings for anything sweet. These cravings slowly fall off to a low level after a week, but the first week it is very hard to resist buying something high in sugar like a candy bar or licorice—mind you my sugar consumption has been very moderate for years compared to most of the population.

* I am not worried about the discredited ever-changing and never-proven cholesterol hypothesis quackery vs atherosclerosis—anti-scientific piffle. Atherosclerosis is surely the result of oxidized LDL stemming from inflammatory processes along with magnesium deficiency.

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