The Driven Life: Matt Tifft on the keto diet

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Matt Tifft, the Cup Series rookie who drives for Front Row Motorsports.

You’ve obviously been through a lot more than average person has, at least at this age in your life. You had a brain tumor that had to be removed. As a result, as I understand, you’re on the keto diet. I think that’s a result of the tumor, correct?

Sure, yeah. It wasn’t for probably a year and a few months (after surgery) that I really found (the diet), but I had a friend over at the National Brain Tumor Society who I worked with very closely through my recovery process and everything. She was a track runner at UNC Chapel Hill years ago and she said, “Hey, I know you’ve been struggling a little bit with getting the last bit of your mental clarity and stuff back after the recovery process.” She goes, “Hey, I heard of this ketogenic diet. I’ve been on it for a few weeks and I’m feeling great, and there are some clinical studies that are showing that the keto diet can help prevent a brain tumor from growing” — or coming back, in my case.

I was feeling OK, but I hadn’t made a full recovery back from how I was feeling after the surgery and stuff. This was probably September 2017. We were going to Dover that weekend for the playoffs and I went cold turkey one day, going from normal eating to the next day starting full-out keto. Hardly any carbs, hardly any sugar. So I was feeling it that weekend for sure, but it’s been a year and a half since then.

Wow that’s amazing. And you’ve stuck to it all that time?

I have. I can probably count on one hand the amount of cheat days I’ve had in the year and a half. My teammate Michael McDowell is on it too and my fiancee is on it now.

But what’s cool about it to me is I was able to go on it and I’ve gotten much better mental clarity. I was feeling great and all of a sudden I started dropping weight, too. From when I started, I’m 45 pounds down or something.

You’re not a huge guy to begin with.

No, it was just kind of back to my high school weight, really. But I just feel better than I ever have.

I love it because there’s so many (keto-friendly food) alternatives. In the beginning there weren’t so many, but it’s become so popular that people are making alternatives for cookies and chocolates and breads and stuff. I don’t indulge in all of them, but it makes it sustainable.

And I think the cool part about it too, as I’ve learned more of the research side about it, is how it can help reverse type 2 diabetes, it can prevent against epilepsy and dementia and Alzheimer’s — which was the original goal for it. And (helping) my brain tumor effects are in there, too.

My crew chief, Mike Kelley, just started it last week. I talk to (Austin Dillon crew chief) Danny Stockman about it last year when I was over at RCR, because he saw how much I lost and how well I was doing and stuff. I said, “Danny, why don’t you just try that out?” He said, “Alright, alright, I’ll try it.” And I think today he’s down 70 pounds and the dude looks like he’s lost six or seven years. He just looks so young now.

It’s cool to see that for me, to know that “Hey, I helped a guy in the garage area do that.” It helped my fiancee; she’d have a high heart rate sometimes for no reason or just everyday stuff, she wouldn’t be feeling so great and all of a sudden it helps her feel better. So I just love it just because I feel better on it, so that’s why I’m a big advocate of it.

Wow, you make it sound really good. So if somebody is reading and all they’ve heard is the term, can you go over the basics of it and why does it help you?

So the basic formula to achieve a keto diet is 75 percent of your daily calories come from fat sources, 20 percent come from protein, and 5 percent come from carbs. And so what it ends up being is 20 grams or less of carbs per day. That’s one Fig Newton. So that’s a big adjustment for people in the beginning, is just finding what has carbs and what has sugar in it and what doesn’t. Sugar-free doesn’t mean carb-free.

So the whole science behind it — not to get too crazy with it — is your body has two energy fuel sources: there’s glycogen and there’s ketones. So glycogen is sugar, and when you intake carbohydrates or sugars, your body breaks it down and uses glycogen to fuel your body. That’s why people have blood sugar spikes — ups and downs, peaks and valleys, whatever you want to call it.

With ketones, at any given time you have about 32,000 calories worth of fat in your body. So marathon runners, endurance athletes, they run more on their ketones after they’ve kind of burnt through that initial phase. So it’s a more efficient process for your body.

And the other thing is the insulin response from the things you eat on a ketogenic diet is extremely low. So it’s kind of like eating similar to a diabetic, but what it does is it reduces the inflammation of your body, which is why it has the cancer-positive effects to it. I don’t want to say (cancer) curing, I don’t want to say that at all. But I’ve seen examples of that because of the reduction of inflammation in your body — and that’s why you kind of just feel better, because you kind of just feel like this heaviness and fog has been lifted off.

So this sounds kind of complicated, but I understand that part of it is you have to check your blood levels or something?

You don’t have to. My teammate Michael McDowell, he likes to, but I think he’s kind of a nerd about it. He’s super into it. I’ve checked it twice in the year and a half I’ve been on it.

So it’s not a necessity.

No, not at all. You can do that. It’s a cool tool because you can see exactly how you’re doing. I just go more off of feel.

I guess my thing is we’re all busy, right? And you are on the road too, so you’re as busy as anybody. How do you keep this up when you’re traveling, when you’re out at dinner, when there’s not great food options available? How do you maintain this?

Well, so there’s two things about it. There’s something called lazy keto, which you kind of have to go on the road. That means not everything is all organic or all grass-fed — because on a very clean keto diet, that is what you would have. Ultimately, (organic and grass-fed beef) is the optimal thing, just like any clean-eating diet you talk about. Would I say that’s achievable? I think it’s way too hard to do it all the time.

But for me, the essentials of the keto diet, I would say for somebody starting, is bulletproof coffee — which is essentially butter coffee. So I have that every morning. Avocados are a great source of fat and a healthy fat, too, to where you’re not going to feel like you’re eating fat. That’s a good healthy fat. And nuts.

But also if you go to a restaurant — last night I got a 12-ounce New York strip steak. You can do steak, you can do vegetables, you can do burgers without buns, you can do smoked chicken wings if you want to. So that part of it makes it easy for me. And you can do cheese. So you can do all the things where you kind of feel like a fat kid, but you just take out the grains and the bread and stuff from there. For me, that makes it super sustainable.

You can also do like almond milk and things like that to where, you know, it doesn’t feel like you’re missing out on much. They have so many products now like Quest bars and cookies and stuff. It’s great to have those options now, because when I started they didn’t have that many. But now that’s it’s so mainstream, they’ve come out with so many things. You can go to a gas station and pick up something you can fit into your daily macros of that 75 percent split of calories in there.

Do you have to keep some sort of chart or track of what you’ve eating and stuff to maintain that?

Yeah, so I use My Fitness Pal, which is an app from the App Store. I do the premium membership because it allows you to put in all your goals for your macronutrients, between the fat, carbs and protein.

But you don’t necessarily have to. I think people who are starting off on it, it’s good to do that just to see where you’re at because you kind of learn what foods have higher percentages of proteins and carbs that you don’t really necessarily need to have or want to have in there. So it’s good for the first month or two.

Past that, people get in a rhythm and don’t really need to do it that much. But if you’re trying to be at an optimal state of it to either lose weight or try to get blood pressure down, whatever the heck it is you’re trying to achieve, it’s nice to have that just to confirm what you’re doing.

But a lot of it is off of feel. Like I know if I go eat a pork chop or something, I need to have ranch or blue cheese. You have to have a little bit of a fat source with it. That’s another thing, too — you can do wedge salads and Cobb salads and Caesar salads and things like that. You just take off the croutons and it’s not too bad.

So do you miss having a cake or a cupcake or something like that?

You know, I have a bad sweet tooth. I’m totally guilty of that. So the first six months, that was kind of tough for me. But like I said, they didn’t have those bars and stuff like they do now, and that really takes care of my sweet tooth. So I can go in my trailer and I’ve got chocolate chip cookies in there that are totally fine for keto. So that’s where I can kind of solve it with that.

Certainly you do have those urges, but if you just substitute it out with a keto-friendly one or a lower carb count one of those, then you’re generally OK. But the cool thing about it was, the higher amount of fat you do have and when you start getting regulated in that, those cravings go away. So I can sit down at an Outback and look at the brown pumpernickel bread, and that used to kill me because I wanted some of that so bad. And now it’s like, “Eh, I’m good,” you know?

But one thing I would tell people is that if you do have those urges or cravings in there, it’s OK to have one fry, it’s OK to have one onion ring. The thing is, you don’t go overboard because you can still fit it in. There’s no keto unfriendly foods, it’s just getting it in the daily count. So it’s not like you’re going kill yourself doing it, you just have to know, “Hey, if I have one or two fries, that’s gonna get me five carbs out of the 20 I’m allowed to have per day.” And sometimes it’s 30 carbs or whatever, but you just know, “Hey, if I have one or two and it kills that craving for me,” you kind of enjoy it inside your system.

So it’s not that it’s banned, it’s just the amount is so small that you have to choose what’s going to be your one thing.

Yep. So you have a cap on how many carbs you can have, and the hardest part is that you have to think away from the usual things. So like white chicken, turkey, pork chops, anything that’s been told as a healthy lean meat, you actually want to have the dark, fattier ones to fit in there because your body will turn the protein back into glycogen and use it as sugar. So you have to be careful with those things. So that’s probably the hardest adjustment for most people the first 60 days or so.

Let’s say I want to do this tomorrow, go cold turkey like you did. What is the adjustment period like? Am I going to suffer through two weeks of being the most miserable, unpleasant person to be around?

No. So typically the first three days you’re on it, you’re adjusting and you’re feeling pretty good. You’re not going to feel many benefits just yet. Somewhere between the five- and 10-day period, you enter something called what might be referred to as the “keto flu.” What’s happening is that your glycogen, your sugar stores are going away and is now being replaced by those ketones, which is the process of becoming fat adapted, and now your body is using fat for fuel. So you’re not going to feel terrible in there, but you might feel a little cramps here and there, you might feel a little lethargic, maybe a bit of headaches.

The easiest thing you can do in that period is salt everything, because it holds onto the water better. Because when you lose those carbs, that’s holding onto water, so you’ve got to drink a lot of water. Put some salt on stuff, and get electrolytes — get little electrolyte packets or Vitamin Water Zero, Powerade Zero, whatever — and that will help you through it. And it normally lasts only three or so days, but it’s only one day where you’re really feeling it.

But then once you get to Day 20, typically what happens is when you get to that three-week period, and all of a sudden the mental clarity picks up like crazy. You start to see the fat loss, and that’s where people turn the corner.

So it’s not something you can do for two or three weeks. You’ve got to commit for 30 days, I would say, and then you decide if it’s not for you or not. For me it’s a lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for you, doesn’t mean it’s right for the other person. But I know the people it has helped.

For me, being on a clean-eating diet, I’m so tempted with cheating that I couldn’t stay on it. So keto is a lot easier for me because I feel like I’m cheating, but I’m actually not.

Let’s move on to a different topic before we have to go. Obviously as I’ve mentioned before, you’ve had sort of a traumatic life experience. Do you look at life differently, and you feel like you have a different perspective now?

I do. I feel like it took me some time to mature and realize what it meant at the same time. It wasn’t like a light switch where BAM!, it happened.

I was told by doctors I’d never drive a race car again. I was told that I probably wouldn’t be able to drive a street car again, I would have to undergo chemo and radiation and all this stuff. And I went to different doctors and got different opinions in there.

But ultimately, I think if you look at the second half of 2017 and our 2018 season, all of a sudden I started to get a lot better. Our results started getting better, I started to perform better, this opportunity with Front Row came up to jump to the Cup Series.

I think that happened because I learned that I love racing. I absolutely love racing, it’s my passion, it’s what I want to do for my career and I live and breathe racing. But at the same time, when you have a really crappy day, when it just sucks and you’re pissed off and you’re just like, “Damn, this really sucks” — you just have those days sometimes in racing.

What I think it allows me to do is when I get back on the plane, I’m able to digest the things that happened, learn from it, go home and reset. Because I know that for myself there’s been much worse days. Also, when I went through that whole process, there were people who had grade four tumors. My step-grandmother had a grade four tumor and passed away. There were people who had it much worse off than I did.

And you know what? I get to go around and drive a race car in the Cup Series for my living. Like that’s pretty sweet. That’s a dream of most people, that’s a dream of mine; I was a fan, that was my dream to do this.

So I think it puts it in perspective that you are allowed to have a bad day, you are allowed to be pissed off because you love it and you want to do better and you want to succeed. But when you go home, it resets and you enjoy those little things.

I got engaged over the offseason, I’m looking forward to (being married). Just little things like that that you just kind of soak in and enjoy those parts of it more, and I think it allows you to be better gelled with the (crew) guys because they know you want it, but at the same time things don’t carry over from week to week. It’s kind of an on and off switch that I’ve been allowed to now turn on and off faster because I can compartmentalize things better.

What are some things that you feel like you’ve learned that you just wish you could apply to everybody else. Like if people just knew this –without learning the hard way — it would help their perspective on life.

I think it’s different for every person. But at the same time, I think allowing yourself to step back and enjoy moments.

The Daytona 500 pre-race and the pace truck ride there and watching the Thunderbirds go by, I allowed myself to soak that in. Yeah, I was nervous as crap because the Daytona 500 was my first Cup race. It’s like, “This is nuts!” But I allowed myself (to enjoy it), and I can remember that whole thing in my mind. If I had been stressed out and just so focused on the race car at that moment, I would have missed that whole thing. And when I got in the car and put my helmet on, you better bet I was ready to go. But I think it’s just enjoying those things and enjoying the people who you’re friends with, who are your loved ones or whatever.

My whole thing with my journey is I’ve been seen as a very positive person through all this and I try to serve as an inspiration to people. The biggest thing you can do is, and it’s an old saying, but treat people the way you want to be treated with stuff. I think people get too lost in the every small day to day thing, they lose track of bigger picture stuff.

Like I said, it’s OK to be mad at things, it’s OK to be human. But at the same time, try to do something good in the world, try to be nice to people. Even if it’s just petting your dog, whatever the heck it is, it’s just taking those little times to not let time fly by.

I didn’t know going into that surgery room what was going to happen to me, and I certainly then realized after (things like) going to a concert, that was fun again. Just you enjoy those little moments more and I think time flies by and crazy stuff happens and you gotta sit back and enjoy that stuff.

And realize that for us in this industry, we get so down on things and we are so stressed out about stuff, but we get to work in NASCAR. That’s one of the top sports in America — in the world — and that’s pretty dang cool. I like to sit back and realize that so many kids have this dream of being a Cup Series driver, and I get to do that. So I want to make sure that I do the best job that I can.

One Reply to “The Driven Life: Matt Tifft on the keto diet”

  1. Jeff – thank you for taking the time to have this young man share his “life” story. All too often we read only about their racing life. Sherry Pollex and Samantha Busch sharing their “life” journey but it is a bit different when a driver shares their’s (not to minimize what Sherry and Samantha have done).

    Matt – your story is inspiring. I believe (since I am one of them) – not only will you have made a difference and helped those in the garage but have touched Jeff’s readers too!

    Thank you both!

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