How I know that I should keep the carbs in my diet
The low-carbohydrate high-fat (LCHF) approach is more popular today than ever before and it has showed some remarkably positive results on peoples health. I have been watching many videos and listened and read the arguments for and against the LCHF diet for quite some time. More research has been dedicated to this topic recently and it has indeed provided some valuable data. Because the dietary carbohydrates followed by secreted insulin have become the culprit of metabolic disorders today, the trick to cure them or even to prevent them happened to be the LCHF diet. Who would not want to stay healthy and slim while eating all those forbidden foods laden with fat? Fat tastes great! Is it healthy? Some say yes. And because I am open to facts and arguments, despite I was critical about this diet before, I decided to give it one more go. I have never suffered any metabolic disorder such as high blood sugar or high cholesterol and my BMI is below 25. Having family history of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, I have become determined that I will escape this fate at all costs. For a while I adopted an idea that glucose (carbohydrate) is not an essential nutrient and all of us can thrive on fats, proteins and non-starchy vegetables, providing sufficient amounts of energy, fibre, essential amino acids, fats and micronutrients.
This time I was a more disciplined low-carber than I was about a year ago when I experimented with this diet for the first time. I again left out rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, beans and basically all starchy stuff, including the bananas and my beloved oats and cheesy oatcakes. I gave it a go for two weeks, hoping for experiencing that great feeling of being in ketosis and having a constant level of energy while not feeling hungry. If it went well, I was ready to stay on this diet for good.
I started buying single and double cream, soured cream, more butter, some cheese, including Mascarpone cheese. I ate more eggs than usually. I ate meat daily and more than once. I indulged on spoons of coconut oil and I stopped sweetening my tea or coffee even with my favorite Splenda or xylitol just to keep any sweetness off my tongue. I even stayed away from carrots and everything sweet as much as I could to the point that broccoli started tasting sweet to me. I resisted when people around me munched on chocolate or biscuits – I did not have a single bit and I was fine.
It did not work.
At least, it did not work for ME.
This was not an Atkins diet. Although people often see the Atkins and low-carb as the same, there is a difference. In contrast to the Atkins I had quite enough vegetables in my diet, whether raw or cooked. These included cucumber, occasional tomato, some zucchini, aubergine, broccoli, cabbage or even asparagus. I regularly ate lettuce with olive oil or I used some Caesar dressing. I have had some fruit, I must admit. Most often I had raspberries or blueberries and I only sinned with a crunchy and juicy apple on two occasions. On the plate I replaced the portion of potatoes or rice with more non-starchy vegetables.
Below is one of my dinners I had in the midst of this experiment:
There are two lean beef steaks which shrunk to half of their size on the pan. I had them with the whole head of steamed broccoli and a handful of green beans. The sauce was made of butter, the meat juices, some steak spice mix and a small amount of cream. It was delicious and filling. I felt satisfied for quite a long time after that.
I would rather call it a carb restricted paleo diet, but paleo avoid dairy so I stick with the low-carb.
I love dairy and I could live on it but I have to stay away from if for health reasons. Despite my suspicion of dairy linked to my problems I tried it once more and learned again it was not the best idea. But if you took dairy from me, the whole low-carb thing would be over at that point. I do not like fat on meat or the skin. It was the dairy that made me persist for those two weeks as it provides majority of the fats. I also thought that maybe it was not dairy, it could be the carbohydrate that promoted inflammation in my body, as many claimed.
Nope, it was not that.
What went wrong
- The skin around my eyes became irritated and if I did not treat it with Vaseline every night, it would become flaky and maybe with the stinging patches and cracks which would not tolerate even E45 cream. It already felt itchy, but it did not develop to the stage I experienced in the past, before I figured out what was wrong and how to treat it. By observations I have linked these episodes to increased dairy consumption.
- I felt tired most of the day. The mornings were generally OK but towards the lunch time, and after, I had difficulties to focus and perform at work. My concentration and memory was noticeably affected. Even my vision suffered and the focusing on reading required extra effort. I shared this experience with a marathon runner who tried Atkins diet once. She had the same symptom of blurred vision and lower energy.
- Towards the end of my two weeks on a low-carb diet I noticed recurring discomfort such as momentary and weak stinging pain in the center of my chest. This was new to me and it was more noticeable during the second week. My blood pressure remained good, although it was slightly higher than my older records. In the recent past (a month or two ago) my systolic pressure did not reach the value 110 mmHg but during this diet it consistently showed values over 110, some closer to 120, when measuring it three times in a row. It was reported that a high fat meal had a negative effect on the endothelial function. It basically prevented the usual level of dilatation of blood vessels, making them narrower, which is typical for increased blood pressure.
- I also felt palpitations more frequently than usually (about once a year). I assume it was my heart craving for glucose or lactate as we can break down glucose anaerobically and the heart is perfectly happy with lactate as a fuel. We do not produce lactate from burning fatty acids. The constant tiredness might have played a role in this as well, producing additional stress to my body and heart.
- The low-carb diet also seems to have reduced my blood glucose tolerance. About two months ago my fasting blood glucose was 4.8 mmol/l and two hours later after drinking 75g of glucose (performing a standard oral glucose tolerance test, or OGTT) it was 5.7, which was better than lately: 4.3 vs 6.3, based on the capillary blood test. This time I had it done 15 minutes later so I guess the reading would be a bit higher if I managed to have the test done after 2 hours precisely.
- When I walked home from work in the afternoon, my legs felt like aliens. Even a short run for 20 meters in my trainers was unpleasant. Where was the promised energy? I am sure I consumed enough calories for my needs.
What went well
Yes, there were some positive outcomes, but these would not justify my suffer.
- The most appreciated positive was that the bloating and flatulence was almost nonexistent, even despite such large amount of broccoli I ate at once.
- Thanks to the high vegetables and natural fiber intake I did not experience constipation, in contrast to other people who went for Atkins. However, I do not generally suffer constipation anyway, so this was no change for me.
- I enjoyed eating fatty dairy and I could keep doing it. If I could.
Neutral outcomes (when the good was cancelled by not so good)
- I did not develop the smell of ketosis. I did not stink but that is probably the key to understand my rather unpleasant experience with this diet and the hint that I better fuel my body with complex carbohydrates than fats. Maybe the relatively high amount of vegetables provided enough carbohydrates, preventing the onset of ketosis. Would I feel better if I did the hardcore Atkins diet? I cannot say because I was not brave enough to go for this one. I knew I would really struggle with the lack of vegetables since I had already excluded fruits. And because I already have my opinion about the Atkins diet from the long term perspective, I do not need to test it on myself as I would not stay on it permanently.
- Similarly with the appetite: the urge to eat was not present at the same level, but I definitely could not go without the food for half a day or longer as many claim. I even tested this when having a 20 km walk one weekend. I had to stop and eat (a large sausage similar to frankfurter, couple of cherry tomatoes and lettuce) and in between meals I munched on Brazil nuts. That was after I ate quite a rich breakfast consisting of 4-5 scrambled eggs made on butter with cured Italian ham, some fresh cucumber and a coffee with cream. I had another latte before the walk which definitely kept me going thanks to the caffeine. Without that I would have probably given up half way in, which was impossible in Thetford forest.
After you have learned that I was perfectly healthy and I had no existing medical condition for doing this, you may wonder why on earth I did it? Why I abstained from my beloved fruits and other carbohydrates?
Here are the three reasons why:
- To see whether my lack of energy at work during afternoon will disappear.
- To shed a few pounds I started to gain when I changed my job and moved away from where I was previously successful in a gradual weight loss.
- To have this experience as such and how it would affect me.
- Now you already know it did not happen. I felt drained of energy even before the lunch time. Constantly and every day. My mornings were fine and then it went down and down. My life was not good on this diet despite having enough sleep every night.
- The initial weight loss of about 1 kg during the first week was reversed and the scales constantly kept showing only just over a half kilo less than before. So the loss of glycogen and water seemed to be the reason why for a couple of days I kept the lower weight before it went up again a few days later. And before you ask, I tell you straight: the body composition estimated by the bioimpedance did not change from the values immediately before the diet either. The body analyzer scales kept showing exactly the same percentage of fat, muscles and water. Were the two weeks too short to show some difference? I do not think so. Simply jogging one day used to show a difference the next day after re-hydration.
- At least I can put a ✓ to this one.
What and how I ate:
I have mentioned what I ate and what I left out, but here I am offering you a closer look on the structure of my diet. My breakfast regularly consisted of two-three hard boiled eggs, two-three slices of ham or roasted topside beef, a piece of cheese or a few teaspoons of Mascarpone cheese or some unsalted butter, in addition to the cream in my morning coffee. A piece of cucumber or tomato kept me sane as I naturally crave fresh produce.
At work my beverage was mostly a tea with cream and water. The lunch was something like two tins of tuna in brine mixed with mayonnaise and some chopped black olives, or it was prawns with mayonnaise and paprika – just to simulate the seafood cocktail flavor, accompanied with a small head of romaine lettuce… Once I steamed in the microwave one chopped courgette and sprinkled cheese on top of it… It was lovely. Snacks were nuts or the mentioned raspberries: a handful with some Mascarpone cheese or soured cream and some chopped roasted hazelnuts on top. I was eating generously although I did not record the weight of things and I did not analyze it as I did it for a university coursework a few years ago. I did this diet by heart, knowing to stay from digestible starches and sugars as much as I could, including a sweet taste of red peppers or sweet potatoes.
The dinners were similar to the one on the photo. In between the meals I bite into butter, scoop a few teaspoons of solid coconut oil as a snack. Twice I sinned with those two apples or a handful of blueberries towards the end of this torture. I say torture because I love fruits and I had to stay away from them just to see how my body will react to the low carbohydrate diet.
It did not like it, that is for sure.
I consider it important to mention some supplementation I used. I have been taking conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) to aid the weight loss as I have had an experience that it really helped a little. It does not do miracles but it seems to do some job. Almost daily I use the cod liver oil with some A, B and D vitamins (mainly for the D vitamin), also containing some omega-3 fatty acids, and occasionally I take a magnesium tablet. I am using the present continuous tense as I was supplementing my diet before and I am doing it continuously. Some days I took the fantastic Superfoods plus sachet. I had to limit it as it was made of fruits containing sugar, albeit only the sugar naturally found in fruits and none added. And there I had the mix of spirulina, chlorella and wheat grass dissolved in a glass of water every day. That was it. Occasionally I remembered to take one additional folate tablet (vitamin B9) to keep homocysteine down although I think that with so many greens I had enough of this vitamin. It would be interesting to assess the inflammation markers before and after this diet. So I was unlikely being malnourished on this diet, which could hypothetically lead to the excessive tiredness. I believe it was due to my metabolism not suited for the lack of glucose in the diet and I am not sure whether continuing with this diet for at least three months for the adaptation, as I was advised by somebody on the web, would sort it out.
It is apparent that the two weeks of being on a low-carb diet was rather an unpleasant experience for me which was in contrast with the positive experience of other people. The simple tests I have done on myself indicated that if I had continued, I might have developed insulin resistance and hypertension or even angina, at least. I agree that two weeks are not long enough for coming to a definitive conclusion and that the trend could have reversed, but I could not afford to continue like this. I needed to function at work and in life. Interestingly, those who praise this diet have had their type 2 diabetes alleviated or gone completely. They have also lost a large amount of body fat and kept it away and they feel great. There might be at least two reasons why my experience was different:
- There was a different starting point in my case. I was metabolically healthy when starting the diet and I was generally feeling fine, except of those afternoon fatigues. My diet was not unhealthy but I thought I could improve it a little bit, based on the most current research on such diets. People who had positive results were often already sick or at least feeling miserable, being on their way to get sick. No wonder that from feeling bad it felt like heaven to get better. Even more so when they switched from their unhealthy processed western diet to something more nutritious which I already had.
- Another reason could have been a different metabolism which is partly inherited. There are people who have inherited better fat burning metabolism and there are others who have the same but with carbohydrates. Doing it the other way round means health risks for both of them. Although there is some potential for adaptation in each individual, this is likely to be limited by the genes. I do not seem to have any Inuit or other similar ancestor in my family tree a few generations back. You can learn more abut this from the anthropology point of view in a series of articles here.
These are the variables which need to be considered when evaluating the outcomes like this. Things are not only black or white and one size does not fit all. We should listen to the needs of our body but we must do it wisely. What we want is not always what we really need.
After all, this experience taught me again that my body is better designed for burning carbohydrates than fats. I have learned that my love for fruits and vegetables is my lead and I am going to follow it. I better cut down on dairy and fats and go back to a plant rich diet full of colours, textures and flavors that will fuel my brain and muscles again and protect me from metabolic diseases.
The golden rule remains valid: everything in moderation.