Diets low in carbohydrates and high in fats have become increasingly popular as a means for people to lose significant amounts of weight in a relatively short amount of time.
By now, most of you are probably familiar with the Atkins Diet, which dates back as early as 1958, but further variations on this theme have stepped into the limelight in recent years. You may be more familiar with the term ketogenic diet, which entails a process where, in the absence of sufficient blood glucose, the body begins to break down fats into their constituent fatty acids in the liver before being converted into ketone bodies, or simply ketones.
Ketogenic diets have great application in the field of medicine, being of particular relevance to diabetic and epileptic patients.
How Does a Low Carb, High Fat Diet Work?
Now let's dive into the meat and potatoes of this low carb dieting business.
If you'd rather jump ahead to actionable tips, tricks, and recommended supplements to help you succeed, you can do that too.
It needs to be made clear that a low carb, high fat diet is not necessarily classified as being a ketogenic diet, nor does it need to be in order to be considered useful or successful. Let’s delve a little deeper to see if a low carb, high fat diet is the right choice for you.
Without overcomplicating matters, insulin is essentially a storage hormone which serves many purposes in the body, the most prominent of which is the shuttling of nutrients into various tissues and cells throughout the body.
The primary reason for insulin being released is the ingestion of food, and of course carbohydrate elicits a far greater insulin release once it is broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream.
Insulin is an essential hormone in the body; however, things can go terribly awry when sound nutrition is neglected.
When the typical sedentary person consumes an excessive amount of carbohydrate, it is broken down into glucose by the intestines and the resulting bolus entering the blood stream causes a massive release of insulin. This then leads to a sudden drop off in blood glucose levels as the insulin does its job, leading to uncontrollable cravings and the all-too famous ‘sugar crash.’
As this occurs more and more, and the body stores more fat, what is known as insulin sensitivity begins to diminish, and insulin resistance develops.
All this essentially means is that the receptor sites in your cells become less, well, receptive to the effects of insulin, causing your body to release more and more insulin over time and potentially leading to type II diabetes.
The low carb component of a LCHF or ketogenic diet ensures that insulin levels remain low; this is particularly important in the presence of large amounts of dietary fat which can easily be stored as body fat when our friend insulin is around doing its thing.
What’s more, the high fat component basically encourages the body to begin making the shift towards utilizing fats as its primary fuel source; this means not only the fat you consume in your diet but the fat stored on your body as well.
The Benefits of Low Carb Dieting
By now, we can clearly see that low carb, high fat diets offer a range of benefits, but let’s have a look at a round-up of all of the possible benefits:
- Decreased potential for fat storage, particularly visceral of ‘heart attack’ fat which surrounds the organs in the abdominal cavity
- Increased potential for fat utilization, leading to weight loss and muscle gains.
- Decreased inflammation due to a large intake of healthy anti-inflammatory fats and the reduction of potentially inflammatory foods containing processed carbs and sugars
- Decreased appetite due to the slowing of digestion by dietary fat and the satiating effects of protein
- Improved blood markers such as HDL/LDL, triglyceride, and glucose
- A reduction in blood pressure is possible; however, please be mindful of the sodium content of bacon and other processed meats and cheeses
- Powerful implications for sufferers of type II diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease
- Decreased digestive stress due to a reduction in processed foods and an increase in dietary fiber
You may enjoy one, some, or all of these benefits, but the advantages of low carb, high fat diets are undeniable for many people.
Nevertheless, there are some people who do not respond well to this type of dieting, so next we’re going to look at the disadvantages of low carb dieting before taking a closer look at whether or not this is the right approach for you.
The Disadvantages of Low Carb Dieting
Before jumping headlong into a brand new diet plan, it is essential that you know what you’re getting yourself into. Although the benefits of low carb diets are frequently espoused by proponents, it is important not to neglect the potential downsides.
During the first 7 – 10 days of removing carbohydrates from your diet, your energy levels are highly likely to drop significantly.
This is typically referred to as the adaptation phase, which simply means that your body needs time to produce the enzymes and other endogenous chemicals required to begin using fat preferentially as its primary fuel source.
During this adaptation phase you may experience foggy headedness, lethargy, headaches, sleeplessness, and a feeling of heaviness throughout your body. Some of these sensations can be rather unsettling to say the least, but if you stick at it you’ll be out of the woods in a week or slightly longer.
Many people also experience low-level dehydration and increased thirst, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that one gram of carbohydrate typically carries with it three grams of water. By removing carbs from your diet you will naturally be dropping a lot of water weight initially.
The adaptation phase is short-lived, although one major downfall that will persist as you adhere to your low carb, high fat diet is the superfluous nature of sugar and carbohydrates in the modern Western (and Eastern) diet.
Eating out with friends, enjoying family meals, and grabbing a quick snack are all luxuries that we take for granted, and you will likely begin to realize very early on that these kinds of events aren’t very low-carb-friendly.
This is not to say that sticking to a low carb eating plan is even close to impossible, because it most certainly isn’t!
With a little forethought, preparation, and patience, you will soon learn the tricks of the trade or ketogenic ‘hacks’ to really help you get the most out of not just your diet, but your life as a whole.
Is Low Carb Dieting Right for You?
As we’ve seen already; low carb high fat dieting isn’t for everyone.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before beginning a low carb diet; these should help to clarify if it is the right choice for you:
Are You An Athlete?
If you are an experienced, hard-training athlete then you are most likely already aware of what kind of dietary methods work for you; however, in the interest of thoroughness let’s start here. Athletes engaging in frequent, high-intensity training – not weekend warriors or casual gym goers – will more often than not require a diet that consists of 30 – 50% carbohydrates, perhaps even higher for some bodybuilders. While it is currently fashionable for Crossfit enthusiasts to adopt a low carb approach, this does not mean it is optimal or even healthy, so take the time and apply the due diligence to determine which camp you fall in so that you can strategically figure out what works for you.
To learn more about combining physical exercise with a low carb or ketogenic diet check out the fan favorite Ketone Episode of the Optimal Performance Podcast.
Have You Eaten High Carb Before?
If so, what was your experience, and just how high was your carbohydrate intake? This is important to consider because if a high carb diet left you feeling like a million bucks on a consistent basis and you haven’t gained excess body fat then low carb might not be for you. If, on the other hand, eating carbohydrates causes you to feel bloated, lethargic, foggy headed, and generally miserable then you might just be a prime candidate for low carb, high fat eating!
Have You Eaten Low Carb Before?
This is a difficult question to answer for some because ‘low carb’ tends to be a relative term, but if we take it to mean no more than 30 – 50g of carbohydrate daily then this should clear things up nicely. After adjusting for the often unpleasant adaptation phase, does low carb eating leave you feeling lazy, leaden, and lethargic, or do you feel warm, vibrant, mentally alert, and full of energy? If you’ve tried low carb and high carb without any success then a more moderate and balanced diet is probably the right choice for you.
Are You Obese or Do You Have Underlying Medical Conditions?
You should always consult your doctor before beginning any extreme diet - and it can hardly be argued that a ketogenic diet is not on the extreme end of things – but if you suffer from insulin resistance or diabetes then you could stand to benefit greatly from low carb dieting. This is also true of obese people, whose bodies simply aren’t capable of effectively managing insulin and blood glucose levels. The vast majority of heavily overweight individuals see massive and immediate results from dramatically reducing their carbohydrate intake.
Are You Ready?
If you’re merely entertaining the idea of improving your health and wellbeing in a profound manner then you should know that low carb dieting isn’t easy for everyone, and the adaptation phase in particular can be enough to put some people off of the concept permanently. This is where you must make a conscious decision; a commitment; a promise to yourself: “I will achieve what I set out to achieve; it’s always going to be a walk in the park but I’m going to do it anyway for my health and happiness!” These kinds of statements of self-affirmation can be incredibly powerful, but if you’re not quite ready yet then you’re not ready, and that’s okay too!
Take your time, ensure you know what to expect, and you will be far more likely to succeed!
What to Eat and What Not to Eat
There are some clear cut Do’s and Don’t’s when it comes to which foods to eat on a low carb high fat diet.
Let’s start with the foods you will want to eat on a regular basis:
- Fatty cuts of meat are entirely acceptable and often preferable to ensure you are consuming adequate dietary fat.
- Poultry such as Chicken, Turkey, Duck, and so on
- Oily Fish such as Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines, and so on
- Whole eggs
- Healthy oils such as Coconut, MCT Oil, Olive, Avocado, Macadamia
- Real Butter
- Fatty Cheese (beware of potential lactose or milk sugar content)
- Bacon (not to be eaten in excess)
The following vegetables can be eaten somewhat in abundance due to their high fiber and low carbohydrate content:
- Cruciferous Vegetables such as Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, and Brussels Sprouts
- Leafy Greens such as Spinach, Arugula, Chard, Lambs Lettuce, and Mustard Cress
- Lemons and Limes
The following vegetables are acceptable but strict portion control should be practiced:
- Onion limit to ½ medium onion per serving
- Tomato limit to 1 or 2 tomatoes
- Carrot limit to 1 small-to-medium carrot
- Bell Peppers limit to ½ - 1 pepper
- Mushrooms limit to a handful of white button mushrooms or equivalent
If in doubt, simply type “carbs in [insert food]” into Google.
This final selection of foods is those that you will absolutely want to avoid, either because they are unsuitable for low carb dieting or because they are generally harmful to health:
- Refined Vegetable Oils such as Canola, Safflower, Soy, and Corn
- Margarine and other Hydrogenated Fats and Oils
- Starchy Carbs such as Wheat, Potato, Oatmeal, Corn, Rice, and so on
- Fast Food such as Pizza, French Fries, and Ice Cream (sorry guys!)
- Fruit in general should be eaten in moderation and certainly not daily
- Sugar, Honey, Maple Syrup, Corn Syrup, and so on
Tips & Tricks for Ketogenic Mastery
Count Those Carbs!
It is generally advised that carbohydrates are kept in the 30 – 50g range daily, with fibrous vegetables and leafy greens making up the bulk of that number. This means that most dairy products, with the exception of cream and fatty cheeses, are off the menu because of their lactose (milk sugar) content.
You will also want to keep a watchful eye on the net carb content of everything from condiments and spice mixes to the cream in your morning coffee. You may initially be very surprised by just how many grams of sugar and carbohydrates are hidden in every day foods; a few grams here or there can really add up and keep you from achieving a state of ketosis.
Portion That Protein!
While ketosis is not absolutely necessary for low carb success, it certainly does go a long way and can help to keep you out of a kind of ‘metabolic purgatory’ where you body is struggling to settle on an appropriate energy substrate. For this reason, it is generally best to consume around 70% of your calories from fats, with the remaining 30% coming predominantly from protein and some trace amounts of carbohydrates from vegetables.
Suitable protein sources include roasted meats such as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork, as well as whole eggs, bacon, some luncheon meats, salmon and other oily fish, and just about anything that used to swim, fly, or walk the Earth! You can also supplement with whey protein (we recommend Natural Protein with Collagen to give your body all the immune support and tissue maintenance it needs while making this transition to your new diet).
Eat Your Greens!
We have already touched on the subject of vegetables but the importance of consuming ample fiber, fat-soluble vitamins, antioxidants, and so on really can’t be stressed enough.
The idea of eating bacon and eggs at every meal may sound appealing to some, but don’t forget about what mama used to say about eating your greens! Fats and proteins are highly acidic in nature, so it is crucial that this be balanced by a sensible amount of green, alkaline veggies.
Suitable items include broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, arugula, eggplant, avocado. You may also want to add items such as sauerkraut and kim chi to maintain gut health.
Maintain a Balance!
It can be very exciting when starting a low carb, high fat diet; after all, who doesn’t want to douse their meals in olive oil or eat big juicy steaks every day! Just remember that this is your body and you only get one; gorging on nothing but saturated fats and neglecting healthy, balanced nutrition is a recipe for disaster and can lead to widespread inflammation and digestive issues.
Instead, respect your body and ensure you are providing it with everything it needs to function optimally.
Recommended Supplements for a LCHF Diet
Prebiotics and resistant starch are some of the best low-carb compatible nutrients for gut health. While technically carbohydrates, they don't spike blood sugar or insulin because they are poorly absorbed in the gut. Instead, they travel through your digestive tract undigested until they ferment in the colon. Here, your gut bacteria produce fatty acids that have potent soothing properties on your GI tract, and provide energy to your brain to help combat brain fog and mental fatigue.
Prebiotic+ Resistant Starch is the perfect low-carb and keto-friendly prebiotic supplement to support healthy gut function, brain health, and improve carbohydrate metabolism. Unlike dietary fiber prebiotics and resistant starch provide similar effects on the gut without having to eat copious amounts of vegetable matter and risk uncomfortable GI side effects.
When adjusting to the benefits of a low-carb diet, many people experience nighttime leg cramping and increased muscle discomfort during exercise.
This is commonly because of low magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is the second most common deficiency in the developed world (second only from vitamin D). If you're on a low-carb diet and you exercise regularly, you are a prime target for low magnesium and muscle twitching issues.
Magnesium is a cofactor for over 300 different processes in the body, and supplementing with a high quality magnesium complex is one of the best supplements you can take to prevent painful muscle cramping -- magnesium can also improve sleep quality, something that commonly takes a dip during the adjustment phase of the low-carb transition.
BCAA's are unique amino acids that are absorbed instantly and work to prevent muscle breakdown by stimulating muscle growth.
BCAAs are useful in reducing muscle damage, but more importantly, if you're on a low carb diet, BCAAs help improve fat-burning and increase the use of local fat stores for energy.
Whether you exercise of not, BCAAs have a "muscle sparing" effect and can help build and preserve lean muscle. They can also help supply the brain with enough glucose to keep from getting too fussy if you choose to follow a ketogenic or Atkins-style diet.
Many BCAA products on the market are derived from alarming sources like hog hair or bird feathers, so make sure to find a BCAA product that comes from natural, clean, botanical sources.