Here it comes…summer (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere). Beaches, cottages, road trips, patios, and just about every other thing you can do in the sun are back and the chances of removing your shirt in public vastly increases. After a long and hard winter most people fall into two camps at this time of year.
The first are those who have been hitting the gym hard and trying to pack on some lean tissue. Along with this comes a diet a little higher in calories as they attempt to pack on the necessary size to fill out the top of the t-shirt. For many, however, the result also means that the lower half of the t-shirt fits a little tighter as well. The spare tire, love handles, or whatever name you affectionately call it to disguise the fact that it is just gross fat, is there. The time is at hand to get rid of it in order to reveal all the hard work you stuck to all winter.
The second group is roughly the same as the first. Their extra fat sticks out where they wish it wouldn’t. The difference with this group is that they forgot the “hitting the gym” part and keeping on top of their health and fitness. Instead, their habits include ice cream, chips, candy, pop, cake, cookies, and super-sized portions. And this group has more than a little extra accumulated fat. They have a second problem: they need to break some bad habits as well as changing their fitness routines.
For all of the people interested in the article there is a solution: the low carb diet.
Who doesn’t know the name Atkins? It has become synonymous with everything low carb. Words like ketosis and useable carbs have almost become household names.
Recent research has demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of low carb diets and nutritionists and authors are quickly devising programs and strategies based on the approach. Even some long term research now shows that significant health risk factors related to the cardiovascular system and cholesterol may not be what the medical community warned us about.
When done properly these diets are extremely effective at burning fat. There are numerous places, however, where people make vital mistakes and not only fail their low carb diet plan but actually end up losing much of their hard fought progress at building some extra muscle tissue.
Let’s first look at what ketosis really is and then the pitfalls you need to avoid in order to successfully utilize the low to no carb strategy.
What are Ketones?
In effect, ketones are your bodies’ last ditch survival effort to stay alive. Your brain utilizes glucose in the form of glycogen as its almost exclusive fuel supply, often consuming as much as 30% of your daily caloric intake to maintain itself. Ensuring adequate carbohydrate levels in order to properly feed the brain has been a stable argument of the anti-low carb movement since its inception.
Your body, however, has a backup plan. When carbohydrates are scarce or non-existent, you will burn through the glycogen stored in your muscles and liver until another source of carbohydrates can be found. While you are burning through this stored fuel your body begins to take safety precautions. It makes you a little sleepy and sluggish in order to slow you down and conserve as much of this stored fuel as it possibly can. Hoping that a new carbohydrate source is just around the corner, your body gives you a ton of signals for you to find and eat those carbohydrates as soon as possible. Headaches, nausea, and constipation are often side effects during this time period.
After all the storage is used up you need to find a new way to fuel that massive melon on your head that is responsible for almost every single thing that happens in your body. Your body will be breaking down muscle tissue during this time in order to create more glycogen, but the process is simply too slow to keep your brain satisfied.
Enter the ketone. This is the solution to starvation. Your body can take fat and turn it into ketones, which your brain and the rest of your body can then use as an alternative source of energy until carbohydrates are once again found. And this is what makes everyone so excited: your body turns to fat for energy instead of glycogen. You become a little fat burning furnace.
Once you are in ketosis (the state of making ketones and utilizing them for fuel) results are fast and often very dramatic. Losing multiple pounds in the first few days followed by a more gradual but still very rapid weight loss soon follows once ketosis is achieved. Then as long as that state is maintained, you keep burning away fat.
There are however some very common things that people attempting low carb regimes do that will prevent the process from working. On a worse note, if the diet is not performed properly it can actually do more harm then good. Below I will outline some of these issues so that you can prevent the downfalls of the low carb plan and reap the rewards.
Too Many Carbs
All too often people begin a low carb regime and the only mistake they make is not going low enough with the daily grams of carbohydrate.
For most people, maintaining a carb intake of 15-25 grams is necessary to get into and then maintain ketosis. Often people just do not realize where the carbs are coming from. Sweetener packets, coffee, processed meats, cheese, and tea can all contain enough carbs to pop you out of ketosis. Even allowed vegetables such as celery, lettuce, peppers, and onion can easily be consumed in quantities large enough to keep your body from making ketones.
When this happens you are on a low carb path that will leave you feeling sluggish, tired, and crappy. The reason is that you are not providing yourself with enough carbs to fuel your body and because you are not in the state of making ketones, your body is looking for a carbohydrate source that is not there.
In this state your body will begin to break down muscle tissue and convert it into glucose to provide your brain with something to eat. Your brain will get first access to that fuel and whatever is left is quickly used up by your muscles and organs. The tired and groggy feeling is your body slowing things down to prevent damage from starvation.
So if you do not get your carbs low enough you will continually be going in and out of ketosis or hovering just above it. This will leave you feeling groggy and sluggish as your body searches for energy. It will also lead to a catabolic state in which you are breaking down muscle tissue on a regular basis, slowing your metabolism and back tracking your efforts at packing it on.
You need to ensure you are keeping the carbs low enough. Track calories and read labels. It is annoying, but if you are following this nutritional strategy it is imperative. Purchase some Ketostix™ from a local pharmacy. They are small strips you dip in your urine, which will turn color according the amount of ketones in your system. This is a cheap and effective way of ensuring that you are keeping carb low enough. And you should not feel overly tired and lazy. You probably will not be too interested in running a marathon, but you should want to do more than sleep.
All The Wrong Carbs
Yes, eating ribs, chicken wings, bacon, butter, and sausage for every meal is appealing, but let’s be serious…that is not good for your health at all. You need to ensure that the few carbs a day you are eating provide you with the most fiber and nutrition possible without going over the limit.
Red peppers, onions, celery, and other low carb/low glycemic veggies need to find their way into your daily diet. A fiber supplement is also essential. Psyllium husks mixed with water works very well for most people.
I am not always a big fan of recommending supplements but in the case of a low carb diet they become a necessity. As a basic precaution, you should be taking a multi-vitamin to ensure that you are not missing anything. In addition, calcium supplements and a good potassium supplement are a good idea.
On a low carb plan, people might begin to consume too much fat. Obviously, a 60% saturated fat diet for an extended period of time is not going to get along with your heart very well. However, if you stick to a short time frame and do not have any cardiovascular health issues, I don’t think this is a huge issue.
In terms of your goals , however, too much fat will be detrimental. Your body is making ketones from fat and this is what you want it to do. But if your dietary fat intake is too high your body can simply use that fat source to create the ketones and leave all that stubborn fat storage exactly where it is. So keeping the dietary fat intake in check is very important . Your heart will thank you as well.
On the other hand, if your fat intake is not high enough, you will also be in for a host of issues. The first is that your caloric intake may drop too low. If you are eating just protein this is a very real possibility. Even though you are dieting, you want there to be a small calorie deficit, but the carb intake is the focus, not the calorie.
Go too low with the fat intake and you will be setting yourself up to be hungry in addition to the effects of the calorie drop. And don’t forget that your body can convert protein into glycogen, so you want just enough protein to provide your body’s needs but not so much that you are left low cal and hungry with glycogen in the system.
Try to make sure you are using olive oil and eating lots of fatty fish in order to maintain a healthy and high fat intake.
You still need to exercise. You won’t be able to get the intensity you are probably used to, but maintaining a healthy routine is a must. It will help create a calorie deficit and help to preserve your muscle tissue while you are low carbing.
Not Enough Water
You will lose a lot of weight in the first few days of your low carb plan. A lot of this is water weight and after the first few days becomes fat weight. But while you maintain the low carb regime your body will not hold onto water very well and you will be in the bathroom a lot.
This makes it vital that you drink more then your usual amount of water so that you do not become dehydrated and add stress to your system.
This is a matter of debate. Atkins advocates following low carb plans as a lifetime plan, while the medical community fears this will lead to marked increases in cardiovascular health risks. Realistically, the majority of people reading this are avid fitness participants and will need an adequate carb diet.
I have followed this regime a few times with great success and have found that 3 – 5 weeks is enough time to hit my goals and to not leave me feeling sluggish and tired. Then bringing carbs back in slowly over a week or two has allowed me to return to a healthy diet for an active fitness enthusiast while maintaining a leaner physique.
If you avoid the above traps I think you will see huge fat loss during your low carb plan. If you want more information, I feel that the Atkins book is the best source of very low carb information. They have been there since the beginning!