Should athletes eat starches & sweets with Ben Greenfield
Jonathan Bailor : Hey everyone, happy to have another Smarter Science of Slim “bonus” podcast. This week I’m actually really, really excited to talk with a guy who has a special place in my heart. His name is Ben Greenfield – just an awesome podcaster and blogger. But even more importantly than that, someone who supported the Smarter Science of Slim back in the early, early days. Actually Ben recorded a podcast with me -the first ever podcast I recorded- even a year before The Smarter Science of Slim came out. So, Ben saw something that he liked and was there to support. So, wanted to give Ben a shout-out here and provide any support we can offer him. Ben, how ya doing today?
Ben Greenfield : Good. Way back in the dinosaur days, huh, man?
Jonathan : Totally! I feel like we were communicating via the strings with the cans on either end and now we have Skype.
Ben : Yeah, technology has come a long way. My computer no longer fills up my entire office. It’s this small portal sitting on my desk – it’s crazy.
Jonathan– Speaking of technology, I know one thing you’ve had a lot of personal success with, and that I get a lot of questions about and I was hoping you could tell us about, is performance. Specifically, I’d like to focus on endurance performance without eating a bunch of starches and sweets. Because Ben, you know, that we hear this traditional dogma of “carbo-loading” – it’s really just synonymous with endurance performance. I haven’t studied endurance performance too much, but I know you have a lot of experience there. So, could you just give us your take on the avoidance of starches and sweets when it comes to endurance and triathlon-like performance.
Ben : Yeah, sure. The concept of consuming carbohydrates as a primary fuel while you’re out running a marathon or doing a long bike ride, is based off the idea of hitting the wall. You’ve probably heard of that, right Jonathan?
Jonathan : Absolutely.
Ben : Bonking. It’s a pretty crappy place to be for anybody it’s happened to. Basically, it’s when you’re body runs out of stored carbohydrates. Meaning, you’ve got two primary places where you store carbohydrate – your liver and your muscles. Once you deplete all that carbohydrate, which typically takes about two hours or so of moderate aerobic exercise, you start to get dizzy, weak, light-headed, and your performance suffers. The answer to that, especially back in the marathoning days of the 80’s and on forward even to today, is that you eat a higher carbohydrate diet – so you always have your liver glycogen stores and your muscle glycogen stores topped off. That works – you will be able to perform pretty well when you are keeping your glycogen levels topped off. But there’s a health trade off. Meaning that when you are constantly elevating your blood sugar levels through consumption of Gatorade, Sunny D, gels, sports drinks, energy bars, energy chews, bagels, and pasta – you throw your blood sugar levels up and that can contribute to net inflammation. It can cause a net drop in pH, so increased acidity. There can be fermenting in the gut that leads to things like yeast overgrowth, irritable bowel syndrome, or heartburn. Essentially, what you’re doing is training your body to rely upon a fuel that it really relies upon best when it needs to run from a lion. In reality, you can use fatty acids quite efficiently as a fuel and you only need trace amounts of carbohydrate coming in – much, much less than we’ve been trained to rely upon in a marathon or in a triathlon.
Jonathan : That’s just fascinating, Ben. I’m curious what is the theory? What I’ve found talking about, for example, calories in/calories out is: it’s not crazy – it’s not like saying 1 + 1 = green cheese. It’s more of a misrepresentation of the truth…or maybe it is just nonsense. What is the idea, or the theory, behind a high consumption of carbohydrate? Starches and sweets – no one’s saying just eat a bunch of broccoli before you go run a marathon. They’re talking about eating starches, sweets, gels, and synthetic foods that you mentioned. What’s the idea of doing that 24 hours before hand? What is the concept behind that?
Ben : Yeah, and that relates to something you mentioned at the beginning of this podcast – carbo-loading. Carbo-loading is the idea that you can, not really trick your body, but you can scientifically up-regulate the activity of the enzyme that’s responsible for taking carbohydrate and pulling it in to muscle -mostly muscle,not really liver. What you can do is up-regulate the activity of that enzyme, it’s called glycogen synthase. The idea behind carbohydrate loading is that you deplete the body for a few days, maybe a week or so, before you race. Then during the entire week, you gradually load up with incrementally greater amounts of carbohydrate, until you’re eating an 85-90% carbohydrate diet by the day before your big event – your marathon, triathlon or whatever the case may be. By doing so, you can get your body to store up to 60% additional storage carbohydrate. Now, all the studies that have been done on people who carbo-loaded were performed in folks who were eating a typical western diet. They weren’t performed on people who were eating a low-carb/high-fat diet, or who were very, very efficient at using fatty acids as a fuel. But, none-the-less, you can tweak your body so you can store more carbohydrates leading up to the race. The problem is that, if we’re looking at this from a scenario of wanting the body to be in a state of fatty acid utilization anyway, does it really make sense to do that carbo-loading scenario? Do you really need all that extra carbohydrate on board? What I’ve found is that by eating a lower carbohydrate/higher fat diet year-round, then just for the last day or two before a long event (we’re talking about something that lasts longer than three hours) -on that one day- you tweak your diet towards a little bit higher inclusion of safe starches like sweet potato, yam, white rice, taro- things of that nature. Then you basically avoid that entire carbohydrate loading scenario. Which -especially if you’re doing lots of events during a year, if you’re really in to marathons- can really wreak havoc on your body. So, what it comes down to is that carbo-loading can elevate your body’s muscle glycogen stores. But, it makes the assumption that that’s actually necessary – that you have to be relying on all that carbohydrate during the event. When it makes more sense to rely on your body’s practically infinite stores of fats, rather than its limited stores of carbs. When you rely on your fat during an event, you’re just bleeding in to that carbohydrate storage in very, very small amounts. So, you don’t bonk and you don’t get to that point where you’re running out of energy because you are using relatively high amounts of fats.
Jonathan : So, Ben, is my understanding correct? What I hear you saying is that it’s not that the carb approach doesn’t work. It’s that there is another approach which is actually more sustainable and may have less negative health consequences.
Ben : Yeah, it comes down to two things. The first thing is – health vs. performance. So, are you willing to sacrifice your overall health and possibly even your life span -your risk of diabetes, obesity, etc.- for the sake of the performance that you can get with the higher carbohydrate intake. The other aspect that you have to look at this from is an ancestral, or evolutionary, standpoint. For anybody who hunts or who hikes out in the wilderness, if you look around you, you see a lot of low starch sources like plants, vegetables, roots, things like that. You see some proteins and some fats in animal sources, but there’s not a lot of readily available carbohydrate sources. There’s not a lot of fruit hanging from all the trees every where you go. So, we have a very decent ability as humans to be able to rely on large amounts of fatty acids as a fuel, with trace amount of carbohydrates here and there. We can go for long periods of time doing this, it’s just a matter of training the body how to do it.
Jonathan : What I heard you say there is that there is a trade off. The science is pretty clear that eating starches and sweets, regardless of what it does for your performance, is obviously not good for your health. So, it seems pretty clear that taking a SANEr (as I would call it) approach to endurance performance is certainly better for your health. But are they both good and they both equate to the same amount of performance? Or is taking these gel packs and ingesting all these starches and sweets almost like steroids? Where it does, actually, perform better – but it’s killing you. Or are they about the same?
Ben : Yeah, sugar is a sometimes drug. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that saying before, but there is a little bit of a paradox there. Let’s say you’re a pretty serious athlete and you are going to go out and run a marathon – hard. You’ll be tapping in to a lot of fast twitch muscle, which uses a lot of carbohydrate. Even if you’re a fat-adapted type of person and you’ve been watching your carbohydrate intake for your lifestyle fueling, you’re still gonna need some source of sugar going in to your body during that event. Let’s face it, that’s not natural. The first person that ran a marathon died. So in a way, you almost have to do something unnatural to your body -from a nutrition stand point- during something like that, to get that fast acting octane fuel. For me, because I do a lot of Ironman Triathlon, when I was making the switch to becoming aware of what sugar can do to the body, it really started with my gut. Just horrible gut issues – bloating, fermenting, and all sorts of stuff with higher carbohydrate intake. I had to figure out something I could do. So for me, it’s come down to tweaking traditional endurance fuels -sports gels, sports drinks, things of that nature. Basically, when you look at this from a very practical standpoint, what I look for are very long chain molecular weight carbohydrates that take a long time to digest. Either trying to eat real food sources during my training, or even using engineered fuel – there’s one called SuperStarch that I use during an event. Also relying on amino acids and fats (coconut oil, medium-chain triglyceride oil, and amino acids powders) which can actually keep your intensity elevated without creating a lot of the blood sugar fluctuation that sugar does. So, it certainly is very, very easy to maintain that performance when you have high amounts of sugar coming in. You’ve got to go out of your way to find engineered fuels or alternative fuels that let you achieve that same level of performance, but it’s completely doable if you know where to look and train your body how to digest these things during intense exercise.
Jonathan : It sounds like, if you do choose to use these unnatural sources of calories to achieve unnatural levels of performance -which makes sense, if you want to do something unnatural, you might need to do something unnatural– we still need to be careful where we look. Anecdotal example: You know, I’m not a huge fan of “food manufacturers” – as I know you are not a fan as well. I went to the store the other day, had some time on my hands, and I looked at a Powerade bottle. I was curious, what actually is in Powerade? I was shocked. It is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. I thought at least it would have glucose in it, or something that would actually be helpful from a performance perspective. But ingesting high-fructose corn syrup as your sports fuel? That’s got to be just one of the worst options available.
Ben : Yeah, you know what? The issue is not even quite so much what you hear people talk about with fructose and sugar – with spiking the insulin levels and spiking the blood sugar levels when you are consuming that during exercise. Because your body is fairly insulin sensitive, let’s face it, a lot of that is getting burnt as a fuel source. The issue is the net acidic condition that that can create in your body as you amp up your carbohydrate levels. The other issue is that it tends to create a lot of gut fermentation, yeast and fungus issues, and feeds bacteria in the stomach. During exercise, it’s not really the blood sugar fluctuation as much as it is some of the other side-effects of sweet, sweet carbohydrates. The sad thing is all the folks who are just walking around the street drinking Powerade, or the kids sitting in school drinking Powerade. The sad thing is that this goes way deeper than just what people are consuming during exercise. These exercise fuels that are bad enough for you when you are out there racing, have weaseled their way in to every day life with a “health” stamp on them. They are creating a lot worse health effects just in every day life than they are out there in the sports arenas.
Jonathan : Oh, absolutely. I was just shocked to see the choice of a high-fructose corn syrup just simply because of fructose’s absence of impact on insulin. Hypothetically, if you could run an IV of glucose in to your bloodstream while you’re exercising, I’m sure that would enhance your performance. I was just shocked because Powerade -the thing which is supposed to be designed to optimize your performance- even that manufactured food, is not manufactured in a way that would optimize your performance. So even there you’ve got to be buyer-beware.
Ben : Yeah, to a certain extent. I may disagree with you slightly on that, just based off of some of the research that has come out in terms of mixes of fuels. The reason that they’d include something like fructose in some fuels, is that they’ll mix it with a long-chain molecular carbohydrate – like a maltodextrin. You have like a fructose/maltodextrin blend. You actually get enhanced carbohydrate utilization because both those sugars use different sugar transporters in the gut. But, even Powerade isn’t doing a very good job of that because, I think, all they have is fructose. They don’t even include a long molecular weight carbohydrate or even glucose in there.
Jonathan : Exactly.
Ben : I think it’s just a margins issue. They’re running it as a business and choosing the cheapest sugar available.
Jonathan : I think you’re spot on there with that diversity. You mentioned some supplements that have worked really well for you. That’s very intentional, almost pharmaceutical. Here, I really think it’s a margins issue and that’s what’s got me disturbed. Speaking of your personal experience, can you tell me a little bit about…I know you’re not just talking about this, you’re not just researching this – you do this, you live this. Can you tell us a little bit about your transition from the traditional “must-eat-high-carb-to-perform-well-in-endurance-performance” (primarily using starches and sweets) to taking a more, let’s call it, SANE, approach?
Ben : Yeah. Typically, I would take 9 1/2 – 10 hours to do an Ironman Triathlon. During that period of time, I usually consume right around 40 sports gels (fructose/maltodextrin blends), along with a few energy bars here and there, essentially the equivalent of some gummy bears thrown in, and usually quite a few cups of Coke – during the marathon. By the time that I finish a race, I feel like I’ve destroyed my internal biology. I lay awake until 4 a.m. with the feet twitching and the next 3-4 days is typically a lot of gas, bloating, diarrhea, nasty things like that. Then 5-7 days later you come down with the flu or cold. A big, big part of that is the havoc that metabolizing that much sugar can do to your body. Sure, beating your body up by during an Ironman Triathlon is going to make you feel a little bit crappy no matter what. As I began to research, and look in to the research, of people like Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney and some of these doctors and researchers who are looking in to ways to fuel the body without putting that much carbohydrate in to the body, I started to experiment with alternative fuel sources. Using trail mix, real food, rice bars wrapped in aluminum foil with some bacon, and things like this during my training session. Then, like I mentioned, started using longer molecular weight carbohydrates when I did have to go out there for a long time. SuperStarch, some coconut oil, or medium-chain triglyceride oil – I experimented with this stuff in my training and I noticed after a big weekend training session, I felt good that night. I had a glass of wine, dinner with my wife. I don’t want to be crud, but, I wasn’t farting, didn’t have all that nasty side effect of dumping all that carbohydrate in to the body- like heartburn, nothing like that. Eventually, last year, I decided to pull the trigger and just do it in a race. Which is nerve racking because you’re wondering, “Am I gonna bonk?”, because you never quite push as hard during training as you do during a race. So, I ended up full on experimenting with a mix of amino acids and SuperStarch, ate half as many carbohydrates as I would normally. I chose a carbohydrate source that was released very, very slowly in to the bloodstream and forced my body to tap in to it’s own fatty acids. I raced Leadman down in Bend, Oregon, which is about a 5 hour event, and I won it! I felt great and slept like a baby that night. I felt great the next few days as well. At that point, I was like, “Ok, this is it.” You know what? I haven’t had a bad race since -knock on wood. That for me was seeing the light and making that transition. I’m very, very happy I did because I’m 31 and I’ll probably continue to do triathlons for another decade. Now I know that I’m not going to be destroying the metabolism in my gut in doing so.
Jonathan : I love that. I love not having to choose between health and performance. It sounds like you found a wonderful balance there. It’s a great message and I really appreciate you sharing that with us. Ben, tell me, what’s happening now for you? What’s going on in your world? What are you up to?
Ben : I am headed down to San Francisco this week to go to a bio-hacking event; it should be interesting. Doing some speaking at conferences over the spring. Typically for me, triathlon season ramps up around April or May. I’ve actually been spending quite a bit of time putting together a live event in my own backyard; it’s called “Become Superhuman”. It’s been my dream to at some point bring a lot of, for example, my podcast listeners and people who want to find out more about their bodies and minds – to be able to come together and learn this stuff in a really, really cool setting. I’ve put together a live event in Spokane, Washington. It’s designed for anybody who wants to figure out the healthiest and most efficient way to get a better body, enhance their physical and mental performance, fix their gut, cut through a lot of nutrition confusion, and to basically live longer with a lot higher quality of life. I’ve put together a big line-up of speakers: Dr. Phil Maffetone, who a lot of endurance athletes know; Jimmy Moore, the low-carb guy who is going to talk about using nutritional ketosis; Monica Reinagel, some people may be familiar with her as the Nutrition Diva; Ray Cronise, who is a guy who studies how to use cold for enhancing fat loss; Jeff Spencer, who is Lance Armstrong’s chiropractic physician and works with a ton of professional cycling teams on enhancing their mental performance, getting in to what he calls the champion’s mindset; my personal physician’s going to be there speaking; a few other docs from around the country talking about everything from testing your own blood, urine, and saliva, biomarkers, using Chinese herbal medicine, and a ton of other stuff. We’ve put together a full-on event with after parties and morning workouts. The goal is for this to be a really, really special thing for anybody who wants to change their body and minds for good and come away really, really inspired – with all the right connections and the right network to do so. That’s March 8th and 9th coming up here in Spokane, there are still seats to get in. It’s $297 to register, so I’ve tried to make it as affordable as possible for folks. People are coming in from all over the world, actually, to come to this thing, so I’m pretty excited.
Jonathan : I really appreciate you bringing something like that out here to the Pacific Northwest. I haven’t heard too much like that going on, so I’m very happy to hear about that. On the web, where can people go to get more information?
Ben : The easiest place to go would be superhumancoach.com. You’ll see a little button that says “Click here – Become Superhuman – the live event” and if you click there you’ll be able to read up and register. There’s even CEUs for people who are personal trainers and fitness professionals to be able to attend, but it’s open to the general public as well. Should be fun.
Jonathan : Well, that’s beautiful Ben, I love it. I really appreciate you sharing your time and insight with us today – this is really, really helpful for me. I’ll just point people to this conversation when I hear the questions around endurance performance and the, “you just gotta eat starches and sweets, that’s just what you have to do”. Science is showing us, and your personal experience is showing us, that that’s not the case. So I appreciate you fighting the good fight for us, Ben.
Ben : Thanks, Jonathan. By the way, I’d never heard of you until I got an e-mail from you a few years ago and I saw what you were doing. My first thought was, holy crap, this guy’s on top of things. Kudos to you for doing the research and doing the due diligence on a lot of the stuff you put out. I’m a big fan of your whole “Smarter Science of Slim” brand and what you’re doing, so nice work on that.
Jonathan : Oh, thank you so much, Ben, I really appreciate that, brother. Well, hey have a good next decade of triathlons, I’m sure we’ll talk before the next decade.
Ben : I was gonna say, sure I’ll talk to you in ten years.
Jonathan : Once every 10 years! Hey, thanks so much, Ben, I appreciate it, brother – have a good one.
Ben : Alright, thanks.