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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 02 2016

Dear Mark: Is Caloric Density the Answer?, Fat Starving the Brain, and High-Intensity Primal Endurance Training

By Mark Sisson
20 Comments

DM--Is caloric density the answerFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First, should the primary focus in constructing a healthy diet be caloric density? Is the key to weight loss and optimal health the consumption of bulky, low-calorie foods? Next, a new study seems to show that fat “starves the brain.” Is this true? If not, what’s really going on? And finally, are following Primal Endurance principles antithetical to high intensity performance?

Let’s find out.

Dear Mark,

recently I stumbled upon the whole plant-based diet revolution, specifically the website of Michael Greger, nutritionfacts.org.
I thought I understood the way blood sugar works and how carbs can mess that up. However, the plant-based diet relies heavily on whole wheat grains. These are doctors claiming that caloric density is the answer to choosing the right type foods. They essentially fill your stomach entirely without consuming a lot of calories, in a nutshell. More food for less calories if that makes sense.

What do you make out of this, and what’s your take specifically on the caloric density theory?

Thanks in advance and keep up the good work!

Joost Smit

I’ve spoken about caloric density before. But while mechanically filling up your gut with a high volume of low-caloric food (like non-starchy vegetables) can “fill you up,” it misses the boat.

I prefer to focus on nutrient density. This way all bases are covered, you’re getting actual nutrients, and you can eat a wider range of foods. If you eat a high-caloric density food, you make sure it’s also high in nutrient density. Foods like meat, nuts and seeds, hard cheese, eggs, beets, and baked Japanese sweet potatoes (and regular potatoes) qualify. And when you eat a low-caloric density food, you make sure it’s not just empty roughage providing little else but bulk. Foods like leafy greens, broccoli, and other vegetables qualify. Food should serve a purpose besides bulk, whether it’s providing protein, fat, prebiotics, magnesium, iodine, polyphenols, or any other macro or micronutrient vital for health.

Focusing only on caloric density leaves out a lot of foods and predisposes you to focus on the wrong ones. You’ll miss out on animal products and all the important nutrients they contain, because they’re high in calories. You’ll miss out on gouda and all the vitamin K2, calcium, and beneficial fats it contains because it’s calorically dense. You won’t eat many almonds, cashews, walnuts, or mac nuts because they contain too many calories per unit of mass.

You can certainly lose a lot of weight eating only calorically-sparse foods, and weight loss tends to confer many benefits, but you’ll be missing a lot as well. Focus on nutrient density first.

Mark,

There’s a new media report circulating showing that a high-fat diet “starves the brain.” What do you make of it? Here’s the report I saw: https://www.mpg.de/10478525/fat-brain-sugar

Oh yeah, I saw this pop up in my Twitter feed awhile back and thought to myself “I’m gonna have to talk about this, aren’t I?” So here I am. As I knew I would be.

First, don’t worry too much about this. What the report describes is physiological insulin resistance.

In the context of high fat intakes, body-wide insulin resistance commences. This prevents precious sugar from being used needlessly by the peripheral tissues (which can rely on fat and ketones) and reserves it for the only organ that absolutely requires it: the brain (which can, of course, also use ketones, just not exclusively). Ketosis is well-known to reduce glucose consumption in the brain; this is simply because part of the brain can use ketones.

As for high-fat starving the brain of glucose? Well, the study only lasted a few days. It takes at least a few days for the body to become fat-adapted and able to convert and burn enough ketones to make up for the reduced glucose available to the brain. That’s why initial low-carbing causes cognitive deficits in the early few days, and subsequent maintenance of and adaptation to the high-fat intakes resolves the deficits.

Another point mentioned is that the “selfish brain…gets its glucose by stimulating the body’s appetite for sweet foods.” Yes, the hypothalamus can make powerful suggestions about food choice. Oftentimes the suggested food is high in sugar. And many people assent to these suggestions, but many don’t. We aren’t mice. Mice have less executive functioning than humans. They don’t “decide” a whole lot. They don’t weigh options or mull over the health effects of that high-sugar, high-fat chow. They just do what their brain suggests. Humans have the luxury of decisions, and the right decisions become a whole lot easier when you’ve been exposed to the Primal fat-versus-sugar-burning paradigm.

Of course, this is why high-fat, high-carb diets don’t work very well. You’d better pick one to focus on. If you’re smart about it, eating carbs around high intensity training, creating glycogen debts that are then repaid without impacting ketone production, you can get by. But for regular old lab mice sitting around in cages or sedentary humans wolfing down fast food meals, the carb-fat marriage is a discordant one.

Hey Mark,

Heard you on Joe Rogan’s podcast and loved what you had to say. Gorged on the Primal Blueprint and immediately picked up Primal Endurance – both are fantastic! I’m now two months into primal and love how I’m feeling.

I am also applying your rule of 8 weeks minimum aerobic base training – not just because you recommended it, but because I discovered that age 31, I developed an atrial flutter that required an ablation! My coach and cardiologist both enthusiastically endorsed your recommendation of 8 weeks’ base below MAT. It is shocking to me how the more recent trends in cycling and sports training is forcefully pushing high intensity, shorter duration work for its quick benefits rather than focusing on long-term health. Only recently have stories come out regarding cyclists and heart health, and the evidence all supports your advice to really stringently build a base before adding intensity for long-term heart health.

My question is this: because we know that more sprint-intensive activities like hard racing for an hour require longer and more training above MAT levels, and as the science shows that a low carb diet can lower high-end power output, can you point me to any guidance from you or others regarding integrating more carbohydrates around build and race phases? After reading Primal Endurance, I’m still a bit in the dark as to how the principals can work for year-long high-intensity racers.

Keep up the good work man. I’m preaching primal to everyone I can, and I’m already hearing success stories from folks feeling great.

Thanks,

Triston

At some point in the journey for elite status, some amount of health is probably sacrificed at the altar of performance. But at age-group levels just below that, I believe you can get to 90-95% of your personal max potential without doing significant harm. It’s that last 5% that kills people, but also lets you win the elite races—so you have to ask is it worth it. I eventually determined it wasn’t, and I was one of the top guys actually qualified to ask that question. Most folks who run, even the really good ones, aren’t in the same arena. For them, it’s probably not worth it.

As far as Primal Endurance training and high intensity workouts, there are acute carb loading strategies that allow for higher intensity workouts and races without compromising fat burning and/or keto utilization, like a sweet potato the night before to top off glycogen stores, the use of one of the new keto drinks just before or during, or the use of UCAN Superstarch (whose slow absorption has minimal impact on insulin and thus ketones) occasionally in a workout or race. The real key is to create a glycogen debt with training, and then fill it—but no more than that. Once you push past the amount of carbohydrate your body needs to fill glycogen stores, you’re compromising ketone production and fat adaptation.

Even after your 8 week MAT base training you won’t need to spend a ton of time at race pace in your training. You’ll need to do SOME, but maybe that’s a TT (time trial) once every two weeks if you’re not racing. Remember, Ironman triathlete Mike Pigg got to the top and stayed for a long while just doing efficiency work at sub threshold intensity between events and using weekly races as his ONLY hard workouts.

It’s easier (and healthier) than most people think to get good, but harder (and less healthy) to become elite.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Be sure to leave any comments or advice you have down below.

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20 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Is Caloric Density the Answer?, Fat Starving the Brain, and High-Intensity Primal Endurance Training”

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  1. In regards to the first question, I definitely look and feel better, and maintain a healthy weight easily, by focusing first on nutrient dense foods. I was vegetarian for many years, and vegan for some of that. As a mostly raw vegan, my stomach was always full but I didn’t feel satisfied. Now I am satisfied and satiated. I weigh a few more pounds but my stomach is always flat and my skin and hair are much healthier. I’ve done it both ways…nutrient density is the way to go!

  2. +1 for nutrient density. There’s nothing wrong with plants as part of a healthy diet, but doctors still haven’t wised up to the fact that wheat consumption, be it whole or refined, is a major problem for a lot of people (Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity). Even persons who aren’t gluten-sensitive tend to notice bloat and creeping weight gain on a wheat-heavy diet. Additionally, I personally found that a focus on wheat products, even while consuming plenty of vegetables, left me hungry again within an hour or two. At the very least, I found it to be an eating plan that has little staying power.

  3. The hungriest I’ve ever been is the week after I read The Volumetrics Diet. And I was eating all the damn time. That ended when I murdicated en entire rotisserie chicken with a stick of butter spread on crackers.

  4. Great post. The second question reminds me of when people tell my husband and I to eat lots of carbs because they are “brain food.” Then I have to enter a huge rant about ketosis, or shut my mouth and probably never speak to them about nutrition again. LOL.

    Either way, your answers are always clear, concise, and very much appreciated 🙂

    1. So true! The way people talk about needing carbs for energy you’d think we were a nation of endurance athletes and MENSA members. I’m not sure why an office worker needs to carb load or eat gel packs and energy bars for anything. Their liver and muscles are absolutely saturated with glucose 24/7.

      1. I may be an office worker but I’m also in fantastic shape. It’s elitist to assume all off workers just sit on their butts.

        1. I think it was generally understood I was using “office worker” as a short hand term to refer to people who’s activity level is quite low but consume carbohydrates at a level that matches a professional endurance athlete.

          I too sit on my ass in front of a computer all day long but I’m also super fit. But even then, I don’t need energy bars and gel packs for a two hour surf session followed by some spinner bike. A normal moderate to low carb diet is plenty. It’s not like my computer is powered by a hand crank.

  5. After reading the book “Fruit Belly” I’ve eliminated most fruit from my diet except berries. Berries are very nutrient dense, you can sprinkle some on most anything.

  6. Digging the focus on “nutrient density”, specifically when your food is already high-calorie. Thinking about foods this way has really improved my nutrition and helped me to put on some muscle. Getting ENOUGH calories is usually my problem, so I focus a lot on foods like potatoes, meats and nuts. If I couldn’t eat potatoes I’d have to buy a weight-gainer shake….

  7. Michael Greger, nutritionfacts.org, is a vega-Nazi. Any nutritional/food topic with his name attached is short on truth and long on bias. He is at the top of my list of vegetarians I would like to see die young FROM their vegetarian psychosis.

  8. Nutrient Density vs Volume is a huge argument in the weight loss world. I always advocate for ND. You can fill your stomach to bursting and still not be satisfied if you haven’t actually consumed anything valuable to your body. That just sets off a cycle of constant eating, trying to achieve satiety. No thanks.

  9. Nutrient dense foods are the ones to eat, for sure, especially if you’re goal is to lose weight. Personally I’ve found that I can function pretty well eating around 1200 calories a day, and weigh 188 pounds now (down from 290 pounds 15 months ago).

    In order to lose the weigh I HAD to track calories using Fitday.com. At first I tracked only the macronutrients- fat, carbs and protein. But then I discovered that with Fitday you can also track micronutrients. When I started adjusting my diet to include 100% or more of the RDA of vitamins and minerals, I found that when eating a low calorie diet, I didn’t really suffer any major hunger pangs.

    Sure, every month or two my body told me I needed to gorge, and I’d eat 3000-4000 calories for a day or two, but then it was pretty easy to get back on track, eating 1200 or so calories a day.

    Anyway, that’s my experience. Focusing on the getting the nutrients my body needed, eating meat, nuts, eggs, good oils, green and root and other veggies definitely worked for me.

    1. Even if it doesn’t help weight loss, ND is the way to go. Who would put diluted gasoline in their car? Who wants to watch a movie that’s all fluff and no substance. Or read a book that has um, uh, and you know ever fifth or six word? A movie is an hour and half and a book is about 300 pages, whether it’s junk or brilliant, they take roughly the same time to consume.

      Seems bizarre to purposely bulk up with low calorie food so you can continue to feed the disconnect from your body and it’s true needs and avoid getting your appetite signals stabilized.

      I reminds of the people on these weight loss shows who claim that they just love food and that’s their problem. But when you see the crap they eat, you can see that they have no real love of food, just a love of eating. That’s not the same thing. That’s pretty darn close to just masturbating while claiming to love having sex so much.

      1. Thanks, Clay. Your analogies about books and movies are spot-on, and I never would have thought of then, myself. I’ve been reading your comments for a long time now and just wanted to say I really appreciate your insights. You have a unique — and intelligent — view of the world, and what you write often makes me see things in a new way. Thanks.

  10. Anyone have thoughts or experience with becoming fat adapted while pregnant (and nursing)? I’d love to hear anything anyone can share about it.

  11. I had a terrible week last week craving sugar. This week I have been eating lots of fat. The cravings are almost gone, and the energy level is definitely up!

  12. Volumetric eating=distended belly+hunger
    Nutrient dense eating=flat belly+zero hunger
    No brainer for me.