Updated: Mar 3, 2020
In October last year I cycled 630 kilometres with 10,000m altitude over six days through the Victorian highlands, just two weeks after switching to a low-carbohydrate diet to help manage my type 1 diabetes.
I was diagnosed with type 1 when I was nine years old and I don’t really remember life before diabetes. Things have changed so much since I was diagnosed. I've embraced technology, and use a t-slim insulin pump pumping Novorapid along with a Dexcom G5 CGM running through the xDrip app on my mobile phone. I use xDrip instead of the Dexcom CGM app because I prefer the functionality and stats from xDrip.
My work as a chemical engineer keeps me busy during the week and I really enjoy being active every day with swimming, running or cycling. I also love travelling, and have lived in South Korea and undertaken multiple trips to South America, Japan and Europe. While travelling I like to go hiking, snowboarding or scuba diving. I’ve also always been a fan of cooking, which came in handy recently after I switched to a low-carbohydrate diet.
In 2018 I cycled across South Korea with two friends; the journey took us six days to ride 660km with 3,500m altitude. Despite South Korea being mountainous, the ride itself was relatively flat, so we thought it would be good to do something a bit more challenging. We set our sights on a six-day ride through the Victorian highlands, with the goal to ride 630 kilometres around Mount Hotham and Falls Creek.
I decided to use a low-carbohydrate approach to undertake the ride, after I saw the average blood glucose levels of a friend who had been eating low-carb for a couple of years. His levels were almost perfect, hovering around 5mmol/L with a tiny standard deviation of 0.2mmol/L. I was shocked at how good his management was, and asked how he got started. He recommended I talk to dietitian and diabetes educator Amy Rush at the Type 1 Diabetes Family Centre, who supported me to transition across to a lower carb approach, making sure I got the energy and micronutrients I needed through different foods. With Amy’s advice, I found making the switch fairly straightforward. I reduced my carbs considerably and ate more protein and fat, which was great because that meant more eggs, avocados, cheese, meat and dark chocolate – all foods I enjoy!
One significant adjustment in changing my diet was that I needed to start counting grams of protein alongside the carbohydrates I already have to count, because protein can really influence blood glucose levels when eating less carbohydrate. The main challenge for me was the first two weeks: I felt very tired as my body learned to switch from carbohydrate to fat as its primary source of fuel. After those two weeks, my energy levels soared and I felt a hundred times better than when I was on a carb-rich diet. My blood glucose levels stopped peaking and dropping, and I found my day-to-day focus and concentration at work improved out of sight.
Before the ride I also spoke at length with Family Centre’s CEO, Bec Johnson and cyclist Kyle Masterman who are both dedicated athletes using a low-carb approach, and gave me some useful advice for a project like my ride.
Some of the suggestions from Amy, Bec and Kyle that I had success with on the ride included:
Bottom out your basal rates: Aggressively reduce basal rates – don’t muck around with conservative reductions for back-to-back days of intense riding. This helped me to avoid having to eat my way through basal-related hypoglycaemia, and avoid overnight lows entirely.
Ride down the highs: Because the terrain was so variable, I was really worried about hypoglycaemia on the hills. I learned that riding down higher blood glucose, rather than having a knee-jerk response to an ‘up’ arrow and correcting immediately, was a successful strategy. If I really needed a correction I was ultra-conservative and micro-bolused, remembering that dose would be active for three hours of riding. The maximum correction bolus I would take was 0.5 units (0.005mL of insulin).
Know your terrain: It was really important to know what each day's terrain would offer up in advance. I studied the track the night before and along the way each day – the last thing I wanted was hit intense climbs with a peaking bolus onboard, which would cause me to crash low. I let the climbs dictate when I'd bolus, which worked well.
Fuel with fat and protein: With food, don’t try anything fancy or ultra-processed - eat the same low carb foods as normal, just more of them. I ate a lot of eggs, cheeses, macadamia nuts and meats whilst riding, and got my veggies in with big meals on each side of my rides. I found egg protein powder a good source of protein that converted to glucose in such a way that it helped keep my blood sugars very stable during the days of riding.
In the Victorian highlands we were on our bikes for between 8-12 hours a day, with varying terrain from moderate intensity to extreme climbs, especially on the way up to Falls Creek which peaks at about 1800 metres. I was able to keep my blood sugars extremely stable while riding, and for three out of the six days kept my level consistently around 5mmol/L, which was a pretty amazing feeling! I also noticed that because I was adapted to using body fat as an energy source, I didn’t hit the wall and run out of energy towards the end of the days, compared to my non-diabetic mates who fuelled themselves with sugar and caffeine gel shots had energy levels that went up and down all day.
Compared to the previous cycling trip in South Korea, when I was on a high-carbohydrate diet, this ride felt incredible. I was actually able to keep my blood glucose levels stable. The highest my blood glucose went was 11mmol/L, - much lower compared to my South Korea ride, where I bounced between 2.5 to 16 mmol/L on most days. Having stable blood sugars kept me motivated and made me want to keep riding, so it was a positive reinforcement.
A low-carbohydrate diet has been a life-changing move for me, helping my normal day-to-day blood sugar management as well as making endurance adventures like big cycling trips far easier to deal with. I’ve really noticed an improvement in my concentration and focus, as well as reduced anxiety around meal times since I started eating this way.
My next big trip will be cycling across China in 2022, provided it’s safe to travel there by then. In between now and then I will be planning another snowboarding trip to Japan and hiking in Cambodia, and of course adding to my repertoire of low-carb recipes.