Using Low-Carb Diets to Un-Suck your Habits
I know, I know. The title seems harsh. Originally it was something much nicer but I realized in this case, honesty was more important.
The idea for this actually came from an experiment I was running on myself. During the past couple of weeks I was reminded of how powerful some basic tenets of good nutrition are but WHY many people just can’t seem to make them “stick”.
Sometimes as a coach you need to be reminded of how important it is for clients to nail the basics and that once you do it opens up a whole world of options. But many people NEVER hit the basics and try out carb cycling, lots of supplements, intermittent fasting, too much exercise, you name it! Despite all of this, they never see the results they want and if they see some, it typically doesn’t last.
Well, to me, that just sucks. It sucks because you deserve to like the way you look while also being strong, athletic, jacked and tan or whatever it is you want. Some of us aren’t built for a six pack or a 600lb squat – and the work we may need to get there might be so extreme that it isn’t worth it for your lifestyle.
There is better though, and for most people I speak to, being able to do or be better than they currently are is all they need. Extremists and perfectionists forget that many clients just want lower cholesterol, better mobility or to come down a couple pant sizes.
Even for these totally achievable and realistic goals, they will not happen unless the basics are covered. The flat out truth is that most people suck at nutrition. From bad habits we create or inherit from our parents to false advertising and over-refined food it’s become way too easy to eat poorly.
And not too long ago, I was kind of sucking at eating too.
MY PERSONAL STORY
I’ve been as low as under 50g of carbohydrates a day to as a high as 575g per day (that’s almost 13 cups of rice). My fat intake has been as low as 50g per day to around 200g. I’ve done long daily fasts for months on end to eating 8-9 times per day.
From all this I can tell you one thing: Your body does NOT WANT TO DIE. It is amazingly adaptive and will do its utmost to keep you functioning. It will prioritize functions and processes based on what you do or do not provide it. We have fat stores solely because they are a necessary tissue for putting excess calories somewhere. Since the blood needs to be kept relatively stable in terms of sugar and fat and muscle cells can only absorb and use so much, we need to have sites where we put extra “stuff”.
When you don’t eat, or eat very little, those same fat stores give up stored energy so you can maintain function.
But the body is not all about simply adding and subtracting numbers. The brain and blood prefer glucose. Actually, everything PREFERS glucose but all of your tissues besides the brain and blood can use fat (fatty acids and triglycerides) and proteins (amino acids) for fuel.
From the wide range of things I have tried, I have noticed the commonality that there is a time and place for everything. So when you are lean, work on your feet all day, exercise 5-6 days per week and have pretty good nutrition habits, you can eat a LOT of carbs. When you don’t exercise and have a lot of excess bodyfat and are largely sedentary, you don’t need many carbs at all. Like……you can smell bread and feel your waist expanding!
WHAT’S A VEGGIE? A.K.A I FORGOT THEY WERE IMPORTANT
During my most active periods when carbohydrates were very high, my number one goal was eating enough to maintain my weight and hit my daily carb goal. Over time, this mentality led me to eating lots of rice and potatoes (totally fine) and supplementing those carbs with cereal and cookies to reach my carb goal (not fine). By the way, did you know freezing a cookie will not stop you from eating it? I found that out within like 1 day of trying to curb my cookie intake. Amazingly, I stay quite lean eating this way. It’s just another testament to the body being adaptive and resilient.
But I didn’t always feel that good and was often bloated or had digestive stress. My wife (then girlfriend) said “you know, for a trainer I thought your fridge would be full of fresh fruits and veggies but it’s just rice and meat”. I was kind of offended but realized it was the truth.
There are certainly times where overall energy balance takes precedence. I leaned more on simple carbs at this time because I simply could not eat 500+ carbs per day from oatmeal and sweet potatoes. But this meant I was getting very little fiber, vitamins and minerals not to mention healthy bacteria.
I realized that I simply had to replace some carbohydrate calories with fat calories. This brought down my overall volume of food which allowed me to introduce more veggie without feeling stuffed every waking moment.
But in the process of focusing on just ONE thing, like my total calories, I abandoned other foods that have positive health benefits. How many of us do that in the name of convenience, calories, bad habits or cost?
WHY I REVISITED A LOW-CARB APPROACH
Recently, my wife wanted to embark on a very low-carb diet, more-so a ketogenic diet. Switching from a relatively balanced approach of carbs, fat and protein to a moderate protein, high fat and very low carb diet takes effort and planning. Because it can be such a paradigm shift, I decided it would be easier for her if we both did it. I had used ketogenic diets in the past, especially when I was at UCONN and was familiar with using them and some of their benefits.
My goals did not entail leaning out so it was a huge shift in macronutrient ratios to still stay in a slight caloric surplus.
My reasoning was I wanted to see what happens when someone keeps calories relatively constant but switches their macronutrient ratios. Could I keep training the same way? Would I lean out even with calories about the same? Can you get stronger or gain muscle on a very low carb diet?
What I learned was actually something quite different and unexpected.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF DIETARY APPROACHES
Before we go any further, check out these typical ratios for different diet types:
Macronutrient Splits for various goals
High Carb diet: 55% carbohydrates, 25% protein and 20% fat
Moderate Carb diet: 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat
Low Carb diet: 25% carbohydrates, 35% protein and 40% fat
Ketogenic diet: 10% (about 50g or less daily), 20-30% protein and 60-70% fat
On average, most of the world does pretty well with carbohydrates between 30-40%. But we have to consider that this is in metabolically healthy people and that we are assuming the carbohydrates are more from natural sources and less refined to consider it a healthy amount.
HOW DOES THIS TIE-IN WITH LOW CARB DIETS?
Switching to a short-term ketogenic diet reiterated this all over again to me. On this diet, my calories were about 2,800 per day with:
Carbs: 30g net carbs or less per day (net carbs is total carbs minus fiber)
Protein: 1g per pound of lean mass, about 165-170g per day
Fat: 180-200g per day
I had been on a more moderate approach previous to this with fat intake about half that, protein closer to 200g per day and carbs around 300g.
So I am looking at these numbers thinking “I’m a high carb guy, how the heck am I going to only eat 30g of carbs per day?!” On top of that, I like eating more protein so it felt strange to keep my portions smaller there as well. I was also concerned that all the fat would wreak intestinal havoc.
Normally I would eat more total calories but the fat was SO satiating that it was very hard to eat more. I quickly became so satisfied with some protein, tons of low-carb veggies and a solid portion of healthy fats at every meal and almost never felt hungry.
Here’s the process I went through:
Step 1: Load up the veggies and pour on the fat
The Results: Eating any vegetable with abandon actually had me exceed my carb total for the day. So I knew starchier veggies like butternut squash and parsnips were out. Plus, simply pouring oil over a meal left me feeling sort of sick and foggy headed
Step 2: Switch to low carb veggies
The Results: Focusing mostly on spinach, cabbage, avocado (which is mostly fiber and yeah, I know it’s a fruit) some green beans, broccoli and brussels sprouts kept my carbs very low and fiber high. Not only that but cabbage used to always make me gassy and with carbs much lower I could eat it 2-3 times per day with ZERO issues. Interesting
Step 3: Work in a variety of fats like avocado, tahini, macadamia nuts and coconut
The Results: I did not feel sick or lethargic after meals anymore. Reducing total oil and using other fat sources not only made me feel better but improved my meals. Avocado is super high fiber and goes with so many things. Tahini is amazing mixed into sautéed cabbage and macadamia nuts make a great low carb snack
Step 4: Increase calories
The Results: As I mentioned, the fat was so satiating that I had trouble eating even maintenance calories. With carbs super low and protein moderate, it was actually hard to overeat! So I switched to less-lean cuts of meat like chicken thighs, ground beef, salmon and tuna in oil. This helped keep the low-carb meals tasty, filling and added some calories also meaning I could really limit added oils.
Step 5: Manipulate fiber to carb ratio
The Results: I mentioned I went off 30g of NET CARBS per day. So you subtract all fiber from your total carbs. This means if you eat 65g of carbs but 35g of fiber, you still hit your goal. Not only did this reinforce me eating way more veggies but also reinforced eating veggies high in nutrients but low in calories. It helped to broaden my normal vegetable intake and center each meal around them.
My big take away
Step 5 was what really gave me some insight. When you use a program to help guide people to the right decisions, it teaches them while reinforcing good habits. We all remember the Atkins gurus eating nothing but meat and cheese which I am sure caused some bad habits and ruined toilets across the nation (let’s be honest!).
When a big “reward” is being able to eat more carbs if fiber is higher, it automatically puts you in a positive decision making mode and helps you become more creative in making something work for you. I found that heaps of oil left me feeling terrible but if I limited certain veggies I could eat more nuts and fatty meat which made me feel much better and increased the palatability of meals.
Many people still fear fat. But fat is typically only problematic when carbs are also high. So a low carb diet not only MAKES people rely more on fat but also helps them create a more positive relationship with it. In addition, you’ll find that fat is so satiating that keeping calories lower is actually quite easy.
WHAT CHANGED FOR ME
I ran the ketogenic approach for about 10 days. Not very long at all but it was enough time for all of the above epiphanies to occur. I still stay low carb, about 100g a day or less for another 5-7 days slowly dropping some dietary fat and adding in some more starchy veggies like squash and carrots. Currently I am working my fat down and carbs up in an attempt to get overall carbohydrates much higher while not dropping my excellent vegetable and fiber intake.
Previously I alluded to a very high carbohydrate intake with no veggies. That was about two years ago. Between then and now I average 3 cups of veggies or so per day but I got stuck in the routine of the same green beans and broccoli.
You stick with what you know, especially what feel safe.
But keeping my carbohydrates lower forced me to look outside the box for other food choices without someone telling me I HAD to or creating some rule. Instead it was just a logical choice I made and I think THAT is what most people need.
You need a structure that empowers you to make good decisions, not someone forcing or obligating you to.
During my first week I was hungry; I knew that oatmeal and fruit and all my old safe choices were out so I said “screw it, I’ll eat a ton of roasted cabbage”. Well, holy crap roasted cabbage with tahini is amazing and I was looking forward to eating it! I also found that my overall fiber and nutrient intake was not very good if all my fats were just from oil, so again, I had to look outside the box and started eating more avocado, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, hemp seeds and pecans.
During the first week I probably jumped from 3 cups of veggies per day to 6-7, easily. Fiber shot from 25g to 40g easily and I felt great.
Like any story though, there was a downside.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU
Personally, lifting weights with very little overall carbohydrates was not fun. A set of 8 felt like cardio and my drop in water weight of about 4 lbs made all the weights feel heavy. Despite feeling good at all other times, I really didn’t want to lose strength or feel like a salted slug during my lifting sessions so I knew that I had to come up with a solution.
I added in 20 grams of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) during my workouts. It worked pretty well as they can be used as fuel for the muscle and kick start muscle growth, but I still felt like overall my recovery and “zest” (even though I’m not what you’d describe as zesty) during my workouts was low.
Next, I decided some carbohydrates around my workout might help raise blood sugar, provide energy, make me hold some water and regain some water weight and improve recovery. So I snacked on 6-7 dates or figs before a workout and then a serving of oats post-workout.
The flip was switched. I found that just going to 100 carbs daily with the dried fruit and oats brought my workouts to life. I didn’t expect super-fast results or intense muscle pumps at this level but it was the little push that made me feel “good”.
Now it’s coming together! This small changed reinforced how well I do with some carbs in my system and how important they are for muscular energy and recovery.
My goal from here is to lower fat on training days and get my carbs as high as possible to promote muscle growth. But on my 2-3 off days keep my carbs low and fat high to reap all the benefits I found during my low carb experience.
SLAP MY FOREHEAD MOMENTS
If you asked me, or many nutrition coaches for simple nutrition advice, you’d hear some well-established tenets like:
1. Keep the majority of daily carbs around your workouts
2. Keep off days higher in fat and lower in carbs
3. Eat lots of vegetables
4. Choose food quality over quantity (like don’t just pour on oil but find healthier versions of fats)
5. Listen to your body, how is it reacting to your nutrition decisions?
6. Don’t change too many things at once or overlook the basics
The funny thing is, I KNOW all of these, I preach all of these. Despite knowing them, I still subconsciously ignored some of them because I was so focused on other small details.
In the end, I reinforced the absolute basics that I inherently knew but took for granted. Revisiting them actually made me better and improved my relationship with food and my eating habits.
I also feel like it’s put me in a good place to slowly ramp carbohydrates up to see how high I can get them (to help with muscle gain) while maintaining my veggie and fiber intake and not loading on body fat. Again, this is something I would do with a client!
BRINGING IT ALL BACK
You can’t overlook the basics. Actually, you can if you are using steroids or are an absolute genetic freak, but even then, you’ll suffer some consequences down the line for forgetting them.
Physiology doesn’t give a flying drop kick if you think you’ve found a “secret” way to eating to create a shortcut. If your blood sugar sucks, protein is low, stress hormones are high or any other basic change that your nutrition has an impact on, things will not go as well as they could. I’m sorry, it’s just the way it is.
But there is a solution and it’s not complicated. If you need some help un-sucking your diet, I’d try this approach for the next 4 weeks and feel the difference of a high quality nutrition plan centered on the basics.
1. A minimum of 30g of fiber per day with a maximum of 50g net carbs. Remember, net carbs is TOTAL carbs minus fiber. So if you ate 90g carbs, you better have had 40g of fber!
2. All of your carbs should come from low-carb veggies
3. Protein intake between .75 and 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, depending on your hunger
4. Fat intake around .5 to .6 grams per pound
5. Salt your food
6. Drink a half ounce water per pound of body weight
7. Lift as heavy as possible and go for daily walks
After a month, add one ½ cup carbs per day for a week at a time. Every week measure your waist and see how high you can get your carbohydrates without gaining any measurement increase, all while keeping veggie intake just as high.
As you add carbs and feel fuller, you can drop fat a little (5-10g per week) to keep from feeling stuffed. But keep with the slow carbohydrate increase week to week so you can find your sweet spot.
Keep adding carbs until you notice the measurement move up just a tad – THAT is your upper limit for carbohydrates. From there, simply drop carbs back a bit and that is your sweet spot for staying lean, feeling full, having great training and even being able to drop body-fat.
I’ve done this exact protocol with myself and clients to great success. But it’s all about keeping the basics in so your diet continues to be sound, healthy (and non-sucky). Then you get to have your carbs and eat them too.
If any of this rings true with you, be honest with yourself and assess if you need a dietary kick in the pants to get back on track, and follow the plan above.