Yes, I said it. I’ve grown so tired of hearing people claim that “fat makes you fat” and “non-fat is the way to go”. I get it, as I too was raised in a home where low fat ranch dressing and nonfat milk resided on the shelves of our fridge. It was the ‘80s and the “low fat craze” was in full effect. America’s fear of fat started in the mid-‘70s, when fat was exposed as an evil foe, and we needed to replace our fats with carbs, pasta, potatoes and rice. The theory was that we would live longer and be thinner. It sounds fairly ridiculous in the year 2017, where all of us seem to know that cutting back on processed food and overdoing our carb intake isn’t a surefire way to fitness.
However, getting it into our heads that fat is NOT the four-letter word we were raised to believe it was is still, to this day, difficult to grasp for most. I hope to share a few things of what I’ve learned about fat, and what it’s done for my training and racing. I will note, however, that I do NOT have a PHD next to my name, nor any other acronyms. I’m just a run-of-the-mill endurance MTB athlete, who’s learned a thing or two about racing fuel and nutrition after years of being my own test-dummy. What I stumbled upon was certainly far from anything I ever expected.
Implement Now: Cut back or just stop eating anything processed. If you don’t feel like reading the rest of the article, that’s the one takeaway I would encourage all human beings (and pets, for that matter) to implement right away. If it’s processed in any way, just don’t buy it! Done. Now you’re welcome to go back to updating your Insta story if you so choose.
What’s the big no-no about processed food? Before I dive into that, I’ll define what I mean. Foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances is what we’re generally talking about here. Here are a few reasons why they’re a major contributor to obesity and illness around the world:
- They’re usually high in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. They’re loaded with added sugars, or ingredients disguised in less evil-sounding names (like “brown rice syrup” “agave syrup” “organic cane sugar”). To be honest, our bodies don’t utilize organic cane sugar any differently than high fructose corn syrup. Sorry, just being honest.
- Processed foods cause a “hyper rewarding” sensation, leading to us eating way more than we should. There’s a reason it’s nearly impossible to have just 1 chip, and that reason is: many food manufacturers plan it this way. That’s right, so much of our food has been engineered to be so much tastier than anything we may come across naturally found in nature.
- Artificial ingredients, most of which impossible to pronounce, are found in abundance in processed foods. Most of these include preservatives, colors, textures, and flavors. Also be careful, “artificial flavors” on any label could mean well over 10 more additional chemicals that the manufactures are not required to disclose on the label.
- Processed junk food is quite literally addictive. Our reward sensors in the brain get hooked on the stimulation that these fake flavors cause
- Processed foods are often full of refined carbs. Refined carbs equals blood sugar and insulin spikes and crashes, therefor making you “need more” as soon as they run out. More on overcoming this response later in the article. It is absolutely possible to beat the crashes and energy dips!
- You’re not getting many healthy nutrients in processed foods, even if the label on your milk carton proudly says “added Omega 3s”. Processed foods and so many of the chemicals that compose them have zero nutrient value, and are void of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients. Even non-organic, non-grass fed meat has significantly lower count of CLA and Amino Acid per serving vs its counterpart. The argument here is “Well grass fed is so much more expensive”, and the response here would be “Yeah, but you need only half the amount to reap twice the rewards!”
- Processed food will quickly digest and you’ll be hungry again sooner, due to the lack of natural fiber and we eat them faster because they’re manufactured so that we do! That’s right, so many of these foods are made so that we scarf them down quickly and don’t waste precious time chewing for longer when we could be shoving more in our faces.
- Processed foods contain unhealthy cheap fats like refined seed and vegetable oils that are so often hydrogenated, which turns them into trans fats. I know, the title of this article says to eat more fats. And believe me, we’re getting there. Just know that all fats are NOT the same. The vegetable oils family of fats should be avoided like the Plague.
- It is not my intention to scare people into eating a more Fat-Adapted Whole Food Diet here. Scare tactics are not, in my opinion, the way to go. I would just be remiss if I omitted a few facts regarding processed foods and what they do to our bodies, especially if I’m spouting off suggestions to avoid them entirely. Now we get into the good stuff: the “what makes my body feel awesome and burn its own fat for fuel vs glucose”.
Most human beings today in the US are glucose-burning, meaning we require glucose (sugar) as our main source of energy. This is not how we were born, nor is it how our bodies are intended to be. Our bodies were made to fat-burners. We are quite good at utilizing our own fat stores for fuel. The extreme version of this is a process called ketosis. The healthiest approach I’ve come across seems to be a good “fat adapted” way of life. I train on the bike perhaps more hours than some, and I have played around with strict ketosis, as well as a slightly less strict approach, where I’m not in full-blown keto at all times, but perhaps drift in and out a few times during the week. I seem to feel best this way. To describe the differences between the two, I must define what a ketogenic diet looks like and the benefits and research that have finally been grabbing people’s attention slowly but surely.
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that involves drastically reducing carb intake (note: NOT calorie intake), and replacing it with healthy fats, thus putting your body in a metabolic state of ketosis. Basically, ketosis means that your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for its energy. It also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can help supply energy for the brain.
How does a higher-fat, low-carb diet benefit your health? There are a lot of benefits, so I’ll try to keep them brief.
- It lowers all inflammatory markers and drastically lowers risk factors for disease. A huge byproduct of having your innards functioning at optimal levels such as this allows your body to shed its own excess fat stores and burn them for fuel efficiently, (in laymen’s terms: you lose weight in short order)
- Keto has proven to improve insulin sensitivity by up to 75%, and has been a proven method for diabetics to have the ability to overcome the disease and stop the use of all medications
- Keto helps your brain function at its best as well, helping prevent brain-fog, sluggishness, and improves mental clarity and sharpness. It’s also gone so far as to improve risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease, Epilepsy, Cancer, Parkinsons disease, and Heart disease. Pretty awesome.
- Cutting out sugars and carbs and replacing them with healthy fats make food cravings all but disappear. This is one of my favorite side effects. When I’m being a good girl and sticking to it, I get zero “hangry” feelings, food cravings, nor feel like I ever am “famished”. I have a sustained energy all day, with no high highs, nor low lows. I don’t get an afternoon slump, nor do I get as emotionally drained by daily life stressors.
There are many more, that perhaps I can elaborate further on in another article. But for now, that should give you a taste of the goodness that is a Fat-Adapted Diet.
What do I do and how do I get to become a fat-burning beast?
Start by avoiding the following:
- Sugary foods: soda (diet or regular), fruit juice, smoothies, cake, ice cream, candy, meal replacement bars
- Grains or starches: wheat-based products, rice, pasta, cereal, bread, etc.
- Fruit: All fruit for the first 4 weeks: then introduce perhaps just 1 portion of lower-glycemic-index fruits like berries or citrus (avoid bananas, pineapple, and watermelon, unless perhaps it’s during a race longer than 1 hour)
- Beans or legumes: Peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, peanuts
- Root Veggies and Tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips (again, at least strictly for the first 4 weeks, then exceptions can be made based upon training and racing loads. When I’m in heavy training, I am not shy with sweet potatoes, carrots, rice, and apples)
- Low-fat or diet products: refer to my rant on processed foods above
- Some condiments or sauces: so many have added sugar, become a savvy label-reader to find foods with hidden sugars in them
- Unhealthy fat: limit your intake of processed vegetable oils, soybean oil, mayo, etc
- Alcohol: yep, no post-ride IPAs if you’re serious about it. Your body processes it as sugar, so all alcohol is off limits for the first 4 weeks, then after that, if you insist on a bit of boozy fun, some tequila, soda water and a lime is your cocktail of choice from here on out.
- Sugar-free foods: often high in sugar alcohols which can mess with your ketone levels and also give your taste buds a desire to want to pick up more sugary foods. Trust me, your body (and taste buds) will adjust and once and for all NOT want sugar!
Foods to eat:
- Meat: all grass-fed meat, steak, pork, ham, sausage, bacon, chicken. Buy organic and eat smaller portions. A very crucial note: our bodies do not need the insane amount of protein we once thought. In fact, once your body gets its required amount of protein, it goes straight to storing it as fat.
- Fatty fish: ocean-caught salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel
- Eggs: pasture-raised, organic eggs
- Organic butter and cream: grass fed as well
- Cheese: unprocessed cheddar, goat, cream, blue, or mozzarella
- Nuts and Seeds: macadamia, walnuts, pecans, almonds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc
- Healthy oils: As much as you’d like, smother everything in extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, flax seed oil
- Avocados: Lots of them
- Low-carb veggies: most green veggies, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc
- Condiments: Himalayan Sea Salt, pepper, garlic, basil, cilantro, pretty much most spices
Now comes the part that is going to be toughest in your journey should you jump on board. The first 2-3 weeks is rough. Your body has to basically detox itself off of sugar and begin fat-burning. This takes a toll on your overall energy at first. It can make you feel sluggish, crabby, aggravated, slightly emotional, tired, even sick feeling. Again, this is temporary! It will pass and you will begin to feel better than you may have ever felt in your life. You’ll be more clear-headed, more energetic, food cravings will disappear, you’ll feel younger, you’ll drop weight, and you won’t feel the need to always eat, nor will food be an active thought in your brain during the day.
I encourage everyone to give it a shot. Plan the first three weeks during a low-training block of your race year, as you should not attempt any quality workouts during this adjustment phase. Be patient with yourself, and get extra sleep. The rewards will be worth it.
In the next article, I’ll discuss how a high-fat, low-carb diet helps you reach loftier athletic goals, and how to reap massive training and races benefits to get the most out of it!