Dear Mark: Low Carb Powerlifting, Why We Store Fat, Houseplant Bathing, and Elk Tallow

DeadliftFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering four questions from readers. The first one comes from Mike, a powerlifter who’s looking to drop carbs and eat healthier without sacrificing his performance. Can he do it? Find out below. Next, what does the fact that we store fat in almost unlimited quantities tell us about the role it plays in our health? After that, I discuss how someone might incorporate “forest bathing” principles in their home. Last, I explore the nutritional benefits of wild elk fat and include its basic nutritional profile.

Let’s go:

Hey Mark,

I have been following your website for awhile now and am trying to catch up with, in my opinion, priceless info on nutrition and healthy living. I haven’t noticed anything on optimum nutrition intake specifically for powerlifters. Everything on the web is high carb, high protein but I’m slowly trying to cut carbs and gluten and all that unhealthy garbage.

I would really really really appreciate an article or podcast or even a quick email regarding this topic. I know there is no one-all be-all plan when it comes to this sport, but a point in the right direction would really help. Brief background: I have been training specifically for powerlifting for the last 10 months. My current program is pretty basic: 4 weeks of volume @80% of my 1RM, deload, then 4 weeks of intensity leading to a 9th week of new PRs.

I really appreciate your time and what you do. And I’ll keep listening even if you don’t reply.

Best regards,

Mike

Thanks for the kind words, Mike. I appreciate them. The days of powerlifters relying on entire pizzas doused in olive oil with gummy bear milkshake chasers for their nutrition are waning, as far as I can tell. Things are getting a lot more technical and folks are learning they can optimize their performance with better, “cleaner,” dare I say more primal nutrition. A few different things to check out:

Carb backloading: John Kiefer proposed this concept in his book of the same name, and you’ll have to buy it to get the full story, but the gist is something like “eat low to zero carb throughout the day, then consume massive amounts of carbs immediately after strength training.” This takes advantage of a nifty physiological trick called non-insulin dependent glucose uptake that occurs after a really intense session of training, which means your muscles can refill their glycogen stores without the usual spike in insulin and concomitant reduction in fat-burning. For more info, check out the podcast Kiefer did with Robb Wolf.

Cyclical low-carb/keto: This is what I usually recommend to people who want to eat mostly low-carb and maintain high performance in historically carb-intensive pursuits. It involves targeted, selective carb consumption rather than indiscriminate gorging. A “cycle,” if you will. You can cycle off low-carb in a couple different ways:

1. Focus your carbs around workouts, either 1-2 hours before or after. Go low-carb the rest of the time.

2. Do a carb refeed/cheat day once or twice a week. Strict low-carb at all other times. It probably works best to do your refeeds on or just before heavy training days.

Check out the KetoGains subreddit for a community of keto strength training enthusiasts.

You may also do fine on perpetual low carb, or even full-on ketogenic dieting, as this group of competitive gymnasts did (not powerlifters, sure, but they do strength train and managed to maintain or increase their lifts on a ketogenic diet). Just try it. Give yourself three to four weeks to acclimate to the new level of carbohydrate. Obviously, you don’t want to shake things up too much if you’re approaching a competition, or anything that demands your best performance. If you find yourself lagging during workouts even after the period of adaptation, make small, incremental increases in carb intake (around +20 grams per increase) adjacent to your training until you find a level that allows you to train well.

Hi Mark,

I completed the PB Certification a few months back (which was brilliant programme, by the way) and have just been reviewing my notes. One thing that struck me that you may have pointed out but I don’t recall seeing, is does the fact that the body can store only fairly limited amounts of carbohydrate and protein, yet almost unlimited fat give a good indication of the respective levels of each it expects to receive?

I see this rather like looking in someone refrigerator and seeing 3 different size containers; you could guess that the biggest one is for foods they eat the most of and the smallest the eat the least of.

Sorry if you have already made this point, but interested to hear your thoughts!

Thanks,

Tim

Good eye, Tim. That’s a very nice way to frame things. I sort of got into the subject in post from several years ago: The Metabolic Paradigm Shift, or Why Fat is the Preferred Fuel for Human Metabolism.

I’d go a step further, though. The fact that the body sees fit to store energy as fat indicates its safety. Fat isn’t toxic. It’s a reliable fuel source. It’s “healthy.” I mean, I just can’t imagine a scenario in which an animal — or all animals, really, who store excess energy as fat — evolves over millions of years to rely on a fundamentally flawed, toxic, “artery-clogging,” inherently dangerous source of energy. It wouldn’t make sense.

Any diet or way of living that restricts, inhibits, or perturbs our ability to utilize that stored energy is unhealthy. If we can’t access the fat locked in our cells, or our mitochondria aren’t equipped to burn it once freed, or we eat too much fat (or food in general) for our bodies to handle on a consistent basis, fat becomes”bad.” But fat isn’t inherently bad. If it were, we wouldn’t store it so readily and easily.

Hi Mark,

Greatly enjoyed your article on “Forest Bathing”. Was wondering if you had any thoughts or suggestions as to which plants/trees might be most beneficial or give off the most phytoncides? I want to put some in my house so I can be around them more often.
Thank you very much.

Love the site and the podcast.

Tony

While most of the best lab research has focused on the trees that populate the forests where the bathing occurs, like Japanese cedar and the hiba tree (a conifer), the specific species don’t seem to be very important. Forest bathing lowers stress, reduces hypertension, improves immune function, and lowers blood sugar whether the forest is cedar, hiba, oak, or beech. Studies using cypress oil, cedar wood chips, cedar interior walls (many Japanese homes are built out of cedar) all found similar effects. I’d imagine it would work equally well in the deciduous rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the towering redwoods of California, Greece’s olive groves, Washington’s apple orchards, the Amazonian jungle. The important factor is the smell and the presence of greenery (or, probably, other growing things).

Although there’s very little research into optimal phytoncide-emitting houseplants, this paper (PDF) found that geraniums, chrystanthemums, cyperus, and begonias were all potent phytoncide sources. You could also look at the most effective aromatherapy scents for stress relief and buy some of the source plants. Some ideas:

As a general rule, any houseplant whose odor is detectable will help. If you can smell it, you’re exposing yourself to plant-borne volatile organic compounds and there’s probably “good stuff” going on. Aim for plants whose smells you enjoy and you’ll probably benefit greatly.

Also, you know, a bag of cedar mulch from the hardware store might be worth a shot, too.

Lemme know how it goes, Tony!

Hi Mark,

In the spirit of fat, I collect all the fat trimmings from the elk my family kills every year then render it into elk cooking fat. Obviously these wild beasts are not anywhere near grains in the high country of Montana, but I was just curious as to how this fat compares to beef tallow, butter, lard, or other fats?

Nicely done! I envy anyone with ample elk tallow at his or her disposal. “In the spirit of fat” indeed. You’ve got a treat on your hands, as this profile of wild elk fat (among others) explains:

  • It’s primarily saturated and monounsaturated fat, similar overall to grass-fed beef. Low PUFA content.
  • Of the PUFA that’s present, a good amount is omega-3. Compared to even pasture-raised beef fat, elk tallow contains significantly more omega-3 fats.
  • It’s probably great for cooking. If it’s anything like the fat from sheep given free access to wild forage, elk fat is loaded with phytochemicals that protect the fatty acids from oxidative damage during the cooking process.

The only downside — and I use that term with many caveats because I don’t really consider it one — is that the fat might taste “funny” or “gamey.” That’s due to the diverse diet of wild game and reflects the variety of plant polyphenols (the aforementioned phytochemicals) present in the fat. When an animal eats wild plants rich in polyphenols (PDF), they show up in its fat, which is an acquired taste because we’re accustomed to animal fat from animals given monotonous, reliable diets.

Compared to lard, elk is lower in PUFA and MUFA, higher in SFA.

Compared to butter, elk is similar in PUFA, slightly higher in MUFA, slightly lower in SFA.

Compared to beef, elk is pretty similar overall. Higher SFA and lower MUFA, plus the extra omega-3s I mentioned above.

See if you can get a hold of the marrow bones and, if you’re adventurous, the brain. Nutrient greatness awaits inside:

  • Elk brain is about 9% DHA, more than some types of salmon. Don’t like fatty fish? Eat some elk brain instead.
  • Elk marrow is about 67% monounsaturated fat, the very same fatty acid found abundantly in olive oil. If someone’s giving you grief over consuming “arteryclogginganimalfat,” point to the MUFA content to shut them up.
  • Marrow is also rich in conjugated linoleic acid, the good trans-fat associated with lower inflammation and cancer inhibition in animal models.

Enjoy.

That’s it for today, everyone. Thanks for reading and be sure to add your comments and advice below.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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36 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Low Carb Powerlifting, Why We Store Fat, Houseplant Bathing, and Elk Tallow”

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    1. I too, am fortunate to live on wild game (deer and elk mostly). I would just like to caution people about eating the brain and organs of wild game – be sure your animal is healthy. Be informed and watch for signs of illness in your game animals. Here is a link regarding CWD – Chronic Wasting Disease: http://www.cwd-info.org/index.php
      I know MDA people love to be informed. Now I’m heading out for some forest bathing!! The sun is shining and the creek has thawed! Happy Monday! 🙂

  1. You begin to mention aromatherapy and some of their benefits which is great! There are literally thousands of different essential oils out there and all have their own health benefits. I started making my own candles with essential oils and each one puts me in a slightly different mood (https://www.etsy.com/shop/ScentSavers).
    The lavender like you mentioned is soothing and relaxing which helps to relieve stress. Not as much as an intense workout, but still nice at the end of a long hard day.

    I need to go a step further and get some smelly houseplants 🙂

  2. I suspect we didn’t evolve simply inhaling those “foresty” volatile organic compounds – we must have routinely gotten smacked in the face – and elsewhere – with the branches and leaves. Perhaps we should take a handful of leaves and give ourselves a good scrub-down next time we are hiking in the woods…

  3. Just brilliant about the storage of fat. Never heard it put so elegantly. We would not of survived millions of years…

    1. I really dont see that we are programmed to store fat easily. I defy anyone to find a hunter gatherer tribe, or historical reference to one, that puts on fat in good times and slims down when foods gets scarce.
      I am unable to find any record of this or any obesity in any of these groups and there would be lots of times they had access to plenty of food.
      Obesity seems to appear when food becomes refined and activity decreases. Much of the refined foods would be carbs so perhaps the expression should be we are designed to store carbs easily( stored as fat albeit)

      1. I believe what the post means is that the human body stores fat more easily than the other two macro nutrients. You don’t see anybody able to store copious amounts of carbohydrates in their bodies, other than a small amount of glycogen in the muscles, and no one stores ready to consume protein in their bodies, unless you count muscle itself, and I don’t think that’s really prioritized as a fuel source.

      2. Excess carbs are stored as fat–so once they are converted to fat, they will remain fat until the body uses that fat for fuel. There’s no re-converting to carbs. The body will burn carbs first because they are easier, and they activate insulin. Until the insulin does it’s job, using fat for fuel is suppressed. Once the insulin (and therefore carbs) have been used, the body goes back to using fat for fuel.

        Obesity actually occurs as a result of a flaw in fat regulation, which very well could be from processed foods. It does not occur because of activity decrease. If anything, activity decrease is a side effect of obesity, because the body is storing so many calories as fat and has less calories for activity.

        If you want to really dive in to it all, I suggest Gary Taube’s book Why We Get Fat.

  4. Thanks for the Shoutout Mark.

    I’m a mod from the Ketogains subreddit. I bodybuild as a hobby, but also do recreational powerlifting and planning on competing in May.

    Yes, heavy lifting on low carb is perfectly possible with correct macro partitioning.

    Cheers!!!

  5. My favorite line: “Don’t like salmon? Try some elk brains instead.”

    Love this site.

  6. Thanks for answering my question! And you better believe I have several elk femurs in the freezer for some marrow roasting!

  7. Forest bathing? No surprise I love running in the woods and “crave” going there.. i love the smells, sounds and how the ground feels under my feet… time to hug a tree!!! 😉

  8. A bit of info for Mike, the powerlifter. I’m a high-performance (national B squad and top 10 in my division nationally) Masters 40-49/93kg weight class powerlifter who eats strict Primal with no deliberate cheating. I occasionally cheat for social acceptability reasons. I’m also one of Australia’s Primal Blueprint Certified Experts. I’m definitely my own nutrition experiment.

    My coach knows I eat this way and thinks I’m mildly insane, but it works for me and I’m still making significant gains in my late 40s.

    During most weeks, I eat normally; no specific changes to my nutrition intake related to training. On volume weeks, when training load is high, I may up my nutritional intake by adding in a little more protein and fat, mostly in the form of nuts, or an additional leftovers snack. I don’t deliberately look for carbs to refuel, as three years into eating Primally, I just don’t need those foods.

    In those volume weeks, I sometimes also bend to my family’s desire for rice and pasta, and may have a small amount, no more than a loose-packed cooked 1/2 cup, with a sauce. But only if I feel like I need the extra calories. I’d do this maybe one in four times.

    I don’t feel that eating the typical powerlifter diet is necessary in my n=1 sample. I’m more than happy training this way, and don’t feel physically that I’m missing out on anything that my body needs.

    If Mike (or Mark, or anyone) wants to talk further, I’m more than happy to do so.

    1. I concur as well. While not a powerlifter, I do surf hard everyday. Usually an hour and half to two hours. According to my friend’s GPS surf watch we average about three miles of paddling per hour of surf and our rides are two to three hundred years long. Evey second or third day I do a HIT session on my spinner bike (surfing doesn’t work the legs that much) and every other day I do an intense fifteen minute planking routine. Besides the carbs that come along with my nuts and veggies the only carb food I intentionally eat is sweet potatoes. Maybe one or two small potatoes a day. That and a chocolate Larabar ( just dates, almonds, walnuts and cacoa) before I hit the waves. Probably hitting around 150 grams net carbs (don’t count fiber) per day.

      I think our reliance on cabs for energy comes from relying on carbs for energy. It feeds upon itself. I haven’t seen any performance or recovery issues keeping carbs low on a consistent basis.

      And like Stephen, I don’t have cheat meals but do have two social meals per week (date night) that are very high quality ( I like to eat well), but are most definitely higher in carbs than my normal diet.

      I see no difference either way after eating one of my social meals. Although back to back social meals will have often have less than ideal effect.

    2. I am interested in learning more about this. Do you have any links with further info? I am a beginner (female) powerlifter NOT looking to lose weight…as I need more strength and muscle gain. I just want to be healthy about it though. I find it hard to be completely primal and try to hit the macros I was given. 140-160P/60-70/300-325C. Any advice on how to “primal-tize” my goals would be awesome!

      1. Michelle, I’d be more than happy to talk you through customising your nutrition for powerlifting. We should talk by email or Skype to start. It’ll be a great test of both my powerlifting knowledge and my Primal Blueprint Expert Certification.

        Shoot me an email on [email protected] and we’ll chat.

        1. Thanks, Stephen! I sent an email to the address you gave above. Let me know if you did not receive it.

    3. Stephen, thanks for sharing what you do. I’ve been lifting (heavy) for over 5 years now and just started on a new (too me) lifting program where I am finally getting out of my self imposed plateau. I’ve been paleo and low carb for years but all of the info I find encourages a high carb diet. At least more than 20 net grams per day is high for me. I’m glad there more than one way to do it.

      1. Carla, you’re more than welcome. I’d be happy, too, to hassle my coach for the kinds of loading and periodisation he’s giving me to share that with the community.

        I’m one of those athletes who’s passionately interested in my program and the “why” of what I’m doing rather than just doing it. I think understanding my training, my nutrition, and my general health and injury status (only twinges right now) makes me have a more complete understanding of what I am up to.

        1. Stephen, I would be more than happy to hear it! Since I tend to have insulin resistance, I really need to watch the carb/sugar intake no matter how active I am. So far I’ve not seen a lot of nutrition in the bodybuilding community, male and female, but I know its probably out there even if that community is small…

  9. I must agree with what Mark said in regards to the powerlifting. I have a mate who is a powerlifter and he has been Carb-Back Loading using John Kiefer’s method for the past year or so and his results have been insane! It obviously isn’t primal and the actual carb load has to be high GI rubbish food (pizza, ice cream, donuts etc) but the results don’t lie. John refers to it as ‘eating like a fat kid’ haha.

    1. I don’t see why the carb load needs to be junk. Noodles, rice, and potatoes would do the same thing but without all pure sugar and rancid oil that would come with donuts. Even if it get results physically (power and aesthetics) from junk, it must take a toll on other things that you can’t see in the mirror or measure on the platform.

      1. I agree Clay, but John does go into detail as to why he suggests high sugar foods. And when you have to eat 4000 cals in the space of a few hours I guess the sugary/easy to smash down foods help to do the job along side the rice and potato dishes. But yes I agree in terms of overall health it is a bit detrimental. My friends skin is the first sign I noticed of ill effects, He never had acne before but he does now…

  10. info on powerlifters and low carb- probably one of the best powerlifters did it , Mark Bell -http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/ask-the-super-strong-guy-low-carb-diet.html

  11. There is apparently some small risk of getting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (essentially mad cow disease in humans) from elk. The disease agent is a prion, which is resistant to high temperatures, and so the brains, spinal cord, and some other parts shouldn’t even be handled, let alone eaten, in areas where the wild elk population is known to have the disease.

    http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/cwd/
    “Hunters who harvest deer or elk from known CWD-positive areas may wish to consider having the animal tested for CWD before consuming the meat (information about testing is available from most state wildlife agencies). Persons involved in field-dressing carcasses should wear gloves, bone-out the meat from the animal, and minimize handling of the brain and spinal cord tissues.”

    Risk is small, but still … google “CWD hunters” for more than you ever wanted to know.

  12. Regarding plants for indoor forest bathing, check out:

    “How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office”
    B. C. Wolverton

    Amazon has it.

  13. Elk fat sounds wonderful. I would pass on eating the brains of any wild cervine due to the potential of chronic wasting disease. It seems to be more more common than BSE or mad cow disease. Bovine slaughter houses have USDA inspectors that observe the brain and spinal chord of every cow on the line. Cervids hunted in the wild are often the easy kills that may not have their wits about them in the first place. I would expect regular hunters to be wary of this. The good news is that muscle and visceral organ tissues are generally safe in that prions tend to concentrate in nerve tissue. Australia and New Zealand have taken great measures to see that scrapie, a form of sheep prion disease, does not infect their domestic populations. Something to think about if one craves a favorite brain dish. If the brains look healthy, I’d save them as a treat for the sled dogs.

  14. I guess I am just lucky to be able to forest bathe, do my PBM on the grass under my Californian Redwood (very unusual for Australia), next to my rosemary bush and with the geraniun on the shed behind me. Who would of thought I had all this and did not know until now athough I always feel good once I have completed the workout.
    I also spend alot of my weekend time messing about in the garden / veggie patch small and all that is by Aussie standards.

  15. Wild game makes up for over 80%of my protein. Of which I hunt fish and butcher myself.when butchering venison – Elk deer you must remove all fat before freezing or the fat will go rancid, giving the meat a gamey flavor which most people don’t tolerate. Even when cooking with fresh deer or elk fat you better have a spoon handy to scrape the tallow off the roof of your mouth.

  16. “If someone’s giving you grief over consuming “arteryclogginganimalfat,” point to the MUFA content to shut them up.”

    LoL. Mark sometimes I can’t decide if you are more funny or intelligent. You will kick ass at stand up comedy and I do mean it as a complement even though it may not sound like one.

  17. As someone who has gone fully ketogenic for a few periods of time up to 3 months at a stretch, I have to weigh in here. First off, I did not adapt quickly, and I don’t think anyone else would either. I worked into a ketogenic diet over a space of months/years. First I dropped pastries and candies. Then I dropped breads.. THAT took a long time to get past! Then I began cutting back on fruit. First I went down to one piece of fruit in a day. Then I skipped days. Then I had no fruit through the weekdays. Etc.

    When I finally went fully ketogenic, I did not have any energy for a couple of weeks. Then it began coming back. Ultimately, my energy levels were higher than before! I had no problem with weight workouts, and gaining muscle, on a ketogenic diet.

    My only problem with a ketogenic diet is that I clearly remember just how delicious various sweets tasted… Eventually, I have always caved in, and eaten sweet things, and blew myself out of my ketogenic state.

    Now, if I decide to allow some carbs, I try to stick to root vegetables, and occasionally some berries. For special occasion desserts, I use poached raisins, dates, or ripe bananas or pineapples to sweeten things. You can make heavenly ice creams sweetened and flavored with these and other fruits.

    But I still try to win my way back into ketosis when I can, since I feel better once I get there.

  18. “According to my friend’s GPS surf watch we average about three miles of paddling per hour of surf and our rides are two to three hundred years long.”

    – a testament to Primal eatings effect on endurance and longevity if I ever heard one 😉