Food Freedom Friday Edition 118 - The Low Carbohydrate Spectrum

Where are you now?

Caveat: The premise of each of the low carbohydrate approaches discussed is that the lower a diet is in sugar and refined carbohydrates; the more health markers will improve and the more fat loss will occur. None of these diet approaches are designed to incur ‘rapid’ fat loss.

These particular approaches are highlighted because they reflect the experiences I have had coaching a wide variety of people to success by focusing on the match between individual fitness goals, lifestyle realities and likelihood of long term sustainability.

Tracking Your Food.

Studies have shown that doing nothing more than tracking your food intake can increase fat loss by up to 33%. This is primarily due to the mindfulness that tracking stimulates, and to the knowledge base you gain by understanding where sugar is hiding in your food choices.

Getting a coach to troubleshoot and hold you accountable can increase your chances of success much more, but even without a coach, tracking is extremely valuable.

Tracking does not have to involve weighing food, using a heart rate monitor or measuring ketones. It can be as simple as photographing your food, checking in with an accountability partner or a coach, or journaling each morning.

Tracking sugar and carbohydrates on a mobile app has been the most effective way I have found to troubleshoot and pinpoint problem areas, and is what is referenced under each approach. Regardless of which tool is used, tracking of some sort is imperative to forming the habits that will remain when the motivation fades.

All-in or Small Steps?

Motivation is fickle, as is witnessed every New Years. It is critical to know your style and be clear on your goals when it comes to self-improvement and habit change. Whipping yourself when you fall off the wagon is painful, unproductive and to be avoided if at all possible!

1.     Entry Level Approach: Decrease Sugar (aka Low Carbohydrate Diet)

Who is this for?

·       people coming from a Standard American diet of high fat and high sugar together.

·       people who are physically addicted to sugar;

·       people who want to change their way of eating in small incremental steps.

Initially, this approach to fat loss may sound similar to a no-sugar diet, but actually it is much more nuanced. Because we have been so misinformed over the years through both the politics of health and the food industry, we tend to think of sugar as primarily desserts or candy; food that is high in sucrose (table sugar).

The entry level approach is focused on decreasing sugar in the diet from these well-known sugar culprits, but it also addresses the following issues:

·       Where are the hidden sugars in your particular diet?

·       Which types of sugar make the most difference to fat loss?

·       How do you overcome the physical cravings that are so prevalent in a sugar addiction?

There are 2 macronutrients that the body does not use as sugar; protein and fat. When people refer to a person as being either a fat-burner or a sugar-burner they are referencing the way the body processes different foods for energy. A diet that is high in sugar (or refined carbohydrates) means you are most likely a sugar burner and receive your energy from burning glucose.

For example, a diet high in fruit on a daily basis, is a diet high in sugar (fructose), and this can stall fat loss. Limiting fruit is a difficult concept to wrap your head around, primarily because fruit does have beneficial nutrients and is therefore much more difficult to view as unhealthy in the same way as a Snickers Bar.

However, most fruit is quite high in sugar. The sugar in fruit is called fructose, it is processed in the liver (like alcohol) and it can be very detrimental to your health goals. Many low carbohydrate or keto plans refer to fruit as ‘nature’s candy’. Fruit is not in and of itself ‘unhealthy’, but a diet high in fruit can certainly stall fat loss. (Berries tend to be the exception in the fruit and fat loss equation due to the amount of fiber to sugar ratio)

The sugar in grains is glucose and the sugar in dairy, especially low-fat dairy is lactose. Sucrose is, of course, table sugar and used in most baked goods. Once chewed and swallowed, the body views all of these as just plain ‘sugar’ and if you are interested in fat loss or preventing diseases associated with inflammation, decreasing sugar is a good place to start.

Aim for 25 grams or less of sugar a day.

2.     Level Two: Slow Carb

Who is this for?

·       people wanting to make a sustainable lifestyle change that will result in decreasing body fat%

·       people that like the flexibility of scheduling cheating and/or having wine

·       people that want to keep an active social life, but want to improve health benefits

·       people that are not averse to tracking

I believe this approach works best for people that are ‘all-in’ types

Slow carb is focused on encouraging food choices that will not spike blood sugar rather than on a calories-in-calories-out approach. By opting for food that is high in protein and moderate in fat you are limiting an insulin response and it is that insulin response that causes food to be stored in fat cells. Since protein and fat are much more satiating, the number of calories consumed drops somewhat naturally.

Aim for a daily total of 100 grams or less of net carbohydrates and 25 grams or less of sugar. The protein metric will vary depending on the type and intensity of your exercise routine (or lack thereof). The lower the carbohydrate consumption, the more fat you can add to keep you satiated. This is not necessarily considered a high fat diet.

Avoid eating a daily meal plan that is both high in fat and high carbohydrate. That is the Standard American Diet that has caused the current state of affairs with the obesity and chronic illness epidemics.

A slow carb diet is lower in carbohydrate and moderate in protein with fat being variable depending on carbohydrate consumption.

3.     Level Three: Standard Ketogenic Diet

Who is this for?

·       people who have a lot of weight to lose or are obese

·       people with certain health issues, primarily type 2 diabetes, PCOS, or a range of health problems caused by inflammation (joint pain, etc.)

·       people that are insulin resistant and need to improve their metabolic health

There are many clinical, long term studies that show the benefits of a ketogenic diet for: type 2 diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, acne and more recently, cancer. The ketogenic diet is also rapidly becoming known as one of the more effective and sustainable ways to lose a lot of fat.

A ketogenic approach involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake, and replacing it with fat (moderate protein is allowed and is based on personal need). The reduction in carbohydrate puts your body into a metabolic state known as ketosis. Over time the body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy transitioning the body’s primary fuel source from sugar to fat.  

The initial stages of this diet can be challenging, as it requires reducing carbohydrate consumption to a very low level, and maintaining this level consistently over time. This can be an extremely difficult shift for many people, and is often more successful when people ease into it through a slow carb or low carb diet first.

Typical percentages of macros on a ketogenic diet that includes some exercise is can be 65-75% of calories from fat, 20-30% protein and 5% carbs. The most important metric to track would be carbohydrate, aiming for less than 30 grams per day.

In a nutshell: The Standard Ketogenic Diet is a high fat, moderate protein low carbohydrate approach.

4.     Level Four: Cyclical Ketogenic Diet

Who is this for?

·       people that are willing to be meticulous in meal planning and very disciplined in compliance.

·       people who travel a lot and find low-carb eating challenging while on the road;

·       people with an active social life that cannot fit continuous low-carb eating into their lifestyle;

·       people who experience prolonged negative side effects of a ketogenic diet. A cyclical diet may reduce some of these side effects through limited and scheduled carbohydrate intake;

·       people that are bodybuilders or athletes.

This diet involves periods of higher-carbohydrate or higher-calorie refeeds, such as 5 ketogenic days followed by 2 high-carb days. A nuanced approach to this cyclical keto diet is to target your higher carbohydrate days around intense workouts (this is also known as the Targeted Ketogenic Diet).

Similar to the Standard Ketogenic Diet and the Slow Carb Diet, the fat loss premise revolves around hormones and the insulin response to sugars and carbohydrates.

Low-carbohydrate days keep insulin levels low, which means glucose is not utilized by cells and fat stores are used as energy instead glucose. High-carbohydrate days cause insulin levels to spike which will prevent the body from adjusting to a lower metabolism that may accommodate a low carbohydrate or low-calorie diet.

If using this approach as a workout/training strategy it is important to note that in order to see your best results, your highest carbohydrate diets should be those days you perform your hardest workout sessions.

The second key is to understand FAT/CARB associations:

HIGH-FAT-HIGH-CARB is not part of any weight loss plan. It is bad for your health and your belly.

LOW-FAT-LOW-CARB is not a sustainable approach fat loss or weight loss (you get too hungry);

This approach is all about balance, tracking and tweaking. Balancing a weekly calorie intake, balancing the high carbohydrate timing with your intense workouts, and balancing the macros against each other. Definitely the most complex form of a low carbohydrate approach, but if done correctly, can be quite effective and sustainable.

Low carbohydrate days need to be under 30 grams carbs (ketogenic). All other metrics will vary based on the schedule of the individual and the intensity of the workouts. Intermittent fasting often fits into this regime following the refeed days.

This approach needs to be customized. It is most effective for bodybuilders, athletes or people that like to experiment and get geeky with numbers.

further popular protocols for a cyclic approach:

·       Weekend cycle: 5 days on a low-carb diet, then a 2-day high-calorie refeed.

·       Mini cycle: 11 days on a low-carb diet followed by a 3-day high-calorie refeed.

·       3 on, 1 off: A 3-week low-carb diet followed by a 5–7 day high-calorie refeed.

·       Monthly cycle: 4–5 weeks on a low-carb diet followed by a longer 10–14 day higher-calorie refeed

In conclusion

The amount of diet and nutrition information available everywhere can be overwhelming. My focus is on low carbohydrate approaches as I see the successes experienced by my clients. It is by far the most sustainable lifestyle of all nutrition programs and I have witnessed the efforts of so many reaching some degree of success.

The first key is to evaluate your lifestyle and decide where you might best fit on the spectrum. The second key is to be clear on your true goals and adjust the plan as you go without losing sight of the goal.

Michal Ofer