The Experiment (Part 2)
(Drafted two weeks ago, finishing up now.)
I wrote about the psychological side of my zero-carbohydrate diet for January, but now 23 days in, I want to discuss more of the physical.
As I mentioned I was sick for the first week-plus, and then even the following week I was still adapting to burning fat exclusively rather than sugars. But now I finally feel mostly adapted — running at the track was easier than I had expected this week, and my energy levels are back to what feels like normal, only my lungs are clearer, and my back doesn’t ache when I bend down to take off Oscar’s leash (he’s six-inches tall, so it’s a quite a bend.)
I don’t want to overstate it. I’m for some reason (diet-related or not) waking up at the crack of dawn every day no matter what time I go to bed, so I’m often tired, and I’m still not better athletically than I was before the diet. Perhaps there is still more adaptation yet to come.
But I’m thinking beyond just the observable physical symptoms now and what’s likely going on under the hood, so to speak. When you stop the flow of a particular macronutrient cold, it has to have a seismic effect on the wider ecosystem. I would expect the gut fauna to be vastly different three weeks later — the way an urban neighborhood would a few years (adjusting for lifespan) after eliminating the drug trade. I imagine some of the kingpins have perished (one of the reasons people who do this experience the “keto flu” as their die-off temporarily creates even more toxins), and other species have flourished in their place.
Moreover, with no sugar added to the blood, my liver was able to expel its glycogen entirely, letting go of its typical stores. What a relief as it can finally relax and resume what I imagine to be its default state in human history of not being perpetually stuffed and tasked with the role of supplying what it evolved to regard as emergency energy. Perhaps it’s even freed to do its real job of detoxing other substances for which it previously lacked capacity.
Another physical effect is weight loss. I’m down around 8-10 pounds, though half of that is probably water which depletes with the glycogen (if I recall correctly.) Still 4-5 pounds of real weight loss is good in three weeks, but I’m hoping for double that before I gradually add some carbs back in. No, it’s not just vanity — though being crazy jacked at 52 is not something I’d be against — but a theory I have.
Just as we evolved to burn up all our glycogen and clean out the liver frequently, I imagine we also evolved to burn up most of our fat stores. While that stored energy surely got us through literal lean times, it only did so via its use. In other words, you store fat to burn it, not to keep it around indefinitely. There are also plenty of toxins stored in fat, and I imagine burning through those too was part of a cleansing cycle.
That is not to say one should live in an emaciated state (though calorie intake and longevity are inversely related), but that every so often maybe people should drop to their fighting weight and then gain some of the weight back cyclically. Maybe store more in the winter for when the body expects lean months and shed it in the spring and summer when storage was less necessary before putting it on again in the fall via seasonal fruit.
In any event, that’s my theory — instead of carrying around the same weight all the time, it’s good to shed and reacquire some small amount, even if I might be jumping the gun by a few months on the shedding part according to my theory.
. . .
I don’t purport that any of the foregoing is necessarily true. My theory could be bullshit for any number of reasons, and theories only bear fruit or not through experiment. I’m running one such experiment and to date it is still inconclusive. The more I look into things, though, the more one truth becomes apparent: that the most valuable study you can do is on yourself. That the most relevant experiment you can run has a n of 1, and it should carry more weight than all the “scientific” studies in the world and all the half-baked theories from someone posting on Substack.
. . .
Postscript: I did some blood tests shortly after drafting this, and the results were bizarre. My fasting blood glucose after 25 days without sugar was 82, a marked improvement from my usual 99 or 100. But my HbA1c (which measures the average blood glucose for the prior three months) went up to 5.5 from the usual 5.3.
How it’s possible that 25 days with zero sugar whatsoever would push up the average is a mystery to me. Maybe there’s some gluconeogenesis, wherein the body breaks down protein or fat to synthesize glucose, going on or maybe I just binged too hard over the holidays prior (doubtful). I don’t really know.
Also, my cholesterol went way up (not that I really care about LDL or total cholesterol), my HDL (“good” cholesterol) went down, and my triglycerides shot up too, both typically markers of metabolic dysfunction. One clue for the lipid results was my thyroid was underperforming — apparently some people need carbs to convert the inactive T4 hormone to the active T3, and low thyroid is correlated with higher cholesterol. But this is all speculation — it could even have been a lab error (I doubt it since all the tests seemed to support one another), or maybe I just needed to keep at it longer and get more fully adapted.
But as I wasn’t doing *better* athletically than I did before the diet, and my energy was just so-so generally, despite the lack of aches and pains in the joints, I scrapped it, went back to the usual diet (gluten-free), intermittent fasting, total fast on Mondays. And I am staying away from dairy for now, much as I love cheese, and much as I consider the unprocessed variety a health food for most people.
Maybe 25 days was too small a sample, maybe at some point I’ll test it again, but my tentative conclusion for now is I probably do better with some low level of carbohydrates, at least in my present metabolic state.
I described this to friends here as a “failed experiment” — that was a long time to deprive myself of sugar, only to get ostensibly worse results! — but sometimes you have to pay a price for information, and I’m okay with the cost.