A few mistakes to avoid as you embark on a low carb diet, such as eating too many calories, or not eating enough fat.
So you’ve decided to start a low carb diet. Wonderful! You’ve made an important first step towards better health.
Like most diets, your biggest challenge is to make sure you do this long term. Changing habits is very difficult, and many of us just give up after a few days or a few weeks.
There are a few common pitfalls when it comes to low carb diets. Here they are, and our best advice on how to avoid them.
1. Looking at this as a short term fix
This is true for any diet, actually. The only way to see true, long-term results is to stop the short-term thinking. I’m sure you know the drill: you start a low-calorie diet, aiming to lose an x number of pounds. The diet is unsustainable – it is too low in calories. So you stick with it for a few weeks, on edge and ravenous the entire time, lose some weight, then go back to your old eating habits.
Meanwhile, your metabolism slowed down in response to the starvation diet, and as soon as you increase your calories, you pack on the pounds.
This mindset has to change. A low carb diet is a long term commitment. You need to realize that this is for life. A low carb diet is very healthy and very effective, but it only works as lo long as you follow it.
That’s why it’s so important to settle on a level of carbs that you’re comfortable with, and can maintain forever.
Rest assured, after a few months of eating low carb, you will very likely fall in love with this way of eating. You will be satiated, for the first time in your life. You will have great energy. You will lose weight. And you will discover wonderful low carb recipes that are just as good as the high carb junk you used to eat.
2. Succumbing to the low carb flu
Granted, the low carb flu is very unpleasant. It is basically a result of a couple of factors:
1. On a low carb diet, your body flushes out fluids much more efficiently than on a high carb diet. With the fluids, you lose important electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Low carb diet experts recommend supplementing with electrolytes for as long as you’re eating low carb, and definitely for the first few weeks.
2. Caffeine withdrawal. Some people drink so much soda, that when they stop, they suffer very unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as brutal headaches, and even muscle aches. If you’re a heavy soda drinker, consider decreasing your soda consumption gradually, over several weeks, rather than abruptly.
3. Going too low carb, too fast
This is just as bad as going too low when on a calorie restricted diet. You start out with lots of enthusiasm and resolve, cutting carbs to almost zero. But this could worsen the low carb flu, is very difficult to sustain for the long term, and – unless indicated by a healthcare professional – is simply unnecessary.
You could try the Atkins method of an extremely low carb induction period followed by gradual increase in carbs. Personally, I’m not in favor of shocking the body this way. I like to do things gradually and gently. So if you currently eat 300 grams of carbs per day (which is pretty standard on the American diet), consider starting with 100 grams per day. Do this for a few weeks, then assess the situation.
Do you feel good? Do you have good energy? Are you satiated? Are you losing weight?
If yes, I would continue with 100 grams of carbs per day. If no, try lowering your carbs to, say, 80 grams per day and give it a few weeks, then reassess again.
It’s obviously a good idea to consult with a low-carb-friendly physician before changing your diet, and if you’re diabetic, 100 grams are probably too much for you (ask your doctor). But for healthy people, I think this is a good plan.
4. Eyeballing it
After you’ve been on a low carb diet for a few months, you’ll be very good at estimating and eyeballing things. But when you just start, it’s a really good idea to log all your food intake into a tracking app or a tool such as fitday.com to make sure that you stay below the carb limit you decided on.
Personally, after years on a low carb diet, I still like to enter my food into fitday.com once in awhile, to make sure I’m on track and to avoid any carb creep.
5. Relying on low carb junk
Even if you eat a lot of highly processed low carb foods and lots of artificially sweetened food, I think you’ll be better off then on a very high carb diet.
But your goal should be not just eating a low carb diet, but eating a healthful low carb diet and sticking with real food. Your staples should be meat, poultry, fish, eggs, aged cheeses, nuts and seeds, healthy fats (animal fats and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil), low starch vegetables and low sugar fruit such as berries.
Keep the low carb junk – frozen dinners, desserts and protein bars – to a minimum. This will ensure you feel good and stay nourished while losing weight on a low carb diet.
6. Eating too much
A low carb diet will likely lower your insulin and keep you more satiated than you’ve ever been. But it’s still very possible to overeat on a low carb diet. Many low carb staples are very high in calories, and calories do matter, even on a low carb diet.
So be mindful of your portions and your hunger signals, and if you feel that those are messed up, use software such as fitday.com to log your food and make sure you don’t wildly overeat (but I wouldn’t go below 2000 calories per day to start with. You can always adjust).
7. Eating low carb AND low fat
While you shouldn’t go crazy on fat, there’s no need to eat low carb AND low fat, and in fact, it’s impossible. Once you cut down on carbs, and since protein consumption tends to stay the same (and cannot be too high), your remaining calories NEED to come from fat.
Don’t fear fat – fat is good for us, as long as it’s healthy fat – animal fats and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil. Stay away from trans fats, and from industrial seed oils (canola oil, corn oil etc.) – those are highly inflammatory.