In late 2008 I started an experiment: I switched to a low carb diet to see what impact it would have on the level of HDL in my bloodstream. In that post and the followup I reported how reducing carbohydrates and exercising a bit dramatically improved my cholesterol.
Since then, I’ve moved to St. Louis. It’s been great, but I have definitely slacked off on the diet. There’s a Jimmy Johns two doors down from the office that makes a great italian sandwich, I’ve been eating english muffins for breakfast, and my office stocks chocolate covered raisins, which I’ve discovered I love. Balancing that out is the fact that I didn’t bring a car with me when I moved. I have a bicycle, and every day I bike 2.5 miles each way to work — yes, even the snow days. I noticed my weight went up to about 185, an increase of 15 pounds. Some of that was likely muscle from all the biking, but certainly not all. So the question is: does the exercise excuse the low-carb slacking? The short answer is: somewhat.
About five years ago my wife bought me a rowing machine, which I love. Eventually I had to scale back my use of it due to an unrelated back injury, but when I was really rowing, my cholesterol was at 190, with an HDL of 50. That’s pretty good, but not as good as it was last summer with the low-carb diet and far less exercise. In August my cholesterol was at 152, and my HDL was at 50. Now I’m exercising more than I was in August, but less than I was five years ago, and my diet is higher in carbohydrates than it was in August, but lower than it was five years ago. Today my cholesterol checked in at 184, with HDL of 49. Putting it in table format:
|Five years ago||High Carb||Significant||50||190||3.8|
|Aug 2009||Low Carb||Significant on weekends||50||152||3.0|
|Feb 2010||Moderate Carb||Moderate daily||49||184||3.8|
So if significant exercise on weekends is equivalent to moderate exercise every day, the conclusion is fairly clear: all three plans achieved roughly the same HDL, but Low Carb with at least exercise on the weekend was able to raise HDL while lowering overall cholesterol. This is a significant improvement.
So I’m going to have to figure out how to get a low-carb diet here. Good-bye english muffins, you were good while you lasted.
As an aside:
- Resting Pulse: 53
- Blood Pressure: 96/74 today, 104/60 yesterday
- Fasting glucose: 87
- Triglycerides: 45 — this is an especially good number.
In November 2008 I started an experiment on my body. I significantly reduced my carbohydrate intake (no formal diet, just focusing on not eating high-carb foods), which resulted in a measurable improvement in my overall cholesterol, and a large improvement in my HDL (the good cholesterol). It also peeled 35 pounds off me, without even thinking about it.
My last cholesterol check was January 2009. My total was 175, with HDL 50. Since then I’ve been bicycling long distance, but not too many times, and running a bit. We had a health screening at work today, and as much as I love pasta, I think I’m done with it:
- Cholesterol: 152
- HDL: 50
- Triglycerides: 102
- Blood pressure: 104/63
- Body fat percentage: 10.7
That gives me an HDL ratio of 3, when the goal is to be under 5 and excellent is under 3.5, so I can’t complain there.
The blood pressure is good. My blood pressure was 100/60 when I was twenty so that’s about as good as I can hope for. Right after I changed my diet my blood pressure tested at about 130/75, so I was concerned that the diet change was causing that, but it seems to have corrected itself.
The body fat is puzzling. My scale at home says 20%. 10.7% is really low. I’m going to ask them to do it again.
EDIT: I had them test a second time, with a second instrument, and the result was the same. I checked with many other people at the office, and all the readings people received seemed reasonable, so I have to think that 10.7 is close to accurate. Given that, I’m really pleased. Losing weight wasn’t the original goal, but when I thought I was stuck at 20% body fat I wondered why. Now I don’t have to wonder, since 10.7% body fat is about as low as you can expect without extreme measures.
For anyone who’s interested in the diet, it’s basically low carb, but with no set rules. Other than a bite or two now and then, I don’t eat any rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, or sugary drinks (soda or fruit juice). I don’t have Instant Breakfast or Ovaltine for breakfast anymore (I really miss that). I eat limited amounts of things like beans and chips.
I significantly increased my consumption of nuts, and I generally have an apple and peanut butter for breakfast. I eat more salads. I switched back to whole milk (lower ratio of carbohydrate calories). I eat more meat, but not that much. I eat more eggs.
I eat enough of the low carb foods that I’m not often hungry, so it’s not that hard to keep with it. The first month was a little rough, since new foods felt strange in my stomach, but that went away and now it’s pretty easy. I just need to make sure I have enough of the right foods on hand.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Don’t take any of this as medical advice. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet or exercise routine. This evidence is anecdotal, and your outcome might not be the same as mine even if you do exactly the same thing. Now that that’s out of the way:
My total cholesterol level is generally okay, but I have had extremely low levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) for at least the last ten years. I had read that in general consuming a high proportion of carbohydrate (starch and sugar) in your diet is bad for your HDL level, but I didn’t think much about it for two reasons: I considered my diet to be fairly reasonable — not too high in fats or protein, with a reasonable intake of vitamins and minerals; and I had never read any specific numbers to indicate how significant the effect might be.
Then I read about Dr. Bernstein. He’s a type 1 diabetic since the 1940’s, and he advocates controlling diabetes by consuming a diet extremely low in carbohydrate — 6 grams for breakfast, 12 grams each for lunch and dinner. A typical diet in the U.S. contains as much as 400 grams of carbohydrate, or over ten times as much. A can of Coke contains about 40 grams by itself. Dr. Bernstein consumes a low-carbohydrate diet because he wants to control his blood sugar to treat his diabetes, but he also publishes his cholesterol levels. His HDL is over 100.
Then I ran into the site of Arthur DeVaney, an advocate of what he calls Evolutionary Fitness, who basically says that what was good enough for our ancestors 10,000 years ago is probably good for us, because evolutionarily we’re about the same as them. While some of his claims seem overly broad and he seems to equate correlation with causation, I assume he is telling the truth when he reports his blood levels (HDL 87) [link is now broken, sorry], and when he describes his diet (less than 100 grams carbohydrate daily).
I also read about the mechanism (this seems to be somewhat speculative — at least I couldn’t find an article I’d be willing to cite here which lays it out this directly) by which carbohydrate intake lowers HDL. Carbohydrates spike your blood sugars, which leads to excess insulin, which leads to insulin sensitivity and lower HDL.
Based on that, I decided to perform an experiment.
Beginning of November, 2008 — Total Cholesterol 190, HDL 17, Weight 205
I started with a baseline cholesterol check. Total 190, HDL 17. That was at the start of November 2008. I was relatively inactive then, and I changed nothing about my (lack of) exercise. I started by giving up soda. I included my weight in the heading above because that was an unexpected side-effect of this experiment. I didn’t go into this expecting weight-loss, but it happened. I am 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimeters) and no one considered me fat at the start, so you might say I carried it well.
What I Gave Up
I started by cutting out soda. We have a free soda machine at the office where I work, so that likely cut 80 – 120 grams of carbohydrate right there. I also gave up having Carnation Instant Breakfast in the morning. That was hard — I’ve had Instant Breakfast or Ovaltine in the morning for the last fifteen years. I cut down on milk in general. I stopped eating pasta, which I expected to be harder than it was. I really like pasta, but it wasn’t that bad giving it up. I slowly gave up bread. I started by taking one slice of bread off my sandwiches at lunch, but by the end of November I was largely bread-less. I stopped eating rice and potatoes.
What I Added
I started eating nuts in the morning, mostly almonds, cashews, and pecans. I drank more water. I switched back to whole milk from 2 percent. My goal wasn’t to go overboard with fats, but I figured that anything in something that I was going to eat anyway that reduced the percentage of calories due to carbohydrate was good. I ate sandwich meat with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise (but no bread). I ate ham for dinner, or chicken, or caesar salads (no croutons). Finally, I started taking a small amount of fiber pills and a multi-vitamin each day.
At first my stomach felt a little funny. Low-carb food just feels different rolling around in your tummy. I got used to it, and eventually it felt normal again. I found that eating a lot of protein makes you thirsty as you eat it. I would drink several glasses of water with a meal. I experienced no constipation — now forget that you read this sentence.
One Month: End of November, 2008 — Total Cholesterol 160, HDL 25, Weight 185
I got my cholesterol checked at the Minute Clinic. My overall cholesterol had dropped by 30 points, which is a very good result. Further, my HDL had increased by 8 points, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an increase of almost 50%. I was impressed by the results. Further, the Minute Clinic said I weighed 185. four weeks earlier I weighed about 205, so I had lost about twenty pounds. I should point out that I was not going hungry during this month. In fact, I was feeling more hungry at mealtime than usual, and eating accordingly. I often felt like I stuffed myself. My blood pressure had edged up a bit — not to unsafe levels, but it had always been very low before, so I took note. I decided to give the experiment two more months, and add exercise.
Several years ago I got a rowing machine. I love that machine. At the peak of my use of it, my overall cholesterol was 190, and my HDL was 45. Regular exercise increased my HDL more than the diet had so far, but had not reduced my overall number. I had regretfully given up rowing when my back was injured (unrelated to the rowing machine). I decided that I should add rowing back to the mix, starting slowly. I also took up snowboarding at Baldy at this point, although I don’t know how much of a factor it was since I only went about ten times over the next three months.
I didn’t change my diet much from this point. I gave up bread entirely, other than having a bite of interesting-looking dinner rolls when we went out to eat. I discovered the Carls Jr. Low Carb Six Dollar Burger.
Three Months: End of January, 2009 — Total Cholesterol 175, HDL 50, Weight 175
At three months I went to the doctor to get a cholesterol check and discuss the diet change. My total cholesterol had edged up a bit, but my HDL had shot up to a level I had never seen before. With diet and exercise, my proportion of HDL was now in the good range. I had also lost another ten pounds.
Present Day: Beginning of April, 2009 — Weight 170
I went on vacation for two weeks and ate a ton of fish. I stuck mostly to my low-carb regimen. I lost another few pounds while traveling, so I consider that a success. I don’t plan to check my cholesterol again until about June. I’ve added strength training to my routine, so I’m curious to see what impact that might have.
Follow up: Low Carb = Good Health (for me)