I seem to have become a personal challenge junky.
After my successful Dry January experiment, one of my friends asked if I’d like to join her on a low carb / alcohol only at weekends mission for February.
Another Challenge Already?
At first I wasn’t sure - about low carb diets [I’m not a nutritional expert] and about going straight from one challenge to another [nor am I a masochist] so I didn’t commit on February 1.
But then I thought - why not? If you can try something you’re not sure you can do, and you set it up in a way that makes you very likely to succeed, why wouldn’t you? It’s only going to have benefits.
I’ve had very good comments about my last challenge in social media, which made me feel like I was taking one for the team! Proving that it could be done just in case they ever needed to do it themselves. Or conversely, validating the decision of people who’d already reduced their drinking.
Besides, to be honest I liked the attention and it felt that in a very small way I was doing something that mattered. And I enjoyed the feeling of freedom. Like, if I could overcome this very ingrained habit of a couple of wines a night most nights, what else could I do?
No Carbs? Low Carbs?
When I raised the idea on my Facebook page I found the idea of low carbs was a little controversial. . .
Kate said: I'm not a fan of low carbs, particularly if you exercise. Low sugar yes, but you need to burn carbs. Jamie Oliver's latest book is interesting on this - he believes protein should only be 1/6th of your plate (with carbs 1/3, veg 1/3 and good fats 1/6).
Louise added: Jamie is a sensible guy - follows the old food traditions that have been hammered out over centuries.
And later Kate added: I've cut way down on gluten - I eat a paleo bread . . . . I eat rice, quinoa, barley, beans and a small amount of pasta. I eat rice cakes and Ryvita instead of crackers. I ate much more bread than usual over the holidays and really felt it - heavy and bloated.
Then Clare [my challenge buddy] said: I was reading there are 3 different levels of lowering carbs. The lowest one where you just eat protein, green veg etc apparently isn't great for exercise but I'm not doing that. Just cutting out bread, rice, pasta and sugary products. Still eating fruit, nuts etc
And Wilma said: I've given up all carbs apart from carbs from fresh veg. Tricky part is low sugar.
What's Motivating Me?
I’ve already reduced my sugar levels for health reasons— there’s diabetes in my family — and I rarely eat anything that contains more than 5% sugar - except citrus which apparently doesn’t affect your blood sugar levels.
Over the last 18 months that’s led to significant and durable weight loss, so I’m not really looking to lose weight — though I’d really like to get my waist measurement down to half my height, which I’ve read is a much more potent measure of health risk than the body mass index [BMI]. I have just a few centimetres to go - today it's 86cm and it needs to be 80cm.
I also think I’m just curious to see what effects, if any, lowering my carbs would have on my body and my energy levels. And I want to explore more about how to make change easy. I think when you make lifestyle change rather than just dieting, it has to be easy or you just won’t sustain it.
Making Lifestyle Change Easy
When I quit smoking back in the late 90’s I used water and walks on the beach as substitutes - the water was for that feeling you get in your mouth when you want a cigarette, and the walks were to take my mind off cravings - a kind of mindfulness, where I just focused on being in the moment.
The other thing I’d done, quite intuitively rather than deliberately, was a kind of transference where I’d taken all the pleasure I felt when smoking and drinking and concentrated it into the drinking.
It’s hard to explain but if you drink alcohol with a lot of mouth feel you can focus strongly on that and defocus the memory of how smoking feels in your mouth. I think it just confuses the pleasure centres of the brain - mixes the messages.
So when it came to the Dry January experiment I used the same basic substitute behaviours - water and walks - though now walks are for podcast listening rather than being at one with nature. And I focused the pleasure I felt in my end of work day drink and snack, just into the snacks.
So how does that apply to food.
When I think about my own eating: I can identify three areas of concern:
- I don't think I eat enough vegetables,
- too many of my snacks involve wheat crackers, and
- too many of my lunches involve bread.
But I want a process that I can easily fit into my day and my life and that I can just do over and over without too much drama.
First Day - and a Weird Insight about Sandwiches.
My first day was yesterday. Breakfast was fine - I usually have a smoothie which contains oats, banana, milk and whatever else I feel like - my favourite is to add nut butter and cocoa - or blueberries from the freezer.
But I was a bit unprepared for lunch - until my challenge buddy Clare sent through a photo of her lunch which involved, among other things, some hard boiled eggs.
When I saw the image I realised that not only had I not considered eggs, but I had a conceptual issue which leads directly to more bread eating than is really necessary.
So work with me here, this is an insight — it sounds a little weird, but as I’d been thinking about lunch and wondering what to have if I couldn’t have a sandwich, I caught my mind thinking - but if it isn’t a sandwich it won’t be organised.
I don’t know - maybe sandwich eaters believe they need to contain food before they can eat it. Sure they’ll have salad on the side. But a deconstructed salad like this one Clare sent me through - that feels wrong on some level. Like it’s just picking at food rather than having a meal.
Disrupting My Sandwich Belief System
There's a sub-heading I never thought I'd write.
Not sure if you’re still with me, but I think the assumption that food needs to be organised lies at the heart of my sandwich belief system. It’s probably something my mother said when I was three.
So to disrupt it, I need to prove to myself that a plate of even quite unrelated foods can be delicious. Yesterday it was - there was ham, a tomato, cucumber and feta salad and hard boiled eggs done the Nigella Lawson way [put in cold water, bring to the boil, take off heat and leave for 10 minutes].
It was so filling there was really no need for snacks later - but I did eat a pear. And a carrot before dinner. Which was a sausage and lentil casserole - with leftovers available today.
So yes - I think I can do this: here's the equation:
More veges + less bread and crackers + more ‘plates’ of ingredients = low carb + no drama.
Now I’ll know whether I’m actually doing it or not and I can create a shopping list to support my strategy and I know what I’ll do if I’m travelling, and it’s really only a marginal change.
But the challenge aspect is still important. In the beginning you do need to pay attention and you need some form of accountability - and a measure of success. That’ll be the waist measurement - 6cm to lose. I might also do a day by day count for the first week or so if I feel it matters - it'll just be bread/crackers/vegetables consumed.
The important things are to identify the moments where it feels difficult or irritating and trouble shoot. I'm not sure the waist measurement change would happen in a month - or what kind of weight loss that would represent. I wouldn't want to do anything too dramatic. But I guess we’ll see.
Let me know your thoughts - below or on Social Media.