How to Start a Low Carb Diet Correctly
Okay, so you’ve just decided that you want to start on a low carb die after reading the many health benefits that it has to offer.
But these questions keep popping out in your mind… How many grams of carbs can I eat each day? What are the high carb foods that I should avoid? I don’t know anything about nutrition, so how do I even start?
I know these are common doubts and worries that newcomers to low carb diets have; don’t worry, because today I’m going to help you on how to start your low carb diet correctly, even if you know nothing about nutrition!
Most of what I’m going to tell you will apply whether you’re using the low carb diet to control your prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes or lose the extra weight you’ve been trying so hard to lose.
Get a Blood Glucose Meter if You’re Diabetic
If you’re embarking on the low carb diet to control your Type 2 diabetes, you will need to buy a blood glucose meter if you haven’t already gotten one. This is crucial if you are going to make the low carb diet work successfully for you because you need to test your blood several times a day. Disregard this section if you’re embarking on the low carb diet only for fatloss.
You can easily purchase a blood glucose meter for your local pharmacy or drugstore at your location.
If You’re Diabetic, Work with Your Doctor to Reduce Your Medications
Before we begin, I need to tell you that the low carb diet will definitely lower your blood sugar, sometimes in just a matter of days so you’ll need to work with your doctor to lower your diabetic medications. However, if you’re embarking on the low carb diet to lose fat you can disregard this section as well.
The most common medications for treating Type 2 diabetes that I’ve come across are Metformin, Glipizide and Insulin. Metformin and Glipizide are oral medications while insulin is administered via injections and insulin pumps. Other diabetic medications include Minidiab, Euglucon, Daonil, and Glibenclamide which are known as sulfonylureas: they act by increasing the amounts of insulin produced by the pancreas.
Once you’re start on a low carb diet, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar levels closely and regularly every day – upon waking in the morning, and 2 hours after every meal so that you can work with your doctor to reduce the dosage of your medications otherwise you’ll end up having low blood sugar which will need you to get your blood sugar up to stable levels by eating more carbs; this will obviously make the low carb diet much less effective.
Please do not delay in discussing the lowering of the dosages of your diabetes medications with your doctor as the low carb diet works very well in the lowering of blood sugar. I’ve got folks telling me that their blood sugar levels have dropped as much as 5 mmol/L within 2 – 3 days of starting the low carb diet.
Tell Your Family Members
One deciding factor which can help you succeed in implementing the low carb diet is the support of your family.
Tell your family members that you’re starting on this diet and ask for their support. Let them know that you want to go on this diet because it will help you control your Type 2 diabetes and/or to lose weight.
If you’re the one in the family that does the groceries every week, then you have much better control over what you put in your fridge and pantry. On the other hand if you’re NOT the person doing the groceries, then please discuss and maybe even negotiate with the one who is doing it so that you’ll have all the low carb food you need to make your diet work successfully.
Starting On a Low Carb Diet – Points to Remember
Starting and following a low carb diet is actually much easier than other diets – you don’t need to count or restrict calories and there are no supplements to buy and take other than magnesium which will help you through the transitional keto or low carb flu period; you just eat natural whole foods that have no or little carbs until you’re full.
- Write down everything you eat in meals and snacks in detail – this is absolutely critical. if you’re diabetic, when you take your blood sugar readings and it spikes, refer to your food journal especially your last meal to identify the carbs that spiked your blood sugar. On the other hand, if you’re using the LCHF/ketogenic diet to lose weight, having a detailed food journal will enable you to scrutinize your distribution of macronutrients i.e. proteins, fats and carbs so that you can input the data into apps like My Fitness Pal or Cron-o-meter for tracking. Tweaking your macronutrients to ensure that they suit you will help in your weight loss journey.
- Get a carb counter – If you find that the macronutrient trackers are too troublesome, your alternative is to use a carb counter like this one or you can download one to your smartphone; there are numerous carb counter apps on both iOS and Android.
- Get rid of all the forbidden high carb and processed foods. These are foods that you need to avoid on this diet so that you won’t be tempted to go back to your old unhealthy eating habits. Trust me on this one. The most difficult period will be the initial 6 -8 weeks because during this transitional phase, you’ll be tempted to revert to your unhealthy eating habits if you have all the forbidden high carb and processed foods within an arm’s length if you don’t pre-empt this temptation.
- Have healthy low carb foods within easy reach. I know that this is difficult to do if the rest of your family isn’t on low carb. What you can do is get raw nuts, whole cheese and eggs etc. – everything that you can eat in a low carb meal or snack, put them near you so if you’re tempted to cheat, then you don’t have a choice but to eat only those low carb items.
- Sugar cravings. If you have sweet or sugar cravings during this initial transitional phase, try squeezing the juice of half a lemon into a glass of plain water and add 2 -3 drops of liquid Stevia.
- Low carb foods for hunger pangs. The low carb diet emphasizes an increase in fat intake as this is the only macronutrient that doesn’t raise blood sugar at all. That being the case with fat as a substitute for carbs, you should be able to feel full between meals. However, if you get hunger pangs, drink some coffee or tea with either coconut milk or heavy cream or have a protein and fat snack like 1 or 2 hardboiled eggs or an avocado smoothie blended with cream or coconut milk and sweetened with a few drops of liquid stevia. Such high fat and protein foods will keep you satiated but will not raise your blood sugar much.
- Always have whole and natural protein foods in the fridge – free range eggs and chicken, fresh pasture raised meat and offal, wild caught fish and other seafood like clams, mussels, shrimps and oysters – so that you are able whip up quick nutritious meals when you want to eat. Dishes you can quickly whip up in 15 minutes include capsicum omelet cooked in grassfed butter or avocado and egg salad with homemade mayonnaise.
- Pass up the high carb foods when you’re having family meals. This is what I do when I eat with my family who isn’t into low carb like me. If you’re the one cooking, then you can set the menu for the meals. If another person in the family does the cooking then just simply ask for more low carb foods so that you can eat until you’re full.
Foods to Avoid
In my earlier article on the low carb ketogenic diet I’ve already listed the foods to eat and foods to avoid. I’m repeating all these for those who hasn’t read the article.
- All grains and grain related products e.g. bread, pasta, noodles, rice, porridge & yes, not even oats or quinoa.
- All processed foods and meats.
- All root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, lotus roots etc.
- All Legumes e.g. peas, lentils and beans including soy.
- All milk including soy milk, almond milk etc
- Most fruits, only berries are allowed.
- All juice, soft drinks, punch, sweetened tea, etc.
- Beer & all alcoholic drinks.
- All desserts, baked foods, sweets, ice cream, etc.
- Processed vegetable and seed oils e.g. canola oil, soy bean oil, sunflower oil etc.
- Processed commercial gravies, sauces and dressings e.g. packaged curry, BBQ sauce, ketchup, chili sauce etc.
Wholesome Foods that You Can Eat
- All free range meat and wild caught seafood e.g. grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, free-range poultry, organ meat, wild caught fish and seafood.
- Free range eggs.
- Cheese (NOT sliced cheese which is highly processed).
- All leafy and cruciferous vegetables i.e. most vegetables except root vegetables listed above.
- Avocados, coconuts and olives.
- All natural oils and fats e.g. extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter, lard, avocado oil, clarified butter or ghee, cream, sour cream, and cream cheese.
- A handful of raw nuts because most nuts have carbs.
- Seeds like chia, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds.
- A little full-fat Greek yoghurt.
- Coconut milk and cream – these will come in handy if and when you get hunger pangs at night.
Low Carb Foods Need Not Be Expensive!
You’ll noticed I’ve emphasized buying and eating grass or pasture fed meat and butter, free range chicken and eggs, wild caught fish and seafood and organic vegetables because of the nutritional value and lack of health wrecking chemicals that are in these foods.
That having said, I realize that in some parts of the world, buying such foods often means paying premium prices and many folks may find this prohibitive. It is perfectly alright NOT to buy such foods if you’re on a tight budget. As long as you avoid the high carb refined and processed foods, you’re already improving your diet tremendously.
For someone who used to eat high carb refined and processed foods 3 meals a day, switching to eating natural low carb whole foods and fats is already a BIG STEP in the right direction.
Here are some tips for buying good quality low carb foods at low prices:
- Always buy in bulk when there are special offers or bargains at your local supermarket, grocery store, farmer’s market or wet market (in Asia). In my location, sometimes there are special offers for an entire salmon for just two thirds of the regular price during weekends, so what I do is buy 2 or 3 salmon, get them cut up and stored in the freezer; this easily lasts me 2 – 3 months. This goes the same for meats, other fish, seafood and eggs on offer. I’m sure you can find are similar offers and bargains in your local supermarket, grocery store, farmer’s market or wet market.
- Look out for stores that sell low carb foods at lower than normal prices. For myself I’ve managed to find a chain of bakery and confectionary wholesaler and distributor shops that sell raw nuts, almond flour, butter, cream and cheese at much lower prices than the supermarkets.
- Buy organ meat like chicken, duck or geese gizzards and livers. They are usually cheaper than meats and are extremely nutritious. Beef and pork tongues and livers are also good but may be more expensive than those from poultry. Now, if you’re STILL WORRIED that the cholesterol and saturated fat will be bad for your heart, please read this study which proves that there is no link between saturated fats and heart disease. There are many more such studies and I will write an article on debunking this myth in the future.
- Eat more eggs because they are the cheapest high quality protein food, in fact much cheaper than meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Omelets, scrambled, poached, soft or hard boiled… the ways of cooking eggs are endless. I’m not referring to just chicken eggs, but also duck and geese eggs, quail eggs and even pigeon eggs. You can eat as many eggs as you want and I’ve eaten up to 15 eggs a day without any ill effects. And NO, eggs DO NOT cause heart disease; on the contrary, eggs increase HDL and change LDL from the malignant small particles LDL to the benign large particle LDL plus reduce triglycerides as shown in this study.
Try Intermittent Fasting
One way of cutting down food expenses is to go on a fast – yes, you read that right. Intermittent fasting is one of the best ways to reduce blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity for Type 2 diabetics. It is also excellent for fatloss.
It’s quite easy to fast. Let’s say you had a huge breakfast and you’re feeling full even at lunchtime, all you have to do is skip lunch, and eat dinner. If you’re still feeling full, then you skip dinner as well and eat only when you become hungry which is probably breakfast. If all you have is one huge low carb meal per day, then you’re practicing what is known as OMAD or one meal a day. This will help you get your blood sugar down, increase insulin sensitivity and lose weight, all at the same time.
Although the low carb diet will help you lose weight, lower your blood sugar and control your diabetes, if you pair it with intermittent fasting, your progress will be much faster. I’ve written a blogpost on how fast correctly plus the different type of fasts. Dr. Jason Fung, a world renowned expert in diabetes and author of the best-selling books, The Obesity Code and The Complete Guide to Fasting, has used fasting extensively for his overweight patients and to reverse the Type 2 diabetes of patients having the condition with great success. You can get Dr. Fung’s two books on my Amazon store.
Pack Your Lunch and Snacks from Home
You may not realize it but those lunches, snacks and drinks you buy from the supermarket, café, coffee shop, hawkers and street food (in Asia) add up to quite a bit.
Let me give you an example. I live in Singapore and it’s one of the gastronomic centers in Asia. When I first started going low carb in 2008, a lunch with chicken, gizzards, liver and cucumber would cost me easily SGD 12+ or USD 8.50.
When I discovered how expensive it was buying low carb food for lunch, I decided to pack my lunch to work: it was either leftovers from the previous night’s dinner or a 6-egg cheese omelet with 2 cucumbers and some raw nuts. Estimated total cost was roughly SGD 4 or USD 2.83 which meant a savings of SGD 8 or USD 5.66 per day. When I added everything up the total savings per month was pretty substantial.
Also unless your office has a free supply of coffee and cream, I would suggest bringing your own as well especially if you can’t do without your cup of coffee several times a day. If you telecommute or work from home, then you have much less to worry about.
Maintaining Your Low Carb Diet When Travelling for Business
Admittedly, this isn’t easy if you’re new to low carb. Before I left the corporate world, I was travelling quite a fair bit for business within Asia Pacific so I consider myself a seasoned traveler. Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t revert to your old unhealthy eating habits when travelling.
- Airplane food – you can just skip all the high carb items on the tray of food e.g. bread, root vegetables /tubers or grain and dessert. If just the meat/fish/ seafood and veggies aren’t enough for you, just put a small pack of raw nuts into your laptop bag or hand carry luggage.
- Always eat your breakfast in the hotel – most international hotels would have the low carb fare especially if they serve buffet breakfast. Go heavy on the eggs (any style) and salads. If you’re in an Asian country like China or Taiwan and staying in local hotels which may not have eggs and salad on their breakfast menu, then what I would suggest is to bring huge bags of raw nuts in your check-in luggage. This will be good for times when you can’t find a good low carb breakfast. That having said, please check the custom laws of your destination country because some are pretty strict and will not allow any foodstuff into the country e.g. Australia.
- Get up earlier and have your breakfast in the hotel before heading to the local office if you’re having a breakfast meeting the next day. During the breakfast meeting, just drink coffee with cream or milk if there are no low carb foods around.
- Find a cafe or coffee shop that serves eggs for breakfast. What I used to do when the hotel didn’t serve eggs for breakfast was find a nearby coffee shop where they serve eggs for breakfast. In cities within China and Taiwan where there were limited options for a low carb breakfast, I would go out the night before to buy several Tea Eggs (茶叶蛋) for my breakfast the next day.
- Stay away from starches and refined carbs where possible – this may not be easily done if your colleagues take you out to lunch or dinner and they bring you to a great local restaurant where many of the items on the menu are high carb.
In many cultures, especially those in Asia, the concept of giving face is extremely important and you don’t want to offend you colleagues who are showing you hospitality by telling them you’re on a low carb diet. However, if you tell them you have been ordered to go low carb because of your diabetes or weight problem they’ll most likely understand. If you’re afraid whatever you say may still offend them then go for the meal. The next day, have a good low carb breakfast and fast through lunch until dinner. This will help get your blood sugar down again and get you back to being fat adapted regardless whether you’re using the low carb diet for controlling diabetes or for weight loss or both.
The Adaptation or “Keto Flu” Phase
When you start going on the low carb diet, begin by getting rid of processed food, refined carbs, root vegs and limiting to 1 or at most 2 small fruit servings every 24 hours.
This is a big step for most folks going on the low carb diet for the first time and it’s a big learning curve. Some are able to adhere strictly right from the start, while most would only be about 70% compliant as they are still learning what foods contain sugar and carbs. This is perfectly okay as this is a drastic change especially if you’ve been eating high carb for many years. I always tell my clients: 1 step at a time.
Give it a few weeks for your body to adjust. Once you’re used to the low carb diet, then you start reducing carbs further IF you’re still getting spikes in the prediabetes range from your fasting and post-grandial blood sugar readings. Same thing for weight loss, the lower the carbs the easier it will be to burn the fat.
If you do decide to reduce your carbs low enough to enable your body to enter ketosis, you will encounter one or more of these transitional symptoms which will last anything from a few days to 3 weeks for some folks. I’ve listed them in my earlier article on the ketogenic diet and I’ll mention them again. These symptoms are mentioned by Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt of The Diet Doctor.
- Weight loss especially during the first 2 – 3 weeks. This is because every gram of carb holds 3 grams of water. When you drastically reduce your carbs, you’ll experience increased urination as your body sheds the extra water weight. After the first 2 – 3 weeks, your weight loss will be stabilized i.e. more gradual as your body starts burning fat for energy instead of glucose.
- Irritability and brain fog – you can’t think at all and get irritated easily: this is perfectly normal. What you can do is to put half a teaspoon of salt into a large glass of water and drink it: after about 30 minutes such symptoms will ease. Drink this salt water drink once a day for the 1st week or until these symptoms disappear. Another thing you need to do is to dramatically increase your fat intake. Low carb plus low fat will put your body into starvation mode and you will feel terrible.
- Poor performance when you exercise or go to the gym to workout. This is because your body needs time to adjust to burning ketones (fat) instead of glucose (carbs) for energy and fuel. This adaptation will take weeks; however, the more you exercise while on a ketogenic diet, the faster the adaptation will take.
- Constipation for some folks, especially if this is the 1st time on a very low carb diet so the digestive system needs to adjust. There are a few ways to remedy this. You need to dramatically increase your water and fluid intake, and adding extra salt will also help. You also need to increase your intake of fiber through vegetables and perhaps also add psyllium seed husks into your water: this will give you enough fiber to normalize your bowel movements. If your constipation is really bad, you can also take Milk of Magnesia or Senna to relieve it. Psyllium husk powder or capsules and Milk of Magnesia can be bought in any supermarket or health food store; they are also available from my Amazon store in the bowel regularity section.
- Calf muscle cramps happens when you first start the ketogenic diet because of the increased urination. You lose water through increased urination; these can decrease the minerals in your body especially magnesium. Dramatically increasing your water intake and ensuring you have enough salt will help prevent the loss of magnesium and the leg cramps. If need be you can buy magnesium supplements like Slow Mag and Mag64; take 3 sustain or slow release magnesium tablets every day for 3 weeks. After that cut down to 1 tablet a day. If despite taking all these measures, you still get calf muscle cramps, then you can increase your carbs to get out of ketosis; this will definitely put an end to the bothersome calf muscle cramps. You can get magnesium supplements from your local health food store or my Amazon store.
- Bad breadth when you’re on the ketogenic diet. The smell is described as fruity, like a nail polish remover. This is caused by your body is burning fat which is being converted to ketones to provide energy for the brain. This is usually temporary and will go away in a week or two. You can use a breath freshener in the meantime to counter this. But if it persists, then you can increase your carbs to get out of ketosis – this will definitely solve the problem.
- Heart palpitations and slightly elevated heart rate when you go on a very low carb or ketogenic diet. This is usually caused by dehydration and lack of salt. Again, this is normal and will usually resolve itself if you increase your water and fluid intake and ensure you get enough salt. But if it persists, then by all means get out of ketosis by increasing your carb intake.
Not everyone will have all the symptoms when getting the keto or low carb flu for the first time. What I’ve written above are all the documented common symptoms which are all mentioned in detail in Drs. Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek’s best selling book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living.
There you have it, very simple and easily usable tips on how to start right on your low carb diet which I’ve used myself.
One thing I’ve discovered that enabled me to stay so long on this diet and eventually became part of my lifestyle was that right from the beginning, I decided change my entire lifestyle instead of just the diet.
If you have your story to share regarding success with the low carb diet either in controlling your Type 2 diabetes or weightloss or both please use the comments column at the end of this post.
If you need 1-to-1 hand holding and personal coaching in starting on the low carb diet, simply email me: email@example.com. I’ll be more than happy to help.