At the time I’m writing this, I’ve been living a low carb lifestyle for over 4 and a half years. I started back in September 2014. I see more and more people getting started on a low carb and/or keto lifestyle for various reasons, so I thought I’d contribute a few tips I’ve learned over the years. Also, I’m not a doctor (talk to yours), this is simply my experience and may or may not apply for you.
NOTE: For purposes of this article, I’m talking more about low carb (which to me, means 50-ish grams of net carbs a day or less) than keto (which to me, means 20 grams or less of net carbs a day). I’ve tried, and like, both types of low carb living, but more people are able to adapt to low carb than keto in my opinion, so I’ll focus on that.
Tip 1 – Start with your “why”
Why are you trying to be low carb? In my case, my blood pressure was high, I was technically obese, and my first child was on the way. I wanted to be healthier and ideally, avoid taking medication to get there. I wanted to have the energy to play with my daughter as she grows up and since heart disease seems to be more common in my family, I wanted to make sure I had my blood pressure under control while I’m young to help me (hopefully) avoid plenty of issues in the future.
If you don’t know why you’re doing low carb or you have a reason, but it’s not your reason (i.e. your doctor told you to), then you’re going to have a hard time. You need to find your “why” so that every time you think about getting off the low carb train, you can remind yourself why you started in the first place.
If your reason isn’t strong enough, you’re going to be constantly fighting an uphill battle in your mind.
Tip 2 – Try not to replicate high carb foods
Yes, you’ll find all kinds of “low carb” versions of nearly any high carb food. If you need to make these substitutes to keep yourself on course, then go for it, but, know that very few of these “fake” high carb foods are going to be what you expect. If you’re just swapping out a low-fat ingredient for a high-fat one or swapping regular sugar for a sugar substitute, then it may be pretty faithful to the original.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to make a regular cake where you’re changing the primary ingredient (wheat flour) to something like almond flour, be ready for disappointment. I’m not saying these things taste bad, but if you’ve been eating wheat flour all of your life, you’re going to have expectations about how these things are supposed to taste and they aren’t going to meet those expectations.
For me, all these types of substitutes did was remind me how much I miss the “real thing”. It’ll be much easier if you keep these types of things to a minimum.
Tip 3 – Lean into the fat
When you first start, you’re going to feel like you’re eating a lot of fat. If you’re like me, you’ve believed fat was bad your whole life so there may be some type of mental block that keeps you from upping your fat intake as you should.
When you do that, you’re going to cut carbs (hopefully) AND cut fat, which leaves you with just protein. It’s going to cause you to be pretty hungry and you’re going to feel pretty deprived. If you do that for too long, you’re not going to be able to stay on the low carb bandwagon because you’re likely getting so few calories that you really are starving.
The sooner you accept that you need to eat more fat and that fat should be the vast majority of your calories any given day, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt to the new lifestyle. If you like to eat things that are leaner (e.g. I like sirloin steak – fatty/gristly steak just doesn’t appeal to me even now), just add extra butter or oil.
Tip 4 – Watch for hidden sugars in sugar substitutes and products marketed as “low carb”
You’re probably getting the hang of looking for sugars on food labels, but one thing you should watch out is a dirty trick on lots of items you’d expect to be low carb. Yes, read the regular nutrition label – if you see lots of sugar listed, then avoid it. In some cases though, you’ll see a low number of carbs, but when you look at the ingredients list, you’ll see that it has quite a bit of sugar in it.
For example, I used to use powdered Splenda. There is less than 1g of carbohydrate in a serving of powdered Splenda. Wonderful! You can use it to replace sugar in recipes and get basically no carbs right?
Wrong. If you look at the serving size, a serving is 1tsp. Then, if you look at the ingredients, the first ingredient (which means it’s the most prevalent ingredient in the food item) is maltodextrin. That a straight up simple carb that is going to spike your blood sugar levels even more than regular table sugar. If you end up using a cup of this stuff in a recipe to replace sugar, you’re getting a (relative) ton of carbs and you’re going to cause a big insulin response.
Quite a few low carb products end up using dextrose and maltodextrin in large amounts. Avoid those. For the record though, the liquid Splenda is usually just water and sucralose, so if you’re going to use Splenda, use the liquid kind.
What about sugar alcohols? That one is more complicated.
I personally subtract them but avoid some of the ones that are known to raise blood sugar levels. Maltitol is one that will likely trigger some blood sugar change, though less than a normal “carb” would. I personally try to stick to erythritol and/or liquid stevia, but you really have to figure out what works for your specific taste buds and body chemistry.
Tip 5 – Plan ahead
You can find low carb options when you’re dining out, but what you’ll probably find is most restaurants serve dishes that aren’t very satisfying when you remove the carbs. Maybe they don’t have many/any low carb sides, so you get just the entree. Great – you’re staying low carb, but you probably ended up getting a lean protein and maybe some butter or oil and that’s about it.
Most places consider low fat (which almost always means higher carb) to be healthy, so they simply don’t have many options for you. Steakhouses are about the only place I’ve found where you can more or less get a filling, healthy, low carb meal off the menu. Burger places are ok, but you may have to get a more expensive double or triple patty burger to make up for the lack of fries (or whatever side you normally get).
The only way I’ve found to combat this is to make my own meals 90% of the time.
Worst case, buy a lot of common low carb foods so you can make yourself a variety of simple low carb foods and throw out anything high carb at home (if you can’t resist it). A better approach is to do a real meal plan. Figure out what low carb things you’d like to eat and buy all of the needed ingredients at once (I like to shop once a week for the whole week’s meals).
Make it so it’s easy to know what you need to make each day and make sure the ingredients are handy so there is as little friction as possible. Even better, meal prep several low carb options at the start of the week so on those busy days when you don’t feel like cooking, you can just grab a pre-made meal from the fridge or the freezer.
Find what works for you
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is what has worked for me. Everyone is going to be different and it’s critical that you figure out what works for you.
If you’re having to force yourself to stay low carb after the first couple of weeks, you probably need to tune something. Getting started is hard, but you shouldn’t be feeling like you’re fighting yourself week after week after the initial adjustment period. If you get the benefits of low carb eating because you do it for a month and then you go back to eating your regular diet, you’re going to be right back where you started.
This has to be easy enough for it to become your default lifestyle. If it isn’t, adjust until it is.