Troubleshooting a Low Carb Diet

November 17th, 2013 | Posted by Alison Spath in Healthy Habits

The books and websites I’ve rambled on about lately, (see reading list at the end of this post) from Paleo to cholesterol to brain health, have all been pointing to the same general idea –> following a low carbohydrate diet.

I’m just “a random lady on the internet” (i.e., not a doctor or health professional) so please remember this post is not intended to be used as medical advice.  But if you were my friend and wanted to know more about why I’m loving a low carb diet, this post is full of the stuff I would tell you!

For me, following a low carb diet has been the natural progression in my adventures in nutrition, eating well and feeling good.  Cutting out junk and processed foods can go a long way when it comes to improving the way you feel and look, but what if you’ve still got some complaints – like struggling with your weight or managing cravings?  (Well, those were my complaints anyway.)  A low carb diet has helped me tweak my diet even further to finally get a handle on a few issues that I’ve written about before, namely sugar cravings, insatiable hunger and weight maintenance.

I first began to dabble with a low carb diet a few years ago, after reading The Primal Blueprint and Mark’s Daily Apple, but it wasn’t easy to go “Primal” and eliminate grains, legumes and dairy from my diet as a vegetarian.  I reduced my carb intake a little, but not significantly or consistently.  Then I read Deep Nutrition and got a new understanding of the many health benefits that come with a low carb diet (as well as understanding the importance of eating the right kinds of meat), so I decided to try again.  But every time I reduced my carb intake, I would end up “feeling weird” – sort of like I was in a brain fog, or sometimes light headed and oddly weak.  I would think “this is not right!” and would eventually add more carbs back into my diet to feel normal again, believing that a low carb diet simply wasn’t for me.

Eating more carbohydrates would allow me to feel better, but I would be right back to struggling with carb cravings, insatiable hunger and weight gain if I wasn’t extremely mindful of my calorie intake.  In the months that followed I cut back on my cardio, I went Paleo for a while, but still couldn’t get the hang of low carb living or nail down a diet that was effortless and easy when it came to managing cravings, hunger and maintaining my weight.

Then came Cholesterol Clarity and unexpectedly found information that reaffirmed a low carb diet WAS the answer I was looking for, it was just the matter of finding some missing pieces.  I moved on to New Atkins for a New You by Dr. Eric Westman (the co-author of Cholesterol Clarity) and it ended up being the most helpful book I’ve read about making a low carb diet work.  It helped me figure out exactly where I’d been going wrong (or really, just some simple things I needed to do) and I was finally able to beat the low carb flu once and for all and get on with my life.

Why I’m Loving It

I have a list of things I’ve been looking for when it comes to my idea of The Perfect Diet.  Not “diet” as in “I’m on a diet”, but “diet” as in “This is how I eat” – a way of eating that feels normal, sustainable and is full of foods I love and enjoy.

1.  I want to maintain my healthy weight with no perceived effort.

2.  I want to eat when I’m hungry.

3.  I want to eat until I’m full and satisfied.

(I love to eat and I do not have a small appetite!)

4.  I want to feel satisfied between meals and snacks.

5.  I want feel in control around sugar or dessert without having to use willpower.

(and to avoid suffering from the  “What the Hell” effect if I do decide to eat something higher in sugar or carbs.)

6.  I want to feel good and have enough energy to maintain an active lifestyle.

7.  I don’t want to feel deprived.

A low carb, high fat diet has helped me get pretty dang close to achieving everything on my list, I love how satisfied I feel eating this way.  I no longer struggle with cravings or limbic hunger.  I love how easy Intermittent Fasting is when you’re regularly eating low carb and are better adapted at burning fat for fuel (especially because I love all the health benefits that come with IF!) and I love that I don’t feel deprived in the same way I did before I was successful at eating low carb, when I felt like I had put a lot of effort into keeping my calories in check in order to maintain my weight.

It’s also worth mentioning that Zak’s 40 Day Paleo Challenge just ended, he too is enjoying the low carb approach to eating and plans to continue eating a Paleo-esque diet.  He lost 7 lbs during his challenge and is now back to 170 lbs.  (He’d gotten a little lax with sugar before his Paleo challenge began in early October.)

With that, here’s the meat and potatoes sauteed kale of how I finally got the bugs worked out of a Low Carb, High Fat diet.

Add More Sodium

This made all the difference for me and is why it’s first on my list.   The weird symptoms I’d been having weren’t because a low carb diet is unhealthy, but because it’s naturally diuretic.  When you lose water, it takes salt and potassium along with it and this can throw off your electrolyte balance, which can leave you feeling a little loopy.  (That’s a scientific term, FYI.)  A daily glass of water with a pinch of salt (1/2 tsp) and a squeeze of lime juice did the trick for me, bone broth can help too.

I’ll note that I rarely have to do this anymore, I feel fine without it – but for a while I was drinking water with a pinch of salt every day.  (I wonder if it’s because I’ve adapted to consuming fewer carbs?)  If I do notice low carb flu symptoms, a little extra salt does the trick.

Get Enough Sleep and Manage Stress

If you’re short on sleep, it is not unusual to feel hungrier than normal.  (Life with a toddler has been known to disrupt my sleep!)  Sleep quality can definitely effect hunger levels and cravings for high carb, fast energy foods – so getting enough sleep definitely helps.  I have to remind myself not to feel like a low-carb failure on days where I’m behind on sleep.  Know that it’s normal to experience more carb cravings if you haven’t gotten enough sleep, and to that getting enough sleep is crucial to success (not to mention good health!)  You’ll likely find that it’s much easier to eat low carb when you’re well rested.

I also notice more sugar cravings when I’m feeling stressed, so stress management is important too.  (This deserves it’s own post, but I manage stress with yoga, walks, staying present, saying “no” to doing too much and trying not to over-commit myself.)

Add More Fat

Healthy dietary fats help with satiety, and in conjunction with a low carbohydrate intake can lead to fat loss or easy weight maintenance.  I use to think “fill up on vegetables!”, but you can turn your hands orange waiting to feel full.  I’ve now swapped out the extra vegetables I use to eat for a little extra fat (real butter, avocado, heavy cream, nuts, olives, coconut oil) and I feel more satisfied overall.  Eat your veggies, but eat your fat too!  Adding more healthy fats to your meals can leave you feeling full and content for a long stretches of time (and potentially consuming fewer calories in the long run.)

Cut Back on Your Cardio

If you love to run or do a lot of moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise, you are going to need/crave carbohydrates to replace the muscle glycogen used during your workouts.

I use to think that I needed to run or do a lot of cardiovascular exercise in order to be healthy, but now I understand that’s not the case.  I’m currently enjoying my easiest, most laid back approach to exercise ever!  I no longer live in fear that if I don’t run or if I miss a work out I’m going to gain weight.  I like to be active, but these days my fitness routine consists mostly of walking and yoga, something I never thought I’d be able to do and still be able to button my pants!  I still get out for an easy run once a week or so, and I’ll throw a high intensity workout into the mix when time and energy allows.  And then some days I simply don’t have time for anything but walking around my house!  I no longer deal with fear or guilt from missing a work out.

How Low is “Low”?

We’re all different with different body compositions, different goals and different activity levels.  I don’t regularly count carbs, but I’d guesstimate that my carb intake is well under 100 grams a day… you might be able to get away with more carbs than that, or you might need to go lower.  Some self experimentation should allow you to figure out your ideal carbohydrate intake to achieve your personal goals, whether it’s weight loss, managing cravings and hunger or getting enough carbohydrates to support intense activity levels.

What a High Fat, Low Carb Diet Looks Like

I get up most days between 5 and 6 AM start my day with a couple cups of coffee with real cream.  I eat breakfast when I feel hungry – most days that’s around 9 or 10, some days it’s as late as noon or 1, in which case I usually only need a snack between my first meal of the day and dinner.

Breakfast and Lunch

My standard breakfast is eggs with a side of vegetables and a little meat or leftovers from dinner the night before.

Other breakfast possibilities include:

Sardine Salad

Shrimp Cervice

Chopped Greek Salad

My favorite breakfast salad of all time (egg, bacon, avocado!)

More grain free breakfast ideas can be found examples here.

Dinner

I’m typically preparing some sort of meat with one or two vegetables on the side (always with a nice pat of with butter!)  I’ve blogged a bunch of our more recent favorites:

Turkey Bolognese over Spaghetti Squash

Coconut Lime Baked Cod

Indian Spice Rubbed Pork Chops

Caveman Fajitas

I do still eat starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squash, but I keep my servings of the higher carb root vegetables relatively small, mostly to be sure I don’t trigger sugar or carb cravings.

Snacks

Some of my more recent snacks include:

Full fat yogurt with sliced almonds and unsweetened shredded coconut, maybe some low sugar fruit like berries.  (I aim to keep fruit to 0 – 1 servings a day.)

A handful of macadamia nuts.

Sliced ham or turkey with some green olives, avocado or cheese with carrots, cucumber and jicama.

Almond butter on a couple squares of super dark chocolate (a minimum of 70% cocoa content).

Celery and cream cheese, or canned salmon with avocado and a little dijon mustard.

Never Say Never

Dessert, grains, legumes, wine, fruit, whatever – none of it is off limits forever, but these kinds of foods are definitely the exception and I feel best when I keep them out of my diet the majority of the time.  While I don’t say “I eat Paleo!”, I do find the Paleo websites, books and podcasts helpful.  They are great place to find new meal ideas, and I do find that many of the Paleo/Primal principles are in line with my overall approach to health and wellness.

One More Thing

Question everything!  Don’t take my word on any of this.  I’ve done a lot of reading and research, but there is an endless stream of varying opinions out there and there will of course be some of your own tweaks you’ll need to make based on your body and your lifestyle.  If you’re looking to make some changes with your diet though or are struggling with your weight, eating a low carbohydrate diet does have the potential to make a difference and I hope this information might be helpful as you work to figure out what is best for you.

Recommended Reading

The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan

The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf

The Paleo Coach by Jason Seib

Cholesterol Clarity by Jimmy Moore

New Atkins for a New You by Dr. Eric Westman

Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter

If you follow a low carb lifestyle, do you have any favorite resources to recommend?  Tell us about them in the comments below!


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4 Responses

  • I’ll have to check out New Atkins for a New You!

    I am not as low carb as you as I still eat a couple pieces of fruit every day, but adding good fats really helped me too. The salt info is really interesting!

    Like you, I currently mainly walk and do yoga. I also would have never thought that I could “get away” with working out so little…

    I’m currently working on getting all of us to eat fewer carbs, and some days are better than others. The kid now eats a lot of veggies (he goes through picky phases) and good fats but also loves carbs. I’m thinking about experiencing with some nut flours and bake some low carb breads and crackers. The kid currently eats sprouted bread, and I feel okay about it, but I would love for him to get away from wheat and gluten…

  • Lisa says:

    This is pretty much a mirror of how I eat (well, not right at the moment due to the pregnancy thing)… high fat low carb makes me feel and look best. I didn’t know about the sodium thing though–that’s really interesting! Sometimes I really don’t even eat a lot of veggies–if I’m eating beef liver (which sounds horrible right now). For the past year or so, my two mottos about working out have been (1) work out smarter not harder (walking and yoga only) and (2) abs are made in the kitchen. The first one definitely doesn’t work without finding the right balance for the second one!
    Thanks for your perspective on this–I am really looking forward to getting back to this way of eating.

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