Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When Is A Low-Carb Diet Not A Low-Carb Diet?

One of the problems with discussing the subject of low-carb at this blog is the unfortunate problem that has always existed about this way of eating. It's the inescapable reality that there is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes a "low-carb" diet.

When I started on the Atkins "low-carb" diet in 2004 to help me lose weight, that called for me to begin a two-week Induction period of 20g carbohydrate daily followed by an average of 30-35g carbs for the duration of my weight loss. Nowadays, I eat 50-60g carbs daily.

There are other "low-carb" plans like South Beach and The Zone which call for more carb consumption as high as 75-100g a day, but I am not aware of any that allow more than 100g daily. That's clearly too many carbs to be considered "low-carb."

Then you've got the issue of fiber and sugar alcohols. Should you count them in your total carbohydrates or subtract them since they do not impact your blood sugar as quickly as refined and simple carbs? I have never counted fiber or sugar alcohols personally, but everyone is different.

With this misunderstanding about what a REAL "low-carb" diet is, it's easy to see how someone may THINK they are meticulously livin' la vida low-carb when they really aren't. Such is the case of one of my readers who e-mailed me about his "low-carb" diet the other day and wondered why it isn't working very well.

Here's his e-mail:


I wanted to tell you that I really like how you write your blog about eating limited carbohydrates and trying to lose weight. I have been in a "psychological" tailspin for the past few weeks and it seems to be helpful to my psyche to read what others have experienced and to ask as many questions of people as possible. It's kinda like a web support group.

So, if you have a minute I'd like to ask you your opinion. Here goes....

1) I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 6+ months ago. Totally eliminated all those "bad" sugar-filled foods that I ate and denied that I did so. As a result my A1C went from 10.4 to most recently 5.6. So, obviously I'm feeling like I have this blood sugar problem handled.

2) But here's the problem. I'm 50 years old, lost 36 pounds in the first 4 months with a goal of losing a total of 60 pounds(from 247 to 185 or so). However, although my BS level is in check, this past visit to the doctor I learned that I had lost a whopping 1 pound. That is why I was devistated.

3) I really haven't changed my diet all that much from the first 3-4 months to the most recent 3 months and can't figure out why I have stopped losing weight. I also greatly increased my workout routine as an obvious result of having more energy. I run 10 miles a week on the treadmill and do a 10-station routine of weight lifting, so I'm wondering how in the heck I could go 3 months of eating lettuce, some chicken and fruit and lose only 1 pound.

4) My doctor doubted that I was eating less than 1500 calories a day and not losing weight. Well, I kept a diary for the past week or so, including every single calorie I ate from packets of ketchup to the occassional whole wheat crackers (5 at a time as a snack). My regular eating does include a bowl of cereal and a slice of whole wheat bread with low fat cottage cheese every day for breakfast, but you know what, it is the exact same thing that I ate while I lost the 36 pounds.

5) Over the past week I confirmed what I thought. Am I eating like a rabbit, no. But I've averaged 1350 calories a day, 40 grams of fat and about 135 carbs per day. Plus I am running and lifting weights 3-4 times a week, and play 3 sets of tennis 2-3 times a week. I know I could stand to lose some of the carbs, but then again, keep in mind that I was probably eating the same amount before and I lost 36 pounds, so what gives?

Sorry for the long, long message, but if you have any insight as to what gives, I would appreciate it. Personally, I am thinking that my body's metabolism has reset itself to a lower level and maybe I am changing some of my previous fat into small muscle, although I really can't see too much of this visually. I want to lose pounds. That's the bottom line. So, what do you think? Thanks again for your time.

Do you see what I mean about the problem with no definition of "low-carb?" After reading this man's story, I have a few observations to share that may help get him past this "tailspin" he finds himself in.

First, let me say CONGRATULATIONS on making this your way of eating for treating your diabetes. The low-carb lifestyle has been found to be an excellent way to control blood sugars and reduce your dependence on insulin and medications for diabetics. Here's an excellent article every diabetic absolutely must read.

While I applaud your effort to remove the "bad" sugar carbs from your diet, can I let you in on a secret? When you eat carbohydrate, whether it is in the form of sugar or starch, your body treats it exactly the same way. Yep! That slice of whole wheat bread, the low-fat cottage cheese, and the bowl of cereal are all turning into sugar inside your body which could be the culprit in your inability to lose weight.

At 135g carbs daily, you are not even close to being in a ketogenic state. This is absolutely critical if you are expecting to be successful at making livin' la vida low-carb into a permanent lifestyle change that will produce weight reduction and diabetes control.

Sure, you may have seen some weight loss and improved blood sugars from the way you were eating, but a more significant reduction in carbohydrate intake will help you even more. It doesn't sound like you've read any book on low-carb, so might I suggest Atkins Diabetes Revolution by Dr. Mary C. Vernon and Jacqueline Eberstein? It's FANTASTIC and will help you understand how and why low-carb works so well for weight loss and diabetes management.

If the scale is "devasting" you, then put the stupid thing away for a while. If you are following the plan as you are supposed to, then it won't be necessary to obsess over the scale. The last thing you want to do is give up, so hang in there. Think about your blood sugars being under control and how your clothes feel. These are better indicators of your success than just your weight loss.

Finally, make sure you are eating enough fat and calories to sustain your energy needs. With all the exercise you are doing, it doesn't seem like you are eating enough food. I ate well over 2000 calories a day while losing weight and still do today eating a diet with a fat/protein/carbohydrate ratio of 60/30/10. Hopefully this helps and I welcome your feedback anytime!

Do you have any questions about livin' la vida low-carb? E-mail me anytime at

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Blogger About PJ said...

It really is a problem when the same term is used for a range of very different things!

It's also complicated because lowcarb 'proper' -- and I would go back to Atkins for the start of any definition of this (even though he didn't invent it, he certainly pioneered its implementation in our world!) -- has other factors besides simply "lowcarb". Like sufficient protein, like water intake, and exercise. Cutting carbs by living on salads wouldn't be healthy, for example. Without the larger umbrella term that combines multiple points (Atkins, PPLP, Zone, etc.), the 'lowcarb' term itself is not very usable.

5/16/2007 3:05 AM  
Blogger K. Dill said...

Actually there are a number of diets considered low carb where carbs exceed 100gr/day, including the ZONE and South Beach, and Protein Power maintenance. "Low Carb" has come to mean any diet which gets 40% or less of its caloric intake from carbs. A Very Low Carb Ketogenic Diet, VLCKD, is a specific type of low carb diet. The distinction is now been made particularly by the research community.

5/16/2007 7:29 PM  
Blogger Calianna said...

As a diabetic, your reader would have most likely been put on their version of a "low carbohydrate" diabetic diet. But remember, the Diabetes Association decries anything less than 130 g of carbs/day as unhealthy (or is it 150? I forget).

What the food pyramid and all those nutrition labels on everything in the grocery store suggest is that you need a MINIMUM 300 g of carbs/day! That's a horrifyingly huge amount of carbohydrate to those of us who eat truly low carb, and even the 130-150 amount recommended by the diabetes assn. is still awfully high, but sounds "low" compared to the amounts suggested on the nutrition labels.

No wonder there's so much confusion about what constitutes low carb, especially for someone who has been diagnosed with diabetes.

Still, he musn't forget, if he plans on reducing his carb level to a very low ketogenic state, he's going to need medical assistance in adjusting any diabetes medications he might be taking to take into account the significantly lower carb intake.

5/17/2007 2:20 PM  
Blogger Robert Angel said...

I agree with Jimmy Moore that how you look and feel in your clothes is important. Also, with all that workout the guy is doing he must remember the muscle ways more than fat so it may not be as dire as he thinks.

5/17/2007 10:24 PM  

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