Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape


Burning fat without running a marathon

Evos - the best running shoes ever

Last Sunday, I ran my first marathon in Florence and in spite of the freezing rain, I loved every minute of it. OK, nearly every minute of it. I’d never really warmed to the idea of running until I met a podiatrist back in the middle of last year. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably never have got gallstones. I wouldn’t have changed my diet. I could never have lost several stone. I definitely wouldn’t have realised that dietary advice worldwide is basically keeping everyone fat. And lastly, I wouldn’t have run that marathon. So what did she tell me than inspired me so much? Simple:

You’re not really built to run.

I remember at the time frowning, thinking it through. Then realising I was paying for this abuse, before it finally dawned on me what she was saying – ‘I can’t fix it, so it’s unfixable’.

A month later, a good friend told me about Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, the book that changed everything. A doctor said something very similar to him, and his quest to find out the truth led him ultra-marathon running with the Tarahumara tribe, and a dawning realisation that his running injuries stemmed from his trainers. The multitude of trainers that correct biomechanical problems in your running style are mostly a result of the problems that the trainers cause in the first place. I spent a valuable hour with Matt Walker at Gloves Gym who showed me the basics, the common mistakes and capably showed me how I had the fitness of Bernard Manning by training so hard I nearly threw up.

I was hooked.

Within weeks I had thrown away all the motion control trainers and the orthotics and started running barefoot. Sure enough, the shin splint problems disappeared.

Fast forward to February of this year and I decided to run a marathon. While I’d managed to put on weight since increasing running , something which seemed to defy the laws of thermodynamics given my high carb, low fat, low sugar diet, I thought a marathon would put paid to that. It did, but not in the way I thought it would.

Smashing into the wall

My distances increased but my weight – 16 stone, around 4 1/2 more than it should have been – remained static. 10ks, 15ks, half marathons. And then one Saturday I designed a long run, 27k to be exact around Richmond park in West London. My previous longest run was 20k.

At precisely 23k I hit the wall. All marathon runners will know about this – it’s the point at which your glycogen levels are depleted and you turn to fat as an energy source. Fat being harder to use as an energy source, running suddenly becomes a lot, lot harder – and so the expression, “hitting the wall”. The common wisdom is to press through – it’s a psychological as well as physical barrier. Now, that’s all well and good, but I didn’t just hit the wall. I ran head first into it at speed.

I tried to run through but I couldn’t. Every single element of my body was screaming at me to stop. I continued on for a few more hundred metres before I thought no, stop. I really can’t continue. I…must…stop… now.

I aimed to walk back to the car, now some 4k away but all the energy drained right through me. I couldn’t walk so I lay down by the side of the road. It might have looked like sunbathing, except it was a little over freezing point. Gradually, I would walk a few hundred metres and then lie down in 5 minute bursts. It took me over an hour to get back to the car. I’m not sure what the medical condition is called but I can tell how I felt. I was completely and utterly fucked.

Carbohydrates – the optional fuel

Now, try telling this to your gym trainer, but carbs are not required for exercise. The traditional Inuits know this – they live off a diet of meat and fat (seal blubber). But it’s not just Inuits. You can run endurance events with virtually no carbohydrates at all. This paper here gives you the details.

In the Vermont study, they gave participants a low calorie ketogenic diet (fat-burning) of lean meats and “a modicum of fat”. They then tested for total endurance time on a treadmill 1 week and 6 weeks after starting the diet, using a weighted backpack to take account of the weight loss experienced by all participants.

-          1 week after starting, endurance time decreased from 168 mins to 130 mins. A decrease. No surprise there, if you’ve ever been to the gym without eating. You feel faint, and it’s hard work.

-          But 6 weeks after starting, their endurance time increased to 249 minutes.

Was it the weight loss that gave their increased performance? They performed another experiment, the MIT study with elite cyclists. This time, they gave them a normal controlled carb diet, followed by a ketogenic diet but with plenty more fat. The idea here was to ensure no weight loss to compare calorie-similar diets.

The results were conclusive. While all participants flagged slightly in the first week, by week four, all retained the same (or very slightly increased) VO2 max and endurance times compared to their carbohydrate times. In short, they performed just as well on a very low carb diet as a high carb diet.

Finally, it’s worth noting you shouldn’t go protein crazy; calories not taken from carbs should come from fat. In other studies referenced, they note if you have less than 15% calories from protein, you lose muscle tissue. More than 25% of your diet from protein and you start to experience other health problems. Optimally, they estimate 1.5g/protein per kilogram of body mass, so “for adults with reference weights ranging from 60–80 kg, this translates into total daily protein intakes 90 to 120 g/d”.

So does this mean carbs are optional? This depends on your aim. Clearly, you don’t need carbs for endurance exercise, although you can expect the first couple of weeks adaptation to be tough going. However, it seems logical that if you can use both glycogen and fat as fuel sources, you’ll have an advantage over someone using one or the other, and so most endurance athletes are relying on both.

But I wasn’t an endurance athlete. I was overweight, and clearly I couldn’t tap into fat as a fuel source, which is why I couldn’t lose weight. Which is why I really hit the wall so hard at 23k. So now what?

Wheat, gallstones and weight loss

At this point, I hadn’t figured my diet was to blame for my running problems, but independently I started cutting down my carbs to see if it’d affect my weight. The full story is here. I lost a little weight while continuing on with my long runs, which now became easier. But then I was struck down, pretty literally with gallstones (read about that here) and told I’d need immediate surgery. Had it not been for Born to Run, I’d have probably taken the doctors word for it, but just like the questionable statement of “you’re not built to run”, it didn’t ring true. If diet affects gallstones, what is it in our diet that gives you them? And why the hell wasn’t that the first approach rather than surgery?

An enormous amount of research later, I now know gallstones are all about nutritional deficiencies, mainly but not exclusively caused by gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. And so I cut out gluten, but in doing so, I realised something else important too. Fat loss is exactly the same. If you have enough fats, protein, vitamins and minerals in your diet, you lose weight right back down to your optimum genetic weight. Your appetite takes in what it needs to function and the rest is burned off. No calorie counting. No going hungry.

The Florence Marathon

It was raining hard and I was freezing. If there was anyone else wearing minimalist shoes they were well disguised. At the start line, two fellow runner couldn’t help disguise their curiosity at my Evos – possibly the greatest running shoes ever invented (they have zero padding, zero support and great ground grip). The Italian guy mimed hurting his feet. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

And so it started and I ran at a steady pace. I got to the 20 mile mark – the dreaded wall – and… well nothing. I carried on. And 4hrs 30 later, I finished at exactly the same pace I had started. No dramatic wall. No passing out. No crawling to the car on all fours. No problems at all.

And the next day, not a single blister. Not one. Cheers McDougall!

Burning fat without running a marathon

The lesson in all this is clear – if you want to burn fat, you simply need the right nutrients. Where the entire world has gone literally belly up in dietary advice is setting macronutrients off against one another – carbohydrate vs protein vs fat. They all have their place, but if you’re overweight, vitamins, minerals, proteins and healthful fats (of which I’m completely including saturated fats) are what you most need, and a lot of carbs are not. That means:

-          eating few grains or legumes which prevent mineral absorption

-          definitely no flour which can additionally damage the lining of your stomach to prevent you absorbing nutrients

-          go heavy on mineral-rich vegetables like spinach and broccoli

-          make sure you eat fat to ensure full absorption of vitamins and minerals.

-          eat starchy carbs once you’ve filled up on protein and fats. You won’t want to eat much if any.

It’s only with a full balance of nutrients you can tap into fat as a fuel source. It’s only with sufficient minerals you can control insulin (which drives fat storage) which is critical – it’s not the fault of insulin, nor the carbs that spike insulin. It’s the lack of nutrients that prevent proper control which then leads to fat storage.

They say you learn a lot about yourself running a marathon. So true, so true. Here’s a photo from New Years day this year and a photo taken minutes after my finish last Sunday, 11 months later.

Minutes after I finished...

Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing. Last week I started running for the first time in my life. I also started a gluten free (mostly) diet. My mom is reading “Wheat Belly” and filling me in on the details. This week I start having pain in my heart and my back. A friend tipped me off that it might be gallstones and not heartburn. So I’m just starting to research the connection and came upon this page. Did you have surgery to remove your gallstones or do you still have them?

  2. So, I just read your gallstone link and appreciate that you addressed some questions I had (as I have only begun this journey). Still don’t know if you still have them, though. I’ll look for some more recent entries. I’m a healthy gal, so still not sure if it’s gallstones. But it sounds like it.

  3. It’s me, Sergio from the NINO diet comments, I can attest that a free-gluten diet help me to no suffer the post-pain exercises (in a scenary were I am not used to exercise since twenty years ago, yeah I was a sofa meat), so this explains that you can finish the marathon without troubles and I can make more and more exercise day to day in a easy way that I can’t believe seriously (and I exercise since four weeks).

    I remember two months ago were I fasted four complete days and my first food were a high protein-charged with a slight salad cookies (with very few gluten), my food was light; my body’s reaction? an inmediate intestinal cramp (as said humorously in Mexico “sufrí un apretón”) and go very fast to the bathroom and ouch! so definitively I am sensible to the gluten.

    In these four weeks since I consume the NINO diet, I tested my body with a one slight glutened food every week, only one food per-week and with very few gluten, and the reaction is an inmediate and very awful sleepiness and the surge of the post-pains exercises inclusive if the exercises were done two or thee days ago.

    Definitively I will not make more gluten tests in my body, I confirmed my worst fears about the gluten and I can use the useful data to avoid in the future any gluten food inclusive if the nutritional tag don’t say anything about the gluten.

    I hope this info can help somebody, regards,


    • Great to hear Sergio. Likewise with me, my energy levels since I changed are so utterly dramatic that I wouldn’t ever go back. Thanks for your comments

  4. Since Jan 1st 2012, I have lost 83lbs. However, just last week, I was rushed into hospital as I had turned yellow, was passing out and in agony. My liver count was 757 (should be in the 50′s). After being poked, prodded, scanned and xrayed, I was told that I have gallstones. My Dr told me that if you lose a lot of weight, then you’re suseptable to them? I find this hard to believe as it’s only averaging at 2.5lb a week. Look at the contestants on the biggest loser. I’ve yet to see any of them get gallstones and they lose loads! It just seems like I’m being punished for all my hard work :(

    • Rough, I know. You’re not being punished for losing weight, you’re being punished for putting the weight on in the first place. Again!
      Dr is right – losing weight is a cause. Best guess as to why is that the liver is overloaded, though as you say, you lost weight slowly. All I can say is make sure your diet is really, really high in nutrients, and go easy on the booze. Given you’re pretty far gone, I’m guessing you’re going to have to get your gallbladder removed, but it’s worth changing diet and see what happens irrespective. Good luck!

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