(This is part 9 and the final installment of a multi-part series on How to Tweak a Low Carb Diet . It explains the path I have traveled in my weight loss journey. If you arrived here without reading part 1, you can do so by clicking on the how-to link. Part 1 also contains links to the other posts in this series.)
When you begin to restrict carbohydrates to less than about 100 carbs per day, the body is forced to draw upon its liver glycogen to keep your blood glucose levels steady. That’s according to Dr. Michael Eades. I can also tell you from experience, that during those first few days, the brain doesn’t get the proper amount of fuel to function correctly. Or at least, I don’t. I know that because I start having severe vertigo attacks. Other people have talked about being tired or having brain fog.
Now, the way it’s supposed to work is that the liver converts the protein you don’t need for immediate repair purposes to glucose to feed the brain. The brain can partially run on ketones, but some brain functions can only use glucose. Dr. Eades talks about that too. In The Ketogenic Diet by Lyle McDonald, his recommendation is that for the first three weeks, biologically, you need a minimum of 150 grams of protein per day to keep everything functioning correctly. That gives the liver plenty of amino acids to work with, so the brain doesn’t suffer from any deficiencies.
After three weeks, the brain is supposed to be keto adapted. That means it has switched from using 100 percent glucose to using ketones for whatever portion of its functions it doesn’t need glucose for. The muscles and other organs that can run on fatty acids for fuel begin donating their ketones to the brain. This muscle adaption takes about another three weeks. At which point, the muscles will use fatty acids or glucose if it’s available. A low carb diet is not generally glucose free, because vegetables and other foods with carbohydrates do turn into glucose when eaten.
So if you’re within that initial six week time frame, it’s silly to try to tweak anything because you don’t know how proficient your body is going to end up being in converting fatty acids and ketones into fuel. You don’t know if your body is furiously trying to protect its fat stores by stuffing them with water. That happens quite often, in fact, right after Induction because the dehydration that Induction produces when liver glycogen is emptied scares the body. It can take up to six or eight weeks for the body to release that stored water. And it doesn’t just do that right after Induction. It can do that any time along the way that it feels threatened.
Once you pass that marker, then you pretty much know where your current metabolism stands. Dr. Atkins used to call that “how metabolic resistant you are.” But too many people use that terminology incorrectly. If they aren’t losing weight every few days, they freak out and start thinking they’ve gone into starvation mode or have suddenly become metabolic resistant. It doesn’t work that way.
Now, if you’ve been on a low carb diet for a while, and are no longer making progress, then whatever you are currently doing is maintenance. That’s the bottom line. The body has adapted to your current diet. Accept it.
To fix the problem varies from individual to individual, which is why it’s so difficult to give advice on how to break a stall to someone else. There are many factors involved.
Food sensitivities and allergies is a BIG ISSUE that most people refuse to look at. I see that every time someone talks about how they went off plan and what the result was. Carbohydrates become the demon because low carbers would rather blame the carbohydrates for feeling bloated and making them feel ill when they eat something that is not on plan rather than the wheat and/or milk that is in the bread or cake. But you know what? What these people describe is exactly the symptoms you look for when adding a new food to a strict elimination diet in search of food sensitivities!
To look at food sensitivities as being a real entity might mean giving up some of your treasured low carb foods: cheese, nuts, sugar substitutes, or low carb tortillas. Whatever it is you think you can’t live without, that is what you are most likely sensitive too. That is the food item that is most likely standing in your way of reaching goal weight. Food sensitivities cause intestinal inflammation, and inflammation interferes with the way your body handles food. When the intestines are inflamed, you do not absorb dietary fats properly. If you can’t absorb them, you can’t use them for fuel. So in that case, a low carb diet can very well make you feel ill.
I happen to be one of those. I have never had an energy burst from doing low carb. I’ve never lost my appetite from eating that way; in fact, eating a low carb diet makes me extremely hungry. If I eat to appetite, I gain weight. Part of that is a body defense mechanism because I've lost so much weight, and part of that is due to food sensitivities, which drive up your hunger hormones. I don’t convert fats to fuel very easily, so the body tries to get me to eat things it can turn into glucose. Plus, when you eat something you are sensitive too (and it only takes a little bit), it makes you hungry for more. I also fight against my body wanting to take me back up to over 250 pounds. It's a daily struggle!
So here’s the thing. Originally, Dr. Atkins’ low carb diet was an elimination diet. He took almost everything away from you, except for what you body needed to survive. He did that because many of his patients had gastrointestinal problems. He didn’t want them eating fiber. That’s why his diet was so strict back then. He had many patients who were allergic to wheat. He had many patients who had blood glucose problems. Back then, he talked mostly about hypoglycemia, which is a sign of exhausted adrenals from food sensitivities and intolerances or autoimmune problems such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
So if he took almost everything away for that first week, what did he allow?
*His restriction on caffeine at that time was 6 cups per day due to its tendency to contribute to hypoglycemia. If you knew you had hypoglycemia issues, then the limit was 3.
Now, that’s what you got for the first week. It is a completely different diet than what low carbers call Induction today. It works extremely well to clean out all allergens except for cow’s dairy and corn derivatives if you don’t know where to find them. It’s designed to clean out wheat and other grains because those are the problems that most of his patients had. Back then, corn would not have been found in oils, meat processing techniques, and dairy products, but it would have been in the vinegar, mayonnaise, and green olives.
From there, you were basically on your own. There was no carbohydrate ladder to dictate what you add back next. In fact, Dr. Atkins’ instructions were to add back what you miss the most. I don’t know if that’s a good idea today though. What you miss the most is a sign that you might be sensitive to it, and if so, you’d be better off waiting a few weeks before you attempt to add it back in.
The way food sensitivities work is that once you go off of them and clean yourself out of the allergens, when you reintroduce them, your body will have an exaggerated reaction to it. This is due to the hormone cortisol which sends the body into fight or flight mode. Your exaggerated reaction alerts you to that particular food being a problem food for you. It is the only way to date that even physicians have to diagnose food sensitivities and intolerances. They produce a different immune system response than traditional allergy does.
Keep in mind that it might take 2 or 3 times eating a new food before the reaction appears, depending on how long it’s been since you ate it last. So Dr. Atkins’ caution in 1972 was to add foods back one at a time, and slowly. Five grams per day, per week is slow; but we’re talking about returning individual foods one at a time – not a complete food group such as many low carbers do today. Returning an entire food group at one time doesn’t teach you anything about yourself.
And that’s the purpose of an elimination diet. To learn what’s true for you.
What Dr. Atkins’ original diet does is it helps you personalize your plan. It gets rid of most of the potential allergens. It gets rid of the junk that is clogging your vision. It allows you to see what effect the basics of a low carb diet have on you. Without the junk in the way, you can more accurately tell if you are eating too much fat because if you still aren’t losing weight after a month or so, you can begin experimenting by lowering or raising your fat levels. The same for calories or individual foods.
The bottom line is that I cannot tell you what to eat. I can describe what worked for me, and what I went through to figure that out. I can share the many different methods that others have used that worked for them. But tweaking a low carb diet takes individual experimentation. It takes work on your part. Whether you feel it is worth the effort and the initial deprivation is a whole other matter.
I suppose the real question is WHY do you want to lose the weight? WHY is being thin important to you? It’s been over 5 years now since I restarted this journey, and I’m not so sure that the answers to those questions for me are even the same anymore.
I am not who I was then. My viewpoint on life has changed. My viewpoint on what’s important in life has changed, and I don’t think that vanity is a part of that equation any more. Maybe that’s why I’ve lost my motivation. Maybe that’s why I no longer feel driven to find an answer to my weight loss problem. Maybe that’s why I currently feel like giving up and accepting myself as I am.