Classic low-carb errors
It turns out that low-carbohydrate dieting, when coming from the ill-informed, modern Western food paradigm, is an art as well as a science. Several years ago when I was new to low-carb, I made all the classic mistakes. I avoided salt, threw away egg yolks, restricted fatty foods, and ate too much lean protein (think chicken breasts, lean beef mince, and egg whites). This was due largely to reading too much ‘bro-science’ on bodybuilding community forums, but also a totally misguided fear of dietary fat. I reasoned at the time, quite fairly, that bodybuilders must have been ‘doing something right’ to reach such low body-fat.
But what were they doing nutritionally? Around ‘cutting’ season, bodybuilding forums prescribe a low-carb, high-protein, low-fat diet. Pre-competition, bodybuilders lower themselves down to what becomes a protein sparing modified fast, an extreme diet used on morbidly obese patients in hospitals, where for a short, miserable few days or weeks they eat a few hundred calories of lean protein and nothing else. Did I mention they use extreme methods? You don’t just feel rotten on such a regime, it is also appallingly unhealthy to sustain. Intrigued to see if high protein worked, but with a watchful eye on my health, I manipulated my macros to low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, on a slight caloric deficit with one refeed day per week, and expected magic. However, despite my careful adherence to this regimen, even increasing my cardio work to around 3 hours HIIT a week, I plateaued on around 15% body fat. I was hungry, prone to carb cravings, and despite being relatively fit I never had any energy.
Low-carbohydrate, HIGH FAT #lchf
Based on their lean mass, Bodybuilders do need more protein than the average person, but no diet should ever be exclusively high protein, even at a large caloric deficit. It overworks the liver and kidneys. Your liver needs energy to process that protein, which during our evolutionary history would have come from dietary fat. However, the metabolic machinery of modern high-carb dieters is adapted to burn sugar, so given lean protein, they crave carbohydrates. Low-carb, low-fat dieting therefore leads to severe food cravings, and the need to ‘cheat’ or ‘binge-eat’. Increase the dietary fat, and it’s a different story entirely.
Isn’t fat bad for you?
Gary Taubes first opened my eyes to the benign nature of naturally occurring dietary fat, but I couldn’t muster the courage to try a specifically high-fat diet until I read more about nutritional ketosis (including some excellent lay books on the subject, such as Jimmy Moore’s Keto Clarity, and Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney’s The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living. Andreas Endfeldt, a vocal Swedish MD and nutrition blogger had it right all along. The key data was all new, and it showed the protective, not deleterious nature of fat. So if low-carbohydrate, high-fat, ketogenic diets reduced heart disease risk, what the hell was stopping me from giving it a try? Throughout my youth, meals were based around carbs: pasta, rice, bread, or potato, and I struggled with my weight, had transient acne and ever-congested sinuses. In my high-protein days, fuelled by the bodybuilding and supplement industries, I lost weight but wasn’t lean (14-20% body fat), my skin improved a little and my sinuses finally cleared up from the remittance of my gluten-fuelled candida overgrowth. These days, for the first time in my life, I make a conscious effort to base my meals around high-quality fat from natural sources. A common problem: as protein is anti-ketogenic, you must be careful not to overeat it (a guide is 1-1.5g/kg body weight/day: around 70-105g/day for an 70kg individual).I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never felt better. My skin glows, my sinuses are clear, my mood is perfectly regulated, my brain is always on, and stubborn body fat is melting away. I not only feel full after eating, I feel satisfied. Regardless of how much butter, cream, coconut oil, egg yolks, fatty fish, and fatty cuts of meat I consume, I maintain sub 10% body fat effortlessly, whilst completing the lowest amount of cardio I have done in the past 5 years. The above benefits aside, there is one crowning advantage: appetite control.
Youth, hunger and overweight
Throughout my youth, I was hungry almost all the time. I could eat a whole pizza then be ravenous only a few hours later. My brain was governed by food, and I thought this was normal, after all I was ‘growing’, right? I now realise I was probably experiencing leptin resistance. My brain couldn’t see the fullness signal, and it was the fault of dietary carbohydrate. In my early low-carb days, I discovered and started 16/8 intermittent fasting, à la Martin Berkhan. At the start, this was a challenge. I was living in Spain at the time, and the Spaniards don’t eat lunch until mid-afternoon, so it meant closer to an 18 hour fast if you eat dinner late evening like the Spaniards do. Fasting left me feeling cold, but more energised and alert. Strangely, 16/8 fasting did nothing to my body fat percentage, it kept it at a fairly stable 15%. I would be ravenous by late morning, deep into the fast, but soon realised a saving grace: hunger does not build constantly, rather it comes in waves. Overall, this kind of intermittent fasting taught me to appreciate and understand the hunger signal. Training myself to monitor my hunger is something I now consider key to regaining control of your relationship with food; don’t just eat the second you feel a little peckish, learn to read and appreciate the cue.
Fast forward to my high-fat days, and fasting is actually spontaneous. Sometimes, I’m simply not hungry, and other times I might well be hungry, but there’s no mad rush like there was before. I’m no longer a slave to food. It’s the strangest, most liberating feeling. Hunger builds slowly, goes away, returns, but is never overwhelming. This never happened in my high-carb, sugar crash and cravings-filled past, and it feels perfectly natural and normal. Normal? Surely in a modern context, it’s the very opposite? I mean anthropologically normal: normative by the standards of our species homo sapiens. I can’t imagine hunter-gatherer peoples became moody if they didn’t eat every few hours; quite the reverse, frequent and unpredictable fasts of up to three days would have arisen between hunts as part of everyday life for Paleolithic communities. Indeed, there’s significant evidence to suggest it boosts rather than impairs cognitive function (consider that you’d need to focus more, not less if your hunting had proved unfruitful of late).
Since consuming much more dietary fat, I typically won’t eat breakfast and find two meals per day to be enough, with the larger meal in the evening. This is not because I’m trying to intermittent fast, but because I’m just not that hungry. I’ve moved from metabolising sugar in the past, to burning fat, of which I have rather more significant stores despite being lean. If I’ve eaten well recently, I might not be hungry until the afternoon, whereas if I haven’t eaten much the previous day, I might eat my first meal as early as late morning. I am liberated since I don’t follow the clock for my meals. Join the hunger control crowd and regain power over your primordial urges in the way humans used to:
Summary of recommendations:
- Base your meals around a fat and protein source, like meat or fish.
- Don’t over-consume protein, as in excess is will block your body from burning fat. A guide is 1-1.5g/kg body weight/day, so for a 70kg individual: 70-105g/day is a good guide. Add more if you’re doing an unusually large amount of exercise.
- Eat more dietary fat from natural sources such as butter, olive oil, cream, avocados, nut oils, nuts, animal sources like meat and organs. Don’t be afraid, fat will improve not ruin your health.
- Avoid vegetable oils, they’re low quality and inflammatory.
- Buy the highest quality, organic, local food that your budget will allow. Get to know your local farmer, butcher, and fish monger. Toxins accumulate in animal fat, so low-quality meat will be counterproductive for your health.
- Eat high-quality natural sea salt, e.g. pink Himalayan salt. High carbohydrate diets are hypernatremic, meaning they make your kidneys hold onto salts more readily (which is why salt is not bad for you). This also has a range of minerals, like iodine, which help prevent deficiencies.
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