I'm often asked how to start a low carb diet and whether or not “low carb” is safe. A few days ago, I posted about the 10 Hidden Dangers of a Low Carbohydrate Diet. If you recall from that article, (despite the title) I mentioned that I am indeed a fan of low carbohydrate diets.
As long as it's done the right way.
I even referenced how physically active individuals may be able to actually benefit from strategic low carbohydrate intake in my article 4 Reasons To Think Twice About Eating Carbohydrates Before A Workout or (if you’re a Rock Star Triathlete Academy member) the article 5 Ways to Get A Big Carbohydrate Restricting Performance Advantage.
I summed it up this way:
In a nutshell, pun intended, as you begin to increase carbohydrate consumption above the levels that you need for survival or periods of intense physical activity, you lose your ability to rely on fat burning mechanisms, and you experience the damaging effects of chronically elevated blood sugars, including neuropathy (nerve damage), nephropathy (kidney damage), retinopathy (eye damage), increased cardiovascular disease risk, potential for cancer progression (tumor cells feed on sugar) and bacterial or fungal infection.
So if the dangers of a low carb diet that I talked about didn't deter you, and you're bent on banning bread, take heart. There is a way to do a low carbohydrate diet the right way. Here are 10 tips that will teach you how to start a low carbohydrate diet while avoiding common mistakes.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 1: Time Carbohydrates Wisely.
This one is a biggie, so we'll start with it. One of the main reasons for eating a low carbohydrate diet is because your blood sugar levels stay far more stabilized. But there is a time that you can consume carbohydrates without causing your blood sugar levels to go on a roller coaster ride—and that time is immediately before, during, or after exercise.
So if you are on a low carbohydrate diet, I highly recommend carbohydrate intake for exercise sessions that are 1) intense; 2) involve weight training; 3) longer than 2 hours in duration.
Although many folks use this as an excuse to eat more carbs than they should there is certainly truth to the fact that “fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate”—meaning if you are constantly carb depleted due to zero calories of glucose intake, you can shut down your body's natural fat-burning capabilities. So if you're planning on exercising, try get at least 500-600 calories of carbohydrate per day, and eat them before, during or after your exercise session if you want them to not affect your blood sugars levels in a potentially damaging way.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 2: Take Into Consideration Your Body Fat Levels.
If you're fat, you're going to have more fat to burn. Look down at your waistline. Do you have layers of fat that you can grab? A beer belly? Muffin-tops? All of that is fat that can be mobilized if you are on a low carbohydrate diet.
But if your body fat is under 7-8% as a male, or in the low teens as a female, then it is highly likely that you're going to struggle with a consistently low carbohydrate intake—specifically during exercise sessions.
So if I have a client who is 30% body fat, I have no issues with that client staring at the ceiling awake at night craving carbohydrates as their body mobilizes fat tissue for energy, and I generally continue to advise them to watch their carb intake. But if that person is 6% body fat, it is far more likely that they're going to need that extra fat for insulation or essential fat stores, in which case it might be a good idea to go slam a bowl of rice.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 3: Don't Eat Processed Crap.
I mentioned this in my last article that typical “low carbohydrate” meal replacement bars and shakes, ice creams or ice cream sandwiches, and other low carb or sugar-free snacks often contain potentially unhealthy ingredients like maltitol, and are chock full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients. If your low carbohydrate diet involves boxed, wrapped and packaged food, it probably falls into this category.
Get this through your head: whether a food is low carbohydrate or not, if it is something you see advertised on TV, magazines, or newspapers you probably shouldn't eat it. If it's something you can easily recognize and identify where it grew and how it got to your plate, it probably is OK to eat.
This means that avocados are cool. Guacamole from your grocery store that has (and this is a popular brand):
Skim Milk, Soybean Oil, Tomatoes, Water, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Coconut Oil, Safflower and/or Corn Oil), Eggs, Distilled Vinegar, Avocado Pulp, Onions, Salt, Nonfat Dry Milk, Egg Yolks, Lactic Acid, Sugar, Whey, Sodium Caseinate, Mono and Diglycerides, Gelatin, Soy Protein Isolate, Xanthan Gum, Corn Starch, Guar Gum, Mustard Flour, Black Pepper, Red Chili Pepper, Potassium Sorbate and Sodium Benzoate (Added to Retard Spoilage), Coriander, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Cellulose Gel, Cellulose Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Disodium Phosphate, Cilantro, Gum Arabic, Extractives of Garlic and Black Pepper, Paprika Oil, Oregano, Thyme, Bay Leaf, Calcium Chloride, Citric Acid, Dextrose, Artificial Color (FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6).
…is not cool. This is just one example, but I think it gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm getting at. Eat real food, not processed crap.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 4: Inject Carbohydrate Loading Days.
This is another biggie. Long-term carbohydrate deprivation leads to a complete depletion of your body's storage glycogen levels, depression of your immune system, decrease in metabolic function, and a host of other issues that you may be able to put up with if you're content to lie around on the couch, but that you're guaranteed to get completely destroyed by if you're planning on regular physical activity or competition like Crossfit, triathlon or marathon.
Fortunately, there's an easy fix, and this is a big part of my new book “Low Carbohydrate Diet For Triathletes”: simply inject strategic carbohydrate re-feeding days into your exercise routine, either the day before your biggest workout day of the week or the day of your biggest workout of your week. On this day, you double or triple your normal carbohydrate intake, and eat at or slightly above your total calorie needs.
The disadvantage of doing this the day before your biggest workout of the week is that you're often resting on that day, and being sedentary while eating a ton of carbohydrates is not that great for your blood sugar levels. The disadvantage of doing it the day of your biggest workout of the week is that sometimes you're too busy exercising to eat much, but this is only really an issue for someone like an Ironman triathlete.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 5: Use Supplements Wisely.
When you begin a low carbohydrate diet, you're guaranteed to experience intense carbohydrate cravings. There are supplements that can help curb cravings, including chromium and vanadium (such as in Thermofactor), gymnema sylvestre (but you gotta take about 4000+ mg per day of it, which means you'd really want a physician's brand version), L-tryptophan or amino acids (these curb appetite with trace amounts of calories, no carbs, and will help if the issue is a serotonin deficiency) and even foods like those I demonstrate in my video: 5 Ways To Suppress Your Appetite Without Taking Pills or Capsules.
The best supplement I've found to blunt the insulin-raising effects (insulin takes you out of fat-burning mode) of eating carbohydrates, regulate my blood sugar, and allow me to quickly return to my ideal blood glucose levels is Kion Lean, which contains Glycostat®, a concentrated extract of wild bitter melon (shown to mimic insulin activity and may promote insulin sensitivity, which allows your cells to use blood glucose more effectively) and InnoSlim®, a blend of highly purified and fractionated Panax notoginseng and Astragalus membranaceus (shown to decrease glucose absorption and circulating blood glucose).
For exercise sessions, I actually recently tried out wasp larvae extract (VESPA), which is supposedly able to increase your ability to utilize free fatty acids as a fuel during exercise. I took two packets of it and was able to go about 4 hours on 1 gel. The disadvantage was that I was never able to go “above threshold”, or into my carbohydrate burning heart rate zone, so I'm not convinced I'd use it in a race, but it could certainly come in handy if you're trying to get by on a low carbohydrate diet and also do long exercise sessions.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 6: Be In It For The Long Haul.
When you first start a low carbohydrate diet, your weight will plummet as your body sheds storage glycogen and all the water that the storage carbohydrate sucks up like a sponge. So if your goal is weight loss, life is good for the first couple weeks as you shed anywhere from 3-20 pounds, depending on your starting weight.
And then the weight loss stops. In most cases, this is the point where people throw up their hands in despair, convinced that the plan isn't working, quit the low carbohydrate diet, and go in search of a pastry shop.
But if you stick with a low carbohydrate diet, the weight loss will gradually and consistently continue, especially if you include strategically implemented days where you allow your body's storage carbohydrate levels to be re-filled.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 7: Be Ready For Discomfort
During the first 7-14 days that you go low carb, you're going to find that your energy levels plummet, you get grumpy, you feel lethargic, and your body simply does not move or perform the way you'd like it to. This is because you are burning fatty acids (ketones) as a fuel.
So a strict low carbohydrate diet can be uncomfortable, and you need to be mentally prepared for that. Implementing the carbohydrate craving tips I gave earlier will help, but ultimately, you will find that you feel the same way as a marathoner does when they “bonk,” which is what happens during a run when your body runs out of storage carbohydrate and needs to begin burning fat as a fuel. This is also called “hitting the wall.”
If the discomfort does not subside, then I recommend you A) identify nutritional deficiencies and get tested for fatty acids and also for amino acids, and B) also make sure you're incorporating carbohydrate re-feed days if you're a physically active person.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 8: Stay Hydrated.
Not only will adequate water help to reduce the carbohydrate cravings you may experience early in the diet, but A) water is also essential for beta-oxidation, which is how your body burns fat as a fuel and B) you're going to lose a significant amount of storage water as your body sheds carbohydrate stores, so you'll need more from a dietary source.
I personally drink and recommend ample amounts of soda water, unsweetened Kombucha, bone broth, water with effervescent electrolytes dissolved in it, water with delta-E, and just plain water. What I don't drink is anything with added artificial sweeteners or sugars. So check your nutrition labels if you're drinking fluid from packages or bottles, but stay hydrated when you're on a diet like this.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 9: Get Your Fiber.
When you switch to a low carbohydrate diet, the drop in fruit, vegetables, legume, and grain consumption can significantly decrease fiber intake and result in inadequate phytonutrient, antioxidant, vitamin C and potassium intake. There is absolutely no reason that you can't eat liberal amounts of dark leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables on a low-carbohydrate diet. Just be careful with your total daily intake and timing of starchy vegetables or tubers, such as beets, sweet potatoes or taro.
How To Start A Low Carb Diet, Tip 10: Don't Judge.
This may seem a bit preachy, but I feel compelled to point out the fact that there are a multitude of successful vegan or vegetarian endurance athletes, including ultra-runner Scott Jureky, pro triathlete and ultra-runner Brendan Brazier, pro triathlete Hilary Biscay, US Master’s Running Champion Tim Van Orden, and top Ultraman finisher Rich Roll.
Since most vegan and vegetarian diets are definitely not low in carbohydrates, this demonstrates that you can succeed without eating a low carbohydrate diet. However, the low carbohydrate or ketogenic approach can be especially successful for fat loss, for learning to burn fats more efficiently and even for reducing the risk of, or managing, chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
In the last podcast, I also mentioned that I have a new video about low carbohydrate diets and my new book: “Low Carbohydrate Diet For Triathletes”. Check out the video, and leave any comments, questions or feedback below!
Also published on Medium.