The Dean Karnazes diet

Dean Karnazes is an ultramarathoner whose most recent exploit was to run 50 marathons in 50 consecutive states in 50 consecutive days.  Not a bad feat.  His endurance seems almost superhuman, and, based on what I’ve read about him, I suspect it is.  A recent article in the magazine Wired explained how he got started running 14 years ago.

DEAN KARNAZES WAS SLOBBERING DRUNK. IT WAS HIS 30TH BIRTHDAY, and he’d started with beer and moved on to tequila shots at a bar near his home in San Francisco. Now, after midnight, an attractive young woman – not his wife – was hitting on him. This was not the life he’d imagined for himself. He was a corporate hack desperately running the rat race. The company had just bought him a new Lexus. He wanted to vomit. Karnazes resisted the urge and, instead, slipped out the bar’s back door and walked the few blocks to his house. On the back porch, he found an old pair of sneakers. He stripped down to his T-shirt and underwear, laced up the shoes, and started running. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

He sobered up in Daly City, about 15 miles south. It was nearly four in the morning. The air was cool, slightly damp from the fog, and Karnazes was in a residential neighborhood, burping tequila, with no pants on. He felt ridiculous, but it brought a smile to his face. He hadn’t had this much fun in a long time. So he decided to keep running.

When the sun came up, Karnazes was trotting south along Route 1, heading toward Santa Cruz. He had covered 30 miles. In the process, he’d had a blinding realization: There were untapped reservoirs within him. It was like a religious conversion. He had been born again as a long-distance runner. More than anything else now, he wanted to find out how far he could go. But at that exact moment, what he really needed to do was stop. He called his wife from a pay phone, and an hour later she found him in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. He passed out in the car on the way home.

Now (or even when I was 30 years old) I couldn’t simply throw on an old pair of sneakers, head out the door, and run 30 miles.  Drunk or sober.  I would have to be worse than slobbering drunk to even consider it.  I’m not sure I could throw on a pair of sneakers any time in my life and even walk 30 miles, much less run them.  Not without training for it, and the article implies that he was not previously a runner. This is obviously a guy who is just put together right for the sport of running.  I don’t know what the ultimate effect will be on his knees and hips, but for now, he seems to be doing okay.  As I say, he’s put together right for it.

This same article lists the 12 secrets to his success.  I was keen to see if he had any dietary advice, and sure enough he did.  Number 4 on the list.

You wouldn’t believe the stuff Karnazes consumes on a run. He carries a cell phone and regularly orders an extra-large Hawaiian pizza. The delivery car waits for him at an intersection, and when he gets there he grabs the pie and rams the whole thing down his gullet on the go. The trick: Roll it up for easy scarfing. He’ll chase the pizza with cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate éclairs, and all-natural cookies. The high-fat pig-out fuels Karnazes’ long jaunts, which can burn more than 9,000 calories a day. What he needs is massive amounts of energy, and fat contains roughly twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates. Hence, pizza and éclairs…

I’ve received numerous emails and comments about the high-calorie, high-carb diet that Michael Phelps consumed on his way to eight Olympic gold medals.   What I tried to tell all those who communicated with me about it is that it is possible to eat this way if a) you’re young, and b) if you’re burning a zillion calories in intense physical activity.  As Mr. Phelps ages, he won’t be able to keep up the same intensity of activity.  If he continues to eat the way he does now, he will not be the better for it.  I would predict that he would become obese.  And it’s not just Mr. Phelps to whom this happens.  It’s called the ex-jock syndrome.  Many professional athletes struggle with obesity when their playing days are over.  There activity level falls but their food intake doesn’t.  And they pay the price.

But what about Dean Karnazes?  He is 44 years old, way beyond the age of most professional athletes who have retired and gotten fat.  Why has he escaped while eating the enormous amounts of high-carb foods he does.  A couple of reasons.  First, he is still active as evidenced by the 50 marathons in 50 days.  And, second, he doesn’t eat all the high-carb foods all the time. (I suspect that Michael Phelps doesn’t either.)  I intentionally left off the last part of his recommendation to eat lots of junk.  Here it is:

When he’s not in the midst of some record-breaking exploit, Karnazes maintains a monkish diet, eating grilled salmon five nights a week. He strictly avoids processed sugars and fried foods – no cookies or doughnuts. He even tries to steer clear of too much fruit because it contains a lot of sugar. He believes this approach – which nutritionists call a slow-carb diet – has reshaped him, lowering his body fat and building lean muscle. It also makes him look forward to running a race, because he can eat whatever he wants.

Apparently Mr. Karnazes is as smart as he is fit.  He eats everything that’s not red hot or nailed down while he’s running, but he eats what sounds a lot like a low-carb diet when he isn’t.  Which makes a lot of sense.  When you are burning the calories that he does on his long runs, the body will use up most anything you put into it.  And it doesn’t matter what it is.  I’m sure that due to his conditioning Mr. Karnazes is highly insulin sensitive and has low circulating insulin levels.  If you want to eat like he does, it’s a simple matter: run like he does.  Otherwise, you’re better off eating like he does when he’s laying around the house.

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39 thoughts on “The Dean Karnazes diet

  1. I originally saw this article headline in my RSS reader. I thought maybe Dean Ornish had changed his last name, started promoting a low carb diet and hoped nobody would notice.

  2. FYI his wikipedia article (which cites his book) says he was an accomplished runner as a middle schooler, and ran a marathon as a freshman in high school, but hadn’t run for 15 years prior to that night.

    That explains a little.

  3. Squash ain’t too well known to the g public in America but Jahangir Khan of P’Stan ruled the world of Squash for 5 straight years..likely the best player ever in the sport.

    I dunno what he ate but at 45 he looks absolutely atrocious..truly.

  4. Dean Karnazes sounds like he has bipolar disorder.
    Extremely drunk, then running half naked to another city? Teh mania, it does crazy things.

  5. Kevan just beat me to it. Here is another blog post on Deans diet.

    I have done a few ultramarathons and have met Dean on the trails a few times – he is one helluva nice guy. After a five or six hours of a gut-busting run in the hills you crave anything with a lot of fat. For me, dinner consists of a large steak (about 2 lb.) with walnuts and avocado. Dessert is berries with flaxseed oil drizzled over the top. Failing that healthy option somehow I can make a large pizza or a couple of burgers disappear. Like Dean, when not seriously training, I follow a strict paleo diet.

    Cheers, Paul

  6. This man does not look as wasted as you would think he might. Not quite as muscular as a sprinter, but much more so than many distance runners. I’ll bet not many people could run the amount of time he apparently does and maintain that much muscle, no matter what they ate.

  7. I do agree with your observation that “he’s put together right for it,” not only physically but chemically as well. At what point does a person not have to be concerned about catabolizing muscle from overtraining or excess cortisol? As we become more fit, does the effect of cortisol diminish? I have wondered about this in relation to the weight loss approach of The Biggest Loser “reality” show (4+ hours/day workouts), especially since the new season will be premiering soon, and lots of grossly overweight folks will try the same thing on their own. I seem to recall in a previous blog that you said that weight training was the best approach, but I don’t remember the specifics.

    It’s a difficult thing to say when a given person begins to catabolize muscle with training since there is so much individual variation. However, it does happen, and overtraining is indeed a reality. I do think a Slow Burn style workout is the best way to achieve increased lean mass without the risk of overtraining.

  8. Wow, superhuman is right! Interesting that he eats lower carb when not running. Haha, I wonder how he would fare on the run if they fed him tender beef jerky, cheese, low-carb pizza and then plenty of fruit for carbohydrates and easy glucose, such as bananas and fruit ‘n yogurt shakes. I can’t wrap my mind around the junk they feed him on a run even if he is burning it off at a rapid rate of knots. I’m probably being silly. I enjoyed this story! 🙂

  9. Well … you’re commenting on the dietary revelation, which is fair enough and well observed, but frankly I thought the original article was glib, superficial and crass.

    Poor guy, attractive women hitting on him and a Lexus force on him by his boss. No wonder he was looking for a way out. Thank goodness he found an escape from that living hell!

    If I ever find myself assailed by beautiful women and burdened by expensive automobiles, it’s reassuring to know that I may be able to find solace in daily bouts of excessively monotonous grinding exercise.

    But there are few questions left unanswered: If he agrees with the sentiment that you should end your days “thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: Wow!! What a ride!” then why is he eating a “monkish diet” of salmon most of the time – that’s got to be interfering with the wearing-out process; and why is he running for hours and hours each day? What sort of wild “ride” does that represent? Somehow I don’t think Disneyland will be building a “ride” for thrill-seekers called the Four-Hour-Daily-Run any time soon.

    The whole first part of the story seems to be about his rejecting a shallow and superficial world of “success” in order to get in touch with deeper spiritual needs, but next thing you know he’s running fifty marathons in fifty states. Sounds like a publicity stunt to me. An expensive and rather pointless one. Was there anyone else running in these “marathons”?

    I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not as much as a pillock as the writer has made him sound. This is journalism from the breathless I-Want-To-Be-Hunter-S-Thompson-but-don’t-have-the-talent school. Every sentence tries to be hard-bitten and sardonic and ends up being self-parodying.

    The overall impression I’m left with is of someone who is mildly mentally ill and being exploited as some sort of circus freak show of human endurance. If I go out back and start hammering nails through my hand can I get a writer from Wired to cover the story of my Extreeeeeme Balls-to-the-wall feat of pain endurance?

    I’ll use Krazy Glue to fill the holes if that’ll help with the pitch.

  10. He may also have good genes.

    My mom is 92 and still has an average blood sugar of 83. She can eat carbs without going over normal.

    The studies I’ve seen suggest that if you have rock solid normal blood sugar you can lose weight on a low fat diet and prosper on a high carb diet. About 1/3 of the population fits that category.

    The other 2/3s can’t.

    According to studies I’ve seen (I wrote about one in the PPLP) the figure is closer to 1/4 who can and 3/4 who can’t.

  11. His behavior may indeed signify some type of bipolar or mood disorder. It’s well known that Michael Phelps has ADHD (attention deficity hyperactivity disorder). Two of my best friends have ADHD issues. If you’ve ever been around someone with that pattern, you know what I mean when I say they just can’t be still. Constantly in motion and jittery, even when completely clean and sober. Someone like that must burn a lot of calories throughout the day. FWIW, both of my ADHD friends eat a lot of junk and are both slender.

  12. i had always wanted to email and ask about distance running and low carb. it always had seem to me that when im low carbing my endurance just goes to crap i guess i know the answer now but i wonder if there is a way to balance low carbing and running and when you should “carb up” for your runs and how much

    Make sure to take plenty of potassium. I don’t think carbing up for the runs is as important as taking in some carb during the run. This advice is from someone who is NOT an endurance athlete, so take it for what it’s worth. Were I you, I would experiment around to see what works best.

  13. Dr. Eades, I apologize if this isn’t the right place to ask my question, but I’ve been wanting to ask your advice for some time. And it does does concern low-carbing and running, so here goes.

    I’ve been moderately active for several years, running approximately two half-marathons a year. I struggled to lose that last 15 pounds, like so many women do, and cutting calories and fat didn’t work, of course. I started low-carbing (Atkins-style) in December and immediately lost 11 pounds. Which was wonderful, but I fell out of the exercise habit. Since then, the weight has been creeping back up a bit, which I mostly attribute to nuts and low-carb ice cream. So I’m re-focusing my efforts and cutting out the things I think are keeping from losing (re-losing) those pounds. I’m trying to shoot for around 30 gms of net carbs. I haven’t tracked calories too strictly, but the past few days calories have been around 1500-1600. I’m 37, and weigh around 154.

    The trouble is, I’m also trying to get back into exercising. Nothing crazy, but I’m trying to squeeze in two sessions of high-intensity interval training on the treadmill, and once that feels okay, I’ll add back in the strength training. But if I keep my carbs low enough to lose or maintain, I feel terrible! As soon as I exert myself at all, my muscles feel weak and are prone to cramping. I’m completely wiped out after exercising, and often get a splitting headache. This suggest glycogen depletion, right?

    I’ve started experimenting with adding some fast carbs, like Accelerade fitness drink or honey, during and after my workout. I’ve had some degree of success, which means sometimes I don’t feel quite as terrible (not optimal). But under the best circumstances I still feel sore, crampy and just not as strong. I’m taking a Cal-Mag liquid supplement, and between 200-600 mg Potassium, depending on if I remember to take all those pills.

    Do you have any thoughts on this? I’d love to become one of those low-carb-adapted athletes, but it just doesn’t seem to be happening. Is it possible for me to eat low-carb enough to lose just a few more pounds, and still exercise? I’d hate to have to choose between the two. There is lots of information out there on carb cycling, but it seems to be geared toward more heavy exercise.

    Sorry this is so long. Thanks for any help!

    It looks like you’ve covered all the bases on this. You’re taking the potassium, which is good, and the magnesium. It could be that it may take some more time to adapt. But in the interim you might want to get some D-ribose powder (get it at the health food store) and take a teaspoon immediately after working out. If that doesn’t do the trick, try taking a teaspoon before working out as well. Then move up to a couple of teaspoons after then before. I’m planning a post on D-ribose sometime in the future, so I’ll explain it all there. Just give it a try for now to see what happens. And let me (us) know how it works for you.

  14. Speaking of junk food, have you seen this article that says hot dogs and bacon are not only not harmful, but actually may be health foods? I have wondered how cured meats, which were staple foods in many parts of the world for hundreds of years, could now be deadly carcenogins. (The article says that our own saliva, one serving of arugula, or two servings of lettuce contain more nitrites than 467 hotdogs.) I’d love to hear your anaysis.

    My analysis is that I agree with Sandy’s analysis. I’ve been meaning to post on this issue for a while, but just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to really get into it. I’m glad Sandy did it.

  15. Dr. Eades, would this phenomenon explain why I can pretty-much eat whatever I want while I’m walking around Disney for a week? Is it simply because a) it’s temporary, and b) it’s a lot more activity than I’m used to? Thanks!

    Yep. If you got a job walking around Disney forever, you would begin to gain weight unless you changed your diet.

  16. I don’t want to sound like a kiljoy (although I probably will) but surely eating all that garbage during races is going to have an impact. I certainly take your point about the body using up whatever you throw at it under those circumstances (in terms of sugars), but I just wonder whether all the chemicals and additives in the cakes along with a total lack of vitamins and roughage would be a kick in the teeth for a body already being pushed to its limit. Clearly he is fine with it (for now) so maybe it’s not a problem. But if he did 50 marathons in 50 days and ate like that each time I am surprised it did not become one….

  17. This is something someone wrote on one of my internet friend boards today. It’s so sad.

    I just got some bad news today 🙁 remember the Berkeley heart test I got done at the beginning of the year? a new study on cholesterol and triglyceride’s and such. Well, I got my results today and they aren’t good. Is a lot of info to process. MY cholesterol and triglyceride’s are high (which is not surprise) My good cholesterol is not doing anything to balance my bad cholesterol, plus my results show that i have a high risk of inflammation on the arteries, not to mention the build up of plaque, seems like I produce large plaque and not small one, so they trying to invert that with some meds. The bad surprise was my insulin, which was high so it shows a risk for diabetes, so this month I’ll start on diabetic meds, and next month I’ll start the cholesterol meds. In the meanwhile I have to get a cardiac CT, stress tests and a series of blood work. The positive side is that I’m preventing heart attacks and strokes by taking care of this, but it makes me sad that I’m showing signs of heart disease at this age. I just pray my kids don’t get these genes 🙁

    I want to tell her what I know, but I just feel like it will be a waste. I already sound like a know it all on the weight loss forum for that group, I don’t mean to but it’s just LOW CARB= EVIL (unless it’s South Beach for 2 weeks, whatever people). I want to help people. People don’t listen unless you have an M.D. after your name no matter how much research and hours into the night I read about this stuff…

    Yeah, this sucks. It, along with an email I just got, has inspired a post. Thanks.

  18. uoftchem, read Charles’s posts on the Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb discussion board. He is running long distance races (10k, half-marathon, and marathon I think) on a zero-carb diet. The only thing he eats is meat. No eggs. Little or no cheese. Maybe some butter and coconut oil and things like that. But he mainly eats fatty meats apparently.

    Zero Carb / Meat and Water

    Zero-Carb Running Journal

    Question for Charles….the super meat eating moderator 🙂

  19. Paul B- yea, when your brain is shooting out stimulatory chemicals it’s hard to sit still, or rest lol. My mood is pretty unstable, I have a few days when I’m very “up” and then a few days when I can be so low I”m comatose. I know on the apex of the up days, it’s very difficult not to run screaming down the street… the energy is overwhelming, and you’ve far less inhibitions, so why not run down the street dancing, right?
    IMO the guy is a nutter! This guy is hitting all the marks for mania:

    a) getting piss drunk (big sign of mania/hypomania BTW is substance use)
    b) forgoing sleeping (people in mania stop sleeping)
    c) nudity/inappropriate dress
    d) expending tremendous energy in pointless and inappropriate activity (people in mania will pace, race, fiddle their hands, run around, dance, sing… they’re very hyperactive).
    e) claiming to have experienced a religious like conversion, to be a superhuman (delusions of grandeur and religious awakenings are big signs of mania).

    The only chance this guy has of being sane is if he has greatly embellished or lied about some details (e.g. the extent of his running, his “religious” feelings, his lack of sleep). If this story is true to word, poor guy sounds like he’s gonna crash hard (either that, or he’s a psychotic episode away from the nut house).

  20. I can appreciate the grilled salmon – but so much of it? I think I’d grow sick of it pretty fast. I know I couldn’t do without fruit – I eat more berries than any robin I know.

  21. Alcohol makes you dehydrated. Starting to run in a dehydrated state is insane. He made it but you better don’t try. I can’t respect people that do stupid things that I wouldn’t do, just because they do it. Sorry.

  22. I’ve recently started on this low-carb lifestyle, thanks to this blog, and so far so good. I’ve lost weight and I feel surprisingly good. Now I want to start running again like I used to do when I was not 40 pounds overweight. I have been, as per your advice, keeping my carb intake for the day to 50 grams and less; however, I found that I cannot run doing this as I have no energy. I’ve tried having almost all of my day’s carbs all at once just before I run and this has helped a bit. So what should I take from this thread? That, as long as I’m running that day I can eat more than 50 grams? I’m glad I found this article because I was doubting this low carb thing, at least for a person who wants to run. It makes sense though, a “caveman” would not have been running a lot. S/he would have done plenty of walking with the occasional short burst of speed.

    OOps. This thread is a year old. Well, I typed it so I’ll post it. 🙂 Thanks for this site Dr. Eades.

  23. Dr. Eades, is the “slow-carb” eating style the same as “clean eating”?

    I haven’t a clue. I’ve never heard the term “clean eating.” Anyone out there know?

    • Clean eating, if you didn’t get an answer yet, is a very popular term in bodybuilding. It simply means eating whole foods in as natural a state as possible. For example, salmon, green beans, and tomato slices would be a clean meal. Calories come from nutrients that are good for the body. No processed foods or manipulated foods if possible. When body builders “eat clean” they avoid fast food, too. Check out or fitness sites and you will see lots of text about “eating clean”. I love the sound of it, don’t you? Sounds SO virtuous!

  24. @chainey 27. August 2008

    I’m guessing that a) Dean Karnazes passed you on a trail or b) you are a former patient of doctor Eades, unhappy about something. Either way, you are vindictive and asinine, full of half-assumptions and vitriol.
    There are so many ridiculous assumptions in your post that I feel like handing this over to my daughter to refute while I go ponder something worthwhile. But I’m here, so I’ll suffer you for a few minutes.

    Dean was married. That’s why a good-looking girl in a bar while he was drunk is a bad idea. If you missed that part, maybe Eades can direct you to an optometrist.

    You say Dean’s 50 in 50 was ‘superficial’. I mean, come on, Chainey. All you had to do was open another window and look on google and you would have read that Dean was running to raise awareness about obesity. How unbelievably shallow of him.

    You also attack doctor Eades, saying that he was trying to come off as ‘hard-bitten’ (what?) and sardonic (huh?). Did we read the same article? Do you have access to a dictionary? Because those terms just don’t apply. Doctor Eades comes across as a humble, curious and passionate doctor with an abiding interest in athletic nutrition. You call him a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe. Really? Do you think he made the wrong career choice and just sits home, lamenting his usefulness and life-saving abilities?

    I think I’ll hand this over to my daughter now.

    • hahaha good one. That post was so ridiculous, ignarant and so obviously written by a very resentful person. I have some very good ideas as to why as well, but I will keep them to myself as to not drop down to their level.

      Its funny how far people will go to discredit healthy/successful/whatever people who have something they want, instead of going out there and working to get it for themselves. You would never read those type of comments from a fit, athletic, successful person. They have better things to do.

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  26. Dean K-whatever is not a runner. Yeah, great story. Right. Hot chicks hitting on you, running 30 miles drunk. Nope Dean Kar, Kan, oh whatever…………

  27. I used to like to follow dean on his running, I was surprised when he fell off the radar somewhere outside missori somewhere?

    if he is being truthful about everything he is saying he does, and I have no reason not to believe him that is incredible. do you realize if he wanted to he could probably finish the appliacian trail from start to finish in no time?

    as for paleo diet, I have to say that link referring to if the neanderthal had access to it then eat it? I had to laugh at that one, pasta, ice cream wasn’t available at that time,that made me laugh even more, considering that people are basing a whole diet/exercise/health program on something that never even existed.

    if you would do your research you would see they have no fossils of that apeman. in fact they have none of a apeman at all not even close. but we know dinosaurs existed, even tiny ones, surely if tiny dinosaurs fossils are found why not a greater size as a apeman? by their fossils remains and they have 1000’s of them around the world in musuems.

    I would be leery of following a diet based on a fantasy picture of man’s distant past. besides how much meat does gorillas and chimps really comsume? most are vegetarians, chimps will eat some meat but eat mostly fruits, insects and seeds, pods etc.

    I am all for a slow carb diet. considering that the lower the gi the more nutritious carbs are. the higher gi the less nutritious, that should tell you something.

    I love a good hamburger too, but I tried to eat a low carb diet once a few years ago lasted about 3 months, couldn’t stick to it since I started to despise meat and wanted fruit. I am a big dairy lover despite advocates against it, but I don’t care what they think, I do better if I get plenty of eggs and milk (whole milk was a problem) but 2 percent was perfect and I just love cheese, don’t eat alot of it, can’t even if I tried. I like almond milk and coconut milk in my protein drinks.

    I believe our bodies give us clues/cues as to what they need and try to tell us if we just listen to them.

    I did however wonder about deans obessivness for running or ability to run so long. I mean how many people can run night and day covering 100-300 miles? also I wonder if he has a defect in survival instincts that stop you (called central fatigue) when your overdoing it, maybe his is turned off? maybe that is the problem with these master athelets they lack the survival triggors that stop them from over doing it? that is why you find them dead on the side of the road during training.

    they don’t have a shut off button don’t know they are tired and are destroying their body without knowing, it, kind of like people born without pain receptors they can break a bone and not know it.


    • Rosa,
      Neanderthal were not “ape-man”. Neanderthals are a very close cousin to human beings, who we know about because of Fossils and bones. Ask anyone who has a PHD in Anthropology and they can tell you. Professors and scientists who have spent 50 years studying Neanderthals and all human beings are a much better source than whatever online site that is talking about an “apeman”.

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