Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Top 10 Mistakes on a Low Carb Diet

Generally this is a science blog, but I realize more and more that I came into this by a different path than most people, and it's hard to get everything across all at once when advocating a low carb diet.  Some of these are mistakes I had to learn from along the way, and others are things I was able to "un-learn" before I got started.  So, for those of you new to low-carb dieting, at least a few of these should steer you clear of some of the more common obstacles.

10. Jumping right in

If you've never eaten this way before, it can be hard.  When I say don't jump right in, I don't mean "don't go cold turkey."  I mean prepare first.  Sit down and make a grocery list that will get you through a week, ideally.  It should have enough meat, cheese, eggs and optionally green vegetables and sugar-free drinks for as many meals as you'll eat at home during that time.  And don't skimp on the snacks.  Lunch meat is one of my favorites.  When you get back from the grocery store, put it all away and get rid of things you shouldn't have, all at once.  That means cereal, pasta, chips... carbs!  If it's available, it's likely to be a temptation.  This can be a problem if the rest of the household isn't on board, so if you don't live alone, try to make that your first step.

9. Worrying about dietary cholesterol

A lot of people start a diet like this and avoid things like eggs.  Eggs!  I can't think of a more perfect food.  Except maybe ribeyes.  Anyway if you're still convinced that dietary cholesterol is harmful or risky, I won't be changing your mind in this post, but you absolutely must get down to the library or the book store and get your hands on this book.  It will square you away.  In the mean time, I'm comfortable asking you to take my word for it: you'll do more harm by avoiding cholesterol than by eating it, while you work on getting the book.

8. Giving up coffee

If you go to the Atkins website, you'll be admonished to keep your coffee intake down.  They don't offer any explanation for that, and I have to disagree.  Some people give up coffee because they're accustomed to drinking it with milk, which has lactose, a sugar.  I take mine with heavy cream, which is very fatty and has almost zero carbohydrates.  Whatever the reason, it's not uncommon for those giving up carbs and coffee at the same time to suffer needlessly.  If you're already a coffee drinker, odds are you have a mild caffeine addiction, and you'll get headaches and experience other discomforts.  As an added bonus, coffee works against gout, your risk of which may increase on a low carb diet.

7.  Not going out

It may seem at first like it would be next to impossible to adhere to a diet like this at a typical restaurant, but it's just not true.  More of them than you'd think have low-carb items on the menu, often labeled something like the "Atkins Special".  But even those that don't, usually have plenty of dishes you can eat with small modifications.  Burger?  Skip the bun, and maybe add extra bacon and/or cheese.  Does it come with fries?  Try substituting broccoli or steamed vegetables.  Fajitas?  Pass on the tortillas and eat them with a fork - they're delicious that way.  Just get a little creative, and restaurants can be quite nice.

6.  Quitting too soon

The first few days can be rough.  I've described this before, but it's worth saying again.  Because you've been eating a high-carb diet, your blood is full of insulin.  When you stop eating carbohydrates, the insulin in your blood doesn't dissipate immediately, and until it does, you'll mostly be unable to metabolize fat for fuel.  So you'll be in a metabolic freakout while you're not eating the only fuel your cells can use, until your insulin levels fall and you start metabolizing fat.  That is, until you enter ketosis.  These few days are often pretty unpleasant.  For me, the main symptom was a persistent headache, but your experience may be quite different.  Most people are through it in about 3 days, but give it as long as a week if necessary.  If you don't feel fantastic after a week, read this list again, because you're likely doing something wrong.  If that's not the case, drop me an email and we'll see what we can come up with.

5.  Drifting too far

I was guilty of this one more than once.  Out of convenience or necessity, or just because, you eat something you shouldn't.  You're out of ketosis, or think you might be.  You say "Oh well, I messed it up, so I might as well do it right.  Pour me a glass of Aunt Jemima, please."  Don't do that.  If you fall off the proverbial wagon, dust yourself off and hop right back on.  Odds are you didn't do as much harm as you think, and it'll be a lot harder in a few days (or weeks, or worse) than it will be at your next meal.

4.  Replacing too much

There's a low-carb or sugar-free version of just about everything.  And far be it from me to condemn those things.  But a lot of folks try to go low carb mostly by replacing cereal with low-carb cereal, bread with low-carb bread, sweets with sugar-free sweets, and so on.  If you do this, you will not succeed, for several reasons.  First, in most of these foods they don't replace the carbohydrates with anything you can even digest.  Complex carbohydrates are typically replaced with fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate with no usable calories.  Sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners, including sugar alcohol.  Many of these can give you gas and/or diarrhea, and none of them will satisfy you because they provide little or no energy.  As much as possible, you should replace what you used to eat with foods high in fat and protein.

3.  Fearing the cravings

By definition, half of all Americans eat a diet that is even worse than the average American diet.  If you were one of these before the diet, it'll be a bit harder for you than for some other people at the beginning.  I'm not talking about the first three days here.  I'm talking about cravings.  You'll feel intense cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, or worse still, sugar.  This is because carbohydrates are addictive.  But fear not: this addiction can be beaten, and it's not as hard as, say, quitting smoking, if only because it doesn't take as long to rid yourself of the physical cravings.  You may, of course, be in an even worse situation than this, and suffer from severe emotional cravings for carbohydrates.  If you're in that position, I can't lie, this will be hard, but you need to realize the situation you're in.  If you're not already diabetic, or morbidly obese, or both, you will be soon, and you cannot afford to succumb to your fear.  And you - yes, even you - can beat it.

2. Not informing yourself

If you tell your doctor you're doing this, he or she will probably be pretty harsh with you.  According to what's taught in medical school, this diet will kill you.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't tell your doctor.  That means you need to learn everything you can about why you're doing this, why conventional medical wisdom has it wrong, and so on.  Learning all you can will help you avoid most of the mistakes on this list, not least of which is...

1.  Not eating enough fat

I confess, the rest of the items on this list are in no particular order, but I saved this for number one.  The most common and most harmful mistake you can make is to avoid fat.  You must unlearn what you think you know about fat.  See #2.  Once you eliminate carbohydrates, you must have plenty of fat to maintain any semblance of health.  Avoiding fat will not accelerate your weight loss - again, see #2.  If you try to stay away from fatty foods, you will feel miserable, be unhealthy, and very likely fail.  Eat all the bacon you want.  The same goes for butter, steak, hamburger, eggs and so on.  If what I'm about to say comes as a surprise, you probably haven't educated yourself enough to succeed on this diet: calories have nothing to do with obesity.  Fat is very calorie-dense, which is just one of the reasons it's demonized in mainstream medicine and government dietary advice, but it is not the enemy.  Eat it to your heart's content, and you are much more likely to experience the weight loss, the euphoria, the energy, the longevity, the health, the indescribable feeling of well-being that this diet has to offer.


  1. Thanks for the tips. I'm trying to reduce my carb intake so I found some of the tips helpful.

  2. I tried a modified Atkins diet over 10 yrs ago and did lose about 40 lbs. Of course I didn't stick to the diet and ended up regaining all that weight plus more. My problem is that I love rice, bread and cereal. When I am looking for a snack, it's usually toast or a roll. I have switched to diet DP now but back then I started drinking a lot of water and limited the amount of DP I was drinking. I may try the modified low-carbohydrate diet again but I also need to add in some exercising.

  3. i started the atkins diet about 4 weeks ago. I have followed it to the t as far as i can sugar, no carbs...the only error may be that most meats now are low in fat...i have tried to increase fat content. I do have an existing liver problem but got conflicting messages about whether this diet is harmful or not so i started anyway. 4 weeks severe change, leg cramps overcome,dry mouth, cravings all passed...NO weight loss...a few pounds at most and it ketosis..i check with sticks...i love this diet, why is it not working for me pounds wise?

  4. Definitely up the fat content, but that's probably not why you're not losing weight. That can take a while to really start. For one thing you've got triglycerides moving into your muscle tissue to replace glycogen, making your muscles denser and heavier. Also much of the initial weight loss a lot of people are so happy to see, is mostly lost water weight, and not everybody experiences that.

    But if you're still not in ketosis, there's something else. It's inconceivable that you could go 4 weeks without going into ketosis if you've successfully purged digestible carbohydrates from your diet. Maybe it's your sticks or how you're reading them, but if you're confident in that there is almost certainly something still in your diet that you're overlooking.

    And like I said, *definitely* increase your fat intake.

  5. Coffee and caffeine affect your blood sugar. So, if ya' have very little glucose in your diet, caffeine will give you even less, which can give you hypoglycemic symptoms: dizziness, breathing issues, instant stupidity/confusion, cold sweat spells, nausea, ect.
    The biggest mistake I made when going on a diet like this was not eating enough carbs.

  6. [citation needed]

    I don't know of any empirical evidence that coffee affects blood sugar, or any feature of human physiology that suggests it. For now all I have is anecdotal evidence - several months of zero carb consumption combined with heavy coffee consumption with no detectable ill effects.

    But let's say it's true that caffeine (or something else in coffee) lowers your blood sugar. In that case your pancreas should detect the change and respond by curtailing insulin production, reestablishing equilibrium.

    If you experienced hypoglycemia on a low-carb diet, you're not alone, and it can take some time for damaged metabolic machinery to recover and adapt, but you haven't established the role of coffee in that.

  7. Thanks for the great tips! My husband and I lost 70 and 40 pounds, respectively, on low-carb. (We had pudged out on the "low-fat" diet they put him on after heart surgery). After 6 months on low-carb, his cholesterol, etc was excellent.

    Here are a few tips from us: 1) Check the carbs in your sour cream brand--most have fillers. Daisy or organic are best. 2) Real whipped cream in cans can be used in small amounts. 2 carbs per TB. 3) Dreamfield's pasta has gotten a bad rap lately, possibly because the big food corps want to get in on the low-carb action. We ate it at least once a week and lost weight. Plus, it's really good pasta!

    As for coffee, it actually seemed to help us drop the pounds with or without cream.