Defining Low-Carb, There are many names for what is essentially a low-carbohydrate diet. Call it Paleo, LCHF (Low-Carb, High-Fat), Ketogenic, or plain “Low-Carb” they’re all roughly the same in that they consciously limit carbohydrate intake, replacing lost energy with fat calories. The differences come in the levels of carbohydrate restriction and corresponding increases in fat content. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define low-carbohydrate as diets with 20-60 g carbs or less per day- this is the commonly cited figure and that popularised by Robert Atkins and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Formulating a Low-Carb Diet If you’re basing your meals on a fatty protein source (chicken with skin on, beef, pork, fatty fish) or normal protein source with added fat (eg chicken breast coated with olive oil or pesto sauce), and adding only vegetables, mainly green, then you’ll be on the right track. I find portion sizes easy to track using your clenched fist as a volume guide. At 3 meals a day, you want roughly one clenched fist volume of meat, and 2 or so of vegetables. Adjust this guide gradually as hunger dictates.
Two important starting caveats are that 1) most of the below low-carbohydrate diet issues are solved by simply adding more fat into your diet, and 2) these issues will clear up within a few weeks or months. Remember, this isn’t a high-protein diet; it’s a low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high-fat diet. The prescription is not just for any fats, it’s for those from natural, clean sources, such as animal and organ meats, fish, shellfish, butter/ghee, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Avoid other vegetable oils like sunflower, safflower, canola/rapeseed, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils for their inferior fatty acid composition.
Troubleshooting a Low-Carbohydrate Diet: Supplements you may find Helpful
FATIGUE – Take broth, as frequently as every few hours. Coconut Oil or MCTs are also useful, taken a tablespoon at a time as required. The reason fatigue is a problem in the initial stages of adaptation to low-carbohydrate diets is that with low insulin, your kidneys are excreting more salt, and you need adequate salts in the blood for optimal muscle and brain function. The situation is more that high-carb diets make your kidneys hold onto excess sodium rather than low-carb diets deplete you of it unnecessarily. In this way, high-carb diets are hypernatremic), so you benefit from supplementing sodium. Homemade broth is ideal, or a good quality stock/bouillon cube if you don’t have the time. If you find you’re excessively fatigued, check your caloric intake- people do spontaneously eat less when eating a higher fat diet, as leptin sensitivity is improved and blood sugar is better regulated. Extended caloric restriction can lead to altered thyroid activity and “hibernation syndrome” where, although you might not be hungry, all you want to do is curl up and sleep most of the day, and any fat loss will stop too. If you’re adding salt to your meals and still getting nowhere, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12- particularly if you don’t eat a lot of meat or fish. Regarding supplements, 200-400 ug sublingual B12 (placed under the tongue) is an effective daily dose.
DECREASED STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE – Take a tablespoon of this Coconut Oil or these MCTs when required, and ensure you’re getting adequate salts (broth). Glycogen depletion can be a serious performance affecting issue for anyone who is at least moderately active or hitting the gym a few times a week. With a sustained low-carb diet, this problem eventually evaporates as your body adapts to burn ketones, and glycogen becomes less important. Be patient, adaptation to a ketone based metabolism can take two weeks or more. If you want to stay low-carb, train, and eat carbs every now and again, try the Cyclic Ketogenic Diet.
BRAIN FOG – Take a tablespoon of this Coconut Oil or these MCTs when required, and ensure you’re getting adequate salts (broth). Some people find their minds clouded and experience difficulty thinking clearly during their 2 weeks or so adjustment to a low-carbohydrate diet. This is likely because of the reduced availability of glucose to the brain, as you switch your metabolism from using mainly glucose to using ketones. Rest assured that once the transition is complete, people often notice improved cognitive ability, and some research suggests the brain works better on ketones than on glucose.
SWEET CRAVINGS – Craving sweets is a clear indication of a lack of satisfying natural dietary fat. Try adding a few tablespoons of butter to your meal and see if you still crave sweets. If you’re recovering from a sugar addiction, chromium supplements also help. Try this brand, starting at 200 ug/day and increase up to 1000 ug/day if a stronger effect is desired. I have strong personal experience of chromium’s effect, as an ex-carbohydrate addict, the craving cessation can be quite remarkable- the thought of sweets can even make you feel nauseous. If you’re already a little chromium deficient, you’ll benefit from a higher dose, but I have found as little as 15 ug/day of chromium picolinate enough to achieve the desired effect. L-glutamine is also helpful, try 5 g/day and adjust according to cravings. After several weeks or so of diligently following a low-carbohydrate diet, you should find that sweet cravings disappear- especially if you’re successfully basing your meals around good quality dietary fat. In the absence of carbohydrates, you’ll benefit greatly from adding fat to your diet- so long as you avoid the artificial trans fats. Choose fattier cuts of meat, with skin where available, or add a few tablespoons of butter, nut butter, coconut oil or olive oil to your diet.
THE LOW-CARB BLUES – Cholesterol, from fatty foods, impacts serotonin production which regulates mood, so eat more butter! Take L-Tyrosine 150 mg/kg/day. 5-HTP may also be useful, and I recommend 50-100 mg /day, taken before bed. There are anecdotal reports of moderate depression when people forego carbohydrates. Rest assured that once adapted to low-carb many people experience the entire opposite with feelings of euphoria and a heightened sense of well-being, along with more energy and mental clarity than ever before. If your depression is accompanied by fatigue and poor memory, you could have a vitamin B12 deficiency, despite regularly consuming meats. Try supplementing with 1.5-3 ug/day.
MUSCLE CRAMPS and/or CONSTIPATION – Magnesium is the cure, 200 mg/day or more. According to this study, magnesium citrate is the most bioavailable form. Start with 200 mg a day and double the dose daily until you achieve the desired effect. Beware of going straight in at high doses (800+ mg), as a sudden excess of magnesium can have laxative effects. Splitting your dose throughout the day has the best effect. Be careful not to neglect calcium and potassium, however, as these salts work in combination in the body, and an excess of one without the others can cause problems. Also to note is that magnesium helps with insomnia and muscle cramps, but do exercise caution if you have a history of kidney problems. Other important things to consider when on a low-carbohydrate diet:
GETTING ENOUGH PROTEIN With any diet where your primary goal is to lose body fat, dietary protein plays a critical role to maintain muscle. A guide is 1.5g/kg body weight/day. Note that 100 g chicken breast is not equal to 100 g protein. Check labels and consider eating more meat or fish, or supplementing with whey if necessary. If you’re vegetarian eat more whole eggs, nuts, and legumes, but watch the carb content of the latter two.
MONITORING YOUR HYDRATION Drink enough water, roughly 2 litres each day. Don’t over do it though, if you’re constantly needing the loo it’s not only inconvenient but will excessively deplete your body of valuable salts and water soluble nutrients like vitamin C. Under normal conditions your kidneys can only remove one litre/hour, so drinking at a faster rate should be limited to the very short term.
TAKE NUTRITIONAL INSURANCE Take a good multivitamin, as usual, to make sure that you’re getting a minimum of all the trace elements you need. Some of the better multivitamins on the market are also combined with probiotics to promote a stronger gut health. And that’s it, cheers to your newfound health on low-carb! Have I missed something? Please share your comments below. Disclaimer: Please note that all I’m offering is advice. You should always run things by your family medical practitioner before taking any supplement. As with all supplements, your default action should be to not take them unless absolutely necessary.