It was Thursday night. I was at my final dance practice before the big show on Saturday and the mirrors in the studio were not kind. While my feet and arms were doing mostly what they were supposed to, all I could focus on was my stomach. Every step I took had my belly jiggling, and every attempt to cover it up was NOT working! .
So, like anyone totally obsessed with their belly fat does, I went home and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Yep, my stomach was definitely bigger than it had been that morning. I also know that every time I dance at a performance, something about nerves and waiting around for hours to go out on stage brings on major bloat!
This Saturday, though, I was determined NOT to feel so fat and bloated like I usually did. So, I decided to do a little experiment.
All day Friday, I followed my own advice and filled up on healthy fats. I kept my carbs low and ate only a few berries, an apple and some spinach. No grains; no sugar; no starchy veggies.
While filling up on fats and not carbs meant I was eating a lot more calories than normal, that night, I went to bed with the same flat(ish) stomach I’d woken up with! Woohoo! My late afternoon bloat? Didn’t show up that day!
Saturday, I began the day off in the same manner, very high-fat and very-low carb, mainly healthy, vegan foods, too, like lots of hemp seeds, coconut, MCT oil and collagen peptides.
By mid-afternoon, though, my energy tanked and I literally felt like I’d run out gas.
Okay, so, good experiment; I just need to tweak things a little bit to keep my energy up for next time!
From High-Carb to Low-Carb…
This energy crash, this ‘running on empty’ feeling, is one of the problems with a high-fat / low-carb diet, and one that often leads people to seek out fast energy in the form of bread, pasta or other sugary carbs.
If done right, though, you shouldn’t feel tired and drained for long. In fact, a low-carb diet can actually make you feel pretty amazing once you’ve got food figured out!
A low-carb diet essentially reduces the amount of glucose you have available in your blood for energy that your cells need to stay active and alive. When your blood sugar drops, you get cravings for sweets and sugar and carbs because those foods provide the fastest form of energy for your cells.
Women are unique and need a certain amount of carbs so, for them, it’s hard to go straight into a strict low-carb diet. However, a few transition steps make this journey a whole lot easier! It’s all about balance and eating the right foods at the right times!
You’ve probably already heard a lot about low-carb diets by now. The Atkins diet was essentially the first mainstream iteration of this type of diet. It wasn’t the healthiest, though, because it misinformed people that all carbs were bad, including the healthy carbs that your body needs.
Let’s talk about carbs for a minute, shall we?
Real food provides 3 macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates. Your body needs all 3 in varying proportions to stay healthy and alive. Remove any one of these entirely and expect trouble.
Luckily, our bodies are pretty smart and will tell you when they’re in trouble through cravings and other signals.
Carbs are required for optimal health. Carbs break down into glucose and fuel your heart and brain as well as your muscles and many other cells.
Carbs come in three main types, too: sugar, starch and fibre.
Sugars are the simplest form of carbs and they come in a number of different forms (i.e. sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, etc.)
Starches are more complex but break down into sugars in the body through digestion. Whether you get carbs from simple sugars or starches, both metabolize the same way and increase blood glucose levels (more on this in a bit).
Fibre is an even longer chain of sugar molecules but fibre isn’t broken down by our digestive system. This means that fibre passes right through you intact. Fibre’s role in digestion and health is super important because it feeds your good gut bacteria and absorbs toxins, excess hormones, and other waste as it passes through to your colon.
NOTE: When you follow a low-carb diet, you’re looking for your ‘net carbs’ in your daily limit.
Net carbs = Total carbs – fibre content
Carbohydrate Metabolism & Blood Sugar
Of the 3 macronutrients, carbs are broken down the fastest by your digestive tract. And, depending on the type of carbs you eat, some can be broken down into glucose very quickly while others break down more slowly.
Eating carbs can very quickly raise your blood glucose levels to provide fast energy to the cells that need it. Blood glucose triggers a hormone known as insulin to come along and pick up the glucose and deliver it to your cells. This is great if you’re working out or doing something active because insulin will bring energy (aka glucose) to your muscles when they need it.
However, if your muscles or other cells don’t need any energy at that moment, insulin ends up storing glucose as fat. A few hours later, because your blood sugar has dropped and maybe your muscles ran out of energy, you start to crave quick energy from sugar and carbs. So, you eat more carbs, which spike your blood sugar and insulin stores most of that energy as fat.
It creates a viscous cycle because too many carbs (of the wrong type) will lead to increased body fat.
The basic idea behind the original low-carb diets was that, if we eliminated all these carbs that caused fat accumulation, we’d lose weight. Low-carb diets help to prevent the release of insulin, which is your fat storage hormone.
However, this approach wasn’t entirely on mark. It’s true that fewer carbs, especially the ones that break down quickly in your body, does lead to fat loss. However, eliminating good carbs, like fruits and vegetables, and not replacing the removed foods with something else sets you up for fat gain!
How Carbs Cause Body Fat
We already know that some carbs are healthy right?
Vegetables are carbohydrates, with some protein content. You know that eating vegetables are good for you, right? You’d probably think twice if a diet program told you to ditch all vegetables. Vegetables may be mainly carbs, but they also contain a bunch of different vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients to keep you healthy. Plus, they all contain a pile of fibre…Remember what I said about fibre not counting in a low-carb diet?
What about fruit? For some reason, fruit has gotten a bad rap in many diet programs. OR, fruit has become glorified as the best way to lose weight. Is fruit good or bad on a low-carb diet?
Well, let’s break it down. Fruit is higher in natural sugars (aka carbs) than most vegetables. Fruit also has a ton of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and, you guessed it, fibre. So, does this place fruit off-limits for low-carb diets? Well, not exactly. Fruits are still ridiculously healthy but they should be eaten in moderation.
Two to three servings of fruit per day is probably enough, and you should stick to lower carb fruit like berries, melons, apples and plums.
However, there is a way to eat fruit to avoid spikes in blood sugar.
One of the biggest mistakes of restrictive diets like the Dr. Bernstein diet (and there are many, many more problems than just this…) is that they tell you to eat just fruit for breakfast. Fruit is high in natural sugars, which will spike your blood sugar and trigger insulin release. What happens if your body can’t use up all that energy? It’s stored as fat…And, blood sugar spikes early in the day set you up for energy crashes and sugar cravings in the afternoon and evening.
And cravings and energy crashes are NOT what you want when trying to lose weight!
However, if you pair that piece of fruit with a healthy fat and/or protein, your body will digest it more slowly, causing more of a trickle effect of energy into your body. Insulin will still release but the key difference is that your cells will actually be able to use most of that blood glucose, leaving very little for insulin to store as fat!
Health Benefits of Low-Carb Diets
Inflammation is one of the little-known causes of stubborn fat and weight gain. Inflammation causes a water retention-like effect in your body, where fluids accumulate to bring your disease- and toxin-fighting cells to areas affected by foreign invaders.
Bacteria and viruses are well-known foreign invaders but certain foods can also contribute to inflammation, too!
Have you ever eaten a pasta dish only to feel like you’ve just gained 5 or 10 pounds? This is actually inflammation!
Chronic inflammation has been tied to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, high cholesterol, cancer and reproductive issues. To reduce your inflammation, eliminate grains and all types of processed, refined sugar from your diet. Trust me, it sounds hard but after a few weeks, you won’t remember why you ate these foods in the first place!
Plus, removing these key problem foods is also at the heart of the low-carb diet! Of course, because dairy is highly inflammatory for about 90% of the population, keep your low-carb diet healthier by eliminating this too.
Low-carb diets may also help maintain muscle mass during weight loss, too. And, low-carb diets help to stabilize blood sugar and reduce constant release of insulin, reducing your risk of Type II diabetes.
How Low Should You Go?
If you’ve done any research into the Ketogenic Diet, you may have read that, to reap the benefits of the low-carb program, you need to keep your carb intake to about 10-15 grams per day.
There are a couple of problems with this:
Women’s bodies need more carbs. Most of the ketogenic diet research has been done on men, and on male fitness pros to boot. Most of the women I work with aren’t fitness pros, plus women have a whole special system of hormones that need to stay balanced to keep them happy. Right? If you get crazy PMS or have major menstrual cramps, then you know firsthand how unhappy hormones can make life pretty miserable, right?
As women, we also tend to take on more care and household responsibilities. We’re busy with work, kids, making dinner, keeping our spouses/partners happy, etc. This all adds up to extra stress. And, if we don’t have the right resources available to help handle stress, we get moody, irritated, anxious, exhausted and maybe even depressed.
So, the average woman needs at least 20-25 grams of carbs per day. You can drop to 15 1-2 days a week, but your body may tell you to eat more later on. “Carb up” days are important too, to replenish resources lost due to stress, mental activities, hormonal fluctuations, exercise and more. On “carb up” days, fuel your body with 35-60 grams of carbs (or more if you need it). Do this at least twice per week.
(NOTE: How many carbs YOU need will also depend on your activity level and your body type. This is why it’s more important to adjust your diet often than it is to follow someone else’s plan. Your body will tell you when it’s happy or not!)
Remember that we’re talking about the ‘net carbs’ here, not total carbs, too.
However, if you’ve never tried a lower carb diet, a good starting point would be to aim for about 100-150 grams of carbs per day and see how that goes. Use an app like MyFitnessPal to log your food and keep track of your carbs. A fun experiment is to track everything you eat for 1 full week to see where your own carb intake averages right now; from there, start by cutting that in half for a week and take note of your mood, energy, cravings, sleep and anything else that concerns you.
Just don’t forget to add more protein or healthy fats to replace the carbs you cut! Keep your calories at an average amount. If you’re not sure how many you should be eating, aim for 1500-2000, depending on your activity levels and appetite.
For me, I’m simply happy with a grain-free, dairy-free lifestyle. I eat sweet potatoes regularly and include higher-carb nuts like almonds and cashews on occasion, too. This is what I feel good eating, so your own ‘happy’ point will vary.
The key is to experiment and the quickest way to start is to eliminate sugar and grains!
A low carb diet is totally healthy if you’re getting enough healthy carbs and you’re supplementing your meals with healthy fats! So, if you take out grains, add in things like nuts, avocados, ground seeds, oils or coconut products.
The key is to get enough essential nutrients, which is entirely possible on a low-carb diet. Choose protein, fresh vegetables and 1-2 servings of healthy fat for most meals. If you need to ‘carb up’, eat gluten-free grains, sweet potatoes, or starchy vegetables in the evening. The occasional bowl of gluten-free oatmeal before bed is another great option, especially if your energy is low.
Going full keto is another option. This takes practice, so I do recommend slowly transitioning to this style of eating. It may not be sustainable for you, and you may have to do a lot of troubleshooting to feel good on it. Choose a healthy, whole foods-based keto diet instead of the super popular one online that’s filled with unhealthy amounts of high-fat meats, butter, white rice and so much dairy!
(Tip: If you do want to increase your intake of fatty meats, make sure you choose organic cuts. Toxins are stored in fat, so an animal that was fed conventional grain products will have a much higher toxic load than one fed organic grass or grain.)
Low-carb diets are healthy. They reduce disease-causing inflammation, help to balance blood sugar and insulin, and improve your body’s stress response. In turn, this helps balance other hormones to reduce PMS, improve fertility, clear brain fog, improve sleep and energy, and increase your performance at the gym.
Remember, though, there is no one-size-fits-all diet so experiment and test food combinations to see what works for you.
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