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Do You Really Need Carbs for Crossfit?

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I’ve detailed on this blog and others before it about my journey with diet and nutrition. I was obese at one time, with metabolic syndrome. When I realized how unhealthy I was — and we all know how easy it is to lie to ourselves, especially when unhealthy friends are supporting our unhealthy lifestyles — I found a personal trainer and started to change my lifestyle. I increased protein and cut out sugar and grains.

Because what you don’t change you choose.

Hitting the Wall, “The Slow Bonk”

After about 5 years on paleo, then two on keto, I’m now carnivore.

Most days, I eat only meat. I’ve been doing this for two years. But one year ago, I started Crossfit, which changed up my typical day of exercise from moderate strength training routines meant to maintain, to high intensity interval training meant to progress my strength, power, and aerobic capacity.

And I hit a wall. But not all at once. Each week as I trained I’d fatigue by day three, take a day off, and come back still worn down.

Fatigue set in and my training suffered. I was getting plenty of protein and fat. After discussions and lots of reading, the solution seemed obvious: I needed more carbohydrates in my diet.

Why carbs? Because with high intensity training, versus moderate as I was doing before, my body was using a different balance of energy systems. I was depleting the glycogen from my muscles pretty regularly. Glycogen is fuel stored for muscle use that is more quickly utilized than, say, fat. When you go fast and short — think sprint-type work — you use more glycogen. This has to be replaced by eating carbohydrates or by making glucose internally. Consuming glucose-producing foods is quick; relying on internal gluconeogenesis is a slower process.

So I came at this from different angles over the past year. At different times, I added pure dextrose to my shakes after work out (the external form that glucose takes). I added in sweet potatoes, and even regular potatoes to my daily meals. I’ve even had sugar, grains, and beans at times.

The one thing I discovered is that eating carbohydrates of any kind makes me feel bad. Bloating, gas, cramps, and hunger pangs follow. I once read that the average person passes gas twenty-two times per day! When I eat strict carnivore, I have absolutely no gas or bloating or cramps or hunger pangs. Seriously, none. What that tells me is that we have become accustomed to eating a certain way, but familiarity with a process does not mean it’s natural or normal or healthy. Gas, bloating, and cramps may be a sign that we shouldn’t be eating what we’re eating, rather than just an innocuous thing that “healthy” foods do.

In any case, when I reduced my carbohydrates, especially eliminating them completely, I felt much better. In fact, I felt GREAT! But my fatigue became real again.

So I started to read again. Research shows many people have no degradation of performance with very low carb diets and high intensity exercise. At least, young men don’t. That’s the usual subject pool, not post-menopausal women like myself.

A friend recommended a book by Stacy T. Sims, PhD: Roar. This book has a lot of great advice and good points for women like me: That is, after menopause:

  • we don’t deal with heat as well
  • we need less carbohydrates because we’re more sensitive to blood sugar swings
  • we use protein less efficiently so need to eat more than when we were younger
  • we need better quality protein (more bioavailable) also because we’re less efficient
  • we need high-intensity power exercise, not aerobics and endurance, because it is what maintains lean body mass against the loss as our hormones dwindle

Sims talks about a vegan triathlete client getting too much fructose and the steps she took to move her to higher protein and lower carbs. The interesting thing in this part of the book is that she gets her client off fructose and keeps her consuming vegan protein — BCAAs or “whole protein”. Does she mean soy? Because that’s not recommended even by her for its low leucine content. Plant-based protein doesn’t jibe with recommending better quality and more protein as we age. But then, I ran across more oddness as I read.

Sims seems to be recommending a diet based on the results of the standard diet. That is, she starts with what we’re all used to and pares away what she feels is harmful. This is the usual way people approach diet. But it’s not the best way. Approaching diet this way means in essence you agree with the status quo until proven otherwise. Instead, let’s start at nothing and add on what we know is necessary. Exogenous amino acids and fatty acids are necessary for life. Exogenous carbohydrates are explicitly NOT necessary. There may be certain benefits to adding in carbohydrates that are worth the bad effects, but that’s not her argument.

Sims isn’t willing to go that extra step with her recommendation to reduce carbs. That is, she details why carbohydrates are bad news, but then claims carbohydrates are still necessary. She argues they are because our brains require carbohydrates to function (our liver makes all required, which Sims even mentions once), that “fat burns in a carb flame” (this is a slogan not evidence), and that the Karen Hardy paper from 2015 tells us our big brains evolved to need them (this paper has some critical problems).

Sims seems to have unquestioningly embraced the research by Karen Hardy “The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution” published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in 2015. Hardy’s thesis has been shown lacking by a number of critics:

  • The evidence for humans cooking food goes back only about 100,000 years, whereas our brains began to enlarge, needing more fuel (fat) two million years ago (many plant foods need to be cooked for us to use them safely and gain enough nutrition)
  • Brain and placental tissue can get all the glucose they need from the liver (even Hardy’s previous research showed this)
  • Amylase developed later in human evolution than the period when our brains grew (amylase starts to digest starchy foods before it reaches our stomachs)
  • Endurance runners today have proven that persistence hunters (the theory that humans hunted successfully because we could outlast a faster animal) can function very well on fat as fuel rather than glucose. (Great analysis here)

The Solution

I titled this section, perhaps, inappropriately. This is my current trial and maybe a solution.

I added high-leucine, zero glutamate BCAAs (specific muscle-building and recovery amino acids) to my beef protein and whey shakes. I added creatine (a naturally occurring fuel found in your cells). Most importantly, I think, is I eat a lot. A LOT.

Here’s the thing about the carnivore lifestyle: when you start, you eat like a beast. If you’re eating whole meats, which you really need to for the benefits (not processed meats), you’ll start out eating more calories than you can imagine but losing weight nonetheless.

If you’re consistent and maintain the diet, you’ll find you eat less and less and get full and stay full longer. At that point, you may not be eating enough to grow more muscle and size but simply maintaining. Is that what I’ve been doing? Have I been eating to maintain but exercising to grow?

I’m attending Crossfit 5 days a week with some extra bar work in my studio. With returning to carnivore, the terrible carb side effects are gone, and I’ve ramped up the amount and frequency of my meals, added in some supplemental proteins and creatine, and I’m doing okay. For now.

The Carnivore Diet

Here are some excellent images made by Nutrition With Judy. If you’re interested in learning more about the carnivore lifestyle, this is a start.

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