Welcome to the Wonderful World of Low Carb!
Happy New Year! Welcome to all you newbies! Thousands, maybe millions, of you have started your low carb adventure at the New Year. Let me give you a dozen pointers to help you stick with it past Groundhog Day -- and, I very much hope, for the rest of your life.
1) Get it through your head that there is no finish line. If a low carb diet is the solution to your weight and/or health issues, -- and for a great number of you it will be -- you need to do this for the rest of your life. Focus not on fast weight loss, but rather on becoming as comfortable with this lifestyle as you can. I assure you that if you stick with it, it will become very comfortable indeed: Great food, no hunger, abundant energy.
2) As I write this, it is January 3rd, 2014, which means many of you are only on your second or third day of carbohydrate restriction. Some of you are feeling wretched, and wondering if you've made a huge mistake. Panic not. We call this the Atkins Flu, and it happens because you've run through all your body's glycogen -- stored carb -- but your body hasn't yet ramped up its production of the enzymes needed to burn fat for fuel. I promise you, it will pass. Think of it as drug withdrawal. We are nearly to the weekend, so take an ibuprofen, make sure you're getting enough salt and fat, let yourself rest, and hang tight. Atkins Flu rarely lasts more than a few days, and when you break through to the other side, you'll discover energy so abundant and so steady that you'll be dazzled.
3) Do not combine serious carb restriction with other forms of dietary restriction. Do not try to eat both low carb and low fat -- indeed, consider deliberately increasing your fat intake. Too, the vast majority of you should not restrict salt, either. Which leads to...
4) If you're tired, achy, and/or light-headed, add supplemental salt. Once your insulin levels drop, your body will remember how to properly eliminate sodium. Add to this the elimination of the heavily salted processed junk, and it is very possible to become hyponatremic -- salt deficient. Yes, this is a real thing. As recently as my youth, before the craziness of "healthy whole grains" and sodas as big as a bathtub arrived, many water coolers had salt tablet dispensers, because salt deficiency was not uncommon, especially in hot weather. Heavily salted broth is a good way to get extra salt, although I just pour about a half-a-teaspoon in my hand, lick it, and wash it down with water.
5) Be very wary of "bridge foods" -- processed low carb stuff. Your low carb diet must be built on meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, cheese, low carb vegetables, a little low-sugar fruit, and healthy fats. If allowing yourself a low carb muffin or a protein bar once a week or so is what lets you stay on track at first, okay*. But do not try to make your new diet look like your old one, with low carb cold cereal for breakfast, a sandwich on low carb bread for lunch, and "low carb" pasta for dinner. (That last is in quotes because I am completely unconvinced that the popular Dreamfield's Pasta is as low carb as claimed.) JERF: Just Eat Real Food.
6) Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you're full. Don't eat again until you're hungry again. Sounds simple, but we have been programmed to eat because it's time, because we always have, because that's what you do during a movie or in front of the TV, because the food is there. If you listen to your body, you will quickly find that you are simply not hungry anywhere near as often as you are used to eating. I, by way of example, rarely eat more than two meals a day -- breakfast around 11, and supper around 6. Maybe a handful of nuts in between. Just not hungry.
7) If you are medicated for diabetes or high blood pressure, you MUST BE UNDER A DOCTOR'S SUPERVISION. Doses of diabetes medication are based on the assumption that you will be eating average carb levels, and will be dangerously high once you drop those carbs. You can go into hypoglycemic or insulin shock, with potentially deadly results. Likewise, blood pressure comes down so rapidly on a low carb diet -- because the kidneys are properly handling sodium -- that blood pressure medication will likely need to be reduced or even eliminated within the first week. Again, this is potentially dangerous. I do not say this to discourage you; the promise of needing far less or even no medication is very real. But during the transition, the risk of overdose is real as well. DO NOT SCREW AROUND.
8) Chances are you have been using food as a reward. My mother once asked me how I motivated myself without sugar; she said that whenever she did an onerous chore she let herself have "a little something good." This is a fine idea, you just need to find something good that isn't junk. Reward yourself with a hot bath, a new lipstick, that new game or book you've been wanting to buy, a massage, a mani-pedi, a call to a dear friend you haven't talked to in way too long. Or reward yourself with low carb foods that aren't usually in the budget: A rib eye steak, a superb imported cheese, lobster with plenty of lemon butter, a few squares of 85% dark chocolate.
9) Support is crucial. If you don't have support at home, find it online. There are wonderful message boards, blogs, Facebook groups, all of which will help you stay on track. I recommend you read or participate in at least one or two every single day.
10) Do not apologize for eating this way. If you had a deadly food allergy, the kind that would kill you with a single taste, you wouldn't feel guilty for turning down the peanuts or shellfish or whatever. The sequelae of metabolic syndrome kill far more people than allergies do, and before they kill, they maim. There is no social nicety worth losing your vision or your feet for. I find that "No, thanks; my blood sugar doesn't like it" is generally acceptable. If you're with family -- usually the worst food nags -- and they're pushing you to eat the birthday cake or whatever, use this trick: Say "No, thanks," and then change the subject. Like this:
"Oh, but it's Junior's first birthday! You have to have cake!" "No, thanks. Hey, have you checked out that new store in the mall?" "It's Thanksgiving! Nobody diets on Thanksgiving! You have to have Grandma's candied sweet potatoes!" "No, thanks. Hey, does anyone want to skip the Black Friday craziness and go to the movies with me tomorrow?" Doing this makes it far, far harder for the saboteur to continue to push without looking crazed, and suddenly looking like the rude one. It's a neat piece of social ju-jitsu.
11) If you don't cook at all, this is the year to pick up some basic skills. If you do cook, make it your goal to try at least one new low carb recipe per week. I would, of course, love it if you bought my cookbooks, but they're hardly the only game in town. A quick google for "low carb recipes," or an Amazon search for "low carb cookbook" will turn up more options than you could possibly cook and eat your way through. One caution: I have seen cookbooks labeled "low carb" that were not; the recipes were still full of flour, bread crumbs, sugar, and the like. Look at that total carb number.
12) Do not trust the food industry's "net carb" counts. Subtracting fiber from total carbs is valid. Subtracting maltitol, resistant starch, glycerin, agave nectar**, "low glycemic monosaccharide" (aka fructose), and other such garbage is not. Along with the carb count, read the ingredient list.
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Low Carb! Stick around, we have more fun here than you may have suspected.
* Years ago, a friend who was low carbing told me she just couldn't eat sugar-free dark chocolate, it gave her terrible gut trouble. I said that I could eat half of a modest sized bar per day with no trouble. "Half a bar?!" came the reply, "I've been eating 5 or 6 bars a day!" Uh, I think I see your problem here.
** Agave nectar is the most arrant fraud perpetrated on the nutritionally-conscious public since they told us grains were healthier than eggs. There is nothing "natural" about it; just like corn syrup it is made by using enzymes to split a larger carbohydrate into its component sugars. Worse, it has even higher levels of fructose than high fructose corn syrup does. Yes, it has a low glycemic index; that's because fructose has to go through the liver to be processed, which slows down absorption. This is very hard on the liver; fructose is the biggest cause of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It also causes gout, jacks up triglycerides like nobody's business, and is uniquely fattening.
If you are determined not to eat artificial sweeteners, try erythritol (I like an erythritol-based sweetener called Swerve), xylitol (keep it away from dogs, it's toxic to them), stevia, or a combination of these. FYI: I find the liquid stevia extract to be, by far, the easiest form of stevia to use, and they come in a fabulous array of flavors.