Since I’ve gotten back into action over the past couple of months, I’ve had numerous conversations with folks regarding nutrition and the impact my 2012/2013 dietary approach may or may not have had on my adrenal gland function and overall well-being. I want to (briefly) address this topic with this post. To be clear – this will be my last public look back to the fatigue-laden year of 2013 – as it is time to move on – but I really just want to get a few thoughts out there so that others won’t make the same mistake(s) I did. Thanks for reading.
The most frequent question I have responded to since last June is: “Do you think eating ‘Paleo’ is what made you so tired?” There are variations, but more often than not it is phrased that way. Frequently this question is worded in statement form: ‘Paleo really isn’t the way to go and you are proof of that’. Anyway – you get the point – I’ve tried my best to answer these questions and communicate clearly what I know and don’t know about nutrition. Here is what I do know – during the fall of 2011 and throughout most of 2012 – when I stopped eating grains/beans/dairy, and began to eat more healthy fats (avocado, coconut products, grass-fed butter, etc) I began to feel invincible. For 18-months I followed a ‘standard’ Paleo diet and still ate an abundance of fruit, vegetables, starchy tubers, and dark chocolate (dark chocolate is Paleo, right?) – but I cut out bread, pasta, rice, baked-goods, and cereal grains. My diet became primarily eggs, healthy fats, sweet potatoes, healthy meats, lean proteins, and many fruits and vegetables. I felt amazing – lost weight, increased lean muscle mass, optimized my body composition, and went from doing 9 pull-ups to 25. Seriously. My day-to-day energy was incredible and my overall productivity was through the roof. Energy lulls? Reduced. Reliance on caffeine? Reduced. Mood swings? Reduced. I was on target, with the only negative (as a runner) being that I was maintaining a higher body weight. ‘All systems go’ though – good stuff.
So where’d I go wrong? There were a few issues, but in short: I tried to do too much ‘life’ (work, projects, side jobs, saying yes, lacking focus, etc). I tried cramming all of this in to the same amount of time and simply ran out of energy. I can’t reiterate this enough – my primary issue was not sleeping enough. Ramping up stress, ramping up obligations, ramping up training – all while ramping DOWN my nightly sleep from 7 hours to less than 6 hours – not a great recipe for health, longevity, and performance. I’ve always been too driven and ‘type A’ though, and I’ve always lacked the ability to say no to opportunities because I see them as just that – opportunities. So why 2013? If I was merely continuing the same behavior, then why did I fall apart?
The catalyst in this case? Extreme low-carb eating and a misguided focus on intermittent fasting. The ‘extreme’ part of this is that I’ve always been a good ‘fat burner’ and could typically get by with less intake than most during training and racing. So naturally my brain took this to an extreme and I tried to enhance this strength even further. I truly believed that if I could cut my carbohydrate intake down to under 100g per day (every day) AND tinker with the timing of skipping meals – I felt that I could literally make my metabolic system bullet-proof. Here’s the deal: I still think that eating a low carb diet and occasionally training in a fully-fasted state is very helpful for ultra athletes, but it is just how it fits in with the rest of your life that makes the biggest difference. I believe that people who are able to sleep a significant amount each night, nap daily, and generally keep to a low-stress life would be well served by eating a low-carb diet and building intermittent fasting into their lives. The problem comes when one tries to add these nutrition/diet stresses to a life that is run on sub-optimal sleep, too much caffeine, and too little relaxation. That is where I made my biggest mistake – I took what I still believe are solid and sound principles and literally tried to cram them around the edges of my packed-to-the-ceiling life. After 4+ months – my body could not take it any more and I began to fall apart. Here is a link to a post I wrote last summer.
I am thankful to people like Matt Hart and Adam St. Pierre who reached out to me DURING the months leading up to my demise. They both tried to steer me back to a more reasonable approach – but I wouldn’t listen. So, to answer the question – No, it wasn’t ‘Paleo’ that blew me apart; it was radicalizing and misapplying extreme low-carb eating and intermittent fasting which brought me down. Today – February 17, 2014 – I still eat a ‘Paleo’ diet, but I am not tracking every gram of carbohydrate every day AND I am not mixing intermittent fasting with large blocks of training. The body feels back to a more even-keel and I couldn’t be happier to be once again on the trail pursuing endurance goals with something approaching extreme moderation. Thanks for reading. Here’s to a strong 2014. Live well. Eat well. Train well. DC