Wow… Whoddathunk part 1 would have gone gangbusters the way it did? It was one of those spur of the moment, stab the keyboard with my fingers, posts that had been a long time in the brewing. I had no idea that such long-winded stream of consciousness ramblings would strike a chord with people, let alone be noticed by The [Primal] Don himself. In part 2, I just want to tie off a couple of loose ends, tidy up my thoughts on the subject, and try to provide an illustration of my thinking when it comes to ketosis.
There are lots of good valid reasons for why calories don’t (or shouldn’t count), many of which people have made some great comments on both on this site and in the comments to Robb Wolf’s post. But the bottom line for me is that I see absolutely no reason to be accounting for something that doesn’t exist in a biological system. If I am going to be counting anything, I should at least be counting something that my body recognises as currency (though that is practically impossible for people to do). Your body no more measures calories in or out any more than your stomach weighs your food for you.
Calorimetry is the measurement of heat. We can measure the heat [in calories] generated from burning fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Carbs and proteins release a similar amount of energy to each other, and fats a little over twice as much as either one, gram for gram. We can also measure the amount of heat [in calories] generated by the human body at rest (resting metabolism), after eating (thermic effect of food), and during exercise. And by measuring the ratio of oxygen consumed to carbon dioxide expelled, we can infer which of the main energy substrates (fats, carbs, proteins) are fuelling our metabolism, and what the heat [calorie] cost of that is.
So let us say that (because we can measure someone’s resting metabolic rate) they need 1200kcals to keep the lights and central heating going in their body, without adding any movement on top of this. And let us say that they are eating a minimum of 1200kcals to keep everything running. We would say they are in energy balance… calories in = calories out. But what happens if, say, the hormonal environment in our soft and squishy biological system causes 600 of those kcals to be pushed straight through to fat storage, locking that energy away nice and tight? On paper, calories in still balance calories out, by our mathematical equation. But something within our biological entity is causing half of those calories to be made unavailable.
And this is again the problem with the whole calories deal. We can’t accurately count them outside of our body, our bodies don’t count them at all, and a whole raft of hormonal and neurological factors determines where the “calories” go and whether they are actually available for biological functions. As I mentioned in part 1, the currencies our bodies do actually deal with are the likes of the saccharides, amino acids, and fatty acids, and these can be fed into various parts of your metabolic machinery to generate your main energy currency – ATP.
Conventional wisdom tends to hold and promote an overly simplistic view of things. This wisdom suggests, by way of analogy, that you need a certain amount of money (calories) to keep the power, heating, and water running in your body, to keep everything maintained, the grass growing, and to fuel occasional trips to the mall. You can make regular payments via the ATM deposit box in the middle of your face. If you run a fairly lean house, you are going to need to make deposits that come close to matching the cost of keeping everything running every day, having only a small savings account to draw on. If, however, you insist on stuffing wads of cash in your face hole, some of it will be used to keep the utilities paid off and running, and the surplus will automatically spill over into your savings account. If your savings account is getting too fat and you need to run it down or suffer some serious withholding tax penalties, then conventional wisdom holds that you make fewer deposits via the face and do more circuits of the mall via the legs. And because you are now spending more than you are depositing, the difference can be funded from savings.
This model assumes that you have a way of depositing only one currency – calories (calories are all that counts), spending only one currency (calories fuelling metabolic processes) and have only two accounts to balance – your day-to-day cheque account (for metabolism to immediately draw on), and your savings account (fat storage). But what if the model actually worked more like this…
You need to make daily deposits to keep everything running. But instead of paying for everything with one currency, the different processes actually require different currencies. Some processes require the currency of glucose, whilst others require the currency of fatty acids. Some processes prefer one currency over the other, but will ultimately accept both, though perhaps with a few fees and transaction penalties for you paying with one instead of the other. Some processes, such as growth, maintenance, and repair require more of the amino acid currency than anything else, and indeed, if you don’t put enough of this currency in, things start to get a bit run down and you end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.
It is possible to deposit too much of any of the currencies, but with some of the currencies being worth more than others, and with economic conditions at the time dictating that one might be of more value than other, this is a highly variable thing. If you, for example, continually flood the market with glucose, it soon isn’t worth that much. So best to save some of it to smaller accounts in your liver and muscles, and then convert much of the excess to a different currency altogether and to lock that into a term deposit – you can get it back when economic conditions improve.
Other currencies, even if they appear to have the same face value, such as glucose and fructose, actually hold completely different values in different markets (a bit like $10AUD vs. $10NZD). They look similar, but in reality, it is actually best to get a whole wad of the fructose and convert to a more valuable currency – like fatty acids (for a fee and penalty for flooding the market with a weak currency). Of course, if you are flooding the market with a currency that is better just to be converted and spent, then there isn’t much point in pulling more of the same currency out of savings.
You could play around with this analogy forever. But the bottom line is that your body runs multiple accounts, deals in multiple currencies, has term deposits, and won’t release savings unless the economic environment is right to do so. You can easily have a situation where some accounts and currencies are spent and running on overdraft, but the body just won’t release savings/term deposits because it isn’t right to do so.
When someone suggests that “calories count”, before reaching for your calorie tables and calculator, ask yourself where calories come… ask yourself how you get calories into your body. Obviously, you get them from eating food (and if you don’t believe me, try to go to the supermarket and buy a packet, tin, box, or bag of “calories” – you can’t do it). Calories don’t count, but the food currencies you eat, and the “economic environment” that they, your sleep and activity patterns, stress levels, etc. create, do count. People like Robb and others are quite right in suggesting that it isn’t all about the carbohydrates on the plate… that you can’t just eat low carb and get a free pass on everything else… that you can’t eat sources of fat and protein with impunity. But we do the subject an injustice, we confuse people, and we are perhaps being a little intellectually dishonest, when we short-hand the proteins, fats, and alcohol to “calories count”. It might be me being pedantic and arguing semantics, but I have seen how people interpret “calories” and the numbers they start tracking.
Because so many non-food factors influence your “economic environment” (e.g. hormones), counting calories and simply trying to balance energy in and energy out equations, sees people missing the larger (and perhaps more important) qualitative picture. You could have the calorie numbers squared away, but not be sleeping, walking, getting out in the sun, maintaining healthy relationships, being engaged in something that mentally stimulates you, not getting out in natural environments, be an angsty ball of stress, and so on, and you will not be getting the results you want to see in terms of how you look, feel and perform, and the answer is most certainly not to screw the calorie equation down even tighter.
I want to shift my attention to ketosis as it seems to have replaced intermittent fasting and cold water thermogenesis as the latest hot-button topic in the paleo blogosphere. My executive summary is that nutritional ketosis is a tool, it isn’t for everyone (it may well only be for a select few), and that people really need to do their homework (which includes taking a long hard look at themselves) before they dive down that rabbit hole.
I want to use three real-world case studies to illustrate my rationale for caution around the ketosis hype. One of those people I know VERY well, and he has given me express permission to talk about him here. Of the other two people, I know one, having met him in person on a few occasions now, most recently at a low-carb speaking gig here in Australia. I know a good amount about Jimmy, having listened to him speak, talked to him in person, and having read bits and pieces he has posted. The third person I have never met before and do not know at all. But she has posted some good information on her experiments with ketosis, and I feel her case makes an interesting contrast to the other two people I’ll discuss.
With both Jimmy and Neely, as I don’t know everything about their specific cases, I will likely take a bit of poetic licence with each of them in order to illustrate a point. I may very well be way off track with each of them, but I am using them as illustrative examples only. Related to this, I realise that Jimmy is a fairly polarising figure, and any mention of him in certain contexts (mostly dietary), tends to attract all the usual detractors looking for their next soapbox. All of the comments to this blog go through moderation (99.9% of which get published). But should anyone leave a comment here aimed at denigrating Jimmy (or anyone else), I shall name and shame those people and blacklist their IP and email addresses…
Jimmy Moore seems to be enjoying good success with his personal nutritional ketosis experiment in which he is eating a very low carb, moderate protein and very high fat diet. Between the time I saw him at AHS12 in Boston (August) and then again in Brisbane for the Low Carb Downunder tour, he has visibly lost an appreciable amount of weight. He finds his current way of eating sustainable, satiating, and it has improved his health markers. It is hard to argue with the success he is having with it. The only real down side with it, as far as I can see, is that it has spurred the latest round of Monkey See – Monkey Do. We saw it with “Martin-does-intermittent-fasting-and-is-ripped-so-I-should-too”, and “Jack-does-cold-water-thermogenesis-and-is-ripped-so-I-should-too”. Now by no stretch of the imagination can we describe Jimmy Moore as ripped, but he has lost a good chunk of body fat whilst increasing his muscle mass, from which we see a really blunt logic applied;
“Jimmy Moore has lost 20+ kilograms on nutritional ketosis and I have 2-3 kilograms I’d like to lose, so it will work well for me.”
“Jimmy Moore is fat and losing weight. I’m already lean, so if I do what he does, I’ll be ripped!”
I really don’t know what it is about the thought processes and logic in some of these people… perhaps thoughts for another day.
With Jimmy, he has clearly found something, be it dietary or lifestyle-related (most likely a combination), that has opened the gate on his fat stores. He mentions that he is now always satisfied, doesn’t feel hungry or get cravings. He also mentions he is sleeping better, up from 5 hours a night toward 8 hours (I was always amazed at the hours Jimmy and some others keep on Twitter – you could tell there wasn’t a lot of sleep going on). If you want to get fat and stay fat, less than 6 hours sleep per night will do it for you.
Jimmy claims his sleep improved after the change in diet and credits nutritional ketosis with this improvement. Perhaps. My cynical/sceptical mind wonders if Jimmy’s sleep improved because his dietary experiment displaced something else that was wrecking his sleep. In this regard, he perhaps doesn’t sleep better because of what he is eating but rather what he isn’t eating.
It could also be that Jimmy has been able to reprioritise his life somewhat. He has decided that things were getting out of hand on the weight front and something needed to be done. As a result, he now invests more time in himself, taking care of his food a bit more, making sure he gets to the gym, and so on. Preparing food, getting to the gym, can add up to less time on the computer, looking at a blue light screen, and thus better sleep. The food, sleep, exercises, less stress, whatever, all add up to improvements in Jimmy’s health that aren’t found entirely on what his ketosis meter tells him.
On the exercise front, as best I can tell, Jimmy lifts some weights and maybe does a bit more in the way of low intensity activity. As far as I know, Jimmy isn’t hammering himself with any high-intensity interval training (not extensively, at least). Having seen Jimmy in person, and despite recent improvements in his lean mass numbers, I’d still categorise Jimmy as being lightly muscled. He has a tall, slight frame, and on the spectrum of things, I’d put him more naturally on the endurance end of things. He seems to be more of a lift and walk kind of a guy rather than a full on power-type athlete.
My speculation from this is that his muscle type and activity patterns probably lend themselves well to allow Jimmy to run quite happily on fat and ketones. I know Jimmy points to some athletes who do tend to do well on nutrition ketosis, and almost without exception, they seem to be more ultra-endurance athletes – Ironman types.
The thing with these types of athletes is that to be successful in those sports, you need to teach your body to swim/ride/run at a high sustainable aerobic (fat-burning) pace. You can’t afford to go all anaerobic/glycolytic in those sports – you are on borrowed time if you do. These athletes have well-developed aerobic engines, lots of mitochondria in their type-1 (slow twitch) endurance fibres for burning the fat, and lots of miles to run/ride in their training needing steady fat/ketone fuelling. Drop an Ironman cyclist, in ketosis, into a 45 minute chipper like a criterium or cyclocross race, where you are sitting on your limit, and I don’t think the performance will be so great.
Now let’s bring in a contrast. Neely Quinn has also been writing recently about her experiment with nutritional ketosis – an experiment which only lasted around 6 days. As best I can tell from my reading, Neely claims to have given ketosis a crack in the name of science (mostly). She is a nutritionist and wanted to have a better understanding of what ketosis is before recommending it to clients. But let us suppose that Neely decided to give ketosis a go just in order to shed anther kilogram or two of body fat.
Looking at Neely’s body type, she is a lean woman, with really good levels of muscle mass. And let us say that she developed that body through a combination of lifting, climbing, and higher-intensity style training. If Jimmy is categorised as a lift & walk type of trainer, then Neely is more of a lift & sprint athlete. She has a body built for speed and power. But this type of body tells us something about the muscle type underlying it.
Neely is going to more likely have type-2, fast twitch muscle fibres, and perhaps, more specifically, she has a preponderance toward the fast and powerful type 2b fibres that love to run on glycogen (carbohydrate) as their primary fuel. You should be able to see where this is going to go…
So a combination of exercise patterns and muscle fibre types predispose Neely to being better suited to running on a higher carb fuel mix. This isn’t to say that she can’t run on any fat – of course she can (and the type 1 and 2a fibres she has will allow this to a degree). But it does determine that she simply cannot run her body for days on end in a low glycogen state, and the type of training she is doing (nor her fibre type) would allow her to run that well on ketones. She’ll survive on them, sure. But surviving is not thriving/performing.
Bringing back the whole calorie rant for a moment, one of Neely’s posts outlines the macronutrient breakdown she was targeting and eating. On her ketosis diet, she was consuming just over 1800kcal per day, which to me, for an athletic woman, seems a bit bat-shit crazy low. She says she was actually targeting 1500kcal (I assume she was wanting a 500kcal deficit between that and the 2000kcal she estimated she needed), and I suspect she thought the 500kcal per day deficit would just come straight from her stored body fat and she’d lean out with ease.
You can hopefully see, however, that it isn’t a case of just lining the ducks up with the calorie numbers. On paper it sounded good. In practice, a miserable (for Neely) failure. I’d guess Neely to be around the 18-22% body fat mark (maybe lower). This is actually relatively low for a woman. And in conjunction with the exercise type, the muscle fibre type (and the limitations this puts on ketosis as a fuelling strategy), and with being a lean FEMALE, whose body perhaps doesn’t want to release a lot of fat from her hips and thighs (she sure as hell hasn’t got a massive amount of belly fat to lose), I think she was on a hiding to nothing with this experiment right from the start.
Perhaps, as some people have suggested, she just needed to eat more… that 1800kcals, or more accurately, the amount of fat she was eating was just too low. But there is a problem here. Ketosis is great for killing your appetite. If your appetite is dead, how do you force feed more? High levels of early satiety might well suit the likes of Jimmy… I’m sure he could probably eat a good amount before hitting that spot (certainly more than Neely), and it stops him craving and snacking. He also has a big fuel depot on his belly, and hopefully a hormonal profile that will allow him to access it. Neely hasn’t got belly fat, and she is most likely to have a hormonal profile telling her to hang on to the little she has.
If she could by-pass the appetite-limiting nature of ketosis, and was able to eat more fat – specifically, more of the long-chain fats found in meat, eggs, olive oil, etc. does she have the capacity to digest and absorb all of this? Long-chain fatty acids need to be shuttled into the mitochondria via carnitine-based carriers. Does she have enough capacity to achieve this to a high degree? If my assumptions on her muscle fibre type are correct, this capacity is limited. She could develop it with time and training, but does she want to change the nature of her sport and recreation?
If your “type” is closer to a Neely than to a Jimmy (or the ultra-endurance types that Jimmy often refers to), I really don’t think nutritional ketosis is for you. I don’t think ketosis is compatible with strength-power athletes engaging in extensive (mostly) glycolytic exercises such as lifting for time and other high-intensity interval session. You can certainly be relatively glycogen-depleted going into this sort of training (particularly if your session is less than 20 minutes), but you will want to make sure you are restocking your glycogen stores post-workout (which ketosis won’t allow). Run several days in a row of glycogen depletion at your peril.
But is there potentially a middle ground in all of this? I think there is and this is perhaps the ground that I have naturally fallen into myself.
I have a relatively athletic build, carrying a bit more muscle mass than most office-dwelling late 30-somethings. The history of my training (mixing endurance and strength training) suggests I have a good mix of type 1 and type 2a muscle fibres, with my 2a fibres having a relatively good oxidative capacity. I say this because I tend to have a good amount of power on the likes of the bike, but that power comes from the force rather than speed side of the equation. I certainly do not rate myself as a snappy sprinter type.
If I do any endurance-type exercise, as per my AHS presentation this year, I keep the bulk of it at the low intensity end (walking, hiking, cycling), and will generally do this early in the day in a relatively glycogen-depleted state. I strength train 3 days per week, later in the day (for circadian rhythm reasons), and again do this in a relatively glycogen depleted state. Likewise, if I do any sprint work (maybe 1-2 times per week), it matches the strength training pattern (late afternoon, glycogen-depleted).
I do not consider myself to eat very low carb, but I eat lowish carb through the day. On strength/sprint days, I will cook a meal with a higher starchy carb content post-workout, thus most of my carbs are eaten in the evening, probably in a back-loading type pattern. Without planning to, perhaps once a week, I’ll have a “big carb day”. I’m generally not overly neurotic about my diet and eating, and I haven’t particularly over-thought my eating. I have just tended to fall into this pattern through my own reading and experimentation.
I do eat quite high-fat, with the bulk of my fats come from medium-chain fats, namely coconut cream (coconut milk for North American readers – what you call coconut cream, we call creamed coconut or coconut butter), coconut oil, and coconut meat (flakes or fresh from the shell). Medium-chain fats have the bonus of “pushing” you through to ketosis a bit more readily and perhaps without needing to run the carbs so low like you do with the longer chain fats. They are also very easily metabolised, not requiring a carnitine shuttle to push them into mitochondria for burning.
If I was to categorise how I eat, I am more likely to fall into the intermittent ketosis camp. I likely naturally flick in and out of ketosis, spending a good chunk of the day there, but without sustaining myself there day after day. I think for those lift & walk types, not engaging in a lot of extensive high-intensity training multiple times per week, and who still enjoy a good degree of insulin sensitivity, this middle ground is perhaps worth a try.
In the end, ketosis, like intermittent fasting, cold-water immersion, and whatever else comes up, are just tools for you to hang off your Batman utility belt. Some will be right for the right time, others will be totally wrong. I think for the Jimmy Moore’s of the world, it is something well worth looking at. If you are a lean, Crossfitting Neely-type of person, I’d think long and hard before undertaking it… you mightjust be trying to use a hammer to adjust a screw a quarter turn.
Finally, all of us want the fast track to glory, and these sorts of things – low-carbing, ketosis, and so on – perhaps offer us a promise that is just too tempting to ignore. But time and time again, people just aren’t addressing the basics – good quality food, good quality sleep, good quality sun, good quality stress, and good quality sex (as a broad metaphor for all things to do with socialisation). I have yet to see anyone, who asks me about all the usual hacks and shortcuts, who has addressed all of these things and has them all squared away. They think they have. They say they have. But with some probing, you always find the deficits.
Happy solstice and new year.