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Bodyrecomposition Mailbag 5

Another day, another mailbag.

Around Workout Nutrition During Dieting

Question: Should I continue with around workout nutrition while dieting?

Answer: Since summer time is approach and everyone (more or less) is dieting to look good at the pool, this is a question that comes up fairly often.  I’ll be honest that I spent years going around and around with this one in my head before finally coming to some conclusions about it.  These are those conclusions.

The usual rationale for avoiding around workout nutrition while dieting goes something like this: if you consume nutrients (especially carbohydrate) during or after training, you will either impair fat mobilization/burning by increasing insulin levels or impair the hormonal response (growth hormone gets brought up a lot) and slow fat loss.  Some suggest only consuming protein around training for this reason although they all seem to forget that protein (and especially the Branched Chain Amino Acids) raise insulin.

A related idea is of doing training first thing in the morning fasted to take maximum advantage of the increase in blood fatty acids which occur during the overnight fast.  And certainly, for certain types of activity (especially low intensity aerobic activity), there is certain some truth to this.  Of course, those types of activities don’t generally require much in the way of around workout nutrition in the first place.

Certainly this strategy has been used for decades by contest prepping bodybuilders or other athletes who need to lean out.  As I discuss in detail in The Stubborn Fat Solution, for individuals looking to shed the last bit of stubborn fat, there is probably some rationale to this strategy due to the profound impact of insulin on fat mobilization.  Of course, for people who can’t work out first thing in the morning or fasted, there are also ways to get around that (discussed in the book) and still deal with stubborn fat.

But what about higher intensity activities such as weight training or more intense types of metabolic work, should around workout nutrition still be maintained (to at least some degree) while dieting?

The short-answer, in my opinion, is yes to at least one degree or another.

Now, here’s the longer answer.

First let’s look at metabolic work, cardio and interval type work.  For the most part, concerns about impairing fat oxidation during higher intensity activity with the consumption of during workout nutrition don’t seem to be warranted in the first place.

Research clearly shows that the consumption of carbs during moderate and higher intensity aerobic activity doesn’t negatively impact fat oxidation in the first place.  Basically, it’s only low intensity aerobic activity where this is an issue and, as noted above, that type of training doesn’t require much in the way of nutritional support in the first place.

I’d even go further and argue that proper during workout nutrition during higher intensity activities can help with fat loss simply because it tends to improve intensity and performance, allowing people to work harder and/or longer which burns more calories which is far more important in the big scheme of fat loss.

Trying to perform higher intensity training when blood sugar is down often goes badly (there is a lot of individual variability in this).  From a fat loss standpoint, I consider being able to train effectively far more important than any small benefits from a hormonal or other perspective.

Of course, I’d make the same argument for weight training (with the exception of activities done specifically to deplete muscle glycogen); the ability to maintain training intensity in the weight room (which is the key to maintaining muscle mass) is far more important in the big scheme of things than any small hormonal effect or what have you.  As well, weight training doesn’t generally use fat for fuel to any great degree in the first place.  Worrying about ‘impairing fat burning’ during weight training sessions is missing the point.

It’s also worth noting that much of the concern over post-workout nutrition under these conditions may be equally misplaced.  It’s usually feared that consuming carbs after a workout will impair any post-workout fat burn (I’d note that any effect from this is very small in the first place).

However, research shows that following high-intensity (aerobic) activity, the body continues to use fat for fuel even when carbs are consumed immediately after workout; under those conditions the carbs go to refill glycogen stores but the body continues to use fat for energy production.

And given that proper post-workout nutrition is one of the key aspects to improving overall recovery (always at a premium when folks are dieting), I think that the benefits of maintaining at least some around workout nutrition outweigh any slight negatives in the case.

Finally, there is also the often forgotten fact that most of the ‘fat burning’ that happens during a diet doesn’t occur during training (especially weight training) in the first place.  Rather, it’s what happens the other 23 hours of the day that will have the biggest impact on overall fat loss.  And that’s mostly related to diet.

Don’t get me wrong, exercise clearly contributes to fat loss through a variety of mechanisms but, again, it’s less the hour you spent training and what happens in the other 23 hours of the day that will maximally affect fat loss.

Basically, at least if you’re talking about moderate to high-intensity types of training, I think the benefits of around workout nutrition far outweigh any of the negatives.  During workout nutrition can help to maintain training intensity and proper post-workout nutrition improves recovery.  I think those benefits far outweigh any small or nonexistent negatives that might occur.

Basically, rather than cut carbs/protein from around hard training sessions, I’d rather see those cuts (especially carbohdyrates) coming from other meals of the day.  Some dieters will actually take this to the extreme of only consuming carbohydrates around training and eating no starchy carbs the rest of the day.

This is essentially the Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD) that I discussed in my first book The Ketogenic Diet and it can provide any benefits of a full-blown low-carbohydrate diet while still allowing trainees to maintain training intensity and recovery from high-intensity worouts.

However, that may not be desired or required for all dieters.  Some people do poorly on low-carbohdyrate diets and will need to consume some carbs at other meals of the day in addition to any around training nutrition.  This means that, in most cases, the amount of around workout nutrition consumed may have to be scaled back somewhat.

Someone consuming a lot of calories around training may leave themselves with almost nothing to eat the rest of the day on a diet and scaling the values back may be necessary. I can’t give recommendations beyond that since a lot will depend on how much is being consumed around training in the first place.

A trainee consuming a very large amount of carbs and protein post-workout (e.g. 100 grams carbs/40 grams protein) might cut that in half while dieting; someone consuming a small amount in the first place (e.g. 20-30 grams of each) might not cut back anything at all.

Of course, I also think that training volume (especially in the weight room) should be reduced while dieting in the first place which means less requirement for around workout nutrition in the first place.  But talking about weight training on a diet is another topic for another day.

But I don’t think that around workout nutrition should be eliminated while dieting completely, especially for moderate to high-intensity training sessions.  The benefits from being able to maintain training intensity and recovery far outweigh any small benefits from the hormonal response or what have you (especially given that most fat loss happens outside of the gym anyhow).

Carbohydrate Intake and Depression

Question: I’m a 45 year old female. I currently weigh 221lbs. I’ve lost 30lbs in the last three months. My protein intake is roughly 120 to 130 grams per day.  I’m limiting my carb intake to 180 to 200 grams a day. I suffer from life long depression and I find that when I limit by carb intake I slowly slide into a depressed state after two or three months (it’s happening to me now). My sleep is disturbed, I develop anxiety I’m bitchy as hell and I’m dragging ass.  Is there a correlation between carb intake and production of neurotransmitters? If so, how can I eliminate the effect lower levels of carbs is having on me? Any information is greatly appreciated.

Answer: Dieting in general tends to lower serotonin in the brain and this can cause depression in susceptible people.  Interestingly, this effect seems to be more likely to occur in women than men (women being more susceptible to depression in general).  In my experience, low carbohydrate/higher proteins diets tend to be even worse in this regards for reasons I’ll explain now.

First and foremost, nutrient intake per se affects the production of neurotransmitters with the effects being both direct and indirect.

In a very direct way, specific amino acids are the precursors for specific neurotransmitters in the brain.  Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin in the brain and the amino acid tyrosine (as well as phenylalanine which converts into tyrosine in the body) is the precursor for dopamine (and subsequently adrenaline/noradrenaline).

As an extreme example of this, researchers will sometimes use something called acute tryptophan depletion (accomplished by providing an amino acid solution containing all of the amino acids except tryptophan) to drastically lower brain levels of serotonin.  This is used to test various things but, among other things, it tends to cause acute depression in those who are susceptible.   However, this is a pretty extreme type of intervention, decreasing blood tryptophan levels massively (by about 80%); in dieting, tryptophan levels only drop by about 10%.

As usual, it gets more complicated.  The different amino acids have different transporters in the body and some amino acids use the same transporter; this means that different amino acid can compete for transport.

Specifically relevant to this topic is the fact that both the branched chain amino acids (BCAAS), tyrosine and phenylalanine and tryptophan all use a transporter called the Large Neutral Amino Acid (LNAA) transporter.  Again, this means that they compete for transport, meaning that levels of the different amino acids can affect the transport of the other. Which means that the relative amounts of the different amino acids will impact on how much is getting into a specific tissue in the body; in this case the brain.

If there is a large amount of tryptophan relative to the other LNAA, there will be greater serotonin production in the brain; if there is less tryptophan relative to the other LNAA, there will be less tryptophan transport into the brain and impaired serotonin production.

This brings us to one potential problem with higher protein intakes per se: most dietary proteins contain a lot more LNAA than they do tryptophan.  One exception is a derivative of whey called alpha-lactalbumin which has the highest tryptophan content of any dietary protein; recent studies have found that consumption of this protein can increase the ratio of tryptophan to the LNAA in the bloodstream, increasing brain serotonin synthesis.  For comparison, while most dietary proteins may ony contain about 2 grams of tryptophan per 100 grams, alpha-lactalbumin contains nearly 5 grams of tryptophan per 100 grams.

As well, there is an interaction with the carbohydrate intake of the diet.  Diets very high in carbohydrates and low in protein are known to raise plasma tryptophan and serotonin levels (which is probably why such diets make some people sleepy and dopey).  It’s worth mentioning that unless dietary protein is taken to exceedingly low levels (below 5% of total calories), the real-world impact of high-carbohydrates and low-protein isn’t that massive in terms of its effect on serotonin levels in the brain.

However this may explain why some people who are prone to depression tend to crave low-protein/high-carbohydrate foods at certain times (stress, seasonal affective disorder), they are trying to self-medicate themselves and improve serotonin levels.

In any case, let me explain why carbohydrates can impact on all of this since this will help clear up why lowering carbohydrates can cause problems.

The reason is this, the uptake of some of the LNAA (especially the branched chain amino acids) are insulin sensitive; for example, when insulin levels go up, blood levels of the BCAA go down.  This shifts the tryptophan:LNAA ratio towards tryptophan such that more gets transported into the brain, potentially increasing serotonin production.

The corollary to that is that when carbohydrates are reduced (and high quality dietary protein is increased), there is the potential for serotonin levels to be reduced. Between the increased intake of LNAA from most high-quality proteins, decreased clearance of them due to reduced insulin levels and the overall effect of dieting in general on plasma tryptophan levels, this all adds up to problems for people at risk for depression.

Which is a long way of answering your question with a resounding yes.

Both dieting in general and low carbohydrate/higher protein diets in specific can cause issues with depression in susceptible people.  I do find it a bit surprising that what I consider fairly moderate intakes of both protein and carbohydrates are causing you to experience this but some of it may depend on the depths of depression you experienced (e.g. your genetic susceptibility).

It may also explain why it takes a good 2-3 months for your symptoms to show up, a very low carbohydrate (e.g. 100 grams per day or less) and/or higher protein diet would probably cause things to go south that much faster.

Ok, so that’s what’s going on, what are the solutions?  I wouldn’t tend to generally recommend lowering dietary protein and increasing carbohydrates (higher protein diets having a number of benefits in terms of weight and fat loss) but, depending on the specifics of your situation (e.g. training, etc.) that might be one option.

Assuming it isn’t, here are some things to consider:

1. Add the protein I mentioned above, alpha-lactalbumin to your daily protein intake.  High in tryptophan, it will help support serotonin synthesis.  Consuming some near bedtime might help with sleep, taking it at other times throughout the day may help with overall mood.  In this context, I’d note that having a relatively higher carb/lower protein meal at dinner time may help with some of the sleep issues.

2. Consider supplementing with 5-hydroxytryptophan.  5-HTP is another precursor to serotonin in the brain that many have used to deal with depression and sleep problems. Doses seem to vary significantly but 50-100 mg taken up to three times daily may be worth considering to keep serotonin levels from falling while dieting.

3. Given that your symptoms only show up after 2-3 months of dieting, I’d strongly suggest taking a full diet break (discussed in detail in A Guide to Flexible Dieting) between periods of active dieting.  Basically, perhaps every 2 months, take 2 weeks to raise calories and carbohydrates to restore brain serotonin levels back to normal. Then you can enter another phase of active dieting, stopping before the depression really sets in to take another full diet break.  I think you get the idea.

I hope that helps and good luck.

Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances

Question: What is the difference between food allergies and intolerances?

Answer:   In recent year, a lot of ideas have become strangely popular on this place that we call the Internets, one of those is concern over various food allergies and intolerances.  As I’ll discuss below, not only are true food allergies and intolerance two totally different things, there is a lot of nonsensical information being thrown around about food allergies.

What seems to have happened is that one person stated that certain ideas were true and a bunch of people who didn’t know any better simply started repeating those ideas until they became an accepted ‘truth’.  Unfortunately, science says different and that’s what I’m going to look at.

The most common one that seems to be constantly repeated is that if you eat the same food (usually protein since most true food allergies are caused by proteins) continuously, you can give yourself an allergy to that food.  This happens to be utterly wrong as I’ll show below.

There are other silly ideas, one of the dumbest I’ve seen of late is that you can cure a food allergy by not eating that food for 6 weeks.  This is not only wrong but potentially fatal.  True food allergies (again, I’ll discuss what this means in a second) never go away; if someone has a true allergy to a food, they can’t ever eat that food again for all practical purposes.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, one weird study showed that children with peanut allergies could eventually get to where they could eat half a peanut but it took months and months of feeding them like 1/4 peanut to get them to that level.  Hooray.  For all practical purposes, a true food allergy never goes away and the idea that abstaining from that food will make it go away is simply absurd.

Since most food allergies occur in response to protein foods, I’m actually going to simply be excerpting the section from The Protein Book about food allergies and intolerances.  For anybody who’s interested, I’ve included the references cited in this section at the end of the article.

Food Allergies and Intolerances

To finish up this chapter, I want to make a few comments about food allergies and intolerances, which I touched on above in the section on dairy foods. Commonly, the terms food allergy and food intolerance are used interchangeably although they actually represent very different phenomena (40).

Food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance from dairy products, typically occurs due to a lack of appropriate digestive enzymes and this tends to cause upset stomach, gas, bloating or diarrhea. At worst, food intolerances typically cause some discomfort but no real danger.

In contrast, a true food allergy generates an immune reaction in the body. This is potentially much more severe and can cause respiratory, stomach, skin and cardiovascular symptoms; anaphylactic shock and death can also occur in extreme cases (40).

True food allergies are typically caused when small amounts of proteins enter the bloodstream. This can occur during childhood when the gut lining isn’t fully developed or later in life due to a compromised stomach barrier. Some allergens can also enter the body through the respiratory system.

While technically any food can cause a true allergic response, protein foods tend to be the most common culprits with milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, some fish and shellfish being the most common causes of allergies (41).

Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, is also a common source of food allergies (42). Gluten allergies can be especially troublesome for athletes with high caloric and carbohydrate requirements since grains cannot be consumed; increasing commercial availability of gluten free foods can help to ensure adequate calorie and carbohydrate intake.

True food allergies are thought to occur in 3-4% of adults. There are a number of different ways to determine the presence of a true food allergy but, from a practical standpoint, if eating a given protein source causes problems of the sort described above, that tells the athlete all they need to know. For the most part, there is little to no treatment for true food allergies; avoiding the problem food is the best and only option (40).


40. Ortolani C and Pastorello EA.  Food allergies and food intolerances.  Best Pract Res Clin
Gastroenterol. (2006) 20(3):467-83.
41. Sicherer SH and Sampson HA.  9. Food allergy.  J Allergy Clin Immunol. (2006) 117(2
Suppl Mini-Primer):S470-5.
42. Schuppan D et. al. Celiac disease: epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and
nutritional management.  Nutr Clin Care. (2005) 8(2):54-69.

So hopefully the section above helped make the distinction between a food intolerance and a true allergy.  True food allergies are rare and can be fatal like any true allergic reaction.  Eating that food causes a massive immune response and this can cause people to drop dead.

This is not a joke, children with peanut allergies who are given a food with even trace amounts of peanuts can go into anaphylactic shock, have trouble breathing and can die.  Contrast this to when someone has a lactose (milk) intolerance, drinks a glass of milk and gets real gassy.  They are not the same thing but people confuse them all the time.

As well, food intolerances are reported at something like ten times their actual rate of occurrence; people eat something and don’t feel good and assume they have an intolerance when they really don’t.

And, as discussed above, true food allergies don’t occur because you eat a given protein source too often.  An allergy occurs when a bit of undigested protein gets into the bloodstream and causes the body to mount an allergic reaction to it via the immune system.

Since the gut lining is set up to avoid this, the only way that a true food allergy can usually occur is if the gut lining is compromised.  Under those conditions, small pieces of undigested proteins can slip through into the bloodstream and that’s when the problems start.

Various disease conditions can cause this to occur (and as noted children with undeveloped gut linings can develop food allergies because of it) but this pre-existing condition has to exist for a true allergy to develop.  For example, there is a condition called leaky gut syndrome which is exactly what it sounds like, the gut leaks stuff into the bloodstream; this can cause all kinds of problems.

And once a true food allergy exists, it’s yours forever.  The immune system is amazing in this way, remembering how to mount a response to offenders basically forever (this is the basis of immunization of course, give the person a small case of a certain disease so that the immune system ramps up, and then they can fight off that disease in the future).   So once you have a true food allergy, you have it for life.

It is certainly not my area of expertise but people who fear that they may have a food allergy can get explicit testing for it done.  However, as I noted above, if you eat something and nearly die, you know all you need to know anyhow.

This is true at least in the case of severe food allergies.  Of course, it seems that it is possible to have mild food allergies (which are probably more like intolerances) and getting tested for those may be useful if someone suspects a problem.

If for no other reason, food intolerances seem to be able to generate a stress response and this appears to cause water retention in some people (in addition to just generally not feeling very good.  I have a hunch that the whole idea of ‘eating foods you’re ‘allergic’ to stops weight loss’ is probably due to this mechanism: you start holding water due to a stress response and it masks fat loss.

Learning a New Exercise in the Weight Room

Question: What’s the best way to teach/learn a new exercise in the weight room?

Answer: Arguably the most common recommendation for teaching someone a new exercise, or learning a movement in the weight room is to use light weights and high repetitions (usually 10-12 or even higher).  The idea is that the higher repetition count will force the use of light weight and allow the trainee to get in a lot of reps per set.

However, this approach has a problem, especially with relative beginners.  That problem is that, with such high repetitions, even with light weights, fatigue starts to set in towards the end of the set and form/technique deteriorates.  The set may start with good form but it will fall apart as they get tired at the end.

The reason that this is a problem is that at least one aspect of motor learning (and please note that this topic is much more complicated than I’m making it out to be) is that learning new skills is best done when the individual is rested and unfatigued.  And as fatigue starts to build up with higher repetition sets, the problem is that form tends to deteriorate.  You end up teaching the trainee bad habits.

In this vein, you will actually find that many top coaches stop their athletes when form starts to fall apart in practice.  By letting them continue in bad technique is to teach them how to do the movement poorly.  When form falls apart, the workout, or at least that section of it is over.

Note: I’d note that for more advanced athletes, deliberately practicing technique under fatigued conditions is often advocated.  This is because, in high level sport, athletes often have to perform when they are tired.  They need to have learned how to maintain proper technique while fatigued.  But this is only for advanced athletes who have already established technical mastery (or something close to it) and you asked about learning for newbies.

An alternative approach to learning new movements is to do multiple low-repetition sets (5 repetitions is a good number) but still with a fairly light weight. Done for 5 sets, you can get 25 quality repetitions without generating the kind of fatigue that you’d get with multiple set of 12 or 15 repetitions.  I talked about this topic before in The 5X5 Program.

With this approach, you might start a new trainee with nothing but a 45 pound bar (in some cases, you might use bars lighter than that for learning; for example, many Olympic lifting coaches start teaching the movements with pieces of PVC pipe).

The athlete or trainee would then do 5 repetitions, if a coach is available, they would not only explain demonstrate the movement beforehand but would generally be giving feedback on each repetition on what to fix or change.

If the 5 repetitions were done correctly, or at least mostly so, a small amount of weight would then be added to the bar.  Depending on the movement, this might be 5 pounds or less; for movements like squat or deadlift, it might be more than that.  This is a judgment call on the coach’s part based on their past experience.  With a 16 year old strong male squatting, you might put 10-20 pounds on the bar.  For a 45 year old beginner female, 5 pounds might be too much.   In any case, after adding a bit of weight, 5 more repetitions would be performed.

If those were still good technically and not too challenging, more weight would be added. If the weight started to get challenging, or form started to break down, you’d either stick with that same weight for the workout or possibly drop back down.  I’d suggest this last strategy as being beneficial.  I have a personal pet theory that the body and nervous system remember the last thing that you did on a movement and finishing with a weight that the trainee can do absolutely perfectly accomplishes at least two things:

  1. Let’s them finish with a final set of perfectly performed repetitions
  2. Lets them finish the workout/set on a high point

That second one isn’t me being facetious by the way.  For many athletes, ending a workout in what they perceive as failure can become a real negative feed-forward loop.  They come into the next workout thinking about the last workout and it all starts spiraling down.

If you let them finish on a high point with something that feels like success, that also becomes a feed-forward loop; success breeds success because they come into the next workout remembering how well they ended the last one.

In any case, a beginner being taught the squat might go:

BarX5, 55X5, 65X5, 75X5 (let’s say that this looks challenging), 75X5 (or you might drop them back to 65X5 to finish on a perfect set).

in their first workout.

At the next workout, you might start them at 55 or 65 and pyramid up again.  So they might go 55, 65, 75, 85, 85 at the secon workout. Then 65, 75, 85, 95, 100 at the next. You get the idea.

Learning movements this way accomplishes several things.  The first is that they are accumulating a lot of good repetitions at each workout.  As well, since they are adding small amounts of weight, they see that they are progressing (a huge aspect of keeping them training is positive reinforcement).

Finally, many trainees find that movements are a little bit easier to perform with some weight on the bar; it can actually be more difficult if the weight is too light.  Adding some weight to the bar lets you find a weight that’s challenging enough to let them feel what’s going on without pushing them too hard and causing form to suffer.

It can be a real balance sometimes, finding a weight that is heavy enough for the trainee to “feel” what’s going on but not so heavy that form falls apart.  That’s where a good coach and his eye and experience come in.

I should note that the low rep approach to learning new movements is not without its problems.  The big danger of approaching new movements this way, and this is especially true of males, is their impatience.  With only 5 reps per set and starting out very light, many trainees will try to increase their weights far too quickly and their form will go down the toilet.

If a coach is present, part of his job is to prevent this by only allowing appropriate weight jumps when the trainee is ready for them.  Left to their own devices, many trainees (again, more so males than females in my experience) will throw on far too much weight and get themselves into trouble.  In that case, sticking with the higher rep approach might be better just to keep the weights lighter.

The only other aspect of motor learning I’d like to mention is that learning new movements tends to occur faster when they are trained more frequently.  This is a big part of why I don’t like split routines for beginners, they don’t get as much practice with the movements as if they trained full body every workout.  I like to see new movements trained a minimum of twice/week and three times/week might be better. After 4-6 weeks, the frequency of training can be reduced (if desired) as the intensity increases.

A final note: For anyone reading this who is an expert on motor learning, I’m simplifying a lot of things and I know the topic is much more complicated than I’ve made it out to be with huge differences in approach for quick learning versus retention and all of that.  Feel free to comment but please keep in mind that I’m trying to make practical recommendations here, not delve into the minutiae of motor learning theory.  Thank you for your consideration.

Muscle Cramps on Low-Carbohydrate Diets

Question: I have been following a very low-carbohydrate diet and taking the ephedrine/caffeine stack for the past 4 months.  Recently I have been having problems with cramping in the gym, I find that if I get too close to failure on a set, I get very bad cramps.  I’m drinking plenty of water and taking a multivitamin and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. Please help.

Answer: Cramping is unfortunately a very complicated topic and while many simple solutions are often thrown out, they don’t always seem to work.   Usually the culprit is issues with hydration per se or electrolyte levels; electrolytes are things like potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium they are involved in transmission of the electrical signals in the body.  Hence their name.

I’d note that hydration and electrolyte levels are intertwined as the amount of water in the body affects the relative concentrations of the electrolytes in the body. So if there is more water present, the relative concentration of each of the electrolytes will be lower because the water will dilute them.  By the same token, if you are dehydrated, the relative concentrations of the electrolytes goes up.

Most ideas about cramping tend to focus on a single electrolyte, potassium was blamed for quite some time which is the basic origin of the ‘eat a banana to stop cramping’ idea.  Bananas are an excellent source of dietary potassium.

The problem is that cramping is way more complicated than this and can be related to all of the different electrolytes, not simply the absolute amounts of each but the interactions between them.  Fixing the problem often entails trying different things to figure out what’s causing the problems for a given individual.

Now, a potential issue specific to very low-carbohydrate diets (less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day) and cramping per se is that these diets cause water loss.  As well, the water losses can vary massively from a low of perhaps 1-2 pounds up to 10-15 pounds in larger individuals.    As well, very low-carb diets cause electrolyte losses and this can cause cramping and fatigue.

As I detailed in my first book The Ketogenic Diet, very low-carb dieters need to supplement their daily electrolyte intake with the following at a bare minimum:

  • 3-5 grams extra sodium hydrochloride
  • 1 gram potassium
  • 300 mg magnesium

Not only should this help with cramping issues, this has also been shown to fix some of the fatigue issues that often beset people when they start ketogenic diets.  Of course, an adequate calcium intake is important under all conditions for bone health.  How much you need depends solely on how much dairy foods you’re eating so whether or not you need to supplement extra will depend on that variable.

While you generally have to supplement magnesium separately, you can cover at least some of the potassium and sodium requirements with something like LiteSalt.  This is a table salt that contains 1/2 sodium chloride (standard table salt) and 1/2 potassium chloride.  It tastes just like normal salt but gives a better balance of sodium and potassium.  I’d note that pure potassium salt tends to be a bit bitter which is why I don’t recommend it; most won’t use it regularly.

So the above would be a good first step.  I’d note that empirically high doses of the amino acid l-taurine seems to help with cramps in some people.  If your hydration is good and you’re getting the above electrolytes but are still having problems with cramping, you should consider adding l-taurine to the mix.

I should also mention that stimulants in general and the Ephedrine/caffeine stack (as well as the drug clenbuterol) can cause cramps.  This is even more true on low-carbohydrate diets.  The reason is that they both cause calcium to flow into the muscles, essentially putting them in a low-level state of contraction.  When you put heavy training on top of this, cramping often occurs.   This is likely just an interaction between the low-carbohydrate diet causing dehydration and electrolyte loss, the EC/Clen causing calcium to go into the muscle and then throwing training on top of it.  It’s not very much fun.

I’d note that even for individuals who aren’t on very low-carbohydrate diets, cramping can still occur especially if they do a lot of training in the heat; as well some of the extremist attitudes towards diet such as ‘Never eat sodium’ among bodybuilders and other trainees can cause problems.  Again, this can be related to both hydration and electrolyte imbalance.  Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to give more than vague guidelines on this.

Recent research has found that water and salt loss during training can vary about 10-fold between people. This makes giving a specific single guideline (e.g. drink 1 gallon water) impossible even if people try to do it to keep things simple.

At least in terms of training, the old guideline was that you should weigh yourself before and after workout and for every 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of weight lost, you needed 1 liter (32 oz, 4 cups) of fluid to replace it.  This turns out to be wrong, you actually need 1.5 liters (48 oz, 6 cups) of fluid to replace every 1kg of weight lost.

Please note that you don’t have to pound this right after training, but you need to consume that much extra over the course of the day to cover losses.  Athletes who do a lot of training in the heat who don’t replace fluid losses can get into trouble pretty quickly.

As well, note that plain water is actually the worst rehydration drink out there.  Rather, fluids containing sodium and potassium are retained far better than those that don’t.  Milk also provides good carbohydrates and high-quality protein so it does double duty after training if you can stomach it.

I’d note that, again, weight loss during a given bout of training can vary many fold.  One athlete might lose 1-2 kg (2-4.5 lbs) and another might lose 8kg (17 lbs).  Like I said, it’s impossible to give a specific value of how much fluid to consume because of this.  Weighing before and after for a few workouts will tell you what your personal hydration requirements are.

I’d also mention that sodium losses during activity are just as variable and calculations show that one athlete might only lose a gram or two of sodium during training while another can lose upwards of 20 grams.  I am currently unaware of any non-laboratory way to determine sodium losses during training.

But I also don’t believe in heavily restricting sodium for athletes; training in the heat requires that electrolytes be replaced and liberal use of something like the LiteSalt I mentioned above is a good idea for a number of reasons.

So anyhow, that’s sort of a basic look at cramping.  It’s a place where I wish I could give more firm guidelines but they simply don’t exist.  There is just too much variability and what works for one may not work for another.  In general, it tends to be related to hydration and electrolyte intake and this tends to be more of an issue on very low-carbohydrate diets.  But it can become an issue on carb-based diets as well.

So make sure you’re getting sufficient fluids, don’t skimp on salt (and get a sodium/potassium salt) and consider supplementation if you’re still having issues.  Some people seem more prone to have issues with stimulants as well so if they are causing cramping, you may need to drop them completely.


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