Saturday, 24 April 2010

7-Day Virtually Zero-Carb Experiment

I have been meaning to try this for a while, and after eating too much bad food over easter, I was in the mood for something radical.

A while back Mark Sisson posted about the possibility of eating zero carb - you can read that here. One of the things he says is:

"A perfect zero carber who closely watches meat sources, gets plenty of sleep, good Primal exercise, and leads a low-stress existence is probably fine without piles of vegetables."

Do I tick those boxes? Not always, but believed I was up to the challenge.

I also noticed in March that Girl Gone Primal had decided to eat a meat/fish/eggs-only diet (some of her meals are shown here), and she reported almost immediately feeling better, believing that for her, at any rate, this is the optimal way to eat. This piqued my interest.

Of course, being truly zero carb is more or less most impossible, as there are sources of carbohydrate even in meat. I planned to try virtually zero carb, which is all one can hope to realistically achieve while eating in a natural way.

So in fact I was trying two things at the same time. First, zero carb. But as a secondary goal, eating only meat, fish and eggs.

This is why I wanted to try it:
  1. To know how it would feel.
  2. To know how would it affect exercise.
  3. The challenge of achieving quality nutrition with meat, fish and eggs alone.
  4. To lose the Easter pounds.
What Did I Eat?

By the end of the 7 days, I had eaten:

Meat/Fish/Eggs: A rabbit, a chicken, a mackerel, a crab, 2 pork chops, 6 eggs, a beef joint, a lamb joint, a tin of pilchards, a tin of sardines.

How I ensured maximum nutrition:
  1. All meat was wild caught (rabbit, mackerel, crab, tinned fish)
  2. ...or organically farmed (chicken, pork, lamb, beef, eggs)
  3. Where possible I ate the unusual parts (mackerel head, rabbit organs, chicken bones)
  4. Of course, I ate all the fat.
Non-animal, but still low carb items: a few coffees, avocado & pine nuts in one lunch; a bowl of walnuts, cashews and pine nuts one evening; a couple of squeezes of lime and lemon; olive oil and coconut oil in sauces.

What Happened - The Food Diary

Below is my food diary, along with photos.

Day 1
The first day began with a regular fast until the evening. I'd been eating a fair bit over the weekend, so it was a relatively easy fast.

At about 7.30pm, I had a couple of free range pork chops, stir fried in coconut oil with three organic free-range eggs, which I overcooked a little. The whole lot slid easily onto the plate as a single item.

The veg steamer sat unwanted on the stove.
Day 2
I skipped breakfast because I didn't do a workout. I prefer to earn breakfast, or not have it.

I hadn't quite decided to go 'all animal' at this point, just v.low carb, so I packed a whole avocado and a tin of pilchards, which are hiding under a generous handful of pine nuts.

In the evening, I baked a large mackerel, once again ignoring the veg steamer's plaintive looks. A squeeze of lime and some coconut butter were the sole accompaniments.

I made a point of eating pretty much all of the head. Eyes, brain and sundry mushy stuff. By now I had the idea that I could get all the vitamins I needed from wild or organic food, provided I ate all the good bits.

Day 3
On this day I was running a race in the evening. It was a couple of miles and 1000 feet of ascent.

I decided to fast for two reasons. First, I had never exercised at the end of a fast before, because I usually workout in the morning.

Second, in the interest of experimentation, I wanted to know how it would feel to run hard for nearly 30 minutes at the end of a 24 hour fast, the day after eating virtually zero carb.

The result was not clear, as I explained in the post about it - I felt sluggish at the start, but later got into my stride. Sluggish I may have been, but I completed the race and drove home without feeling faint or unwell.

At home, I released a rabbit from the slow cooker which had been its home for 5 hours and devoured every morsel to leave a neat pile of clean bones. No lime, no pine nuts, just animal.

I made a point of eating the mini liver, kidneys, heart and lungs to ensure vitamins and minerals were part of my nutrition.
Day 4
Now on a roll with the animal-only idea, I once again fasted, intending to roast a free-range organic chicken that night.

I confess to a cup of coffee to assist. Consecutive 24-hour fasts are a challenge unless you stuff yourself stupid at the end of the first day, which I had not.

The chicken was smothered in red palm oil to create crispy skin and provide a source of vitamins.

I ate half of the chicken, including the skin and any other bits and pieces I could gnaw off the bones. The accompanying sauce was a combination of the red palm oil and the fat that came out of the chicken.

The other half went into a plastic tub for lunch the following day.

The leftover carcass went into the slow cooker along with the remaining sauce. I also had a couple of rogue organic lamb kidneys, so I chopped them up and threw them in.

Day 5
On this morning I did a 9-minute intense upper body interval weights session (details here.)

I rewarded myself with breakfast, which was three boiled free-range organic eggs and a tin of sardines. Fellow train travellers were not impressed :-)

For lunch, as few hours later, I had the other half of the chicken, cold. The breast was a little dry but the rest was divine. Needless to say, I gnawed the bones until they were practically sterile.

Finally, in the evening, I returned to find the carcass ready for eating in the slow cooker. It had been cooking since the previous evening (I added some extra water in the morning) so the bones were lovely and soft.

I threw in some olive oil and coconut butter to make sure there were enough calories, then tucked in. Cooked chicken bones: sounds terrible, tastes great!

I have to say that on this day I had a couple of fleeting, icky moments. It was faintly reminiscent of the blood sugar pangs I used to get between meals when I was a carb-head. But they did not last more than a few seconds. I wonder whether, even for someone who is normally low carb, going even lower carb will create mild hypoglycemia at times?

Day 6
This day was really the climax of the experiment.

Having been truly animal-only the day before, and very low carb indeed, I took part in a mountain race that took an hour and 15 minutes to complete. I described the experience here.

This was a hard 75 minutes. I would say my heart rate was consistently 170-180.

I had eaten no food since the bowl of chicken bones the night before, and the race started at 11am. Once again, I confess to a coffee, an hour before race, but that's all.

Imagining the race to be a failed hunt, I deferred eating afterwards until the evening, putting a big hunk of beef in the slow cooker.

In the meantime, I kept myself busy to ward off the creeping hunger.

I won't pretend those 6 hours were easy. At times I experienced waves of quite powerful hunger - but I always had energy. The busier I was, the less hungry I felt, and the hungrier I got, the more energy I seemed to have.
Day 7
I had trouble sleeping the night after the long race. My body was craving food. The hunk of beef was large, but it was still all I had eaten that day. The fast and the race combined may have created a calorie deficit of up to 2000.

So, at 12.30am I got up and, being a believer in following hunger, raided the nut cupboard. That's what I craved. They tasted especially sweet. Pine nuts and cashews are sweeter than regular nuts anyway, I think.

After that, I slept well.

In the morning I wasn't really hungry so I had a late breakfast of re-heated beef juice left over from the slow cooking.

This kept me going until lunch, when I had this crab with a squirt of lemon and some extra virgin olive oil. Don't worry, I didn't eat the shell.

My legs were a bit tired from the race, but no more than would normally be expected, and I was able to have a fairly active day.

In the evening, my final meal of the experiment was a slow-cooked lamb shoulder and some leftover beef. The juice from the roasting and some olive oil formed the sauce.

By day 5, this was how my fridge and freezer looked. Nothing in the fridge except condiments; and a freezer full of frozen joints or foil-wrapped portions of meat and fish.

What Happened - The Weight Graph

Having said one of my reasons for doing this was to lose the Easter pounds, I feel obliged to show this excerpt from my body composition graph.

The orange arrow shows the week of the experiment. To give you an idea of scale, the flag is at 12 stone 10, and the bottom of that 'peak' is at about 12 stone.

Don't read too much into the apparently profound drop in weight during that week: the weekend before the experiment involved eating more than usual - a 'rebound' from the post-Easter fasting that brought me down from the dizzy heights.

So although it looks like the experiment led to a drop of about 6 pounds in a week, a lot of that will have been the usual post-binge clean out of water retention and overly stocked innards.

What Happened - Other Things I Noticed

Digestion: my stomach felt very stable and I had virtually zero wind at either end. This is no surprise - I have always found that wind levels correlate pretty closely with carb consumption. I had worried that my solid output, which normally requires little persuasion to find its way to its porcelain home, would become distinctly obstinate; but whilst there was definately a change, this was minor. I few gentle words of encouragement and it was on its way.

Energy: I had as much energy as ever, if not more. I continued to walk to and from work for nearly an hour each day and exercised as frequently, if not more so than normal.

Carb Cravings: I definately noticed something, but 'cravings' is too strong a word. Those few, brief moments of what felt like hypoglycemia on day 5 were definately significant, and I had a couple of dreams about cakes. Perhaps if I carried on eating like this there would be adjustments and this would stop.

Sporting Activities: Let's separate out two things here: performance and enjoyment. As I say in the post about the race on day 6, performance is not what matters - it's comfort. It's not possible to know whether I would have run faster on a higher carb diet, but I would be happy if the answer were yes.

What matters is whether I could still enjoy the running. And the answer is that yes, I could eat no carbs and still run a race, fasted without any sudden feelings of faintness or energy loss.

I am not at the margins of athletic stardom, so losing a couple of minutes off my time really does not matter. This doesn't mean I will go out of my way to do this each time I have a race: but knowing I can makes a busy life easier.

Variety: I did miss having the vegetables to spice up the dinner plate. I am one of the least easily bored people I know in the food department, and even I started to eye the broccoli jealously in the supermarket.


What I can say:
  1. It is possible to eat virtually zero carb for one week without feeling bad.
  2. There are definately some changes, but they are not profound.
  3. These conclusions may only apply to moving from an already low carb diet.
What I cannot necessarily say:
  1. Eating like this long term is a good thing.
  2. If someone else tries this they will also feel fine.
  3. That it's fun beyond the novelty of experimentation.


Benjamin Nutt said...

Very interesting experiment. I might give this a try sometime and see how I fare in a 5k.

Chris Beardsley said...

Hi Methusaleh, I'm a long-time reader and I've always enjoyed your posts but this is just startling.

I stay paleo/low-carb except directly before a heavy weights session but to go "no-carb" plus lengthy fasts really takes the biscuit.

Are you tempted to try a longer period?

Wishing you as long a life as your namesake,


Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Interesting stuff! The only other thing that might have been interesting is a few blood sugar measurements to see how the sensations match up to the glycemia. I have no idea why people think you have to have so much carbs in your diet to exercise or race. Maybe for really long races where deep glycogen depletion is possible (but even then everyone slows down a bit), but not for most activities (say 2 hours or less). What you've shown is that you just don't need a lot of carbs when you're adapted. I frequently train with only some nuts or meat beforehand. It takes me a while to warm up, but I don't get hungry or feel depleted usually for at least an hour after that.

Did you see that Jonas Colting joined the group at ? There's an interesting post there about the freakishly high fat metabolism ("metabolic impossibility" of fueling) required to run a fast marathon in an Ironman:
Of course, it's freakishly high when compared to carb-powered folks, but I'd bet your fat metabolism rate is quite high and you'd do fine in ultra events as well.

Thanks for sharing.


Dani Shugart said...

This inspires me!!

Kat Eden said...

"I rewarded myself with breakfast, which was three boiled free-range organic eggs and a tin of sardines. Fellow train travellers were not impressed :-)" hahahaha, so funny. I've been there. Love it!

Question - did you take any supplements, in particular fiber? I firmly believe that carbs are not essential, but I'm not so sure about doing without fiber. I know Jonny Bowden in particular teaches that for a very low or zero carb diet to be healthy and sustainable (which I understand you weren't looking for it to be, sustainable that is) then fiber is crucial.

Also, just out of interest, how often do you usually fast and for how long? I'm keen to try IF soon, but can't yet as I'm breastfeeding, so am very curious!

Methuselah said...

Benjamin - let me know how you get on.

Chris - I guess I am a little suprised you were startled, because this seemed like a relatively benign exercise when compared with the horrors of some of the uncontrolled binges I have previously reported.

To be honest I am not tempted by a longer period because I can't see any real benefit beyond proving a point. Just eating strict paleo is a big enough challenge and taking out the veg and fruit just makes it harder because the quality and variety of the food then has to meet an even higher standard that is likely to be convenient.

I think Methuselah lived to be 187. Only about 150 years to go!

Cynthia - thanks, you always have some great links up your sleeve - will check them out.

Thanks Dani.

Kat - the only supplements I took were vit D. Oddly, now that I am back on veg, I have a little wind. Not sure if that's because I have been eating large portions of Kale. Either way, there is definately an 'activation' effect on the bowels of that leafy green veg! But as I say in the post, I didn't feel the need for the roughage. I haven't read anything by Jonny Bowden - does he have a website? I have read stuff which suggests fiber is overrated, but that's not to say we don't need at least some. And I can't help wondering whethere there are sources in the chicken bones. A very quick Google on it suggests they might.

At the moment I am alternate day fasting, but previously have found Tuesdays and Saturdays to be a good pattern, skipping breakfast on another couple of days. I have found that my hunger will tend to balance things and I am just eating bigger meals with the alternate-day approach. Whatever the IF pattern, the extent to which I get leaner really depends on how hungry I am prepared to be and how determined to lose fat, rather than the pattern I choose.

I didn't know that fasting was advised against for pregnant women. I am assuming they were subject to fluctuations in food availability as anyone else when we were evolving, so wonder why it might be considered a bad thing. Unless tribespeople would have perhaps alwsays ensured that dwindling supplies were routed to those with child?

thania said...

Leaving out grains,legumes and sugar, I dont really see point of doing meat only eating.

I really cant believe that our ancestors snobed all the plant food available to them! Only inuits and such who didnt have them available so why should we try to limit ourselves while not living in such limited conditions?

Ofcourse we can live on meat only, in the same way as plant only,but why limit ourselves on variety ,eating is one of life´s pleasure!

Energy wise it is really matter of getting the glucose through plant or meat.The issue here is "fiber" , some people due to their gut flora composition or other problems cant tolerate fiber, and are much healthier and feel better eliminating them completely for digestive issues,less bloat ....,etc.

I try to eat plant food as part of my diet but if I dont see the look of vegetables in the grocery just go meat only for a day or two before using frozen ones , in the same way if I dont find appealing meat and fish just go on salads and nuts and eggs few days before rushing to already cooked chicken thinking I need protein!!

Ofcourse this is very different for people who do very high intensity work outs , all I do is 5M leisure walk on daily basis.

Thanks for the blog, I read the sis blog too, great activities you organize in that wonderful land of yours, very jealous of Lightning with his pint of bitter yehh.

Grok said...

I did two weeks carnivore last year. I felt alright other than some wicked heartburn a few times. This could probably be traced to some grocery store chicken breasts.

I've done a whole lot better in my recent vegan experiment. Yes, more toot-toots, but good performance & better recovery than anything (even paleo). My energy feels lower though, and I really miss the convenience of animal products.

Methuselah said...

Thania - I was jealous of Lighning's bitter too, if I am honest!

I agree that variety is important, even for someone like me who doesn't get bored easily. It's certainly possible to get a lot of variety from animal-only products, but no reason to limit oneself unless there is a good reason - such as intolerance, as you suggest.

What may be paradoxical is that eating a variety of vegetables is a good way to encourage a healthy gut because of the prebiotic properties. So if gut flora issues are behind some people being better without vegetables, could it be that avoiding vegetables makes their intolerance worse?

Methuselah said...

Grok - wow, a vegan experiment. What made you try that? Interesting that you experienced better performance and recovery but worse energy. Somehow that seems like a contradiction.

Primal Homemaker said...

I would love to give this a try. I have done 20 or less carbs for 6 weeks and that was hard.

Methuselah said...

PH - 6 weeks is an impressive time to stay that disciplined - well done. Let me know if you try this, as I'll be interested to know how you get on. Those turkey legs in your latest blog post look great!

Primal Toad said...

This is very interesting. This is the first time I have come across someone engaging in eating virtually no carb. I love my veggies and fruits so this is something I never plan on trying, but I always thought it was possible.

Great job!

Ned Kock said...

Hi Methuselah.

This is in reference to your post on endurance running:

It is VERY well aligned with an interesting study Sahlén and colleagues, published in 2009, and summarized here:

Methuselah said...

Ned - interesting stuff, thanks for sharing.

Paleo Grrrl said...

Very cool experiment.

I have been avidly reading your blog for a couple of weeks now...if you ever have time, check out my new blog. I haven't got much up yet, but I would love your advice in the future as you're a paleo guru and I have much to learn!

Best wishes


Methuselah said...

Thanks for reading Jo - had a quick look at your blog.... so far so good! Happy to check in when you want me to look at any new content.

Paleo Grrrl said...

Hey M

I need to take you up on your offer to check any new content on my blog :)

I've had a horrible allergic reaction to something, so I've started an extensive elimination diet to isolate the cause. I've posted the details, but I could really use some of your advice if you ever get the time to have a quick peak!

Thanks and take care!

Methuselah said...

Content looks good - nice variety of thought blogging (faleo etc), experiential (brains experience and elimination plan). Interesting stuff.

I left a comment on your elimination plan post. Definately like the idea of just starting from basics and seeing where that takes you. My only caveat would be to bear in mind the possibility of latency. It's never clear how long it takes the effects of a food to start after you have eaten it or to end when you stop eating it. I am convinced that about 4 weeks of sugar causes a rash I get. But it seems only to happen a week or so after I've stopped eating the sugar...

Paleo Grrrl said...

Hey, thanks M!

I've taken all of your advice into consideration, and will be ruling out an external irritant via a paleo naturopath appointment next week.

Hope you're keeping well, I'm looking forward to your next post :)

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