Chinese New Year Lessons on Ketones and Cold Food

It’s still Chinese New Year, which lasts a full 15 days, so it’s a time to spend with family and friends. Needless to say, there’s a lot of eating involved, and maybe just a little bit to drink, too.

In southern China, where I’m based, the seasonal treats include radish cake, which I love with hot sauce. There’s also Chinese sausage, a perfumed, waxy variant that’s great in small pieces in said radish cake. Cantonese people may also eat a kind of seaweed that looks like hair, since the word “fa” for hair also sounds like “prosperity.” Likewise, dried oysters are popular because “ho si” sounds a lot like “ho sih,” or good things.

There’s also a firm belief in China that certain foods are “hot” or “cold,” with an associated effect on the body. The “hot” roster includes coffee, mango, chocolate and fried food. “Cool” cuisine includes jasmine tea, tofu, kiwi fruit and beer – sometimes jokingly called “gweilo cha,” the “white devil’s tea,” since it’s so popular with Westerners.

Too much of “yang” hot food or “yin” cold food creates an imbalance that can cause a cough, cold or outbreak of acne. Longer term, a serial imbalance leads to serious problems.

I can certainly believe that certain foods balance each other out. And too much by definition is never a good thing. What I don’t believe, though, is that it is simply by eating certain things that you will lose weight or get fit.

Here in Hong Kong, the first question I inevitably heard when people saw I lost 30 lbs in 10 weeks was, “What did you change in your diet?”

And the answer is, not much.

To lose weight, you have to use up more calories than you consume. That’s it. You need to exercise more than you eat. In theory, you could eat a diet of pure lard, icing sugar and … not gain weight if you burnt through it all with non-stop Ironman races.  But I don’t encourage giving that a try!

You could even try to start drinking ketones, and stop eating carbs. I don’t encourage trying that either, as I’ll explain.

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You can lose weight by going “low carb,” but a crash no-carb diet works mainly by eliminating water from your body that you need in the long run.

It makes life a lot easier if you eat nutritious food because you will get the goodies that your body demands just to operate. You won’t get those from “empty” calories in syrup, processed fats, heavily refined food, and alcohol, the second-most caloric category of food to consume behind fat.

Eat nutritious food, and you get what you need from three or four mid-size meals a day, with yoghurt, dried fruit or other healthy snacks. Eat empty calories, and you still have to eat those nutrients by eating more food on top of the junk.

We do require a good balance of “macronutrients,” by which I mean your recommended diet should be roughly 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% healthy fats. And we require all sorts of micronutrients that, despite what the supplement sellers say, most people get in adequate amounts from their regular diet since few of us starve anymore.

If you’re worried about micronutrients, I recommend eating nuts, which seem to contain just about all of them! That, green veggies and seafood are a good recipe for those trace elements we need.

You will lose weight rapidly if you simply stop eating, or even drinking. But you will also lose weight rapidly if I cut off your arm. Neither one of those options is good for you.

You cannot lose weight and keep it off simply by that “change in your diet.”

If you stop eating carbs, you will normally lose around 10 lbs within a couple of weeks. That’s true.

But that’s because carbs contain more water than other forms of food. You will become dehydrated. You will also not have the easy-to-access energy that comes when our bodies turn carbs into glycogen and then glucose, energy that keeps us going all day.

Ketone diets are all the rage these days. The idea is to consume no carbs and a high level of fats, forcing your body to use fat to convert to energy to power your body.

Our bodies do create ketones in the liver to feed our brain in particular, and to a lesser extent our muscles – but only when we’re starving.

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A Canadian company selling ketone supplements got in touch to see if I’d sell them in Hong Kong, but I’m not drinking that particular Kool-Aid just yet. Ketones seem a very bad idea to me.

So to provoke your body into acting like it’s starving is a very bad idea. It’s a last resort, not a temporary life hack, and most certainly not a permanent state of affairs you should create for your body.

To be fair, one study from the University of Oxford did find that ketone supplements appear to help endurance athletes modestly, while changing their metabolism more drastically, by mimicking this “metabolic crisis” of starvation. Endurance events are a bit like short-term starvation, the docs reckon.

The study got a lot of attention for this positive finding. But the study also showed that ketones may hinder short-term exercise like sprinting. That’s because for exercise bouts of up to around 30 seconds, your body relies on anaerobic glycolysis – which as the name suggests doesn’t require oxygen, and does require glycogen. In other words, carbs. Ketones aren’t much use, burning fat, slowly.

I’m siding with another study, this time of world-class cyclists who have all ridden in the Tour de France. A team of 11 pro cyclists went for a pre-season camp in Canberra, at the Australian Institute of Sport, to train for world-class events.

They had been hearing all about ketones, and figured they would seriously help performance.

Scientists ran two 31-kilometer bike races, on a duplicate of the 2017 World Road Cycling Championships course in Bergen, Norway, three days apart. Each time, they gave half the riders a ketone supplement, and the others a placebo that tasted equally terrible.

They worked hard to make it taste terrible, bitter and with flavor essences of rum, almonds and Angostura bitters, since that’s what ketone drinks taste like. None of the riders had tried ketone drinks before, so they didn’t know the difference. But that changed pretty quickly.

After drinking the ketone supplement, one of the 11 cyclists started throwing up so much during the 20-minute warmup and got so dizzy that he quit the tests altogether, unable to go on – or in fact, start.

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Precision Nutrition, which trains Olympic athletes as well as regular folk like you and me, provides sensible science and dietary advice, and informs my sports-nutrition training.

All of the riders felt queazy after drinking ketones, ranging from dry retching and nausea to a simple upset stomach. The placebo people, each time, were fine. Not surprisingly, all the riders knew when they had drunk the ketones.

What they didn’t know was how well they had done.

Six of the 10 riders said they  had an “unusual” feeling inside them after drinking the ketones that they thought was helping them race better and faster.

Only one of the riders said he was “possibly” interested in keeping on taking ketones, though, and all the others said the makers of the drink needed to figure out how to stop it making them throw up first.

“Racing is hard enough without adding this complication,” one rider said.

In fact, each time they drank the ketones, the road racers did worse. They were 58 seconds, or 1% to 2%, slower. And they were almost 4% less powerful. The scientists figure the riders felt they had to make more effort, which just tired them out.

After that, all the riders gave up on the whole ketones idea. They’re probably off somewhere, happily and crazily racing up mountains, enjoying the not-puking-up part in particular.

Some personal trainers develop a second line of business besides actually training by selling supplements. A guy got in touch with me from Canada to see if I would be interested in selling his ketone drink in Asia.

The answer is, No. I’m not saying all supplements are bad – I drink coffee before working out, and caffeine and all the other goodies in it are some of the most popular “supplements” around.

But I don’t think eating or drinking something special is suddenly going to make me lose weight. If you don’t count losing the contents of my stomach.

Artificially creating starvation mode in your body, whether by drinking ketones or actually starving yourself, just isn’t a good idea.

I tweaked my diet after getting interested in fitness. I moderate the amount of carbs I eat. I have experimented with “no carbs at night” – I just got hungry, and ate midnight snacks. So I eat the most carbs at breakfast, a moderate amount at lunch, and the least at dinner. In theory, the order doesn’t matter, but I like my energy in the morning.

I don’t eat fried food, or processed fats if I can help it. I drink more coffee. But I continue to eat chocolate and ice cream just about every day.

I try to eat healthily. I even try not to eat too many “hot” foods or “cold” foods, particularly when my wife points out the difference.

And I exercise. That’s what I changed in my diet. I “eat” exercise every day.

That and sensible nutrition, beyond any sudden food fad or addition or subtraction in the math of your daily meals, is what will add up in the end. That’s what gets results.

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