My brother-in law by marriage, Jason, is a Master Chief in the United States Navy and has been a SEAL for the last 19 years. He is 39 years old, has been with the teams for about 20 years now, and is currently deployed to Iraq on his second tour in that theater.
Jason has been an avid cross-fitter for about 3 years and eats a PaNu style lacto-paleo diet with about 10% of calories form carbohydrate.
In his own words:
Here is a synopsis of my evolution with diet and CrossFit. My athletic background since childhood was swimming. I swam competitively for 12 years. Throughout that time, I also played numerous other sports. In addition, I became very interested in nutrition. This was in part due to my mother taking a nutrition class in college when I was young and also because it seemed to go hand-in-hand with athletic performance. Finally, about 19 years ago, I started a successful shot at SEAL Training.
For most of the last 19 years, I have been very physically active. It is part of the job. The workouts have changed over time. When I was a new guy it was a combo of running, swimming, and chest / triceps on Mon / Wed, back and biceps on Tues / Thurs (or whatever routine Muscle and Fitness suggested). As time went on, that changed to more lifting and surfing, and less running. I was eating what most doctors would consider a healthy diet: Lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat everything. I would supplement with some sort of protein shake and soy milk. My weight remained steady at 185 for about a decade.
Late in 2001, I had a cholesterol test. Total cholesterol was 197. My triglycerides were 148 and my HDL was 30. I can’t remember what my LDL was, but it was low as well. The docs were happy with the under 200 number, but concerned with my low HDL. They asked how my diet was, and after I explained it, they said it “couldn’t be due to diet”. I remember asking how to raise my HDL. The response was that I was eating healthy, so the “low HDL was genetic and would require a supplement of Niacin”. I took Niacin for about 2 weeks then threw the bottle away. It made me flushed and generally was annoying. I’d take my chances with the low HDL.
In 2005, I was introduced to CrossFit by some colleagues. When I saw them knocking out muscle-ups, cleans, or whatever, followed by the writhing-on-the-ground post workout ritual, I was sold. I slowly, but surely, started hitting either Crossfit or the Gym Jones workouts, although initially, I still held on to abs, chest, triceps, etc… The results with the CF spoke for themselves, and by the end of 2006, that was all I was doing.
The good thing about CrossFit-style training is that it is truly measurable. For example, my first Fran time was 10:23. The next time it was in the seven-minute range. Then by the summer of 2007, I got stuck at 4:15 on Fran. Every other benchmark: From 400M to 5K, and 1 rep max lifts to the various met-con workouts, I had plateaued. It was incredibly frustrating.
About that same time, I had the good fortune of attending some CF Level 1 certs we held at work. The second one I attended had my full attention. The biggest take away for me was on the topic of nutrition. Greg Glassman gave an incredible lecture on the importance of nutrition to health and performance. He gave examples of the top athletes’ dedication to their diets. He recommended a paleo-centric version of the Zone Diet. The Zone was something I was familiar with. I remember Vicki (Kurt’s wife, the dentist) dabbling in the zone some years back. In fact, I had half-heartedly tried to make my meals zone-ish since that time. I decided to follow the Zone strictly for a while and see where that led me.
Shortly after starting the Zone, I noticed an improvement in all my CF Benchmarks. I was strictly following 20 blocks a day. I had to increase my fat more and more as I went on due to ravenous hunger. Eventually I was at 20 blocks with 3-4 x the fat recommended by Zone. I was still eating grains. That was when you sent me the copy of Good Calories, Bad Calories. The timing could not have been more perfect. I was already experiencing better health and athletic performance on a lower carb diet (Zone). I read the book twice, picked your brain a bit, and started on a true low-carb diet.
My diet most resembled Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint. I only ate veggies and some fruit to the tune of 70-90 grams of Carbs a day, lots of saturated and monounsaturated fat, and clean meat sources. On that regimen, performance skyrocketed. All my CF benchmarks improved dramatically:
Fran under 3:00 (From 4:15 on standard Zone!)
Deadlift at 2.5 times bodyweight, etc…
There is an athletic standard floating around the CF community that contains a myriad of skill sets. The skills include one-rep max on different lifts, max pull-ups, 5k run, 400m run, 6k row. It is a full spectrum of athletic endeavors. Since switching my diet (to VLC PaNu), I have achieved advanced or elite on all the various skills.
There are lots of athletes out there who are at or way beyond that level. What is impressive is that I am 39 years old, beaten up from 19 years in the Teams, and have only been seriously Cross-Fitting for three years. That degree of improvement at my age could only be due to diet.
Since then, I have been continually adjusting and monitoring carb levels and type, as well as doing intermittent fasting. I have meticulously documented my diet and workouts for the past year. Here are my conclusions:
1. Carbs are way overrated for performance. I have the same results at 40g per day as 100g per day.
2. My absolute peak performance occurs about 12 hours after my last meal. That continues until 17 hours. After a 17+ hour fast, longer duration, high intensity workouts suffer. Suffer is a relative term however. Compared to 95% of the population, it is more than adequate.
3. On the 50-70 grams of carbs a day, with a daily 13-15 hour fast broken post workout with all of my daily intake of carbs, I have noticed the following: Body fat dropped like a rock, muscle mass grew, performance improved. To top that off, my hair, which was receding rapidly, has stopped falling out
4. Allergies have dramatically improved.
5. I couldn’t tell you the last time I was sick and I have kids in public school.
6. My recommendation for a housewife, kid, SEAL, or anyone is as follows:
a. Keep carbohydrate intake under 90 grams per day, striving for 50 grams.
b. Carbs should be berries, sweet potato, green leafy veg / broccoli-cabbage.
c. Eat clean meats: Grass fed beef / lamb, eggs, wild caught fish, sardines, and wild game.
d. Fats: I eat a ton of grass-fed tallow (beef fat) and coconut oil / milk. I recently, after a visit to PaNu Headquarters (Dr. Harris’ home), have begun using grass-fed butter and cream for the family and me.
e. Intermittent Fasting daily (I call this a narrow eating window and I usually do the same). I try to do a daily fast of 12-15 hours on days I work out. On non-workout days, I will fast 15-24 hours.
Your elite level training experience totally supports my own experience with training at more of a middle-aged maintenance level - 5 k runs and Doug McGuff-biased lifting workouts.
August 2009 labs for Jason on a high sat-fat VLC diet show his HDL-C (sans Niacin) has more than doubled from 30 to 75, and triglycerides have fallen from 148 to 80. Of course, LDL-C has risen to 226 Friedewald (probably lower if direct) and Total-C is now 317. Jason is able to resist harassment to take statins as he knows that his LDL is all “big and fluffy” and not atherogenic. I would estimate his LDL-P (particle number) or ApoB is around 120 based on my own labs and those of others. His fasting insulin is a superb 3.65 microunits/ml.
Jason is approached by younger Seals all the time about the secret to his physique and performance. He tells them it is 80% diet – the rest is sleep and physical training. My own experience supports Jason’s impression.
Feel free to post comments and questions. Jason reads the blog but is “in country” so may take a while to respond. You can ask me questions as well, of course.
I also have two more acquaintances who are serious endurance athletes while following a completely PaNu-compliant dietary regime.
My friend Marco from Holland is a Tour de France veteran (1994) and now races bicycles at the Master’s level in Europe. He has reported good results training for and competing in cycling events on a high animal fat/ low carb diet.
My radiologist partner, Dr. Erik Borgnes, is also an endurance athlete. At age 44 he is a world-class open water kayaker. He trains year round, eating a PaNu style diet free of gluten grains, excess fructose, and industrial vegetable oils. He reports good performance on a diet that is about 25% carbohydrate. Not exactly VLC, of course, but less than half the carbohydrate conventional wisdom says you need to do endurance sports.