Fat-adaptation takes time.
Over a potential lifelong diet of high-carbohydrate meals, the body has developed a wealth of enzymes to burn carbohydrate, but it is ill-prepared for burning significant amounts of fat. Once you shift to a low-carb, high-fat diet, the body will begin to upregulate the production of fat-burning enzymes.
This can take a few days or it may take a few weeks and can be a painful and uncomfortable process. The worst symptoms appear in the first few days and then taper off. All the ‘low carb flu’ symptoms disappear once the body starts burning fat (ketones) instead of carbs (glucose).
How Can You Make the Adaptation Phase Easier?
Nobody wants to feel like they have the flu for days on end, and there are a few things you can do to minimize and greatly reduce these side-effects:
The first thing to remember is that when you are consuming a high carbohydrate diet, your body stores lots of glycogen. Glycogen is a form of sugar that is easy for the body to use and is stored in your muscles and liver. For every gram of glycogen, the body stores approximately 3 grams of water
When you begin reducing your carbohydrates, these glycogen stores progressively deplete and at the same time flush the no-longer-needed stored water. As you lose this water, you also lose precious electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
Further water loss is due to a reduction in insulin levels. As your carbohydrate intake reduces, your blood glucose levels drop significantly (a good thing). This in turn reduces your circulating insulin levels (a great thing).
Higher insulin levels encourage your kidneys to retain sodium, so as insulin levels drop, this stored sodium is excreted. This means you lose yet more water as you excrete this sodium through urination.
Because you are losing a significant amount of water during the first few days of carbohydrate restriction, it becomes vitally important to stay hydrated. Dehydration can easily occur and helps explain many of the symptoms such as headaches and cramps.
Thirst is a great cue. Pay attention to it!! While I am not a proponent of an arbitrary water recommendation that fits everyone, it is worth considerably increasing your water intake during the low carbohydrate adaptation phase.
If you experience headaches or any cramping, then there is a high probability that you are simply not drinking enough.
Sodium is one of the most important nutrients to human health. As previously mentioned, your body flushes large amounts of this electrolyte away when you begin to reduce your carbohydrate intake.
Quickly losing large amounts of sodium in this way can lead to many deficiency symptoms such as headaches, thirst, brain fog, and lethargy. This explains a significant part of what the ‘low carb flu’ is — symptoms of electrolyte deficiencies and inadequate hydration.
On the negative side, critically low sodium levels may also lead to hypotension (low blood pressure). This condition results in feelings of dizziness, light-headedness, and in severe cases, even passing out. It is, therefore, critical to ensure you are getting extra sodium when starting on a ketogenic diet.
How Much Sodium is Enough?
Significantly reducing your carbohydrate intake without upping water and salt intake is likely going to cause flu-like symptoms. Phinney and Volek, respected low-carb research scientists, recommend 3-5 grams of sodium per day. This translates to approximately 1.5 to 2 teaspoons of salt. I always recommend high quality, naturally harvested rock or sea salt with no additives. This ensures a good balance between sodium and other essential minerals and allows your body to self-regulate amounts in this way.
Here are some ways to ensure sufficient sodium intake;
· Focusing on naturally sodium-rich foods like eggs, meat, and fish
· Making bone broth and salty soups
· Including sea vegetables such as kelp and kombu
· Liberally salting each meal
High salt consumption need not be too much of a concern. In fact, studies show that for most people salt consumption plays a minor role in hypertension (high blood pressure) compared to sugar and refined carbohydrate intake.
Furthermore, when your insulin levels are lower and more stable, the body does not store salt in the same way.
Sodium and potassium need a delicate balance in the body, and this ratio is essential for controlling the fluid balance in every cell.
As sodium levels fall when reducing your carbohydrate consumption, so too do potassium levels as the body excretes it through urine.
Not surprisingly, symptoms of potassium deficiency also mimic those of the low carb induction flu and can include:
· Heart palpitations
There are several ways to keep potassium levels sufficient:
· Make yourself aware of low carb foods that are high in the mineral.
· Due to the link between sodium and potassium, keeping sodium intake high helps to preserve potassium levels.
· Emphasize leafy greens — spinach and seaweed are especially high in the mineral.
· All meat and fish contain relatively good amounts of potassium, and these foods generally form a part of a your low carbohydrate nutrition plan.
Despite magnesium playing a vital role in every cell of our body, deficiency is an increasing problem. In my opinion, magnesium is one of the most important minerals. The fact that magnesium levels drop when reducing carbohydrate consumption is an important consideration. Sufficient magnesium intake helps regulate potassium and sodium levels.
Short-term magnesium deficiency is associated with;
· An increase in food cravings
· Symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, and cramps
A few strategies to maintain sufficient magnesium levels include
· Many delicious low carbohydrate foods are high in magnesium. Try to include
Nuts and Seeds. Nuts and seeds are a great source of fats and can contribute a small amount of protein to a low carbohydrate diet. ...
- Dark Leafy Greens. ...
- Fatty Fish. ...
- Dark Chocolate (above 70% cocoa) ...
- Avocado. ...
- Bone Broth. ...
- Mineral Rich Water.
· If you are not getting enough dietary magnesium (and most of us are not) it is a good idea to consider using supplements. Magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate are you best options.
Ensuring a proper dietary intake of magnesium, potassium, and sodium will assist in providing sufficient levels of electrolytes. Through this and drinking enough fluids, you can usually neutralize or dramatically reduce most of the low carbohydrate adaptation symptoms.
Making sure you are eating a sufficient amount of dietary fat helps your body to acclimatize to burning fat for fuel quickly.
Fearing fat is a mistake that so many people make. When limiting dietary carbohydrate, I see so many people eating low-fat chicken breasts and trimming the fat from red meat.
If carbohydrate is low, then fat needs to be high or else you will feel terrible and you will suffer physiologically and metabolically.
· Prioritize sources of fat in the diet, from foods such as;
· Fatty meats (pork belly, bacon, ribeye steak, roasted chicken with skin).
· Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines).
· Healthy fruit sources of fat such as olives and avocado.
· A small handful of nuts daily – macadamia nuts are one of the tastiest!
· Liberal use of healthy fat sources including butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and animal fats.
Temporarily eating more fat can help hasten the low carbohydrate adaptation phase. Once fully adapted you can begin to experiment with your fat intake a little more.
Do not fear the fat!
Low carbohydrate diets can be extremely healthy and have numerous health benefits if you eat the right foods.
It is important to do your research before adopting the diet for the first time. Preparation is always your key to success.
Some of the possible adaptation symptoms can feel scary, but all it takes is a little knowledge to minimize or completely avoid them.
If you do experience some symptoms, it becomes imperative to ensure you get enough water and electrolytes.
Keep in mind that although these adaptation flu symptoms can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, they do not last forever and once passed you can begin to enjoy many of the benefits of low carbohydrate lifestyles.