Last week the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat” discussing the results of a new study by the National Institutes of Health about the health and weight-loss benefits of a low-carb diet. I’ve struggled with weight for most of my adult life. It took the trauma of my brain injury to even begin to convince me that my health was something worth protecting. Since that time, I’ve made a number of progressive steps toward improving my health. I organized my attempts upon a simple four-word mantra: “Eat less; move more.”
Many of those early steps are documented in this blog. I wrote about my attempts to manage stress, enter into a regular exercise routine and the various adventures in returning to swimming. I felt I was doing everything right, but had few sustainable results to show for it. The weight would come off for a while and then go right back on. As the years progressed, progress slowed. I felt trapped in a sort of rearguard action fighting just to maintain the status quo.
This spring, I started reading more items about diet. Over the years I’ve tried various attempts at calorie reduction and the success rate was pretty low– as I already mentioned. It worked for maintaining weight– I got quite good at not putting on additional weight. I just had a lot of trouble losing what I’d accumulated over the years through lethargy and indifference.
It was time to go on offense. I decided to radically change my diet, and started eating low-carb in mid-June. I’ve never tried a structured diet plan before. This is a first. I did a bit of reading to help me understand how this might work, and decided that it was worth giving a try. I didn’t really change the quantities I was eating or exercising. Instead I focused on the quality of what I was eating. Specifically, reduce the amount of carbohydrates in my diet and maintain a slight caloric deficit. It’s been twelve weeks since I started; I’ve lost twenty-five pounds. And the notches in my belt seem to suggest the bulk of the loss has been fat. I’m very pleased. I really think there’s something to this.
When the Times published their story, I shared a bit of my success using the prescribed method. Friends asked about my approach and suggested I write it down. Here goes. Here’s my general approach:
- Daily Carbohydrate Intake: 50-100 grams
- Daily Calorie Intake: 1800-2300 calories
- Regular Exercise: 5 days/week
I found there is a lot of conflicting advice about low-carb diets– and diets in general. Rather than read all of that, I looked for some recurring themes and forged my own path as a compromise of various opinions. I’m privileged by the fact that I don’t have any dietary restrictions: I don’t have food allergies; I don’t have trouble with pork or dairy or peanuts or eggs. I can eat what I want.
I found the normal recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates for my age, weight, height and activity level is between 300-400 grams/day, depending on the source. I have set my target to be between 50-100 grams per day. I shoot for 50 grams/day and don’t get anxious if I go over. And I try very hard to remain under 100. I feel comfortable when I’m within that range. I get there by making four fundamental changes to my diet:
- Eliminate sugar: Sugar is carbs. Pure and simple. One gram of sugar is one gram of carbs. One cup of sugar is 200g of carbs. Going low-carb means it’s time to say goodbye to sugar. I found lots and lots and lots and lots of talk about how to accomplish this one. From the draconian “live without sweets, fatty!” to a multitude of sugar alternatives each with its defenders and detractors. I found so many conflicting opinions. Which ones are good for you, which ones are bad for you. Natural is better. Natural doesn’t reduce carbs. This one’s no good for baking. I read so many discussions about this I became overwhelmed. Eventually just decided on Splenda (sucralose). It’s been available in the US for over 15 years. You can bake with it– its heat stable to 450 degrees. It’s ubiquitous. I can find it anywhere. And it tastes good. Cook’s Illustrated found the desserts baked with Splenda were without “the artificial flavors that just about every other sugar substitute brings with it”. I’ve used it in a large number of recipes and it’s worked quite well as a straight substitute. The only drawback I’ve encountered with Splenda as a replacement for sugar is that it does not caramelize the way table sugar does. But that’s true of any sugar replacement. I can live with that.
- Cut back on bread: Bread accounted for a huge amount of my carb intake. One regular slice of bread– white or whole wheat– has about 12g of carbs. Two pieces of toast with breakfast alone equals half my daily carb budget. I found it very easy to remove bread.
- Cut back on pasta: Pasta accounted for another huge amount of my carb intake. One cup of spaghetti is 43g. This was a bit more challenging for me to accomplish, as I do love all forms of pasta. But I persevered. Eliminating pasta did lead to discovering the spaghetti squash which is kinda delicious and interesting to cook with. So there’s that.
- Replace/reduce wheat flour: Wheat flour is in so many recipes. It’s also a huge contributor to total carb intake. One cup of all-purpose flour is 95g of carbs. So, it’s useful to have some sort of method to cut back on that. Two “replacements” I’m experimenting with are almond flour and flaxseed meal. Neither one of these behaves exactly like traditional wheat flour, but we’ve found them to be useful (if somewhat imperfect) substitutes in a number of cases.
So why does low-carb work? My layman’s understanding of the process is that a low-carb diet deprives the body of it’s most preferred energy source, glucose. The body easily metabolizes carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is stored in the blood, liver and muscles to provide quick easy energy for doing work– a process called glycolysis. Moreover, excess glucose is eventually converted and stored as fat. A lower carbohydrate intake translates to less glucose readily available. The body has to look for alternative sources of energy. A traditional calorie reduction diet works on the same principle, but with more of a scorched-earth mentality. Rather than selectively restricting the most preferred energy source, it restricts everything. Instead of taking in 2000 calories a day, maybe you take in 1200 and achieve some weight loss as a result. What a low-carb diet does is restrict the most preferred energy source– and the source that is going to be most readily stored as fat if it isn’t used under the idea that not all calories are created equally. Low-carb dieting forces the body to adapt. And being the adaptable system that it is, the body finds other sources, shifting metabolism into ketosis, the metabolic state where most of the body’s energy supply comes from ketone bodies in the blood created by metabolizing stored fat. That’s really the linchpin to the diet, right there: eating in such a way that your body starts to cannibalize the fat it has stored.
I avoid these seven foods, in order of importance:
- Sugar: This includes soft drinks, fruit juices, agave, candy, ice cream and lots more
- Gluten Grains: Wheat, oats, barley and rye. Including breads and pasta
- Trans Fats: Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
- High Omega-6 Seed and Vegetable Oils: Corn, canola, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, grapeseed and safflower oils
- Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Cyclamates and Acesulfame Potassium, if for no other reason than they act as appetite simulators causing you to unnecessarily eat more
- Diet and Low-Fat Products: Many dairy products, cereals, crackers: these low-fat varieties often contain higher amounts of carbs than the full-fat varieties due to filler ingredients used to replace the fat
- Highly Processed Foods
I base my diet on these foods:
- Meat: Beef, turkey, lamb, pork, chicken
- Fish: Salmon, halibut, tilapia, walleye, bass, trout
- Eggs: Omega-3 enriched or pastured eggs are best
- Vegetables: Spinach, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage, brussels sprouts, carrots
- Fruits: Apples, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, peaches, pears, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupes
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds
- High-Fat Dairy: Cheese, butter, heavy cream, yogurt
- Fats and Oils: Olive oil, butter, coconut oil, butter, lard, and cod liver oil
- Tubers: Sweet potatoes, yams, potato, taro
- Legumes: Lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas
- Non-gluten grains: Quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, barley
This isn’t an exclusive list. I don’t mean to say I eat these things, and these things only. These are examples of the wide varieties of foods I have in my diet. I pay attention to how many carbs are in each serving and just try and keep the total in that 50-100 g/day range. And there really is a huge variety.
A note about net carbs: There’s a lot of discussion about what counts as a carb. Some foods the carbohydrate load is tied up in indigestible fiber so you don’t really metabolize the carbs. People argue that you should take the grams of carbs and subtract the grams of fiber to get the net carb intake, and use that value to manage your diet. I haven’t tried to figure that all out in detail, and tend to just work with the raw numbers. I’ve read other discussions about what’s really important to measure is not the carbs themselves but the glycemic index– a measure of the blood sugar the food converts into when metabolized. And still more discussion about not just the amount of blood sugar, but the rate at which it enters the blood stream. All of these minutia are important in one way or another, but I just found it too overwhelming to worry about. So I focused on the simple things with a rough guideline and wide margin for error.
A note about artificial sweeteners: Lots of people argue against artificial sweeteners altogether. They can wreck a diet plan even though on the surface they appear to be great. No carb load, make food taste good. But the negative effects I’ve witnessed tend to be more psychological. Sweets stimulate appetite. They make you think you’re hungry. So you eat more. When I cut way down on pop a couple years ago it helped a lot, because I didn’t feel the desire to snack quite so strongly or frequently.
A note about low fat foods: the argument against low fat food is that food marketed as low fat often has the fat replaced with higher-carb fillers. So, the idea is: just eat the full-fat variety in the first place and avoid the bait-and-switch.
A helpful cookbook: When Whirl learned I was giving this a try she found this cookbook, The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella. We have prepared a number of these recipes and been quite impressed with them. So that’s helped.
As far as portion size, I haven’t really changed any of that. So whatever a portion was before the diet, I eat the same after the diet. If a serving portion was one chicken breast before going on the diet, then it’s one chicken breast afterwards. No change. Portion control has been a problem for me– I just like to eat. So I keep eating. And then I eat too much. I’d set out with the best intentions, but inevitably end up breaking my own rules about how much. The low-carb approach helps to curtail that. I no longer just go into the kitchen and grab a bag of tortilla chips, for example. (A cup of crushed tortilla chips is 46g of carbs. That’s my day’s allotment right there!) I’ve read that switching the metabolism over to ketosis can act as a appetite suppressant. I have not noticed a significant change in feeling hungry. I get hungry around the same times of the day as I did before, but I also feel satiated more quickly at mealtime. I find myself less prone to snack, as well. That may be partly an effect of the diet– the appetite suppressant quality I’ve seen mentioned. It may be partly procedural– I know that I’ll have to account for the carb intake for that snack and am reluctant to do so unnecessarily. It’s working and I want to stay on track.
I should talk a bit about meals. I haven’t eaten a lot for breakfast in a really long time (25+ years). Although with this diet, I have been eating a bit more for breakfast than I did in the past. I often fix eggs– omelettes, scrambled eggs. Sometimes some bacon or sausage. Since August I’ve been getting boxes of fresh Michigan blueberries at the farmer’s market down the street, and I’ll mix a half cup of those (9g) with a serving of Greek yogurt (8g) and a spoonful of Splenda. That’ll be a tasty breakfast and right on target for the daily carb budget.
Lunch— when I don’t spend my lunch hour at the pool– is often a salad (4-16g) or leftovers from dinner the night before.
Dinners have been a huge variety of things, each well within the 15-25g of carbs remaining in the day’s budget. Some examples: Asian turkey and lamb meatballs with sesame and spice broccoli, creamy chicken and sweet potato curry, sausage-stuffed spaghetti squash, white fish en papliotte with roasted brussels sprouts, or bratwurst with sweet potato cakes. There are a lot of low-carb recipes out there and we have not found it particularly onerous to adapt some of our other favorites. Sometimes all that is necessary is to just decide not to serve the bread alongside.
A quick aside about on chickpeas (garbanzo beans): Chickpeas are one of my favorite foods. At first look, they don’t appear to have a place in a low-carb diet (one cup of chickpeas has 161 grams of carbs). I include them because they are a great example that not even all carbs are created equally. Chickpeas are an excellent example of a food source containing slowly-digested carbohydrate and resistant starch. Essentially, this means that they contain starch (carbohydrates) that is converted to glucose only slowly, and starch that is not digested in the small intestine at all. This goes to the discussion about net carbs, glycemic index and glycemic load I was talking about earlier.
Drinks: No diet discussion would be complete without talking about drinks. It’s pretty easy to blow up a low-carb diet just on drinks.
I love coffee. While plain black coffee is perfect for a low-carb diet, the milk, sugar and syrups that are often added can be disastrous. For example a Starbucks grande latte has about 18-23g of carbs in it, depending on what kind of milk you include. Milk tends to have some of carbs in it (12 g/cup), and that value doesn’t vary much between whole, 2%, or skim. Perhaps counter-intuitively, cream has about half the amount of carbs that milk has by volume. Compare one cup 2% milk (11.7g) with one cup heavy cream (6.6g) and consider using cream instead of milk in your coffee.
Beer is another favorite drink. Beer is not particularly carb-friendly. A typical bottle of beer is between 10-13g. Check realbeer.com for a thorough index of the nutritional information for your favorite brew.
Soda pop is another potential land mine. Regular pop is sweetened with sugar. A regular can of pop has 35g of carbs– all sugar. Diet pop eliminates the carbs with sugar substitutes, so that’s a good thing. Be mindful about sugar substitutes as a potential appetite stimulant. The standby drinks are, unsurprisingly, water and tea (and black coffee). I’ve been a huge fan of carbonated mineral water for decades. It satisfies the craving for carbonation like pop does, and avoids the whole sugar and sugar substitute issue entirely.
And finally a few words about exercise. In 2007, I started exercising regularly for the first time in over ten years. I started out simply, going to the gym three times a week for cardio workouts. That expanded to four and five times a week. In late 2011 I rediscovered my love of swimming. Since then I’ve converted my exercise routine almost entirely to swimming five times a week for about 40 minutes each day and with one longer workout of an hour or more, once a week. I swim 2000 yards on the short days and between 2600-3000 yards on the long days. I use it as a break during an otherwise sedentary workday. It’s a way to disconnect, work out aggressions or frustrations. It gives me an uninterruptible block of time to think through plans or problems. It’s part of my daily routine and I feel it sorely when I miss it. I attribute much of the success of my diet to having this complementary exercise regimen already in place. Eat less; move more.
I’ve gone on for a while now and do want to come back to my original point. I like the low-carb approach because– despite all that I’ve said– this wasn’t such a difficult switch for me to make. In the Times article Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, is quoted as saying, “It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories.”
That’s the crux of it, right there. It’s not a no carb diet; it’s not a starvation diet. It’s about paying attention– just a little bit– to the type of foods you’re consuming. I know arguing from a position supported by a sample size of one is a dangerous thing to do. I don’t want this to be interpreted as an argument. Friends and family asked for some details of what I have been doing and I’ve simply taken some time to write down my personal approach and train of thought. I’m publishing it for two reasons, to help me remember what I did and why and because I hope my story helps others facing similar challenges.