With all the ongoing and seemingly never-ending debate in the paleo/low carb world about the likes of safe starches, low-carb paleo vs. high-carb paleo, and so on, I admit I get a bit frustrated by it all. We hear examples of how people have supposedly followed a certain protocol, meeting with either with great success or with the wheels coming off their health in spectacular fashion. Despite people trying to dial carbohydrate intake in to the nth degree, juggling 5 grams here and 5 grams there (remember when we played the same game with fat in the 90′s?), we are slowly but surely seeing an increase in the number of people reporting that "paleo/low carb didn't work for them".

Amongst the many possible reasons as to why these strategies might not have worked, one of the ones that I see most commonly is a failure to compensate for pushing carbohydrate intake down by pushing fat intake up. For some, this might be completely unintentional - they just don't know how to get fat intake up. They have spent so many years trying to get fat out of the diet that they really have no reference point for how to load it back in again - they don't know how much is not enough. Others, who may have limited gut capacity to digest and absorb a lot of long-chain fats, may find that making such a big jump in their fat intake makes them feel unwell and so they struggle to get enough in.

Other individuals seem to be of the opinion that if low-carb is good for weight loss, very low-carb will be even better - particularly when combined with low-fat. These people invariably end up eating a low-carb, low-fat, moderate-protein, low-calorie diet. On such a diet, you are on borrowed time before either the hunger sets in or you[r] body starts taking steps to protect itself (stalling fat loss). In my experience, these people will typically swear black and blue that they are eating carbs - that they haven't cut them too low. They will also swear that they are eating more fat. But when you turn the thumb screws on them enough, you eventually get the truth. You see a small plate of food, with a small amount of pumpkin (or the like), perhaps coated with a small amount of olive oil. Fail.

[Incidentally, if these same people see you eat, they balk at the amount of food you put away]

I was recently contacted by a young chap wanting help and whose situation reflects some of the above. As he had numbers to put all around his specific situation, and given how often I have seen similar situations, I asked him if he would mind me using him as a case study and example. He agreed and I very much appreciate him giving me this opportunity.

Male, 21y
Current weight = 100kg
Target weight = 90kg
Goals: Pass navy diving exam, lose weight, increase endurance capacity
Brief history;

A little history, over about 18 months I lost around 30kg eating low-fat conventional wisdom (stupid whole grains etc.) and took my 10k run time down to around 45 mins. I am lucky enough to have come across paleo and I now eat like that on the most part but struggle to put a plan into place that allows me to lose weight and maintain the amount of training I now need to do with the navy diving gig. I have played around with lower carb (~100g) etc but have struggled a little with poor performance.

Goal wise I need to lose around 5-10kg and have to regain a mid 40′s 10k run time (now in mid 50′s after a 6 month layoff). I currently crossfit, strength sessions and run in a bit of a haphazard style, usually 2 sessions a day, 5 days a week. I also run weekly intervals with a triathlon club, 6-8km of 200,400,800 and 1k's.

I agreed to take this young gentleman on and asked for a more extensive background, including diet, a more detailed training schedule, and his sleeping patterns and quality. This is what he sent through, starting with his training load...

4 x week run as per Crossfit Endurance - 1 x short intervals (10×400 usually), 1 x long intervals (6-8km of 200,400,800,1000 at 10k/5k race pace), 1 x stamina (2.4,4,5,10k TT) and 10×100 sprints/4×500 hill sprints alternated each week.

3 strength sessions - 5×5 Back squat and bench, 5×5 front squat and press, 5-5-5-3-3-1 deadlift

5 or 6 CF wods as per my box or something via sealfit/military athlete wods.

Swim twice a week, 1 x intervals and 1 long for recovery.

Ride the road bike 10k round trip to the box.

Rest Thursday AM and Sundays.

Usually do endurance workout in AM, Strength/WOD in PM. I also add in specific training for my pushup/situp/pullup as required by the navy gig.

Training volume is large but I think it's the sort of level I'll need to be at.
This is a MASSIVE training load! Most of the intervals are very extensive by nature. 10x 100m is a solid enough session. But 10x 400/500m will (or should) bury you. Most of this is very much lactate tolerance-type work, being very heavily glycolytic in nature. In other words, this level of training would require a good intake of carbs given the total daily and weekly loads.

There was no mention of whether this training was cycled - that is, whether it was completed as a 2 weeks on, 1 week off -type of programme, for example. My suspicion, based on what I know of CF & CFE programmes, is that this was the set load, week in, week out.

So how was this chap fuelling such high-powered training...
6am - Endurance Training

7am - Breakfast: 250g tuna in brine with 10g coconut oil, 450g broccoli pesto (250g broccoli, 200g carrot, 10g coconut oil and spices pureed into mash)

8am-4pm - Work: Fasting - just water/black coffee.

4:30pm - Banana and 10gm Branched-Chain Amino Acid supplement

5pm - Strength training or WOD

6:30pm - Dinner: 100g beef liver, 300g grassfed beef, 500g zucchini, 100g sauerkraut, 200g sweet potato

I stick to that 6 days a week and then fast from [lunchtime saturday to dinnertime sunday night] where I eat to satiety on the meat/veg as well as some frozen mashed banana as an ice cream substitute. Not sure if this is even required but I do it with the idea of fueling the first few days in the week and making sure I'm not slowing down any hormonal/metabolism sort of things. (Could be stupid of me but that is currently the thought process)

I am a bit disillusioned with the level of carbs, having been keto before and have performed fairly well, but with this volume of training on a fairly low carb level could provide problems?
You think?

In summary, this athlete was undertaking fasted sprint (glycolytic) training in the morning, eating a low-carb AND low-fat breakfast, followed by more fasting and only a light snack; undertaking a second training session (also glycolytic), before finishing the day off with dinner. At the weekend, an extend fast of approximately 18 hours occurs.

Let's put some numbers around this. This is the approximate breakdown of this gentleman's daily intake;

Energy: 1732 kcal
Protein: 162.5g
Carbs: 129.2g
Fat: 67.8g

To give you some perspective, I do nothing approaching this volume of training, and I would eat more fat for breakfast than this guy has in a day!

He is eating a low-carb, very low-fat, and therefore low-energy diet, whilst putting himself through the wringer on a day-to-day basis. It is no wonder that his performance and weight loss progress had stalled. And in my mind at least, this scenario is exactly the reason why those "gurus" who are getting bogged down with playing around with low-carb and very low-carb diets, attempting to manipulate various hormonal outputs, and generally tinkering with all sorts of fringe strategies, all with the aim of sorting out those who are claiming they have "done everything properly" but "paleo isn't working for them", need to be very careful. This guy doesn't need less carbs, or more intervals (or more of anything else on the training front for that matter), nor does he need to be stuck in an ice bath and have his leptin/insulin/cortisol/ adjusted/reset.

He just needs to do less and eat more.

I generally don't prescribe hard and fast numbers for people to work to - counting anything other than how many steaks are sitting on the plate is just far too tedious in my mind. However, I did calculate some targets that I thought would make a good baseline and rest point from which we could negotiate and adjust his eating from. Clearly the current baseline is too low to support his outputs.

I used the following numbers (calculated on his target weight of 90kg);

Protein - 2.0g/kg of body weight (current = 1.6g/kg) = 180g (720kcal)
Carbohydrate - 2.0g/kg of body weight (current = 1.3g/kg) = 180g (720kcal)
Fat - 2.0g/kg of body weight (current = 0.7g/kg) = 180g (1620kcal)

Even conventional wisdom suggests his fat intake should have been approximately 1g/kg.

These would all be approximate goals and give him plenty of room to adjust the variables up and down. Interestingly, I have recently picked up a paper on high-fat diets for endurance athletes where the researchers were using 1g/kg carbohydrate and 4g/kg of fat!

I advised him to continue to undertake the morning training fasted, as per usual, but to drop the fasting during the day and at the weekend. An extended fasted training session at the weekend might be more appropriate, followed by a regular eating schedule from there. I wasn't specifically asked to address the training side of things, but I would generally try to knock a lot of the volume out of this man's training sessions, if not dropping the overall intensity of it barring a couple of select sessions per week.

This was the first paragraph of my response to him;

Right, well the short story with this is that you simply aren't eating enough total energy. I often talk of people who screw their carbs right down but do not pull their fat intake up sufficiently, either through not knowing how to do so, or by almost subconsciously taking a low-carb and low-fat approach. I think too that your lack of calorie intake is exacerbated by overuse/misuse of fasting. If you put together your low-carb, low-fat, low-energy, high-volume, excessively fasted training, you can soon start to see where some of the issues are coming from.

This was his response to my advice and his initial progress;
I really have to get the idea out of my head that low calories and excessive training are the keys to weight loss. My reading explains they're not, but having lost substantial weight like that in the past I guess I just need a good swift kick in the head to re-align everything.

I suppose the cramming of training elements and extreme dietary practices is due to the navy testing coming up and I am trying to get everything done last-minute due to some very poor behavior on my part. I let myself go over christmas all the way through to late January (gaining about 5kg over a 6 week period; I can eat) and now have to try to do my best in dropping the weight and quickly gaining a little bit better aerobic capacity. I'm back over the ditch in late March in Auckland for a residential divers board so that is the short-term goal, all going well, I could well find myself fulltime in your lovely country.

I will have a play around with [dietary analysis] now and see what I can knock up with those macro's [target numbers] and will put it into operation for a few weeks.

I have just had a few days of low-carb without the training volume to lose a bit of the water weight I was holding and re-establish a base for ketosis. Did a funny thing before my wod this afternoon...

- 4 eggs and 250gm tuna for breakfast. Lasted me all day no problems.
- Around 4.30pm, coconut cream to 75g of fat, 4.5k run to the cf box, 3-3-3-1-1 front squats followed by 10 rounds of 100m sprint, 15 wallball @ 9kg.

Felt great the whole entire time, no fatigue like I have been experiencing. Put it down to the coconut cream?

Will put the plan into practice over the next 4 weeks and then report back. Going to keep it all Whole30 strict as well. Will keep you posted on how it goes.
He also recently reports that body fat levels have already started coming down again.

The lessons here are;

While there are benefits to fasting, fasted training, high-intensity interval training, metabolic condition workouts, and eating low-carb, you overdo all of these strategies at your peril, and combing them all together is not going to give you the cumulative effects you think they might.

If you are going to eat low-carb, you need to eat high-fat and likely a lot higher than you think what a high-fat diet actually is.

If you are eating low-carb and low-fat, you are on borrowed time before you stall.

If you have goals (whether they are performance, weight, or health orientated), with the exception of the occasional break, taking large portions of time off from the strategies you need to achieve those goals and putting yourself under time pressure to achieve them, is likely to see you defaulting to behaviours which you logically know are likely to fail.

Thanks to this client for allowing me to detail his story in a hope that it is a lesson to others getting themselves in similar situations.

Update: The young chap who is the subject of this post contacted me overnight with this update on his progress...
Just a quick message to say the article is great. The fat is falling off me like it never actually has before and I'm feeling fuelled for every workout. I honestly can't thank you enough. Coconut milk and cream have become my new best friends and I am talking everyone's ears off at the gym with how good they are. I will keep in touch with the progress as I think something a bit crazy (good crazy) might be happening here, exciting.