Friday, April 13, 2012

Fueling the Runner Part IV: Paleo Diet and Nutrient Timing

Previously: Fueling the Runner Part IPart II, and Part III.

When we last left this trail of never ending posts, I had read a very good book called  "Racing Weight" by Matt Fitzgerald. The book was very well done and I enjoyed it. There was one particular concept that I enjoyed and wanted to explore more, the concept of timing your nutrition.

Before going further, allow me to back up a little and summarize this journey. I have struggled for more than a decade with weight. I like food and I am good at rationalizing any argument that makes me feel better about doing something (whether I should or not). Right after my daughter turned a year old, I was at Bed, Bath, and Beyond with my wife and stepped on a scale. It read 243 pounds. This was one of those moments that just sticks with you. How did I get this big? I am only in my mid-20's, where will it end? I made a commitment to getting healthier and bought some home equipment, including weights and a treadmill. The treadmill was the starting point to a decade long love of running (but we'll leave that story for another post).

Not long after I started to get serious about my weight, my brother-in-law mentioned a popular new diet called the Atkins Diet to me. I loved meat more than I loved sugar, so it was an easy sell. After a month of carefully watching my carbs and eating all the meat I wanted (no regard for calories or portions), I had lost 20 pounds. Easy as pie, or bacon as the case may be. The problem was that became a plateau for me.  Fast forward a few years -- eight or nine years to be exact -- and I began marathon running. I again dropped weight and got down to around 205 pounds (now down 40 total). What I didn't know at the time was that my second plateau was caused by a reckless attitude toward post-run recovery. When I ran 10 or 20 miles, I would eat whatever I wanted. And thus I hit another plateau.  Finally, I read Born to Run before my second marathon attempt and got the clue that I had NO IDEA what a healthy diet was.  I still may not, but I am at least committed to learning. During that marathon cycle I managed to get my weight down to about 190 pounds before hitting another plateau. I did this by making simple changes -- more salads, no soda, less gorging after long runs.

To summarize my weight shifts and the primary change in lifestyle:

  • 245 lbs down to 225 lbs was largely due to an increase in moderate exercise (3 or 4 hours per week) and control over my carbohydrate intake (namely refined sugar), though I did not exclude all sugar.
  • 225 lbs down to 205 lbs was largely due to another increase in exercise up to about 8 hours per week
  • 205 lbs down to 190 lbs was largely due to simple/common sense dietary steps

Now that I am up to about the 80th percentile in body fat percentage and regularly training for endurance events, the challenge has become to get from the 80th percentile to the 90th in order to find more gains in my fitness level.  But how? I cannot possibly commit more than 10 or 12 hours a week to exercise due to injury risk and life. Diet is the only way.

As I have mentioned through this series of posts, there are several schools of thought on how to eat properly in terms of macro-nutrients (carbs, fat, and protein). A common diet fad is toward protein and away from carbohydrates. Why? Because it works! Why does it work? Because most Americans eat RIDICULOUS amounts of sugar. Limiting that sugar will both change your body chemistry and create a calorie deficit in your eating (likely anyway) because so much of what we eat is sugar. I was very curious to read that Dean Karnazes has a diet similar to the Zone Diet (40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat). Most running coaches, including Fitzgerald, would probably take issue with such a low percentage of carbohydrates. The general thinking is that you need something closer to 70% carbs and only 10% protein with careful monitoring of your calories to properly train and control weight.

That was a lot of background, but I did it all to lead you to this: what have I learned over the last 10 years and how does it align with what I have found in the last 6 months of exploring my diet? The first thing that I have discovered is that counting calories is not all that effective. It is effective for people that were in my situation when I was 245 lbs -- out of control. But it is only a first step. Not all calories are create equal and neither is all exercise. Different nutrients have different impacts on your body chemistry and your body burns fewer calories exercising as you become more fit. I gained weight trying to monitor my calories with tools that attempt to predict how much I should eat.

The second thing I have learned is that eating a diet of 70% carbohydrates is not for me. I am not sure I fully understand the reasons for this, but I have a few theories. The first is that I am constantly hungry. With that many carbs running through my body, I don't have enough protein and fat to properly satiate hunger. The second is that I only keep my metabolism high for about 1 or 2 hours a day (on average). The rest of my day is sedentary. My body simply doesn't need the rapid energy provided by carbohydrates when I am sitting behind a desk (in comes nutrient timing). If I were a professional athlete that trains 6 - 8 hours a day, then perhaps I would need closer to 70% carbs. But I am a desk jockey.

One last thing before getting to nutrient timing, I want to briefly discuss the new diet (Paleo) and Atkins. The trouble with Atkins Diet, according to critics, is the fat (particularly saturated fat). In the early days of my adventures, it sure was nice to not care since saturated fat is so tasty. The Atkins Diet was a good starting point for me, but the fat was at least one reason it didn't take me all the way to where I wanted to go. Not all sources of protein are the same. And like most everything in our diet today, beef and chicken are farmed to be commercially efficient to keep costs low and profits high. (There's a reason that grass fed and organic meat costs more). The end result is animals that are higher in fat and lower in nutrients than ever before. The significant difference between the Paleo and Atkins diets are two: 1) you cannot have a reckless view toward saturated fat and 2) no dairy.

When I began reading The Paleo Diet for Athletes, I thought I was getting a book exclusively about the Paleo Diet with some minor adaptations for athletes. In a totally "ah-ha" moment, the book started right out with my favorite topic from Fitzgerald's book -- nutrient timing. The idea behind nutrient timing is that there are windows of time each day when your body has different nutritional needs. Paleo for Athletes defines five windows of time: Before exercise, during exercise, immediately after exercise (30 mins), short-term post exercise (90 mins), and long-term post exercise (rest of the day). Both books do a great job of explaining how to properly eat (with slightly different philosophies) prior to exercise or a race. Your body is depleted from overnight sleep (fasting) and needs calories to perform at a high level and "nail" a key workout. Both books do a good job of detailing a second window -- what to eat while you are exercising. It is in this window that I find the books the most similar, but not identical. They differ dramatically as the length of the event the athlete is training for increases (running for 20 hours has different demands than for 3 hours).

Where the books really start to diverge is the windows of time immediately after exercise. Both recommend eating plentiful to recover. And both recommend carbs to replace glycogen. However, Cordain and Friel are very specific: the window to eat carbs and replace glycogen is only 30 minutes long. Miss that window and you are going to delay recovery and replenishment of those sources. And, they insist on eating a Paleo Diet for the remainder of the day (after that 30 minute window closes). From that point on, nothing but lean protein and high quality fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Traditional carbohydrate dishes, including pastas, rices, legumes, and anything starchy are low quality choices of food. They cannot provide the same nutrients and amino acids that lean protein, vegetables, and fruit provide. Your body is slowing down and the demands that is has for energy, recovery/repair, and base metabolic functions are changing for the remainder of the day. Good stuff that I find easy to follow and highly intuitive. It takes discipline, but so does counting calories or tracking carbohydrate intake. A few simple changes to when and where you purchase groceries will go a long way.

I am going to try the Paleo Diet with the adaptations outlined by Cordain and Friel for an endurance athlete. The diet suggested by Fitzgerald (and many other running coaches by the way), did not work for me. My suggestion for anyone reading this would be to give serious thought to your diet, particularly as you are trying to balance the needs of training, growing older, and living a full life. It is easy to rationalize that you "eat better than most", but don't short change yourself. The fuel that goes into your body matters more than you realize. Spend some time thinking about what might work for you and trying different diets to meet your needs.

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