This is part one of my Women and Carbs series. Please also see: 
this guest post from Madison of BeWellByMadison.com
this one from Kim Jordan of Root & Branch Nutrition
this post about fat-loss road blocks

and stay tuned for an upcoming post on Carbs 101 and why you should STOP fearing them


 

“I have been really low carb high fat for a while now. I lost a ton of fat right away and my performance went way up. Slept great. Everything was fine. Then all of a sudden I gained all the weight back, felt tired, couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t even changed anything. Now the harder I try to low carb back to where I was, the further away I get. I don’t understand what’s wrong. I barely even eat any carbs.” 

Sounds familiar? Well, it sure does to me. Thing is, I didn’t realize how many OTHER women this was all to true for until Paleof(x) in Austin, April 2015.

I learned a lot of great things at Paleof(x). I sat in a lot of wonderful, insightful talks and I met an absurd amount of smart, thoughtful, inspiring people. There was one talk though, that, despite being an informative one, shone a glaring light onto an issue that, once I pointed it out, got tons of response from readers, other women at the conference, Instagram, all that good stuff. There’s an important conversation going on and there’s a major factor that’s being left out of it: Women.

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“What do you do for exercise?” “I lift weights.” “But what do you do for cardio?” “I lift weights faster.” Met Jen Sinkler right after the talk that started all this and we had a GREAT conversation about this very post.

 

So what was this talk? It was titled ‘Manipulating Carbohydrates for Athletic Performance’. The panel of five speakers (Dr. Richard Maurer, Menno Henselmans, Ben Greenfield, Dave Asprey) gave their thoughts on the importance of carbohydrates in athletic performance. This panel included body-builders, triathletes, physicians, and bio hackers. They talked about how even in a fat-burning state, we still need to be re-feeding with clean carbs on occasion when we train hard. How at a certain level of lowered body fat %, there can be health consequences to NOT increasing the carbohydrate intake. Despite lots of differing opinions about carb-gate, one thing that was clear. This topic is one that brings tons of confusion. The room was PACKED. I mean, people sitting on the floors, standing in the back of the room PACKED.

That panel, as I mentioned, was broad. Athletes, doctor, hacker, body builder. So what was missing?

A woman.

There was not a single woman on this panel. When that dangerous body fat threshold was discussed? You guessed it, not even a mention of what that threshold is for women. They told us where men should start to be careful, though. I’ve got a fun fact on that later. Not only was there no lady-parts-holder on the panel, but they didn’t even TALK about women. Not until an extremely specific question at the end about a specific type of PCOS was asked which yielded a very specific answer. However, even in that very specific answer,  you heard the ringings of what I’m discovering to be true for many of us. Problem is: no one is talking about it.

Why is it that women are being left out of this conversation? Not only do women make up a huge fraction of those with athletic endeavors (especially at this particular conference), but more and more is coming out to show that carbohydrate intake is even more individual and important for the ‘fairer’ sex. Our hormones are more sensitive to it. Our thyroid can easily get screwy. Our bodies simply do not react the same way to drastically lowered carbs for long stretches of time the way mens’ do. Most of those studies? They reference men. All of this talk? Still about men. Our needs are unique and require discussion, yet it’s one that we’re not having.

I even spoke to one of the founders of Paleo(fx) about this. When I mentioned that it would’ve been nice to see a woman on the panel, it appeared to me as if that thought had never even crossed their mind “Oh! That’s really interesting feedback!”. It’s not like there were tons of experts there who were women and also athletes or anyone who has written a book specifically on Paleo health for women. Wait, what? There WERE? Oh, right. Just the top women in the field. No big deal. To be fair, there was a talk on Gender Differences in the Ancestral Health Movement given by Mr. Hamilton M Stapell, Ph.D. who is a professor in History at SUNY New Paltz. I was unable to see this talk, but hope to in the play backs. I digress.

Let me be clear: I’m specifically talking about Paleo, women, and athletic performance. Our bodies react differently to the athletic demands we put on them. It’s just true.

The next day, I spoke with Dr. Mauer about this observation of mine. The minute I said it he nodded his head and said, “I know, we should’ve had a woman up there.”. I even pointed out his lack of giving us ladies what our “tipping point” of body fat may be. The answer? Around 15% (for a point of reference, for men it’s 10-12%, which is a super sketchy zone more most women to be in and why we shouldn’t be using their reference points as our own.). We continued out conversation. So what happens at this tipping point marker (which yes, will vary by the individual)? Your body tends to do one of two things: goes into aggressive catabolic reactions, breaking everything it can down into some form of fuel resulting in rapid weight loss, risk for anorexia, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility. The other option? It starts ‘lock down’. Storing what comes in and refusing to let it go. Sudden and strange weight gain,  glucose sensitivity, decreased athletic performance, poor sleep, thyroid dysfunction. How do we avoid this? By starting to incorporate appropriate, higher amounts of healthful carbohydrates back into the diet at this point. This is particularly true with women who are highly active or participate in intense activity. Why was this so interesting to me?

Some of you may remember my inflammation test of last summer. I scrubbed up my diet in an attempt to finally heal my gut for good. Carbs stayed low at 50g or under, fat accounting for 60-70% of caloric intake. Things were awesome. I leaned out (down 10 lbs), performance in the gym jacked up, sleep was good, even my thyroid balanced out. I stuck with this extreme low-carb high-fat for some time. In my mind, if a food had double digit carbs (total, inducing fiber), I wasn’t going to eat it. I was a fat burner, and it worked for me. I felt great. I looked great. For a while.

After about six months of this, in the start of this year, things started to change. My belly fat was creeping back. My performance started sucking. Insomnia came back with a vengeance. I was wired and tired all the time. I blamed it on ‘adrenal fatigue’. I figured that occasional honey or sugar I had been having was to blame. Yes, sugar once a week is definitely why I gained over 15 lbs back in just over a month. If anything, the rest of my nutrition had improved, but that TBSP of coconut nectar was surely my problem. Cut to reverting back to my old plan. But it didn’t work.  I didn’t start drinking regularly again. I still hadn’t had gluten. Sugar maybe once a week. What the hell was going on?!

Let’s come back to today. Over the past weeks I’ve had conversations with multiple women who are currently experiencing the exact same thing as I am. Huge success with a low-carb approach for a time, and sudden reversal. What do we all have in common? What do you think the body fat % of each woman I spoke to was when things got weird? Remember that place Dr. Mauer said often leads to metabolic breakdown with extended period of very low carb?

15%.

Hindsight is 20/20. Had I known last summer that I should be taking steps to bring some carbs back into my life, I might not be in the apparent hole I am in now. It’s probably going to be more difficult this time around to get back to my ‘happy place’.

We are a species of extremes. When I say low-carb, I’m talking about 30-50g/day total. By total, I mean INCLUDING fiber. That’s how screwy I got about carbs. I see something with double digit carbohydrates and nope, too many carbs for me. It seems the fear of fat has now become fear of carbs. Carbs are going to make you fat. Carbs are going to ruin your brain. Carbs are going to give you diabetes. Talk about ‘Low Carb: You’re doing it wrong”. Compared to the Standard American diet, 100-150g is low-carb. There’s a lot of rhetoric out there that make carbs scary. We think carbs = weight gain. We think we can live on fat alone. Maybe we can, but we need to take special care as women. We need to do things a little differently and for some reason, no one is talking about it, so we’re all just driving around blind.

I’m not here to say that more carbs or less carbs is perfect for everyone. There’s no such thing. The only thing that is true for all is that we do better on a diet of natural, whole, minimally processed nutrient rich foods. What I am saying is that we have unique needs as active women, and taking the advice designed for men may not only not work for us, but can turn out to be detrimental and set us back even further.

The bigger issue seems to be this idea that one thing is going to work for everyone. And that one this is going to be the one thing that works forever. The truth of the matter seems to be that our metabolisms are a balancing act. Constantly shifting and changing over time. There will be times when we need to fuel differently. If something’s not working for us, but it worked for a paleo author we love, that’s OK! What’s good for the goose is not inherently good for the gander. We have to start figuring out what works best for US.

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I would’ve loved to have heard what Stephanie Gaudreau may have had to say about women, carbs and performance. Good thing I have her cook book….Performance Paleo.

Part of the problem is that when we start gaining weight, we decided that we simply aren’t working out enough, or low-carbing hard enough. So what do we do? We hit the gym MORE, decrease our carbs FURTHER and only exacerbate the problem. So we find ourselves stuck in this cycle. All because we’re afraid of a damn sweet potato.

Surely I can’t leave you with a problem and no solution. I hope, though, that through this post some of you experiencing these problems can find some relief.  You’re not crazy. You’re not broken. Basic, lower carb paleo works for most people. Well, works for most people I’d venture to say, for a time. Form there, we have to make changes to fit our own needs.

I go to CrossFit 5-6 days a week but am mostly seated at my job. I do not have the same energy demands as a power lifter, or a yogi, or as a nurse on her feet all day who then goes home and just rests. When they body is put through different hoops to jump, the body needs different things to replenish it. It all sounds very vague, I know, but hang with me.

So what DOES seem to be the best bet for us lady-folk who want to keep performance high, sleep good, and body fat at a low, but healthy place? Here’s what I’ve been able to gather as the generally-agreed upon practices:

  1. Keep the majority of carbohydrates to afternoon and evening meals. Start the day with primarily fat and protein with some ‘complex’ carbs from things like sweet potatoes. This increases satiety, improves the likelihood of better decisions throughout the day, and provides long lasting fuel for upcoming work, as well as helps with insulin sensitivity. MCTs (Medium-Chain-Triglycerides) like those found in Coconut Oil are particularly good as they are directly used as fuel and not too readily stored.
  2. At the evening meal (especially on training days), include a hefty portion of dense carbohydrates. Starchy tubers like sweet potatoes, parsnips, celery root, sunchokes, white potatoes, maybe even a non-gluten grain like white rice (if tolerated well), or some low fructose fruits like cherries or bananas.
  3. The general recommendation, across the board, including panels, conversations, and post-f(x) research seems to be to start in the 100g-150g range (and possibly upwards of 200g depending on activity level and such). This does mean you’ll likely have to decrease fat intake. It’s also important to make sure you’re getting in enough protein to sustain lean muscle mass. Many women are NOT getting enough of this either. 1g per lb of body is a good place to start if you’re aiming to retain/build muscle.
  4. Refuel immediately following your workout (within the hour) with protein and quick carbs. Aim for 20-30 grams of each. So, something like a pureWOD shake and a banana.
  5. REST.  We don’t rest enough, and this is being made more and more clear to me. Sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back. Stress management is a key point, we all know that. This includes not putting undo stress on an already stressed out body.

I think it’s time we stop trying to point the finger at any one thing. We keep going from one extreme to the other. Crazy high fat. Crazy low carb. All plants. All bacon. That was another theme of the weekend and something that I’ve been hearing a lot of ever since. Many experts in the Paleo-sphere, like Robb Wolf, point to carbohydrates as the thing we’ve taken too far.  We’ve swung out of balance. There are some amazing thing being done with ketosis. People are getting their lives back. The advances being made in cancer research, neurological disorders, it’s astounding. That does NOT mean we should all be doing it. The actions have to match the goal. We need to come back into some sort of middle ground.

This was really hard for me to get me head around. I had replaced my fear of fat and calories with a fear of carbs! I really had to just throw my head down and say well, what I’m doing now isn’t working. Fuck it, let’s see how this goes.

I’ll be writing more on this soon, less anecdote, and more science. For now, I just wanted to get this out there so you can start doing your own digging, like I’m doing. None of us have this whole thing totally figured out. We’re all constantly tweaking, changing, adjusting. Why? Because our bodies are constantly adapting, changing, and adjusting.

No one macro nutrient is all good or all bad. We have to find what our own personal Goldi-Locks point is.  High fat low carb worked GREAT for me for a while there. It was easy, and I felt fantastic. Until I didn’t.  I don’t know about you, but it’s time for me to re-introduce some roots to my life.  That’s just my story though, you’re may be very different!

What do you think? Why do you think no one is talking about women and performance in the Paleo-sphere? Have you had any problems with super low carb long term? Let me know in the comments!


Resources for this post and further reading for you:

Carbohydrates for Fertility and Health, Stefani Ruper

Females, Carbohydrates, and Hormones, RobbWolf.com

Adverse Reactions to Ketogenic Diets, Sarah Ballantyne