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Low Carb For Beginners

                                                                 "In the beginning, we make our habits. In the end, our habits make us."

What you should know as a new low carber . . .

Many new dieters make a lot of the same mistakes, or walk into this eating plan with a lot of the same misconceptions. Here, we'll try and hammer home a few points and answer a few basics.

Keep in mind that the advice given here is meant primarily for those undertaking a low-carb regime akin to the Atkins or Protein Power plans. In other words, those diets that advise between 20 and 45 grams of carbohydrate per day; no sugar(s) and no white flours.

These diets are usually ketogenic (the dieter is in "benign dietary ketosis" (otherwise known as "BDK") and is quite different than "DKA" ("diabetic ketoacidosis.") See our article, "Looking for Purple" for more information.

Buy a Book:

Now I'm not kidding here and this is not optional. I've seen it discussed over and over again that people can "pick up enough info from the net." I cannot stress this enough. You need to read the book that goes with your chosen plan! This might be Atkins latest book; it might mean The South Beach Diet, or Protein Power, or The Hamptons Diet. Or any number of others. But don't try to do this from just "figuring it out." Surely with all you've probably spent over the years on "diet things", you can find a way to spend $5 to $7 on a book that could save your life.

When you try to simply learn from scattered info, you end up with important pieces of information missing; a mixture of fact and others' misconceptions; and a mixture of facts from different plans.

If you find you're a little tight on money and can't afford the books (though they are inexpensive paperbacks), you can always find copies at thrift stores and garage sales. I've also seen them at eBay for $1.   There's always the public library, but the drawback is that you have to give it back, and it's great not only reading your book(s), but being able to reference them time and again when you've forgotten something. Buying them "on the cheap" ... one of the ways mentioned above ... means you can buy perhaps both Atkins AND Protein Power. The more you learn, the stronger you are. You want to give yourself the best possible chance of success, right? Learn HOW and WHY the diet works.

Out With The Old; In With The New...

Read The Book!

Clean out that refrigerator; Clean out those cabinets!
Don't wake up one morning and just decide you're going to do low carb. You want to read the book first, and then make sure the right foods are in your house and the wrong foods are gone.

You probably know what the wrong foods are ... you read about them in your book, right? Well, aside from the obvious white sugar, white flour, potatoes, rice, and pasta, here's a quick list of high starch, high sugar foods not appropriate for low carbing, as well as a few things known to kick off cravings or raise cholesterol:

               Sampling of Foods to Avoid:
  • Fruits:
    (* Once you've been on the diet for a few weeks, most plans
    allow fresh or frozen low-sugar fruit in limited quantities)
    • Fresh Fruits *
    • Frozen Fruits *
    • Canned Fruits
    • Fruit Juices
    • Dried Fruits
    • Fruit Sugars (also known as fructose)
  • Most wheat products (with the exceptions of wheat gluten
    and small amounts of whole wheat and wheat bran)
  • Commercial Bread Crumbs
  • Cornbread
  • Pretzels
  • Corn Chips
  • Potato Chips
  • Popcorn
  • Hot Cereals or Grits
  • Commercial Cold Cereals
  • Cakes, Cookies, Cupcakes, etc (non low carb versions)
  • Canned soups
  • Starchy vegetables:
    • Corn
    • Lima Beans
    • Okra
    • Peas
    • Beans (other than green beans and black soy beans)
  • Barley
  • Tamales
  • Burritos and flour tortillas
  • Beer (except low carb ones - see article here.)
  • Sweet Wines
  • Non Diet Soft Drinks
  • Milk

Remember, this is not all-inclusive, and you need a good carb counter — at least in the beginning as you learn.   For a good overview of the sorts of foods that work well in a low carb diet, take a little time to look over some of the recipes at our site (and the ingredients in them.) Or look through one of the many Low Carb Cookbooks available. You'll soon find your options are quite varied and a world of great food awaits you.

Not Your First Time On The Diet?

Feeling a little frustrated?

If you've tried low carb before and found that you're just not getting the same results (total weight loss or speed of weight loss), then it might be that you've lost your "Golden Shot." Read more about how and why this happens here.

Low Carb "Specialty Products" and New Low Carbers

New Low Carbers

We've found that with very few exceptions, those new to low-carb (in the first weeks or months of eating this way) have very different tastes. The low carb foods that have been made to substitute for their higher carb counterparts will taste "off" to them. Some totally hate them. This is completely normal. While as a new low carber, you might not believe it now, your tastes will change... at least somewhat.

Many of the foods we enjoy a lot every day, we would have found to be unacceptable in those first weeks and sometimes months. This is most notably true for the "non-sweet" items (chips, crackers, bake mixes, etc), rather than sweets like candies.

The difference is that the later usually use polyols (sugar alcohols) like maltitol, sorbitol, lactitol, etc to assume the sugar role and they still taste very good. But many of those items are not as low carb as they seem (and where that's the case, we point it out in any that make the spotlight.)

If you are new to low-carbing and you've found, say, baked goods, that you think are just delicious and you can hardly tell them from the originals, it's a good bet those items are NOT the low-carb foods they pretend to be. Labeling is often wrong, be it accidental, or deliberate deception.

So, if I'm just starting out, what products will I like?
Begining low-carbers should use this time (induction and a while beyond) to get used to eating the great foods they couldn't have on a low-fat diet that are common to their palate. From a simple bun-less cheeseburger, to an extravagant filet mignon with sauteed mushrooms, or lobster tail with drawn butter, a host of rich satisfying foods awaits you. For variety and meal ideas, use the recipes here at the site and get used to cooking low-carb. Use cream sauces; enjoy chef salads; and keep basics on hand at all times for snacking (deviled eggs, tuna or chicken salad, sliced cheeses, cold fried chicken, etc.) Save the low carb specialty foods for when sugar, flour, and Twinkies have been out of your system for several weeks minimum. Then start slow by buying new products in small quantities. And if something doesn't appeal to you, hold onto it... that shake mix you hate today might be delicious to you in another month or two. Or might be perfect for an upcoming recipe. The point is, use some common sense. And don't write nasty letters to our hard working group of volunteers because you went from eating Hershey's Bars to Atkins Bars and want to know why the hell we "made you buy those."

Your First "Plateau"... and Is it Really a Plateau?

I've been through my share of plateaus... some that lasted nearly one year... Since I'd never once cheated and kept trying various things to kick-start my body to resume the weight loss with no success at all, frustration was becoming my middle name.

First, let's recognize what a plateau really is. Many people write me when they've lost 7 pounds the first week of the diet and then have failed to lose any more for the next week or two. That's not a plateau. For some, weight loss comes in spurts, for others it follows a semi-regular pattern. But small periods with little or no weight loss don't always mean a plateau. Generally, a plateau (or "stall") means no weight loss for a period of 3 weeks to several months, when there's been no predictable change in eating or activity to cause it.

Now, once you've established you really are on a plateau, there are quite a lot of things you can do about it. First we'll go over the basics. Then I'll give you my own observations and the experiences of many of our visitors.

  1. Don't give up! Given a bit of time and patience, you're sure to hit on the cause and/or the "cure." And in the meantime, remember that staying still is much preferable to the weight creeping back up. And of course giving up means just that alternative.

  2. Check faithfully the labels of the foods you are eating. Many people check only carb counts. These can be in error or can be for a portion much smaller than you are consuming. I have written an article about this and I strongly recommend you read it. In the article we highlight a perfect example of label error.

  3. Take a hard look at what you're allowing yourself and ask if you're rationalizing. Are you cheating, but discounting it?

  4. Are you trying to keep your calories or food portions too low? Or trying to do low-fat as well as low-carb? See our November 29, 2000 Newsletter issue for our response to the problems that can arise from restricting too much. You can view the back issue here.

  5. Are you eating often enough? A frequent eating schedule will provide a constant source of energy without the insulin rebound. Six small feedings a day are better than 3 large meals to break the energy/weight loss barrier.

  6. Activity level: Are you too sedentary? Do you need to get moving? Many of us with "desk jobs" need to make a special effort to keep our metabolism up by structuring an activity plan that fits our schedule. You may also be going too far in the other direction. If you are over-stressing your body with an over-kill of exercise, you may kick off a plateau as your body struggles to hang on to resources. Be active, but be sensible.

  7. Do you smoke? Smokers have a much more difficult time losing weight while low-carbing. Some people will simply not respond to the diet unless smoking is stopped. Smoking uses up vitamin C and stimulates the adrenal gland. Also the tobacco industry actually adds sugar to the tobacco to enhance its "allure."

  8. Drinking...
  9. How much do you drink? The drinking of alcohol is of some debate among low-carbers and the doctors themselves. It seems clear that some of us can handle a moderate amount of alcohol and some cannot. You'll have to determine this for yourself. Remember, the time your body is burning alcohol, it is not burning ketones. Also, alcohol stimulates insulin. If you are drinking, make sure it's a non-sugar based liquor like gin or whiskey, rather than rum or brandy. Or have a dry wine or small amount of light beer. If you do drink and have hit a stall, try cutting it out entirely and this just might do the trick.

  10. Hormones. Are you on ERT/HRT? Hormone therapy can slow down weight loss and stimulate the production of insulin. You'll want to weigh your benefits and discuss it with your doctor.

  11. Contrary to entry #4 above, you may need to do a little caloric restriction if you are near your goal weight or have lost a great deal of weight and then stopped. Too many people misinterpret the instructions regarding the diet as "Eat unrestrictedly." When they do this they will still lose weight in the beginning, which will reinforce their assurance that no heed whatever need be paid to quantities. In most cases, this practice will lead to a stalemate partway to the desired goal.

  12. Are you taking medications that interfere with weight loss? Many drugs — even aspirin — can cause hypoglycemia. Watch out for hormones, amphetamines, diuretics, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics, anticoagulants, anti-diabetics, antibiotics, tranquilizers, clofibrate, Acetaminophen, and propanolol. This does not mean taking any of these will cause stall, simply that it should be considered as a possibility. Obviously, don't alter prescribed medications without discussing it with your doctor.

  13. Do you take in a lot of caffeine? Dr. Atkins tells folks to cut out caffeinated beverages (coffee, soda, tea) because they stimulate the release of insulin with a temporary lift in energy followed by hunger, fatigue & slower weight loss. However we've found this is not the case with most people. Some (including me) can handle caffeine with no ill effects. But it's something to look at if you take in a lot.

  14. Water, water, water. I know you've heard it all before, but are you really drinking enough water? You should be having 9  8-oz. glasses plus one extra for every 25 lbs overweight you are each and every day. If you're finding yourself stuck on a plateau, look at your water intake. If you haven't been drinking enough, this could be your problem. Beginning the proper water intake can yield amazing results.
    (One note: You need even more water if it's hot or if you're exercising vigorously.) Read more about the importance of water here.

The above thirteen points are general concern points where stalls occur. However, my long search for my own release from a long plateau revealed a few new wrinkles that I want to share: margarine

  1. Are you taking in trans-fats? Trans-fats prevent your body chemistry and fat burning mechanisms from working properly and kick off a stall that's stubborn to break. If you're one of those people that just look at the carb counts on labels and not the ingredients, you may be taking in a LOT of trans-fats.

    Any label that includes the words "partially hydrogenated" should be avoided completely. Trans Fat Free Shortenings This includes regular shortening, regular margarines, and many baked, pre-made products.

    You should know that both Smart Balance and Spectrum Naturals Organic (see photos on left) make new non-hydrogenated shortenings that contain no trans fats. Always read the ingredients!

  2. Treats mean treats. We have a lot of recipes at the site for "goodies", treats and desserts. And there are now many low-carb commercial treats, candies, bars, etc. These are helpful in a sensible low-carb diet because they keep us from feeling deprived and offer us something when the sweet-tooth calls or when we plan a party, or an elegant gathering. But the mainstay of our diet should continue to consist of good meats and low-starch veggies. Don't think that because a dessert item is low-carb, you can have it three times a day.

  3. Take a good look at the supplements you are taking. (You are taking supplements, right?) While everyone has differing needs and you might want to do a little research to determine what's right for you, I can tell you that at a minimum, everyone should be taking a good multi-vitamin (without iron), CoEnzyme Q-10, Acetyl L Carnitine and a good balance of Essential Fatty Acids. I began taking Acetyl L Carnitine (I was already taking the others and more) just before breaking the plateau. We will be publishing an article on the benefits of Acetyl L Carnitine soon, but one of its shining attributes is its ability to mobilize fat burning.

  4. If you want to take a "kick-start" step, I recommend the "Meat Fast." It's easier to do than Atkins' "Fat Fast" and seems to work just as well. For 3-5 days, eat nothing but Meat! You can have any red meat, fish or fowl with no breading or sauces and minimal seasonings. Fry in olive oil or clarified butter, or roast or bake them. No dairy, no cheese, no veggies. You can have up to 2 eggs per day and drink lots and lots and lots of water. But no soda, no tea, no coffee, no low-carb specialty products. You can have mayonnaise and mustard.

    You can make this more palatable this way: Before starting the diet, make up a variety of meats to have on hand as you need them:


    • Roast a turkey breast and have it sliced and ready in the fridge.

    • Ditto for a pork roast, and/or a beef roast.

    • Make a batch of deviled eggs
      (Remember you can have up to 2 per day.)

    • Have chicken and tuna salad ready. Maybe crab salad.

    • Fry some bacon slices to snack on.

    • Make up some fried chicken wings to grab from the fridge.
      (These can be breaded in crushed pork rinds, lightly seasoned,
      and fried in olive oil.)

    If you keep a variety of meats ready to go, you won't feel like you're eating just one thing day after day and the 3 days or so go by rather quickly. I have almost always seen a stall break by doing this.

    In Conclusion...

    In short, you have to remember that this is a lifestyle change and not a "diet." If you're looking for a quick plan to lose 5 pounds and then go back to eating (what you've thought of as) "normally", then this is likely not the plan for you.

    Be aware that there are still MANY misconceptions out there about this diet. You will face lots of skeptics and you may even argue with yourself a little. There are those that believe we are zero carb and eat NO veggies (we eat quite a lot), NO fruits (most plans allow for the low-sugar ones), no grains (we eat only the high fiber unprocessed ones rather than "their" highly processed bleached ones!). There are those who will tell you that ketosis is a "dangerous state" because they confuse it with ketoacidosis. There are those who believe that "fat makes you fat" (because it sounds logical) and will tell you you're going to give yourself a heart attack with all this fat you're eating (when in fact, bad cholesterol and triglycerides go down in almost every case where the low carber follows the plan properly.) And be aware these "opinions" may be held by those who are our nutritionists, our doctors (though more and more doctors are convinced of low-carb's healthfulness), nurses, and others. Care enough about your own life to do the research, to read the books, to make the effort. You're worth it!

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