Diary of a low carb dabbler

This post (and the next few installments) is bought to you by Helen Kilding (MSc Exercise Science), currently on maternity leave from her human performance research role at New Zealand Defence Force. Helen has a keen interest in the science of nutrition and in particular the application of science in to practice. 

Helen is also a recently reformed vegetarian. Welcome back to the land of the omnivore Helen (Omnivore (n). An animal or human eating both animal and plant foods).

Over to you Helen, and thanks everyone for reading and passing on this blog, already at over 5000 views.  

Grant Schofield

Helen Kilding with Ella and Tom
Helen Kilding with Ella and Tom

As a scientist, ‘dabbling’ isn’t something I do very often but I’m on maternity leave so anything goes!

So why have I decided to dabble in LCHF?

To set the scene, I’m a 37 year old pescatarian with a wonderful carb-loving husband, a beautiful daughter (2.5 years) and a lovely new son (3 months and exclusively breastfed). I’m not overweight, I’m relatively fit and I have no health problems. I love running and am currently trying to improve my swimming so that I can do an Olympic distance triathlon at the end of the year. My goal next year is to run a sub 3-hour marathon.

Having always been involved in sport and exercise, I’ve followed a low fat high carb diet for as long as I can remember. And after both babies, I upped my carb intake to meet the extra nutritional demand of breastfeeding. But with time on my hands in the middle of the night, I started to read the suggestions that there might be a better way; that the exact opposite of my diet could have long-term benefits that I could not ignore. Although as yet unproven, the suggestion of a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s struck a particular chord (having experienced the effects of this disease first-hand), as well as the potential prevention of cancers, coronary heart disease, diabetes, the list goes on. The more I read, the more I saw myself in the description of “falling off the glucose cliff”. I fall all the time; always have. I thought it was just because I’d gone too long without food; that I had low blood sugar so needed a hit of sugar to rectify it. Despite being well-educated, I hadn’t associated the hunger pangs soon after large meals, the crankiness and light-headedness if I didn’t eat for a few hours, with the foods I was eating. Why not? Probably because I didn’t want to. I like the foods I eat. To some people my diet would seem boring and “healthy” (in the traditional sense). To me it was enjoyable, satisfying (at the time), and convenient.

So to get back to the original question of why have I decided to dabble in the LCHF diet:

  • I realise that the foods I eat at every meal and snack are resulting in an insulin surge, closely followed by a blood sugar low. No wonder I feel a bit ropey soon after having a huge bowl of cereal and then hungry again shortly after
  • I might not be overweight but any improvement in body composition can only help my marathon aspirations
  • My diet might not be optimal for long-term good health
  • I want to see what all the fuss is about
  • I don’t believe the anecdotal reports about feeling satisfied for hours on end with what appears to me to be an insubstantial meal
  • And most importantly, I want to try to do something constructive to help address the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease. In trying out a potential solution, I might uncover some of the questions that need answering and the issues that need addressing before it can or will be widely adopted.

So why am I dabbling and not going in all guns blazing?

  • I’ll be honest, my beliefs have been so ingrained that I’m nervous of change
  • I’ve believed that fat is bad for so long that I’m almost scared of it
  • As a fish-eating vegetarian, I’m worried about what I will be able to eat
  • I’m worried about how a change in my diet will affect my milk supply for my currently healthy and happy son
  • My husband loves pasta, rice, bread and cereals and I find it hard to prepare one meal for us let alone two
  • We’ve got some large expenses and only one income at the moment and I’m worried about the cost
  • There has been no research on the effects of a LCHF diet on people like me (active female; breastfeeding)
  • I don’t know what the long-term side effects might be
  • If I fully accept that this is a good idea, I will feel guilty about the food I am feeding the rest of my family
  • I’m pretty happy the way I am
  • And lastly, I’m addicted to Pepsi Max[1] and am not sure how I will survive without it!

My first dabble was comically unsuccessful: fish, veggies and salad for dinner….starving and wolfing down a huge bowl of cereal an hour later! Why? Nowhere near enough fat.

My second dabble…..full fat yoghurt mixed with cream…..a text to Grant and AUT nutritionist Mikki Williden an hour later asking if it’s normal to feel so sick! Yes it turns out….my high carb-low fat trained body just isn’t used to such high fat dairy products. I felt full for hours though!

So I’m going to give it a go for 7 days and see how I get on. Watch this space…. 


[1] Strictly speaking, Pepsi Max is fine on a LCHF diet, but it seems pointless to test out a diet designed to improve health whilst still consuming something I know is bad for me. So the carbs are going and the Pepsi Max is going.

What do I actually eat?

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Grant Schofield has a chat to a village pig about the pig’s future. The pig listens carefully.

Thanks to everyone who has started following this blog.  Frankly, while I find this stuff interesting and important, I had no idea that it was shared by so many other people.  An academic’s real-life exposure to social media is an eye opener and fun. 3000 hits in a little over a week!

So the main question I have had from people so far is “what do you eat?” and “what about kids?” I think I can talk about both of those, in this and the next post. After all I am me, and I am the father of three boys.

Some background:

I have been active and relatively fit my whole life, including a stint as a professional triathlete. One observation and my main excuse for not being a long lasting and super duper fast professional triathlete, was that I could never get my weight under 85-86 kg.  In fact, when I did my fastest time in Ironman NZ 2001, I was officially entered in the heavy weight “clydesdale” division, where I was 94 kg at weigh in. To be fair, that was at the conclusion of the pre-race pasta party. My time of 9:04 was (I claimed at least), at the time, a clydesdale world record.  I’m not sure there is such a record but it gave me mileage at the time – “world’s fastest fat guy over the Ironman triathlon distance”.

What bugged me though was why I couldn’t get fully race lean. I was eating low fat, high carb.  It was exactly what the experts said I should do.  I could hardly exercise any more.  I was training up to 25 hours a week! In fact, I noticed the same thing when I watched the Ironman in Taupo New Zealand  this year.  Roughly one third of the field is overweight or obese in my judgement.  How can they stay fat doing so much exercise?  Maybe they are LESS fat than when they started?  Or maybe their high carb diet and chronically raised insulin fails to allow fat burning?

Anyway, post triathlon retirement and children arriving I was up over 102 kg.  I was still exercising everyday, eating “healthily” and still fatter than ever and it was getting out of control.  Why was I always hungry? Why did my energy always “fall of a cliff” after lunch? I was trying really hard to NOT be a fat bastard. You can imagine, I do physical activity, nutrition, and obesity research.  You lose street cred when you are fat.

My Solution:  Take up marathon running and starve myself.  This method got the weight off. It also made me sick and injured.  I was especially prone to colds and flu with several every year. I hate flu.

I finally got consistently injured enough to flag the running and take up age group triathlon again. Same results:  weight creeping, always creeping.  When it crept past an acceptable point, I’d starve myself and exercise like crazy.  I’d get sick.

Surely there has to be a better way? Enter, LCHF.

Now: I’m down to my lightest weight since mid-high school.  79 kg, lean, full of energy, and all the  injury and illness has gone.  I’m eating until full, as much as I like.  It’s Awesome.  I wouldn’t have believed this was possible.  But it is.

I started reading all the literature and science in nutrition, which has been part of my broader field for a while.  I have read enough now and experienced enough case work to change my starting hypothesis.

That’s partly why this blog is here.  That’s why I have changed my research and practice direction in physical activity, nutrition and obesity, as well as the broader area of well being. I am now up with the science and we need to do it better.

So what do I eat?

I don’t always eat three meals a day now. I often try intermittent fasting which usually isn’t planned but happens naturally* according to hunger, food availability, work pressures and convenience. For this to be possible is a revelation to me.  I have spent almost all of my life being pretty much hungry the whole time.  If I didn’t eat every few hours I would fall off a glucose cliff and basically become 50% functional.  This is hardly convenient and hardly optimal for a high performance life.  My new way of eating also allows me to easily create calorie deficits to manage my weight if I feel I need to.

*The fact that I can quite often end up fasting accidentally for relatively long periods, while staying mentally sharp and full of physical energy, is an amazement to me.  I’ve spent my whole life doing exactly the opposite.  It’s sort of like the “user manual” for being me has been found.  I am fat adapted and can oxidize fat as a primary fuel source. I can use ketones as a fuel for my brain.  I don’t fall off the glucose “cliff” every few hours.  This is a great place to be in.  It also means you lose the cravings for the sweet food, especially sugar. This is the main benefit most people I know who have moved into this style of eating report. The constant energy and loss of ridiculous hunger every few hours.

I also have the occasional off day or meal when I just do whatever I feel like.  We are all human after all.  I used to plan these for a while and really looked forward to them.  Frankly, now, I can do this if I want but I feel so crappy after eating simple carbs, especially wheat products, that I just don’t bother much.  Again, this is a revelation as my self control in the face of high sugar high carb foods in the past has been completely non-existent!

Here are some typical meals for me:

Breakfast

  • Scrambled eggs with whipping cream and streaky farm bacon from the butcher fried in coconut oil
  • Smoothie made with coconut cream or milk, whipping cream, coco powder and or fresh berries
  • Salmon, avocado and tomato
  • Omelette with cheese and veggies (meat added when I feel like it).

Lunch

  • Massive salad with lettuce, tomato, capsicum, cucumber, cheese, meat of some sort – fish, chicken, bacon whatever is around, avocado, almonds.  Mix up and add copious amounts of dressing which is home made olive oil and vinegar or mayo.  The dressings have to be made by you, because almost all commercial dressings use hydrogenated vegetable fats – yuck – and are often high in sugar
  •  That’s my “go-to” lunch above.  I lack imagination for lunch according to my family, but that’s the way it goes!  I do have eggs and smoothies for lunch sometimes or something from the dinner/lunch list below.

Dinner

  • Some sort of meat or fish.  Heaps of veggies (green and red veggies as a rule, cauliflower is also good, avoid starchy ones). I like pork with crackling. This is the time to really appreciate the flavors of fat.
  • Wine, although I am trying an alcohol free month right now because it was getting out of hand!
  • Berries and cream for dessert
  • Low carb cheese cake is a favorite

Other tips and traps

  1. Don’t trim fat. Healthy fats are monounsaturated olive and other nut oils, Omega 3 fish oils, and healthy meat fats (unprocessed red and white meats including beef pork, fish and chicken), as well as dairy fats. Coconut oil is great.  Avoid hydrogenated and polyunsaturated fats, especially in cooking.
  2. Just to reiterate, you have to replace carb and protein calories with something.  The only macronutrient left is fat.  Our ancestors likely coveted fat.  Fat, at least as far as insulin and leptin goes, is metabolically benign.  Carbs are not, especially when they are rapidly absorbed.
  3. Coffee is OK, I use whipping cream not milk. I tend to avoid dairy except cheese of all sorts (yum!) and cream.  Milk can be high in lactose (a carbohydrate). Those who are more carbohydrate tolerant (have an ability to eat carbs without weight gain) can go for full fat milk and a fuller range of dairy. Most kids are in this  category.
  4. Alcohol is a tricky question.  Alcohol is certainly not metabolically benign.  I recommend abstinence during the adaptation period into LCHF. Have a look at this link to explore more about keto/low carb adaptation. Then what you want is a low carb drink if you enjoy alcohol.  I certainly don’t drink alcohol for physical health reasons but I do drink it for social and marital health reasons!  My wife Louise and I spend lots of time sitting on our deck drinking wine and talking.  Great fun!  The active alcohol is called ethanol and is processed in the liver without much effect on insulin, at least not directly. It in fact follows a similar and dangerous path to the liver and beyond.  It’s metabolically active in an inflammatory and insulin resistance-promoting kind of way.  However, that said, we all have our vices, the actual insulin raising carbs in a glass of wine are between 3 and 6 g, depending on the wine and the size of glass (we have big glasses in our house!) so a glass or two is fine. Beers have way more carbs (12-20 g) per bottle and contain wheat that may result in other metabolic effects for some people.  You can get low carb beers of course.  I don’t really care for spirits, as a result of bad youth experiences I think, but if you do use them then it’s crucial to leave out the sugar based mixers.

That’s my wrap.  I’m not perfect and as a normal human fall off the wagon too.  I’m on the 18/21 plan. If there are 21 meals in a week, try for at least 18 good ones, hopefully better.  Let me know your favorite meals and we can post them up.


Be the best you can be

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(pic: the entrance to AUT Millenium where I work)

I’ve wanted to start a blog for quite some time now. The trick is to get the technical skills together well enough to actually know how to run one and do it regularly. Well, I’m just about there.

What will I blog about?

I am really interested in the science of how we can be the best we can be. This crosses disciplines such as biology, medicine, pubic health, and productivity management. The cornerstones are nutrition, exercise, sleep, neuroscience, psychology and well-being. I’ll be covering these topics under the broad heading of the Science of Human Potential (the name of this blog).

I’ve been interested in human health and performance for my whole career. I started in psychology then into sport and exercise psychology, then into public health especially physical activity then obesity.

There have been some twists and turns along the way which might help to give a view of why I do what I do and where it can go.

About me

Sport and exercise has always been a massive part of my life. From an early age I played rugby union, learned to sail and race, and eventually ended up in the high school rowing squad. Rowing at my high school had no room for anything but high performance. So I was introduced to this at age 13. From there we won national championships most years. The combination of the sheer physicality of the sport and the team work and individual excellence required both mentally and physically really defined my teenage years and who I could become as an adult.

Being fit and involved in some sort of high performance activity has been part of my life since then.

I finished bachelors, Honors, and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of Auckland by 1994. At the same time I had got into triathlon as a sport. I ended up racing semi-professionally. That’s code for “was never quite fast enough to earn a decent living, so had to supplement prize money income by working“. In the end I raced professionally in several world championships in long course triathlon, ironman and duathlon. That was great fun, and the skills and work ethic I have learned from triathlon are important to me.

The extra benefits from the high performance sport world, especially triathlo,n include:

  • I met my wife Louise because of triathlon. She ended up also as a professional triathlete, a better athlete than me. We’ve been married since 1995 and have three boys – Sam, Jackson and Daniel. Louise also started Vitality Works, a workplace health company acquired by Sanitarium in 2012. Vitality Works has allowed both of us to benefit from a huge amount of professional and personal development in health and well-being.
  • I figured out early that a high performance life is just as much work as a low performance life, so you may as well take the high performance life. It just requires a bit more work up front, but frankly you avoid work later and you get more choices.
  • I have the skills to stay fit and enjoy maximizing my biology for my own personal peak performance.
  • I still get to compete at a reasonable level in triathlon and running. This is cool because the age group triathlon and running groups are really fun, and you get to hang out with people of a similar performance, health, and happiness mindset.

My academic career began with part-time teaching in the Psychology Department at The University of Auckland during my PhD tenure. I moved to Australia (Central Queensland University in Rockhampton) and worked in the School of Psychology there for nearly 10 years. Most of our spare time then was dedicated to triathlon training and racing with Louise. I wasn’t going fast or far in the academic world at that point. Enter Kerry Mummery.

Kerry Mummery is now the Dean of Physical Education at the University of Alberta. He really mentored and started me on the journey to becoming a decent academic. We worked on several physical activity and health projects together. The most notable was 10,000 Steps. This started as a whole community project and morphed into a nationwide program which is still running successfully today.

This was the entrance into public health proper for me. I started at AUT in 2003 after the birth of Jackson our second son. Back in Auckland and into a new country with plenty to do. That’s when things really took off. I had the good fortune to have several great staff members and PhD students under my guidance. Almost all of these are still with me.

The highlights in the last decade are:

  • Working with dozens of talented doctoral and masters thesis students
  • Being highly successful in obtaining research grants and funding. This is the life of an academic and you live and die by this success. We are up over $20 million in funding.
  • A solid and respectable publication record. Ditto above. Important for gauging success. But by itself is unlikely to put much of a dent in the universe.
  • Being involved in Vitality Works. This has put a dent in the universe and allowed me to develop more formally into peak performance, well being and neuroscience.
  • Being the youngest full professor around for a while. That wore off as I aged!
  • Moving our work beyond physical activity into obesity, well-being, productivity, and nutrition/weight loss. Most recently the work we are starting in metabolic efficiency and weight is likely to put the biggest dent in the world.
  • Starting the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and eventually morphing that into the Human Potential Centre at the new Millennium Campus.

So that’s where I’m at. Where I want to go now, and with this blog, is to explore the science behind what helps us “be the best we can be.” It’s an emerging and multidisciplinary science. Let’s go!