Getting Started With A Slow Carb Diet

A certain person in my house has been doing the slow carb diet for the last 6 months. As the designated chef and hunter/gatherer/purveyor of all things food over here, I’ve been the one doing the grocery shopping and cooking in compliance with the rules. I’m sure it’s good for me too, but I confess I sneak some desserts in when no one is looking. This article shares some thoughts on how to get started on the slow carb diet based on strategies that have worked at our house.

If you don’t know about the slow carb diet, you should read Tim Ferriss’ book the 4 Hour Body (pp. 70–113) and also check out his blog and podcast — he has so much fabulous content. In a nutshell, Tim recommends a diet that avoids all sugar, fruit, dairy, and any “white” carbohydrates like flour, bread, rice, cereal, potatoes/yams, pasta, tortillas and fried food with breading. So now that we’ve eliminated everything in your current diet, what do you eat for this slow carb diet? Tim suggests eggs, meat, fish, legumes (beans and lentils), and lots of vegetables. It’s ok to have coffee and red wine, but you should avoid soda and fruit juice. Tim also believes you should only follow this diet 6 days a week, and have a “cheat” day on the 7th day, when you eat anything you want. Most people make Saturday the cheat day. Trust me, Saturdays are not pretty around here, lots of ice cream sundaes and chocolate binges. For all the details and rationale for the slow carb diet, definitely read Tim’ s book, it’s interesting stuff. Tim gives examples of meals in the book, and suggests that people eat the same few meals over and over again so it’s easier to make the diet part of your lifestyle. Maybe this is a guy thing, because I can’t eat the same thing every day. But if you can, all the better, it will be easier, especially for breakfast.

For lunch and dinner, the building blocks of this diet are meat/chicken/fish and vegetables. Unlike some other low-carb diets, the slow carb diet is not about lots of bacon cheeseburgers sans bun. The problem with eating lots of vegetables is that they need to be cooked (unless you want to go totally raw vegan, which is a thing) or prepared in some way. Same for meat/chicken/fish. Tim doesn’t cook much and acknowledges it’s tough especially if you’re single, to start buying and cooking a bunch of vegetables and meat every week. His book offers a more practical approach using some roast chicken, frozen vegetables, canned lentils and lots of trips to Chipotle. This is perfectly reasonable, I’m not judging. But if you live in the Bay Area or other locale with plenty of beautiful vegetables, it’s kind of a shame not to take advantage of the fresh produce at Costco, Whole Foods, and places like Berkeley Bowl. The fact is that cooking vegetables can be really simple and good. I’m not a professional chef or maker-of-recipes but I’ve set forth some strategies below that I think work pretty well if you decide to do some cooking of your own. Otherwise, most of these meals can be put together at local eateries or the prepared food section of Whole Foods.

Breakfast

The slow carb diet makes clear that basically everything you thought was healthy is just sugar and should be avoided: no more cereal, toast, oatmeal, fruit, yogurt. And you should also avoid the stuff you knew was bad, like muffins, bagels, pastries, and doughnuts. So basically you’re left with eggs and breakfast meats like bacon/sausage, or you have to do a Japanese fish and salad thing. (My perfect breakfast is leftover apple pie — not ok!) Anyway, hope you like eggs, because you’re going to eat a lot of eggs.

Suggested items to buy: eggs (you might need 18 to get through the week), canned black beans, pinto beans, and/or refried beans, salsa, guacamole (try the snack size Wholly Guacamole packs), avocado, and if you like omelets or scrambled eggs, buy some vegetables that go well in scrambles like broccoli, spinach, red peppers, onions, mushrooms, whatever you like. If you like bacon or breakfast sausages, you can get some of those as well.

The Go-To Breakfast. Certain unnamed person over here eats this breakfast every single day, even on cheat day. Every. Single. Day. The dog is confused and keeps begging me for toast. Bad dog! Rinse a can of black beans in a strainer to remove liquid. (You can rinse two cans and then keep it in the fridge in a tupperware, but don’t do more than that as it doesn’t last.) Spoon a few tablespoons of your favorite salsa into a wide soup bowl or plate. Spoon some black beans over the salsa and heat for 30 seconds in the microwave. Heat some coconut, olive or avocado oil in a frying pan and make three eggs over easy or medium (two eggs if you’re a smaller person). Remove the bowl from the microwave and place the eggs on top of the beans. Add a scoop of guacamole or half an avocado sliced and season with salt/pepper. This is your new life, until Saturday, when you can have pie, or doughnuts, or toast.

Variations on The Go-To Breakfast: We went to Santa Fe and there are no black beans, avocados or guacamole in the whole town, as best we could tell. It’s all green salsa (“chile”) and pinto beans, and lots of pork carnitas. When in Rome…we rolled with it and it was pretty good. Spicy! So here are some variations that don’t involve black beans, same general process but with different beans/salsa.

Pinto Beans/Green Chile. Rinse a can of pinto beans in a strainer to remove liquid. Spoon green salsa or green chile sauce into a wide soup bowl or plate. Add some pinto beans over the salsa and heat for 30 seconds in the microwave. Heat some oil in a frying pan and make three eggs over easy or medium (you’re getting the idea now right?). Remove the bowl from the microwave and place the eggs on top of the beans. No guacamole for you, it’s Santa Fe. But go ahead and cook a few breakfast pork sausages in the frying pan and add that alongside.

Refried Beans. If you like refried beans, you can substitute for any of the beans above, just heat and put the eggs on top, best with sliced avocado.

Cannelini or Garbanzo Beans. White beans generally taste pretty good with tomato sauce, so you might use some red enchilada sauce as your salsa with white beans and then eggs on top.

The Scrambled Breakfast. If you don’t like eggs over easy, or you want to mix it up and not eat the same damn thing every day, you can make an omelette or a scramble with any vegetables and meat you like. This is also the best option at a restaurant where beans may not be available, you can ask for a green salad, or sliced avocado and tomato, instead of fruit/potatoes/toast that is offered. Some ideas include onions, mushrooms (and peppers if you like them) and spinach, you can put them in the frying pan with butter until they are soft/cooked and then add some eggs and scramble, or microwave separately and then add into an omelette. Sausages, bacon and ham can add heft and serving avocado or guacamole on the side adds the good fats that make you feel satiated.

The Hard Boiled Breakfast. Tim is a fan of hard boiled eggs and offers some good ideas on this front. I am not a fan of well-cooked eggs, so I don’t have much to add here, but they can be substituted in for any of the variations above. Hard boiled eggs take longer to cook but can be made in batches in advance and are more portable than the runny kind.

Japanese Breakfast. If you’ve ever gone to an elaborate brunch buffet at a nice hotel in Hawaii or Tokyo, you may have noticed (and quickly skipped over on your way to the brioche french toast) a section of the buffet with cold poached fish, raw fish, miso soup, rice and marinated vegetables or salad. Generally this section is aimed at Japanese guests at the hotel and reflects a totally different (and it turns out much healthier) approach to breakfast than the American sensibility. I haven’t prepared these types of dishes for breakfast mostly because it’s a repeat of things I use as lunch staples, so I save the salmon and salad for the lunch menu. But if you don’t like eggs and bacon and you’d rather eat fish and salad (skip the rice) for breakfast — or sardines/tuna out of a can — this is a good slow carb meal any time of day. You might look at some Japanese cookbooks for other ideas as well, I’m not an expert in this area.

Lunch

My basic strategy for lunch is soups and salads with some heft. This includes warm vegetable salads with beans or meat, cold salads with meat or fish, and heartier soups/stews. If you just have a lettuce salad with a sad cucumber and piece of tomato, you’re going to be hangry a few hours later and not happy with the diet, I suggest making sure your salad is sufficiently laden with good fats and protein.

If you work someplace other than from home, you can pack a lunch to go with any of these items. Or maybe the lunch served at your office has these options: choose wisely. If not, head out to Chipotle, or a salad place like Sweetgreens or Mixt Greens to find similar options. My general strategy for lunch/dinner is to do a bunch of cooking on Sunday and then have items in the fridge ready to mix and match for lunches/dinners during the week. I encourage everyone to try making your own salad dressing as well, it’s really easy and avoids all the weird ingredients in many bought versions. Try mixing 1 part lemon juice or vinegar (balsamic or red wine) with three parts olive oil and a spoonful of dijon mustard, add salt and pepper and shake in a jar. You can keep it in the fridge and use all week.

If you’re making lunch at home, suggested items to buy: spinach, arugula, lettuce, avocado, scallions, roast chicken, salmon, canned tuna, lentils, canned cannelini beans and garbanzo beans, canned tuna, canned diced tomatoes, chicken sausages, frozen corn and peas, onions, mushrooms, curry powder and chicken stock.

Warm Salads. I usually choose a green that can withstand some warm vegetables, like arugula, kale or spinach, and then heat up some leftover cauliflower and carrots, or steamed broccoli, and add roast chicken or white beans, and toss with salad dressing.

Cold Salads. You can use any type of lettuce, or mix in arugula, baby kale and spinach as well, and then add some chopped vegetables like celery, avocado, red peppers, cucumber, tomatoes and fennel. Top with sliced chicken, steak, salmon, tuna or garbanzo beans, and add a few nuts like almonds or hazelnuts for crunch.

Curried Lentil Soup. I like to use red lentils or green lentils, but brown lentils work as well. I usually saute some onions, garlic and mushrooms with some avocado oil and curry powder until browned. Then I add a container of Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken stock and a few cups of water, along with a cup of lentils and cook until the lentils are tender. I add in some frozen corn or leftover carrots and cauliflower or spinach if I have it in the fridge.

Vegetable or Tomato Soup (with beans, chicken or sausage). This is the same process as the curried lentil soup but without the curry, I use white beans or garbanzo beans, or toss in some chicken pieces or sausage. You can use chicken stock or also add a can of diced tomatoes to give it more of a minestrone flavor. Use whatever vegetables you have on hand. I sometimes add fresh or dried herbs as well.

Dinner

Dinner may ultimately be the easiest meal to go slow-carb. You’re giving up pasta, rice, potatoes and pizza, but if you eat meat and fish, you can focus on the main attraction and fill the rest of the plate with vegetables. It’s harder to do Indian and Chinese food take out and you’ll have to skip the pizza and burger joints, but you can put together a solid meal even if you’re using the prepared food section of Whole Foods.

The Vegetables Are Key. For making dinner at home, figure out what vegetables you really like and buy those, plan for three vegetables per dinner. I know, it seems excessive, but you’re replacing the mashed potatoes or rice on your plate so you need a ton of vegetables to get to the same calories and it’s not good or fun to eat that much broccoli all at once, for instance. Better to have a mix of cauliflower, carrots, and green beans. So you have to do some math to figure out what a week’s menu will be, maybe repeating vegetables every other day so you don’t get tired of them.

Vegetables we eat all the time: cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, green beans, brussel sprouts, bok choy, asparagus, beets, fennel, butternut squash, acorn squash. You might add eggplant and peppers if you like them, I have a sensitivity to the nightshade family of vegetables and so generally avoid those.

If you cook a bunch of vegetables on Sunday, they can get you through the week, and vegetables tend to hold up better cooked than sitting in your vegetable drawer. My strategy is to cook four or five vegetables in large quantities, storing them separately in tupperware in the fridge. If you think you don’t like many vegetables, consider the possiblity that you’ve never had them prepared the right way and give them another chance. I usually either steam or roast the vegetables, depending on what it is, here’s my strategy:

Steamed Vegetables. I generally steam broccoli, carrots, zucchini and bok choy. Buy a big steamer pot — this is a large pot with a metal steamer insert, don’t try to use the folding metal steamer inserts, they will drive you crazy with large quantities. I fill the bottom of the pot with water and add a slice of lemon or orange if possible, this helps to eliminate some of the odor when cooking broccoli and other vegetables. Peel the carrots and then chop them and the broccoli, zucchini, or bok choy, and put them in the steamer one vegetable at a time until fully cooked. For broccoli, pull the steamer piece out and run the vegetables under cold water to preserve the green color, then scoop the broccoli out into a tupperware container (glass is best actually). Then return the steamer insert to the pan and add the carrots or some zucchini and cook those, scooping them out when done and putting into containers. This way you just wash the pan once and get all your steamed vegetables done.

Green Beans. After I finish steaming, I remove the steamer insert and empty the water and then fill it up with fresh water and bring to a boil with a tablespoon or so of salt. When boiling, add the green beans and cook until you bite into one and it doesn’t squeak in your teeth (trust me, you’ll know what I mean when you try it). Then dump the beans into a colander and strain and run under cold water to preserve the green color, put into a container.

Roasted Vegetables. Pretty much all of the other vegetables mentioned I cook by roasting in a 350 degree oven. I use baking trays with sides and drizzle some avocado or olive oil on the pan, then put a layer of chopped vegetables — this works for cauliflower, beets, asparagus, brussel sprouts, cubes of butternut squash, fennel or halves of acorn squash. I usually sprinkle the vegetables with some herb or spice mixtures to keep it interesting. I use mixes from Local Spicery or Penzeys — favorites are herbes de provence, za’atar, curry powder, tandoori spice, or flavored salt and pepper. Then I roast until tender and place into containers. Note: some people steam asparagus, if you think you don’t like asparagus, try it roasted. Same for cauliflower and brussel sprouts, roast until toasty brown.

Meat and Fish. I plan for the vegetables to fill 3/4 of the plate and meat or fish to fill the remainder. The meat and fish we buy most often are: steaks or beef tenderloin, beef stew meat, veal chops, veal scallopini, skirt steak, chicken thighs, pork tenderloin, pork chops, chicken sausages, salmon, swordfish, halibut, sea bass, scallops, and shrimp. If I’ve made vegetables ahead of time for the week, I’ll buy meat and fish a few times during the week and cook it for dinner, reheating some vegetables in the microwave to serve with it. Some meats can be prepared ahead, such as stews or chili, or roast pork tenderloin and chicken thighs, but I generally cook and serve fish and other seafood the same day I buy it.

For roasting meats and fish, I often use the same herb and spice mixtures described above to sprinkle on meats or fish, and just bake them in a pan with some avocado or olive oil at 350 degrees. For fish, sometimes I slice some onions and lemon and put those on the bottom of the pan with some oil, salt and pepper and then place the fish on top and bake. You can also steam fish in a bamboo steamer, put in on a plate on top of sliced onions and herbs and put the plate in the steamer.

Slow cookers have become popular again, and there are many recipes for stews, tagines, chili and other meat dishes in the slow cooker, all of those work, just remove any potatoes, grains, rice or fruit from those recipes. Another popular way to cook is an indoor teppanyaki style grill, where you slice meats thinly and vegetables and cook them in the center of the table, eating as you go. This is a nice way to change things up, be sure to try grilling half of an avocado and sprinkle it with lemon or ponzu sauce.

Dessert

Just kidding, there is no dessert and no fruit or anything else sweet, but you can have a glass of red wine or coffee. Plot your dessert strategy for Saturday cheat day and write down all the items you feel deprived of during the week, then make a special trip to the grocery store Saturday morning to get all your cheat day items. Enjoy!