Coached’s Ben Pulham: Marathoners and triathletes should eat more fats & less carbs

Ben Pulham, 36, the founder of Coached, strongly believes in a high fat low carb diet. Coached is a heart rate training program that allows you to optimise, track and enjoy your training. And in order to train well, Ben stresses that eating well is important too.

Ben Pulham, founder of Coached.

People’s bodies are storing too much fat

Said Ben “People are storing fat because their bodies have too much insulin and insulin turns off fat burning. We know that processed carbs is the main cause for a spike in insulin. So for most people, a good strategy would be to lower carb intake. When you lower your carb intake, if you do not increase your fat intake, you will be hungry. Sugar is filling and so is fat. That is why I advocate a lower carb, healthy fat diet. I recommend eating less carbs and higher quality carbs through fruit and vegetables, and a lot of good quality fats through avocados and nuts.”

Ben, who used to be a professional triathlete in New Zealand, before starting his coaching business, also shared that his diet now, is radically different to when he was an athlete. He said “I follow this diet, for the most part. I no longer eat bread, pasta, rice, noodles and common processed foods as a staple.”

Most Singaporeans these days are eating too much carbs and sugar.

As an athlete, Ben ate plenty of sugar and carbs. He said “I grew up on sugar like everyone else. When I was an athlete, I was drinking 3 litres of Coca-Cola per day, and eating pizza, pasta and toast; these are all things that I try not to eat now. But then again I was doing more than 30 hours of exercise per week, so I could get away with it then, or so I had thought. But if I went back in time, I would not eat that sort of food, as there is very little vitamins and nutritional value in eating that way.”

What Ben eats

So these days, for breakfast, Ben eats scrambled eggs with some spinach and salmon. And sometimes he has bacon with that too.

His lunch typically consists of a salad with tuna or some other type of fish. Added Ben “But if I am eating at the Singapore hawker centres, I get chicken rice but I don’t get the rice. Instead I have double chicken and double vegetables. I may eat rice sometimes but I don’t have the whole portion.”

He added “But then again, I don’t eat at the hawker centres much, for the fact that I have no idea what the food is cooked in. I am assuming it is prepared in vegetable oil, which consists of terrible fats and is bad for your health. I cook if I have the chance to. Sometimes my wife or my helper cooks. We take turns. I can cook an okay steak and stir fry some vegetables.”

Ben eats a lot of meat, such as salmon, with vegetables, as part of his daily diet.

For dinner, Ben has meat and vegetables. For those eating out, he suggests Aston’s as a good alternative though. Said Ben “I get Aston’s quite often. It is relatively easy; I can get a steak or chicken and they let you get two sides, so I choose a couple of helpings of garden vegetables. If I am naughty I will have fries, though; I am by no means a nutritional saint. I am a work in progress.”

Eat real foods, not processed foods

Generally this means that Ben is an advocate of eating real foods and not processed foods. He said “Just eat real foods. Do not eat food products. Real foods include fruit and vegetables, nuts, eggs, seeds and meat. They are foods that do not have an ingredient list. Processed proteins are not great either. You can get some good quality bacon in New Zealand but not in Singapore. Sausages are not good for you either, though I admit to being a fan of sausages myself.”

He does admit to having some cheat foods though, such as dark chocolate Tim Tams, ice cream and French fries. Said Ben “But I also understand that these foods are not as good for me and that I should not be taking them. But it is a conscious choice when I eat it. I know the effect that it is having on me. For the most part, too, I have a healthy fat metabolism so I have a little bit of flexibility when it comes to taking a bit of sugar.”

Ben admits that French Fries are one of his “cheat” foods.

Carbo Loading is not necessary

Ben also adds that the carbo loading practice that athletes do before an endurance race such as a marathon or an Ironman race, is not necessary, for the most part. He said “I think that carbo loading is nonsense. If you eat a traditional Singaporean or Western diet, you do not need to carbo load before a race. You have more than enough sugar in your system already. But if you are on a strict low-carb diet or in a state of ketosis, then you can add back some good quality carbs, about 50 to 100 grams of carbs per day, depending on what you need.”

He continued “That should be just enough glycogen in the system to top up the muscles and liver. Anything more than that gets converted to fat and is stored as fat. That turns off your fat burning system. When you run long distances, fat is a great source of fuel. You should be turning on anything that you can do to generate fat as fuel.”

Carbo Loading is not necessary, says Ben.

And for himself, Ben would simply eat what he normally eats if he were running a race today, and would not alter his diet. He said, “I would eat what I normally eat. I might eat more good quality carbs like sweet potato or dark chocolate. Though there is something called fat loading, I personally do not know enough about it or I have not experienced it to see if there is any value in doing that. I am just a believer of turning on your fat burning system so that you can generate energy from fats and the easiest way to do that is to restrict your intake of poor quality carbs.”

Sugar is highly addictive

Ben feels that many athletes tend to fall into poor eating habits because food, and sugar in particular, is highly addictive. He said, “Sugar is addictive. It is hard not to eat that stuff when you have grown up on it. I fully relate to that; I am a recovering sugar addict and I still eat far more than I want to. I am getting better all the time, but I understand for the most part, the role that insulin plays and I see in our lab daily, how eating carbs turns off fat burning, every single day.”

He added “Even though an athlete does not physically look fat, they could still be eating very poorly. I see that with a lot of athletes in our lab. We have people who come in and are very fit, even elite athletes I have measured, have a very good ability to burn fat, but sugar also comes up early and at a lower intensity. That is a sign that they have too much sugar in their diet and if they were to restrict sugar, their fat burning would be even better.”

Sugary foods are highly addictive, says Ben.

And Ben also points out that most people may not be aware that their eating habits are bad. He said “A lot of people do not understand the body functions and how their hormones are reacting to the foods they eat. They go through life blindly, and put into their mouths whatever they are craving. That is dangerous. Having awareness puts the power back into their court and they can then choose to make decisions based on how their bodies are responding and what they are trying to achieve.”

Cutting down on carbs is the easiest way to increase the fat metabolism process. Said Ben “Lower the bad quality carbs, increase the good quality fats and exercise at lower intensities where the body can use oxygen efficiently, and manage stress. Stress plays a major role in fat burning.”

Phil Maffetone’s two week test

To speed up the body’s fat burning process even further, Ben also recommends taking Phil Maffetone’s two week test. This is a two week process to determine the effects that your current diet is having on you, by cutting out any foods with carbs and sugar in them, even including fruits, during the two week time period.

Maffetone himself is a fitness coach and health expert who had founded the idea and concept of aerobic heart rate training since 1977.

Said Ben, “The test is strict in terms of what you can and cannot eat, but it is not restrictive in terms of the amount of food. So you can eat as much as you want; it is not like you will feel hungry at any point in time. The restriction comes in because many people are eating food products and not real foods, and taking the test will strip them of that.”

Cut out all carbs and sugar, such as cake, in the Two Week Test and you will notice visible changes to your body, says Ben.

He added “But the effects are amazing. I have measured that number of people before and after the test, and it is remarkable at how fast it kickstarts your fat burning metabolism. I have seen people improve their fat burning by ten times in two weeks. Others have lost 6kg in two weeks and found out that they are sensitive to carbs. The test is basically showing them that. Then after the two weeks are up, the goal is to re-introduce the carbs back in, and see what ones you are sensitive to, and optimise your diet from there.”

Ben himself has taken the test a few times. He said, “I do not find the types of foods a challenge because I am eating these foods for the most part. But it is the small things that I struggle with, for example, I cannot have Diet Coke, and I cannot have Stevia too. I use Stevia, which is a natural sweetener, in my tea and on the test, that is not allowed. Milk is also not allowed during the two weeks.”

After the test, Ben also pointed out there are noticeable changes to the body that you should feel. He said, “If you have been eating a certain way your whole life, sugar is addictive so you will struggle for the first couple of weeks. But after that, you restore your body’s factory settings and you will start to crave different foods. You will no longer crave sugar, or you will want it a lot less. I still crave sugar, but nowhere near the rate that I used to. If you told me ten years ago that I would not eat bread everyday, I would have said you were crazy. But after three weeks of not having bread, I did not miss it. I no longer buy bread and have it in the house.”

He added “Your cravings will definitely change. You will feel dramatically different. Your mental focus, clarity and energy levels will improve. These are all common improvements and you will realise that this is how you are supposed to feel. For me, I find that during periods when I am stressed, my diet gets worse, and then I start feeling awful. Usually within a week, I will start eating better again. This is a test that I think everyone should give a crack at.”

Vegetables, not carbs, are a huge part of Ben’s diet today.

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