Can low (er) fat be a good thing?

A while ago I wrote an article about the time I weighed, measured and tracked my food for 3 months. It is not something that is for everyone but it appeals to me and my personality type for a few reasons.

  1. I saw such a great change in my body composition and performance in the gym from doing so
  2. It allowed me to understand how much I get to eat, without constantly worrying I have eaten too much
  3. It forms a great base for manipulation. If you know what you are doing with your diet, you can then start to see how calculated changes can affect you. If you don’t actually understand how you are eating, well, you just can’t do this

So its point 3 that I really want to tell you a bit more about today. You may be thinking “Hang on, I thought this blog was going to be about fats!?” Don’t worry, it is. But I need to lay down some context so you fully understand what I want to say. You may even want to go and read my previous blog, just make sure you are fully clued up on the background.

I actually wrote a similar blog to this a while ago. I shared it with my clients because I wanted to illustrate some important stuff to them. It was never made available to the general public because I wasn’t ready to divulge some of the stuff I was doing. Now I am, so let’s go!

So with the whole popularity of the paleo diet and concepts such as“clean eating”, “fat doesn’t make you fat”, “sugar is to blame for many modern diseases”, most of the people I end up working with are following a high fat, low carb, paleo-ish/clean eating diet. Most, but not all.

This is cool. They “know” what real food is. They may like shopping at farmers markets, the idea of making their own sauerkraut is exciting and they can’t wait to get down to their local butcher and get some bones for their bone broth. They don’t argue with me about how many eggs they should eat each week or look at me funny because I say it’s okay to have cream in their coffee. However, we sometimes have to fight a different battle…carb and calorie phobia.

A lot of the women (and men) I work with train hard. They are CrossFitters, triathletes, trail runners or just like to smash it up in the gym 5 or 6 days a week. Some even train twice a day.

I love this too. They are passionate about the way their bodies can move and what they can do with this amazing gift of movement. They don’t just want to look good but they want to perform good too.

Now before I get into the nitty gritty of this stuff it is important that I say that we are all different. Some people are better at endurance sports and some people are better at speed and power sports (weightlifting and sprints). Some people do better with a bit more fat in their diet and some people do better with more carbs. We know that overweight individuals are more likely to be insulin resistant and may do better on a lower carb diet and leaner individuals may have better insulin sensitivity.

Body Type Nutrition

 

The problem is that I see a lot of overweight people, training hard to lose weight on a diet which is too low in carbs (and calories!). At this point in time I think of a very special woman I am working with at the moment whose weight loss had plateaued around 16 stone, she was riddled with injuries (from poor recovery attributed to her low carb/cal diet) which was affecting her training and she was desperate to get the weight off. I am sure you will agree at 16 stone it was not because she was at her goal weight and being unrealistic.

I also see a lot of “normal weight” women who find that they cannot get any leaner even with more training and a low-ish carb diet.  So what do we do with these women? We increase carbs.

Something I have written about before, is that if you tell someone to increase their carbs they start to ask many questions? By how much? What foods should I eat? When should I eat them?

As a starting point a low carb diet would probably be under 100g per day. This is actually the equivalent of 500g of sweet potato. This is quite a lot of carbs for someone who has completely excluded starches from their diet. It is also about 400 calories. Although it could be debated, many assume that you need to restrict by 500 calories to lose weight, so what happens if you add carb calories back in?

gain

This makes these questions difficult to answer. If we just add extra carbs into someone’s diet without adjusting fat or protein calories we potentially create a calorie excess and the person will gain weight. So we need to know how many calories that person is going to eat each day and how many of these are going to be proteins, fats and carbohydrates. We need to have a clear structure and we need the person to follow the structure.

However, when we have a structure, the client follows the structure, we adjust the structure depending on the client’s feedback, we get a positive result. Performance, strength and energy go up. Body fat drops. Sleep quality improves.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but there are quite a few reasons why. The fact that carbohydrate can be a useful tool to manage cortisol levels and also can kick start thyroid hormones back into balance and raise serotonin which can drops pre-menstrually for some women. What I do, is hold the hands of these clients and teach them what the right amount of carbohydrate is for them at that point in time and rebuild their confidence so they are no longer sufferers of the dreaded carb phobia.

(I would also just like to add here that many people do not have a carb problem. They have a cr*p problem. They restrict carbs all week to comply with their high fat low carb diet and then binge intermittently on sugar).

With an increases in carbs we may see the need to drop fats. This starts to get me closer to the point of what I want to say here. I actually wanted to tell you about me. I am quite lean, quite fit and quite strong. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but that is just where I am at right now (I have put a lot of work in to get here).

I train 5 days a week. I love it! I regularly track my macros.

Would it surprise you if I say that this week I was eating a diet which was 20% fat?

This is a low fat diet.

low carb high fat paleo diet

The government guidelines for dietary fat intake is between 30% and 35% and a high fat diet would be something greater than this.

But we know that fats are good for us? Too many carbohydrates cause insulin resistance and weight gain? So what was I doing!?

What I was doing was, making muscle, recovering from training, leaning out and getting stronger.

My diet this day looked something like this: about 150g protein, 50g fat, 260g carbohydrate and 2100 calories. I am 62kg (I was 63kg when I started this) and 1.67m tall.

Let me explain…

I have a coach. Yes I help people with their nutrition, training, lifestyle and mindset. Just as my clients pass over responsibility of program development to me and invest in me for accountability, I do the same for myself with someone else.

Most of the time I am happy to maintain what I have got. I am at the point where further gains come at the cost of enjoyment (I do love food) and my social life (because it does revolve around food). However, now and again I like a challenge. So I said to my coach “I want to be a bit leaner and a bit stronger, can we do that?”.

This was the plan.

We know there are many factors involved in getting someone lean and strong; sleep, stress management, gut health to name a few. But energy in versus energy out is still an inevitable factor. If you want to get lean you can’t overeat. If you want to get strong you need to fuel appropriately to recover. So how do you do both at the same time?

What we did was keep my calories roughly the same but drop calories from fat, in favour of calories from carbohydrate. This enables my energy balance to be at an appropriate level to get lean, but my carbohydrates to be at an appropriate level to recover and perform.

Carbohydrates also have the potential to increase energy expenditure through thermogenesis (heat production). I actually dropped 1kg in the first 4 days of this program which was interesting as I was expecting to gain at least some water weight from topped up glycogen stores.

high carb diet

I must admit that some days I feel like I am constantly eating bowls of porridge or sweet potato to make sure I get my calories in. The foods I love the most are “fatty foods”, butter, cream and dark chocolate and fatty cuts of meat. However, when I used to eat a diet when I enjoyed these most days at the sacrifice of carb calories, my performance and body composition wasn’t as good.

The good news is I still enjoy a higher fat diet on my rest days, when I typically eat low carb to reset insulin sensitivity. On these days I do eat 42% fat which is about 70g, but I must admit it doesn’t go as far as the days when I used to probably eat about 130g-150g of fats per day.

Now, I am not saying that this is something for everyone. This is something that works for me because I can train hard enough and my insulin sensitivity is good enough to handle it. You may have seen the video I created on blood sugar monitoring and I am happy to report that even now with a carbohydrate consumption which is 150% greater than in this video, my blood sugar still sticks around 5.5mmol/L across the day, which is how I know it is “safe” for me.

But the point is, that many people may think that high fat low carb paleo is the answer to everything. It isn’t. The big take home here is; learn to understand your body, learn to understand food better. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to experiment and learn what works for you :)

Most of the people I work report improvements in energy, sleep, performance and body composition with structured changes to their diet. One thing I do caution against is ramping up carbohydrates if you have any gut issues. I have noticed that some clients who I suspect may have SIBO or yeast issues do not positively respond and increased carbohydrate consumption would result in a flare in GI symptoms. Training and nutrition is all about priorities and therefore I would recommend that underlying health issues are dealt alongside a qualified practitioner.

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