Chris Holder: A Fat Guy’s Experience on the Ketogenic Diet
First, we must set some rules. This is not an article trying to give you eating advice. It’s also by no means an attempt to give anyone medical suggestions.
This article is exactly how the title reads: a guy with a healthy spare tire taking control of his life by eating a low carb diet. N of 1.
In order to appreciate where we are, we need to understand where we began. I have had a horrendous diet my whole life. I grew up in the trailer parks of Lancaster, California and ate processed garbage from the moment I was weaned off of the boob. My folks were great and gave us everything we needed but we ate like most American families did in the 80’s . . . out of a microwave, out of a package or something from a drive thru. My mother was obsessed with Diet Rite and I drank swimming pools worth of that crappy soda. I can look you in the face and honestly say I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the only time in high school I drank water, on any day, was at football practice. When my parents gave me an allowance, more often than not, I would walk to the grocery store and spend all of it on junk food. I was your classic fat kid.
15 Minutes of Fame
Upon reaching adulthood, nothing much changed. I was like a 10 year old with a debit card. Two times in 25 years I got into amazing shape. The first was when I was a finalist with my ex in the Body-for-Life challenge. I got really lean (especially for me) and was even featured in the magazines as a spokesperson for EAS’s BetaLean. I reached this level of conditioning by lifting, doing cardio like a possessed person, taking boat loads of supplements and calorie restricting. By the time I took my pictures for the contest (which were used in the magazines), I was eating less than 1000 calories a day.
The second time was when one of my best friends and I decided to train together. We lived together, we were both in flux regarding relationships and were on the prowl. No better way to attract a pretty girl like getting your body dialed. It worked, but before long, all the weight that I had lost was quickly put back on.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
See, I am a big guy in general; played college football on the offensive line, became a strength coach and in the twisted recesses of my mind justified hovering between 300-325 pounds by “needing to be big.” My rationale was if I want to own the room and be able to command the space with my athletes, the bigger I was the better. My heaviest weight on a scale was 339 pounds. Problem was, for a good stretch of this decade of being three bills or more, I wasn’t diesel strong. Because of a string of back injuries, I spent a lot of this time focusing on machine cardio or some variation of kettlebell swings. Regardless of my size, my aerobic engine has always been huge but my health was on a road to nowhere. I even found myself on my 41st birthday in the emergency room having a full blown panic attack with a BP of 178/120.
Shamefully that wasn’t enough to stop the downward spiral. I would typically drink up to three energy drinks a day, stop at the gas station for junk on the way home from work and then eat a carbohydrate dense dinner with my family.
. . . And then I went to my assistant’s wedding in Arizona . . .
The wife and I decided to drive from the central coast of California to Scottsdale so we could drop our kids off at my in-laws and then have some time together, alone for the first time in who knows how long. Again, energy drinks, junk food and drive thrus all along our drive. We arrived at our hotel and some old friends of ours joined us in our room for some drinks. My friend Chris and I went hard for about 90 minutes and then I decided to jump into the shower and get cleaned up before we went out for dinner and a night out in Scottsdale. I remember standing in the shower and wondering why the tub felt funny to my feet. Was it textured in a unique way or was it just old? Who knew, but my buzz got derailed because when I got out, the floor in the bathroom felt the same way.
I got dressed, played it cool and we had the girls drive us to dinner. In the back seat of the rental I began to panic because my feet started going numb. I wasn’t drunk enough to pretend this wasn’t happening. As the night wore on, my feet switched from numb to burning. By the time we got home, my legs up to my knee were on fire and humming. As you might imagine, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
In the famous words of my dear friend David Weck, “When shit like that happens man, you get religion real quick.” The next morning, thankfully, I woke up and my legs and feet felt normal again but I knew it was time for a change. My body had hit a point where its ability to tolerate my horrendous dietary practices was over.
I needed to make a radical change and I needed to make it immediately.
The Gospel According to Rogan
I discovered podcasts about six months ago. Admittedly, I’m obsessed. Every red-blooded American man should love Joe Rogan and his show. If you are a follower, you realize that Joe and many of his guests are all low carb. You can’t get through an episode without my guy making reference to diet, and more important, how refined sugar is the bane of all of our existence. Yes, I am a fanboy but he is sitting in front of doctors and athletes who are at the top of their fields/game and they all agree that the diet I was eating was slow motion suicide. I had been listening at a blistering pace for months, and the Scottsdale incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I spoke to anyone I thought was credible, I listened to everything I could find and read hours and hours on the science behind a low carb/ketogenic diet. I bought two programs online, one of which is Robb Wolf’s Keto Masterclass (which I highly recommend), I bought MCT oils, blood ketone monitors, ketone strips to pee on and I put together a game plan to reclaim my health. Three buddies of mine and I decided that we were going to do a 72 hour water fast to rest our digestion, detox and for a spiritual shot in the arm. My plan was to let nature, via the fast, sling shot me into nutritional ketosis and when I picked up eating, to eat a very high fat, low carb diet.
The Keto Flu, Insane Carb Cravings and “Why are my arms so damn heavy?”
I’ve fasted a bunch in the past ten years, all for spiritual reasons. Going into this group fast, I was the most experienced and knew what to expect. Typically, you want to die at about 24 hours in. All of day two sucks like nothing you can imagine and then somewhere around hour 60, the clouds part and you have a clarity that is indescribable. By the time you break your fast at the 72nd hour, you feel amazing and know you will do it again in the future.
This time, though, I got to 72 hours and still felt like trash.
At the end of my three-day fast I decided to extend it out to five days. Even though I added two days to further detox, I still felt awful. Reluctantly, I decided to eat again. It was only after my second day of eating keto where I started to feel like a normal person again.
Around the end of week one (not counting the fast) of eating keto, I hit a wall of carb cravings that made me insane. Three days of relentless cravings found me sitting in my recliner chair after work one afternoon with my keys in my hand trying to convince myself that I should go to the gas station and buy a Hostess Cherry Pie, a Snickers bar and a Moon Pie. Like a dope fiend I had the shakes, and I was seconds away from blowing it all. Thankfully, I fought through it and stayed the course. Over the next two weeks, I battled a slew of bodily “adjustments” which culminated to a day where my arms felt so damn heavy that lifting them up was work.
. . . And then, one day, it all changed.
It took me about four weeks of dedicated eating with zero cheating to show consistent ketones in my blood (.5-3.0 mmols, what most experts consider the sweet spot for nutritional ketosis). My body had finally found a rhythm, my head began to clear up and I began to regain my strength and stamina I had before I started eating this way. The science says that there is a grace period that you must dredge through with very low carbohydrate where the body “learns” how to efficiently use fats/ketones for fuel. It’s a bioenergetics process that has to be nurtured but once the metabolism gets on board, look out. I continued my HIIT cardio throughout this process and there were times of real doom and embarrassing performances that worried me. Almost overnight, my endurance, and output were at all-time highs. I’m a glutton for punishment and have a twisted love for the Assault Bike, and I began to hit totals and efforts I had never seen prior.
Fast forward to today, I have lost 40 pounds in just over eight weeks. I feel incredible, my performances have been all time bests and my eating habits are nearly effortless. Which leads me to the best science of all . . .
The Keto Diet According to Holder
For those of you who are considering eating this way, I have good news for you. Yes, you can read all the experts and their findings about why this could be an answer for your eating, but I want to give you some of my own discoveries that might help clear up some questions.
First off, the science is everywhere. Do a Google search and a sea of information will unfold in front of your eyes. Anything written by Robb Wolf, Dom D’Agastino or Ben Greenfield is going to be of extraordinary quality. All three of these guys are on the forefront of the research, live or have lived the lifestyle and can make total sense to someone who does not have a masters in biochemistry. So before you get lost, look for these three.
If you do find yourself lost, and you come across a group/person/webpage that is trying to convince you that it’s a bad idea, immediately look for what they are pushing as their answer as an alternative. Ninety-nine times out of 100, you have stumbled across information that has an agenda. Trust me, from someone who has been a part of tons of scientific research, you can make the science lean in your favor by framing it with language. Most of these people are trying to sell you something to the contrary and are using sleight of hand techniques with how they say things. For example, in the movie What the Health, the “investigator” (who is pushing a vegan lifestyle) claims that eating processed meat increases your chances of having colon cancer by 20%. The studies he used to support this is quoted as saying a person’s chance of being diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime is 5% and an increase to only 6% when eating processed meat. Well, one plus five (if five is the whole) is 20% more . . . than five. See how sneaky this can be?
As far as your experience goes, it’s going to be radically individual. Yes, the keto flu is a real thing. You are going to feel like poop. Depending on your eating habits before starting this diet, it can be a few days to a few weeks (like me). You might have some digestive issues, or you might not. You might have a radical drop in bodyweight out the gate, or you might be on a steady slow decent (like me).
Three Big Surprises
I had studied enough going into this that I thought there would be nothing unexpected. I was wrong. The first of my “oh, wow” moments came with my blood pressure. Because of our little birthday celebration in the ER, I take my blood pressure every day. I broke down and bought a home unit and stay diligent on watching for any dangerous changes. I honestly cruise at a steady 145/95 with a resting heart rate around 70 bpm. I’ve been this way for two full years (and I’m certain for decades before tracking it), and high blood pressure runs rampant in my family. Then, literally one day, my BP reads 118/65 with a resting heart rate of 50. Since that day (about four weeks ago) my highest reading was 129/70. This morning I was 112/60. I’ve seen resting heart rates in the 40s . . . yes 40s.
I’ve told this story to two of my doctor friends and both have given me their take. First, one pound of fat has seven miles of vessels the heart needs to pump blood through. For each pound of fat loss, the heart gets seven miles of work taken off of the table. My other buddy says I likely escaped a “pocket of inflammation” and that is why we saw the radical drop. Personally, I don’t give a shit either way, I just love these numbers.
The second mystery outcome is my attitude towards high carb foods. You know, pizza, breads, sweets of all kinds, pasta, the usual. Like much of these sudden changes, my hankering for carbs suddenly stopped. I went from wanting to hide behind the Chevron like a junkie stuffing my face with candy and pastries to literally having no interest, whatsoever. It’s so strange.
I have a theory. Stay with me . . .
One of the sites I stumbled across did a nice job trying to explain what ketosis is. With some simple animation, they likened eating carbs to starting a campfire with kindling. That works, but the problem with kindling is you have to keep throwing more and more on the fire if you want to keep it burning. Proteins can be used for fuel, but that is exactly what you don’t want. They burn more like bigger sticks. Fats, however, are those robust logs that you throw on the fire that burn for hours. Once the fire is burning, if you can get some logs going, now we have a campfire! This is the same for nutritional ketosis.
My theory is, once the body understands that carbohydrates are not going to be our fuel of choice and we become fat adapted, our appetite plummets. Much of the keto information lists what to expect and appetite suppression is one of those things. But what isn’t mentioned is why. I think it’s because the body has figured out ways to free up the fat energy in the body, and lucky for me, I have a fat suit that I’ve been walking around in for 43 years. A big, fat . . . energy suit. Since my body is now primed for ketosis and fat-fueled metabolism, my needs for energy are met by daddy’s spare tire, double chin and under boob. So, I don’t have crazy carb cravings because my energy demands are now met around the clock. You are feeling me?
My last discovery that led me to knowing this was the right way to eat for me is my mood. I can’t explain it, much like the first two, but my mood is so much more even now. I have a fast paced job (college strength coach) and I deal with challenging people all day long. The old Holder was quick on the trigger, fast to cuss a person out and louder than necessary. I’m still loud, but I find myself managing my “troubled ones” with greater ease. Perhaps because of the cholesterol levels I am taking in, my hormones are more balanced. Maybe I’m less hangry. Perhaps this way of eating has a direct impact on stress and with the drop in BP, I’m just a finer tuned machine.
Whatever it is, I notice it, my wife sees it and I’m sure my athletes do.
Is a Ketogenic Diet Right for You?
To be honest with you, I don’t know. I hate admitting this, but I trust doctors about as far as I can throw them, so I could tell you to talk to your doctor . . . but I’d have to giggle seconds later. Of the good doctors who I know personally, they all will tell you that they get next to no nutritional instruction during medical school. So getting diet advice from your GP is like getting diet advice from your mechanic. They both might act as if they know what they are talking about, but they really don’t.
What I do know is, if you are overweight, if you are a carb addict or if you are pre-diabetic (or diabetic), you really should consider it. We’ve perverted our entire food supply with sugar to the point where they are adding it to everything. Literally. The low-fat craze that our parents came up believing in was and is a total lie. And in doing so, the food industry has created Frankenstein’s monster with most of the foods we eat. Much of the issue with our kids that we are seeing, from seizures and epilepsy to our babies being prescribed Adderall for ADHD, could, in many cases, be treated with a low carbohydrate diet. Folks, carbs are rocket fuel, particularly the ones we gravitate to: those found in sodas, ice cream, sweets and candy.
Would you put rocket fuel in your scooter? Would you in your VW bug? I wouldn’t, I’d put it in my rockets.
Also, and I have no science off hand to back it up, but the combination of sucrose (table sugar which is both glucose and fructose) along with fat intake creates some kind of Bill Nye-type science experiment in the body. Particularly in the arteries. Think of that bizarre volcano project you and your dad put together in 5th grade for the science fair where you mixed this with that and, viola, lava . . . yeah, that’s sucrose and trans fatty acids in the blood. It’s an alchemical nightmare.
Forging Your Own Path
I would say that most of us have next to no clue about nutrition. Sure, we take advice from this person or that person, but most of us are simply regurgitating things we’ve heard. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m realizing that most of the experts don’t have the first clue about what they are talking about. And it isn’t topic exclusive. Nutrition, politics, the weather . . . we are all guessing. Some have minuscule amounts of proof to support their reason for their guess, but the vast majority of us are the blind leading the blind. So moving forward, you have my permission to test the waters in any manner you see fit. Try a keto diet. Go vegan for the summer. Spend 60 days eating a strict carnivore diet and see what happens. What I do know is what works for me isn’t guaranteed to work for you. Our heritage, our location, the season and our individual lifestyles dictate needs. Therefore, “the standard American diet” is likely a bad fit for all of us.
Take a chance. Find your own path.
Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.
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