Quick-Start Primer for a Low-Carb Diet

20131214-075903.jpgIf you’re thinking about trying a low-carb for weight-loss, here’s a post that will get you started right now. I’ve been eating primarily low-carb (with targeted exceptions for intense running training periods) for more than a year this time around, and find myself at the leanest I’ve ever been, even while running fewer miles a week than in years past. I feel great, rarely feel hungry and don’t have the crazy swings in blood sugar I used to. Observing this, a few friends have asked how they can get started with the diet. What follows is the message I wrote them to get them started.

A first impression of extreme complexity can put anybody off starting a diet – or at least cause somebody to put it off until tomorrow, or the next time they go shopping, or whatever. So I’m going to start with the absolute simplest plan to remember.

Don’t eat sugar or grains.

Vinnie Tortorich, the “Angriest Trainer”, who wrote the book Fitness Confidential, coined no-sugar-no-grains (#NSNG) slogan. His podcast is pretty funny, a bit meandering, somewhat offensive, and occasionally has fitness advice. But he’s an entertaining standard bearer for a high fat low carb lifestyle, and his legions of fans have an active FB group.

So, no sugar, no grains. It’s not quite that simple, but it doesn’t have to be much more complicated either. You basically want to eat a lot of healthy fat – and this includes saturated fats, by the way, from animal fats, natural oils like olive oil and coconut oil, and some dairy including heavy cream and hard cheeses – and cut out most carbohydrate.

You still eat some carbohydrate – it just comes from leafy green vegetable, cruciferous vegetables, summer squash, zucchini, nuts, dairy, and a limited amount of fruit, primarily berries and citrus like lemon or grapefruit, and tomatoes and avocados. Big yes to avocados. Emphasis on fats. At least when you are getting started and looking for weight loss, stay away from higher carb veggies like legumes.

One of the things that will happen if you limit your carbohydrate enough is that you will go into ketosis (explainer by Peter Attia, and part 2, ketosis and exercise). This basically means you are burning fat, not sugar for energy, including the energy that fuels your brain. When you first go into ketosis, you might feel off for a few days, or you might feel like hell for a few days. Once you’re past that, you’ll feel great most of the time, better than when you had carbs in your diet. No energy spikes and dips, no late afternoon exhaustion, no brain fog. Steady energy all day long. Whether or not you want to eat low-carb enough to stay in ketosis, especially if you are an athlete or have other medical concerns, is something you’ll want to decide based on your own reading of the research. But I think if you want to jump start weight loss, this helps.

This may not hold true for everyone, but according to Prof. Tim Noakes, it’s estimated that about 70% of the population is carbohydrate sensitive. I sure am. If you are, then you will lose weight and feel better with a low-carb lifestyle.

Another critical piece, I think, is not to eat a lot of fake food. If you can find something somewhere that claims to be low-carb bread, don’t buy. Bread has carbs. If this doesn’t, it’s some weird non-food thing that will just leave you wishing you’d eaten real bread. Don’t eat diet bars.

If you just go cold turkey on all the sugar and grain you’ll be much better off than if you try and find faux versions.

You’re hungry? Eat a big field green salad, with steak and bacon and avocados and olive oil and fresh herbs. Put some sunflower seeds on it. Chase it down with a wedge of aged cheddar and some almonds, a cup of high-end coffee with heavy cream in it.

And a question that often comes up – what about drinks? Adult beverages? Scotch and other distilled liquors? Yes. Wine? Few carbs, so yes, also. You can drink these, but if weight loss is a major goal, note that alcohol will slow it down, since you burn off the alcohol before you resume burning fat.

There are a ton of high-fat low-carb resources out there, but here are some I’ve turned to:

1. Atkins. Up-and-down reputation in the popular press, but a totally solid and effective plan and the easiest to download the food list and follow. You count carbs, not calories, but if you’re pretty strict about the food choices, you don’t even really need to count carbs. I never do. Just don’t eat all the “meal bars” and whatever fake food they’re selling these days. This will not help you happily change your lifestyle. In fact, you don’t really need any of their stuff. Maybe the book, but you’d do fine without that too.

Start with their Phase I food list and eat the stuff on it, and nothing else:
http://www.atkins.com/program/phase-1/what-you-can-eat-in-this-phase.aspx

After a few weeks, add in some phase 2 foods.
http://www.atkins.com/Program/Phase-2.aspx

Basically, from here on out, you add good, low glycemic carbs a bit at a time until you hit a level spot. You’ve lost as much weight as you want to lose, you feel good. Then eat like that from here on out. Up your carbs for intense exercise or training periods. Have a treat now and again.

2. Grab The Art and Science of Low Carb Living by Phinney and Volek.

3. For some more science, read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.  This is a terrific summary, by a serious science journalist, of why some calories get stored as fat and some don’t. At the heart of it is insulin, and the spikes in blood sugar that come from eating high glycemic foods.

4. Maybe watch a couple of movies:

Okay, I’ve got more to say on this, as you’re probably surmising. But I gotta go.

Start with breakfast tomorrow and don’t look back.

Three egg omelet cooked in lots of real butter. (Only real butter, never margarine, never cooking spray). Add cheddar cheese. Spinach if you have it. On the side, sausage, or three strips of bacon. Or a piece of steak if you have some leftover. Or ham. (No honey glazed.) You get the picture. And then, for me and I am a little weird about this, I’ve gotta have a salad. Just a little one on the plate with the eggs. Mixed greens. Olive oil, splash of red wine vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. I have my coffee black, but if you like cream, use heavy cream.