I’m insulin resistant.
That’s why I’m on a ketogenic, low-carb, high-fat diet.
Over the last 4 years I’ve gained weight. I’m 60 years old. My weight gain was odd because I was training and participating in seven Ironman triathlons during that same time. My race weight before the gradual weigh gain has always been around 188 to 192 pounds. I’m 6’5″. Then in 2013 to December 1, 2016 it rose to 208 pounds (see photo above).
In each of my last seven Ironman triathlons I also bonked. I’ve bonked in many of the fifteen I’ve finished. In each of those bonks the “experts” gave me different reasons. I now believe they were all wrong because of their bias toward carbohydrates.
I’ve discovered the vast majority of the sports nutritionist are bias toward carbohydrates and/or ignorant regarding fat as a fuel source. I’m sure they are well meaning but haven’t they ever worked with a insulin resistant athlete? Just today as I was leaving my gym and over their loud speaker system the promotion announced, “Right after working out it’s best to eat a meal of 60 grams of carbohydrate with 25 grams of protein. Limit your fat content.” I almost started to laugh. Everyone is programed to believe that carbohydrates are good and fats are bad for you.
I’m racing Ironman Arizona in November this year (2017) and wanted to start formal training on January 1, 2017 at a reasonable weight knowing that I “should” (I never think it wise to ever “should” on your self!) be able to get it down to at least 198 pounds, my race weight in October 2015 in the Ironman World Championship. I thought I’d be able to actually cleanse and intermittent fast in December 2016 and lose the 10 pounds (from 208 to 198).
To my chagrin I only lost one pound and started the year at 207. It was time for me to find an solution and reverse my weight gain trend.
I really wanted to get back to my former race weight in pre-2013 of about 188-192. So I went on a quest to once and for all solve this weight gain and bonking problem.
The biggest discovery that I made is that I’m insulin resistant with signs of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin is a hormone that when linked to a muscle’s insulin receptors will flow glucose (blood sugar) into a working muscle to be used as fuel. If a person is insulin ‘sensitive’ this process works great. All the glucose is used by the working muscles with none or very little left over.
If the process doesn’t work, i.e., insulin resistance, the muscle turns it’s nose up at the insulin hormone and the glucose is not used by the muscles but is returned to the liver to be stored as fat. This is insulin ‘resistance.’ In other words, my muscle’s insulin receptors are resistant to insulin.
This is why I was gaining weight. All the carbohydrate I was told I needed as an endurance athlete was turning into glucose, spiking my insulin levels, and some was not being utilized by the working muscle and thus being returned to my body and stored as excess fat.
According to conservative estimates 1 in 4 Americans are insulin resistant. In a study published in Forbes magazine in 2012 indicated a prevalence of insulin resistant Americans at 50%. That’s closer to what I believe because obesity rates are 37% and 70% of all Americans are overweight.
Bonking is where your energy levels drop and you get that funky feeling. You become tired and have brain fog. Most people bonk daily late in the afternoon and many turn to caffeine and/or cravings for sugar and mostly bad carbohydrates to get them through the funk.
For an athlete if you bonk during a race you’re done racing for the day. One example of when I’ve bonked was when I raced in Ironman Texas in May 2014. At mile 90 on the bike my energy level tanked in like a 20-second period and my speed dropped from about 21 mph to 10. In the final 22 miles after I had bonked everyone passed me. I never recovered and had to walk the marathon and a dismal finish.
Everyone told me it was my nutrition. Or you were going to fast and used up your glycogen. Or I had insufficient electrolytes. That didn’t set well with me because I followed a meticulous nutrition plan that these experts had prepared for me and suggested I follow. None of them, by the way, asked me any questions regarding my health or race history or to discover if I was insulin resistant.
What actually happens when a person bonks is that the brain senses there is not enough glucose left in the body to fuel it and it shuts everything down to preserve what it does have until you can restore sufficient levels of glucose and glycogen to regain normal function. Restoring glycogen just doesn’t happen very fast.
Because I’m insulin resistant all the glucose I was consuming during the race was “not” being utilized by my working muscles or topping off my stored glucose (glycogen) levels. When my body needed fuel instead of using the glucose I was consuming in the form of energy drinks, gels and bars, it took my stores from my glycogen bank account. It’s like being laid off and you need to tap into your savings account for basic living needs. When the account is empty, your lifestyle is done. When glycogen (glucose bank account) was gone, my brain stopped me to protect itself from overspending.
Thus bonking is not about anything other than the brain’s needs for glucose.
Ketones and Ketosis
As I started to learn about how to overcome insulin resistance I discovered the inverse correlation between insulin and fat burning. I knew I was carrying about 90,000+ calories of fat in my body however my brain and body did not have access to it (a pound of body fat is 3,500 calories). If I was able to burn more fat racing, I’d have an almost unlimited supply of calories to burn. The correlation is this; when insulin is high in my blood stream (it’s always high for insulin resistance people because the body is making a lot in the hope it activates the limited muscle’s insulin receptors to supply needed glucose to the working muscles and brain) there is no fat burning. On the contrary, when insulin is low, fat burning is turned on.
When a person is in peak fat burning is when the body is in a state of ketosis and the liver is 1) producing ketone bodies to feed the brain and 2) oxidizing fat as fuel the body can use.
The quest for an insulin resistant person is to lower insulin levels and turn on fat burning (ketosis). It’s really what everyone might strive for because fat is a more efficient fuel and will substantially increase a person’s energy level. All the years I had a “perfect” carbohydrate diet I was mostly consuming fiber rich carbohydrates that would keep my insulin levels lower. However being insulin resistant, it really didn’t matter what type of carbs I was eating, my insulin levels would be elevated.
Ketone bodies or beta-hydroxybutyrate, are miraculous forms of fuel for the brain and even are used as an additional fuel for other organs such as the heart. The brain needs about 600 kcal daily and when it only has glucose will seek that first. However, if the brain has a rich supply of ketones, it’s happy. For an athlete like me, that’s a good thing because I’d start to burn fat, produce more ketones and NOT BONK!!!
I learned consuming fats have no effect on raising insulin levels. With lower insulin levels I’d turn my body on to a state of ketosis. Then I’d be primarily fueling my body with fat and ketones.
A ketogenic diet is basically the following:
- Low carbohydrates
- Enough protein
- Make up the difference in the need for calories with fat.
I learned also that there were suppliers of exogenous ketones. These are ketones made outside the body in the form of beta-hydroxybutyrate. When a person consumes them it will move the body into a state of mild ketosis for 3-6 hours.
I started my keto approach to my problem by first consuming exogenous ketones and really didn’t reduce my carbohydrate intake. I liked my carbs! I think everyone does.
During these states of mild ketosis I was not hungry, my brain was happy and I was easily able to restrict my calorie consumption. Naturally I lost weight.
The more I explored a complete ketogenic diet, allowing my body to constantly be in a state of ketosis and I was making my own ketones, the more I felt I wanted to attempt it. I had discovered Jeff Volek, PhD, RD (The Ohio State University) and his partner Stephen Phinney, MD, Phd and began to go 100% into their 14-day fat adaption period where I was promised I’d contract the keto flu it’s called. It’s a rather lethargic feeling. I had quit the Adkins diet years ago because of this flu. However, I had a secret weapon; exogenous ketones and Cleanse For Life (learn more or purchase Cleanse for Life by clicking this link). The ketones made the transition rather easy and I was able to cleanse out the toxins that were released from my fat that was now being used as fuel. I used two brands of exogenous ketones however one of the brands delivered more ketones and a fraction of the price.
My DAILY diet macros during the first 14-days:
Carbohydrates 5-15% (no more than 20 net grams)*
*Net grams mean net of dietary fiber
On April 1, 2016 I started the 14-day fat adaption period. I had used exogenous Ketones for the months of February and March.
It was an adjustment to learn what and how to eat. After all, I had eaten carbohydrates for 60 years. Everything in the refrigerator and pantry were carbohydrates. I took a shopping list from a ketogenic recipe book and went shopping at my local Sprout’s Market.
I tracked (and still do as of this writing) all of the food I consumed. It allowed me to learn what and how much carbs, fats and protein were in certain foods. I’ve just about taught myself after six weeks of daily tracking and weighing out all my food. It won’t be long before I give up the daily counting!
The keto flu was hardly bad this time. Mostly because I was aware of the end result and was highly motivated to succeed. During the 14-day period I only had to consume exogenous ketones about 4 times. Prior to going on the ketogenic diet I was consuming ketones daily and sometime multiple times a day.
I purchased a combined glucose and ketone meter to keep track of my state of ketosis. I was really glad I did this. My numbers were very accurate and I took readings at various times, before eating, after eating, when I woke up, before and after exercise and at times I was feeling different.
The Precision XTRA Meter
I learned that the cheapest test strips are found on ebay. Prior to that discovery I purchase them on Amazon.
I was able to get into mild ketosis after just a few days of the carb restricted diet. My first readings were blood ketone levels of .5 mmol. From the chart you can see that is the level of starting nutritional ketosis. Now I’m almost always above 1.2 mmol and have been as high as 2.5 and above after exercise.
I’ve never had to consume one gram of carbohydrate during my Ironman training sessions. My longest session was a 4-hour bike ride. I had great energy at the end and my ketone readings after the ride were 3.2 mmol.
I’ve released 24 total pounds since I started my quest on December 1, 2016. The majority was on the ketogenic diet. I released about 7 pounds using exogenous ketones in February and March and the remaining 16 pounds since April 1, 2017. As of May 19, 2017, the day I’m writing this post, I weigh 184 pounds. My goal now is anything under 180 which would leave me with about 10% body fat. At 180 pounds and 10% body fat, I’ll have 18 pounds of fat on me. If you multiply that by 3,500 calories per pound, I’ll have 63,000 calories of stored fuel for any race!
I’ve also had a massive rise in energy. I no longer have the heavy food cravings. I’m dreaming at night at record pace! My brain seems clearer. One of the benefits of ketones is the brain loves them! My athletic performance has risen. Losing 24 pounds and increasing my lean muscle mass has yielded faster times swimming, biking and running.
I honestly can’t ever see myself going back to the old diet. I’m sure at times I’ll spurge on some unhealthy carbs (birthday cake for sure) and I’ll go out of ketosis. But I’m sure now I’ll be able to move right back within a short time.
It has been well worth the learning curve for me. It really wasn’t that hard. There is a lot of information available to learn more about this healthy lifestyle.