Low Carb Challenge Update

Ten days into my low carb challenge and I’m not so sure about low carb.

Tell me why it’s good for you.

It feels wrong.

I grew up in a time when the conventional health wisdom was that fatty meat and too much butter blocked your arteries and gave you heart attacks. You could envisage that - the pipes slowly clogging up like if you pour fat down the sink and it sets. Yuck.

Now apparently they don’t harm you at all. Unless the fatty meat is in a big pastry pie or the butter melts over a baked potato or combines with sugar and flour to make a sweet delicious cake.

And red meat. Isn’t that bad - doesn’t it cause cancer? Not any more. According to paleo orthodoxy we were in fact bred to eat red meat, so it must be OK. [Actually we may have eaten a lot of bugs and bark

Bacon and smoked salmon are a big part of the low carb diet with their essential blend of protein and fat. So what if smoked and cured meats are now known to be carcinogenic? Not nearly as bad as cigarettes!

And of course eggs have been rehabilitated - back from the shame of causing high cholesterol to, now, the number one breakfast choice of the low carb movement. Eggs, eggs and more eggs. I’ve eaten more eggs in the last ten days than in the previous ten weeks. Hard-boiled eggs, Nigella’s way, are delicious. 

But it’s kind of like I’m sharing a house with a random group of ex-convicts, desperately trying to convince myself that even if they aren’t fully reformed, I will somehow be insulated against the consequences.

Were all the food scientists back in the day really stupid or something?

Darker Forces?

Or are there darker forces at work?

There was an episode of the Good Wife a few seasons ago which portrayed the various US food group lobbies scheming to maximise their position the USDA’s food guide. Their side wants to increase the prominence of dairy - specifically cheese - so to bolster their position they try to align themselves with first, fruit, then grains.

Well that’s what this low carb diet looks like - the post-apocalyptic landscape of food lobby armageddon. In fact I recall joking with clients when we produced our first wellbeing research study in 2014, that it looked like the dairy industry had declared war on sugar.

It still does. Especially when you see how some sugar-haters rave about butter.

Is This Well-Disguised Diet Shame?

Now this diatribe could just be part of my post-hoc justification for the fact that in 10 days there has been no change to my waist measurement [the goal of this dietary change]. My weight has dropped a bit - almost a kilo - but any fat-burning that was going on as a result of my low carb regime has avoided my waist entirely.

And at the weekend I had such irresistible carb cravings that I bought and ate a packet of potato chips. They were so delicious. And I’m determined not to care what you think or to feel as if I’m confessing, because shame is a part of diet culture and I’m all about lifestyle. 

Besides I had other meals that were infinite in their goodness, so there was balance there, but I hate the fact that I even felt I had to say that. And I’m glad I didn’t find it necessary to mention that they were a local brand where the name of the batch cook is written on the bag. And that I ate them over two days.

Low carb isn’t a lifestyle - it’s a diet. It’s forced and unnatural. Every meal I have to think about what I’m going to eat - balance everything up, assemble a range of ingredients. There are no goto meals like dumping bottled arrabbiata sauce on a handful of pasta or throwing some ham and cheese into a sandwich. I’ve had some lovely meals to be sure in the last ten days, but it feels like the kind of food you might eat on a holiday rather than in your real life.

Why Am I Doing This Again?

At the same time there have been no positive side-effects. If anything my brain feels fuzzy rather than clear, my sleep pattern is random, my mood is uneven and my energy is up and down. They talk about having ‘carb flu’ when you first go low carb, but that’s not a thing. In reality there’s probably a war in your gut as the carb-eating bacteria begin to die off and the protein and fat processors take over the vacant real estate.

And what are we aiming for? It’s about weight loss, though some low carb health and fitness freaks talk reverently about ‘ketosis’ - the fat-burning state where your body stops running on carbs and starts burning fat, giving you access to endless energy. 

I thought it might be interesting to see what that felt like so I googled “what does ketosis feel like” and unleashed a firestorm of conflicting information.  From Mark’s Daily Apple:  at one extreme it’s a quasi - religious experience

"I feel very aware of the realities being ignored by those around me, who eat SAD foods unquestioningly and never have the thought, "I am my body." Each time I fast I believe I become a more efficient beast, reduced to my essential self, my "essence," and free of unnecessary things."

 at the other, a signal of impending death.

"While I was in ketosis I felt like I was going to die. I was in more pain in ketosis than I was when I was stabbed in the stomach. Not even exaggerating."

Apparently you know you’re in it when your breath begins to smell like nail varnish - that’s the acetone - a by-product of burning fat. For diabetics this is a sign to adjust their insulin levels. 

Regrouping and Reframing

I’m left with four issues

  1. My waist measurement is apparently a sign of potential ill health [though to be fair -  my doctor says I have only a 4% chance of a heart attack in the next 5 years - which apparently is good.
  2. Some of the thought-leaders say you must give your body time to adjust to low carb - that four weeks is a minimum, so chopping and changing may ruin everything
  3. But what I’m doing to fix my waist measurement is a diet and I don’t just dislike diets, I think they are a very toxic and unhealthy way to think about yourself or organise your life.
  4. And I just can’t get my head around all the meat and fat. It seems wrong. I don't want to eat that intensively.

So to preserve the spirit of experimentation,  I’m going to take 10 days OFF - eat normally and see if there’s any change in the body, brain, mood or health. Then [probably] I’ll do another 10 days ON and see what happens. That's called an ABA design in applied behaviour analysis. It helps you to see what the experimental condition is causing and what's just happening anyway.

I started a Facebook Group called Low Carb Feb as a gathering place for a few friends who were doing the low carb thing. It's been quiet there for a couple of days [too quiet?] But one of the participants had a 3.5kg weight loss at the end of her first week, so, assuming she stays on for the whole month we can see if she gets past initial discomforts and settles into a routine.

It's all individual of course. Everyone has to find their own way. But I know that for me, sugar  reduction was easy and remains easy, while cutting starchy carbs has been an effort. So onwards and downwards - as we say in the Low Carb Feb group - and I'll revisit this topic in another 10 days.