“Every woman knows that carbohydrate is fattening: this is a piece of common knowledge, which few nutritionists would dispute.” —Passmore & Swindells, two British dietitians writing in the British Journal of Nutrition in 1963
Whether you agree with the above quote or think it’s hilarious nonsense, there’s no doubt that reduced carb diets are useful for losing body fat.
A lot of people find that cutting carbs in favor of a higher protein, higher fat diet is the simplest way to get lean fast. However, people often make mistakes when going low-carb, especially if they are training hard in an effort to accelerate the fat loss process.
With these 10 simple tips, you can make going low-carb a lot easier and get better fat loss results.
Mistake #1: Not Restricting Carbohydrates Enough
Low-carb, high-protein diets are effective for fat loss. This is a scientific fact. But, low-carb is a vague term.
Simply cutting the average American man’s carb intake of 310 grams a day in half could be considered low-carb, but if you are overweight and your goal is fat loss, you most likely need to go a lot lower than 155 grams.
A review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests the 50 to 150 g/day range is too high for losing body fat in overweight, sedentary populations. A useful definition of a low-carb fat loss diet is less than 50 grams of carbs a day, which will lead to the production of ketones.
When the body is producing ketones it is no longer relying on glucose (sugar from carbs) for its fuel source, which is a state that provides significant metabolic benefits and easier fat loss.
Fix It: For best results, get those 50 grams of carbs from vegetables and select fruits, such as berries, or other low-carb fruit. Eliminate all grains—whole and processed.
Mistake #2: You are Lean, Active & Restricting Carbs Too Much
The AJCN definition of a low-carb diet as less than 50 grams a day was for sedentary, overweight folks—a population that is likely to have a degree of insulin resistance, inflammation, and a poor metabolism.
Lean, active people who are lifting weights and working out regularly tend to benefit from a higher carb intake, or from cycling carbs in order to replenish muscle glycogen. Carb cycling is also beneficial to improve the brain’s sensitivity to the metabolic hormones, insulin and leptin.
Additional reasons not to go super low in carbs indefinitely include the following:
Reduced thyroid hormone, which lowers body temperature and the amount of calories burned at rest. In lean people this typically leads to fat gain, whereas in overweight folks it leads to blunted fat loss.
Elevated cortisol. Carbs are useful for keeping the stress hormone cortisol in balance by providing an easy energy source for the body. When carb intake is very low, cortisol is released in order to free stored energy and provide glucose to keep you going. Having elevated cortisol all the time causes inflammation, adrenal fatigue, and eventually metabolic problems.
Fix It: If you’re active, pretty lean, and trying to lose fat on a very low-carb diet, try one of the following:
a) increase your daily carbs to the 150 grams a day range,
b) change the type of carbs your eating (try starchy veggies like sweet potato and other roots), or
c) try carb cycling (eat high-glycemic grains or vegetables every 5 to 7 days).
Mistake #3: Not Eating Enough Calories or Fat
A common scenario is that someone starts a low-carb diet but doesn’t eat enough fat, feels terrible, and quits. Calories may be too low, or the ratio between fat, protein, and carbs may be off.
One thing that needs to happen when you go low-carb is your body must adapt to be able to burn fat instead of glucose. If you don’t adequately increase the fat you eat, energy production will be sluggish and you won’t be able to sustain your new way of eating.
Fix It: Chances are you need at least 50 percent of your calories to come from fat to make a low-carb diet work. The actual percentage will obviously vary based on carb and protein intake, but you absolutely want to make fat intake a priority.
Do this by eating fat at every meal, opting for fats from the following delicious sources: Omega-3s from fish and organic meats, medium chain triglycerides from coconut and red palm oil, and monounsaturated fats from olives, olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
Mistake #4: Not Eating Enough Vegetables & Fruit
Many people think that a low-carb diet means they don’t have to eat vegetables since vegetables are carbohydrates. Although some people may be eating a low-carb diet and eliminating plant foods, this is generally not the best choice for a few reasons:
• Plants are some of the most nutrient-packed foods on the planet and they go a long way towards reducing inflammation in the body and preventing disease.
• Veggies and fruit provide indigestible fiber, which has been found to make people less hungry so they eat less. Plus, fiber is often lacking on low-carb diets since most people eliminate grains, which are a principal source of fiber in the American diet.
• Lower carb vegetables are a “free for all food” and you can eat as much of them as you want, which is helpful in reducing hunger and filling up your stomach.
This may not be so exciting if you don’t like vegetables, but here’s a hint—figure out a way to enjoy them, whether by trying new ones you’ve never eaten, cooking them with delicious spices and fats, or re-training your taste buds. Eating a lot of veggies is a must if you want success on a low-carb eating plan.
Fix It: Eat 2 to 3 cups of low-carb vegetables at every meal. Here is a brief list of low-glycemic carbs that you can eat liberally: all green vegetables (collards, celery, broccoli, zucchini, etc.), tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, eggplant, turnips, cucumbers, green beans, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, avocado, mushrooms, bok choy.
Fruit intake should be more individualized. If you are going for a ketogenic diet you will need to seriously limit fruit intake, but you may be able to get away with eating some berries or other lower glycemic fruits since they are still fairly low in carbs, but high in phytonutrients and fiber.
Mistake #5: Eating High-Glycemic Carbs at the Wrong Times
You can pretty much eat low-glycemic vegetables and maybe even berries any time you want, but higher glycemic carbs and refined carbs need to be eaten at specific times in order to avoid blood sugar spikes and reduce the body’s tendency to store them as fat.
Fix It: If you choose to eat “cheat” meals, post-workout is the best time to do so because you will have depleted muscle glycogen stores (the form of carbs that are stored in your muscles to fuel exercise) during training and your body will be primed to replenish those stores with any carbs you eat post-workout.
This does not mean that carbs are necessary, (muscle glycogen is only depleted by about 40 percent from high-volume training) but it’s the best time to eat them if you’re going to. The one exception is if you are a serious athlete training multiple times a day or perform long-distance endurance training, in which case carbs are important post-workout.
Always avoid higher glycemic carbs pre-workout including most fruit because they will make the body favor carb burning over the use of fat, which is an inferior state for fat loss.
Also, always avoid high-glycemic, “cheat” foods in the morning or when you are under stress because this has been found to trigger greater food intake over the course of the day.
Mistake #6: Eating too much protein and too little fat.
It goes without saying that a lower carbohydrate diet needs to be higher in protein as well as fat.
But, how much protein do you really need? And are there any dangers to just eating as much protein as you can fit down your gullet?
First, if you are restricting carbs but eat more protein than the body needs, some of the amino acids in the protein will be turned into glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis. This provides an energy source that may reduce the body’s ability to burn fat, inhibiting fat loss.
A second thing that happens with a very high-protein intake is that the body is not able to efficiently eliminate the byproducts of protein metabolism such as ammonia, which is toxic for the body. This typically occurs at a protein intake around 230 to 250 grams of protein a day.
Third, when protein is not fully digested and it reaches the intestines, the gut bacteria “eat” it via a fermentation process. This causes you to have fewer beneficial gut flora and leads to the production of inflammatory compounds.
Fix It: For many people who work out, the 1.5 to 2.0 g/kg of bodyweight range of protein is ideal on a low-carb diet. Naturally, some people will benefit from eating a bit more, or from cycling protein so that they have a higher intake in the 2 g/kg range during hypertrophy phases.
#7: Combining Fasting and Low-Carb Eating
Many experienced reduced-carbohydrate eaters report excellent results from fasting. Both practices have similar benefits so it is reasonable to believe they can compliment each other well:
• They improve metabolic flexibility and the body’s ability to use both fat and carbs for energy.
• They improve cellular health and reduce inflammation.
• The improve balance of metabolic hormones that are deranged, such as reducing insulin resistance.
But both practices are stressful on the body and if you take them too far, which can easily happen when striving for leanness, you can experience hormone imbalances, poor sleep, and altered circadian rhythm.
Women appear to be especially susceptible to problems from pairing fasting with low-carb eating because hormone balance is more delicate.
For instance, if cortisol is chronically elevated in response to lack of glucose and calories, the body turns the hormone pregnenolone, which is a precursor to estrogen and testosterone, into progesterone.
Progesterone is then used to make cortisol and aldosterone. Together these hormones lead to greater fat storage and more fluid retention and mean the body is not working properly anymore.
Fix It: You can always try fasting down the road but most people who are new to the reduced-carb lifestyle will find the transition easiest by eating fairly frequent meals (5 to 6 a day) and focusing on ideal food choices. This will improve balance of the hormones that make you hungry and allow you to develop confidence in your eating habits.
#8: Confusion or Fear Due To the Ridiculous Things Your Friends Say about The Low-Carb Lifestyle
There are many misconceptions and lies floating around regarding reduced-carb eating. These are often a result of oversimplification or lack of context, but they can be very confusing and even scary.
For example, you’ve probably heard all of the following things about low-carb diets:
• That they are hard to stick to.
The Truth: Not so. A comparison of 19 randomized control trials that tested low-carb and low-fat diets found the average completion rate for low-carb diets was 79.51 percent compared to 77.72 percent for low-fat diets.
• They are dangerous because they are high in protein and fat, which increases cancer, diabetes, and heart disease risk.
The Truth: Not necessarily. Although there is evidence that a high processed meat intake increases cancer and mortality risk, this is not the same thing as a low-carb diet done properly.
And it’s true that low-carb diets should be high in fat and saturated fat, but neither are strong predictors of heart disease and if adequate plants are consumed, overall health is consistently improved.
• Your brain needs 130 grams of glucose a day to function properly and it must get that from carbs.
The Truth: Not quite. It’s true that the brain requires glucose to function but it can also run on ketones, which are a result of fat metabolism.
And, although zero carb diets are never a smart move, the body is able to manufacture glucose from other sources such as gluconeogenesis (protein being turned into carbs) or from lactate (produced during exercise).
That said, some people will do best with a higher carb intake, but the point is that the everyday things we hear about nutrition are rarely based on science or a complete understanding of the situation.
Fix It: Find a scientifically reputable source for your nutrition information and consider working with a dietitian who has experience helping active people and athletes make low-carb diets work.
Also, avoid polarizing foods into “good” and “bad.” Foods aren’t inherently “good” and “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy.” They’re just foods and it’s what happens to them when we eat them in different combinations that has healthy or unhealthy effects.
Mistake #9: Low Sodium or Potassium
When you shift to a low-carb diet, your body ends up excreting more sodium and water as it loses muscle glycogen (the storage form of carbs in the muscle). Potassium is also reduced by this process.
This can lead to mineral imbalances, lower blood pressure, and sluggishness. This situation is commonly mistaken as low blood sugar, and individuals often respond by increasing carb intake.
Fix It: No need to supplement, but make sure that if you exercise, you are consuming 2.5 to 3.5 grams of sodium a day in your diet. Potassium is easily consumed from green veggies and other plants. Cooking with meat broths can also help if you are sweating a lot during exercise.
If you are eating processed or packaged foods, chances are you are getting way more than enough sodium.
Mistake #10: Not Taking Advantage of Low-Carb Aids: Anaerobic Training, Caffeine & Water
Anaerobic training, which includes lifting weights and higher intensity interval modes like sprinting, will improve the body’s ability to use fat for energy. Adapting your body to oxidize fat is something that needs to occur for a low-carb eating program to work.
It’s particularly important for overweight, sedentary people: Exercise is the catalyst to improve fat burning, whereas altering diet alone does not appear to be effective in the short term.
Exercise also triggers protein synthesis and preserves muscle mass during fat loss, which helps maintain the amount of calories the body burns at rest.
Caffeinated coffee in reasonable doses (1 to 3 cups) is a useful aid when transitioning to a low-carb diet because it can significantly enhance exercise performance and motivation when training with low carb energy stores.
Staying hydrated is extremely important because adequate water will help reduce carbohydrate cravings. You lose a significant amount of storage water as your body sheds its muscle glycogen stores. This is not a bad thing as long as you hydrate—something most people don’t do. In addition, water is necessary for beta-oxidation, which is how the body burns fat as an energy source.
Fix It: Start a strength training or moderate-intensity interval program.
Drink 1 to 3 cups of coffee (equal to 1-3 mg/kg of caffeine) pre-exercise.
Shoot for 0.6 to 0.7 ounces per pound of body weight of water a day.