Caveat: The premise of each of the low carb approaches summarized below is that the lower a diet is in sugar and refined carbs , the more health markers will improve and the more fat loss will occur. None of these diet approaches are designed to incur “rapid” fat loss.
Rather, I chose to highlight these particular approaches because they reflect the experiences I have had coaching a wide variety of people to success by focusing on the match between individual fitness goals, lifestyle realities and likelihood of long term sustainability.
Tracking Methodology: Studies have shown that doing nothing more than tracking your food intake can increase fat loss by up to 33%. This is primarily due to the mindfulness that tracking stimulates, and to the knowledge base you gain by understanding where sugar is hiding in your food choices.
Getting a coach to troubleshoot and hold you accountable can increase your chances of success much more, but even without a coach, tracking is extremely valuable.
Tracking does not have to involve weighing food, using a heart rate monitor or measuring ketones. It can be as simple as photographing your food, checking in with an accountability partner or a coach, or journaling each morning.
Tracking sugar and carbs on the myfitnesspal app has been the most effective way I have found to troubleshoot and pinpoint problem areas, so it is what I will reference under each approach. Regardless of which tool is used, tracking of some sort is imperative to forming the habits that will remain when the motivation fades.
All-in or Small Steps? (know thyself): Motivation is fickle, as is witnessed every New Years. It is critical to know your style and be clear on your goals when it comes to self-improvement and habit change. Whipping yourself when you fall off the wagon is painful, unproductive and to be avoided if at all possible!
In this post, I’ve outlined a progression of low carb diet approaches and tried to identify which is the best fit for certain goals and certain lifestyles. I’ve moved in and out of these approaches myself over the past five years and the purpose of this summary is to lay out the approaches in a gradation moving from easier to more ambitious.
Each diet is based on the best science I could find, some information is anecdotal from the internet. Most of the information is observational and based on a diverse range of client experiences I have had as a diet and fitness coach on coach.me
I. Entry Level Approach: Decrease Sugar (aka Low Carb Diet)
Who is this for?
· people coming from a Standard American diet of high fat and high sugar together.
· people who are physically addicted to sugar;
· people who want to change their way of eating in small incremental steps.
The basics: At first glance, this approach to fat loss sounds similar to the “No Sweets” diet, but actually it is much more nuanced. Because we have been so misinformed over the years through both the politics of health and the food industry, we tend to think of sweets as primarily desserts or candy; food that is high in sucrose (table sugar).
The entry level approach is focused on decreasing sugar in the diet from these well-known sugar culprits, but it also addresses the following types of questions:
· Where are the hidden sugars in your particular diet?
· Which types of sugar make the most difference to fat loss?
· How do you overcome the physical cravings that are so prevalent in a sugar addiction?
A few details: There are basically two types of food that the body doesn’t see as sugar; that would be protein and fat. When people refer to a person as being either a fat-burner or a sugar-burner they are referencing the way the body processes different foods for energy. A diet that is high in sugar (or refined carbs) means you are most likely a sugar burner and receive your energy from burning glucose.
For example, a diet high in fruit on a daily basis, is a diet high in sugar (fructose), and this can stall a fat loss. Limiting fruit is a difficult concept to wrap your head around, primarily because fruit does have beneficial nutrients and it is therefore much more difficult to view it as unhealthy in the same way as a Snickers Bar.
However, most fruit is quite high in sugar. The sugar in fruit is called fructose, it is processed in the liver (like alcohol) and it can be very detrimental to fat loss. That is why many low carb or keto people refer to fruit as “nature’s candy”. Fruit is not in and of itself “unhealthy”, but a diet high in fruit can certainly stall fat loss. (Berries tend to be the exception in the fruit and fat loss equation due to the amount of fiber per sugar ratio)
The sugar in grains is glucose and the sugar in low-fat dairy is lactose. Sucrose is, of course, table sugar and used in most baked goods. Basically the body sees all of these as just plain “sugar” and if you are interested in fat loss or preventing diseases associated with inflammation, decreasing sugar is a good place to start.
Goal metrics to track on MFP: 25 grams or less of sugar a day. If using Myfitnesspal (MFP) to track metrics, look at the daily total of sugar and if it is over 25 grams, scroll back up the sugar column and find out which food source(s) took you over.
In a nutshell: Decreased sugar diets are….
Moderate Carbs — Moderate Protein & Fat- Low Sugar
II. Level Two: Slow Carb
(and some similar versions like Paleo or South Beach)
Who is this for?
· people wanting to make a sustainable lifestyle change that will result in decreasing body fat%
· people that like the flexibility of scheduling cheating and/or having wine
· people that want to keep an active social life, but want to improve health benefits
· I believe this approach works best for people that are “all-in” types
· people that are not adverse to tracking
· although many people on slow carb do practice serious exercise routines, it is not a requirement for fat loss
The basics: Slow carb is focused on encouraging food choices that will not spike blood sugar rather than on a calories-in-calories-out approach. By opting for food that is high in protein and moderate in fat you are limiting an insulin response and it is that insulin response that causes food to be stored in fat cells. Since protein and fat are much more satiating, the amount of calories taken in drops somewhat naturally.
Tim Ferriss, designer of the slow carb diet, acknowledges that humans will cheat on any diet, so a cheat day is scheduled once a week to provide for delayed gratification.
As a diet coach, I have seen the highest success rates for fat loss with Tim Ferriss’s slow carb diet. It is simple to follow and the cheat day allows people more of a guilt-free social life.
A few details: Ferriss lays out a set of rules but ultimately tells you to experiment with your own body using these rules as guidelines. The rules include: For 6 days in a row, avoid fruit, dairy, grains and try and get around 20–30 grams of protein with each meal. Moderate amounts of fats are allowed. The 7th day is a cheat day where any food or drink is allowed.
There are many more details, of course, all of which are laid out explicitly in a book called “The 4-Hour Body”.
Goal metrics to track: Aim for a daily total of 100 grams or less of carbs and 25 grams or less of sugar. The protein metric will vary depending on the type and intensity of your exercise routine (or lack thereof). The lower you go in carbs the more fat you can add to keep you satiated, but it is not considered a high fat diet.
Avoid eating a daily meal plan that involves both high fat and high carb. That is the Standard American Diet that has caused the current state of affairs with the obesity epidemic.
In a nutshell: The slow carb diet is….
Low Carb — High Protein — Moderate Fat
III. Level Three: Standard Ketogenic Diet
Who is this for?
· people who have a lot of weight to lose or are obese
· people with certain health issues, primarily type 2 diabetes, PCOS, or a range of health problems caused by inflammation (joint pain, etc.)
· people that are insulin resistant and need to improve their metabolic health
· some information shows a relationship to improving endurance sports
The Basics: There are many clinical, long term studies that are showing the benefits of a ketogenic diet for: type 2 diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinsons, acne and more recently, cancer. The ketogenic diet is also rapidly becoming known as one of the more effective and sustainable ways to lose a lot of weight if one is obese or has a lot to lose.
A ketogenic approach involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake, and replacing it with fat (moderate protein is allowed and is based on your level of exercise). The reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. When this happens consistently over time, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat for energy and you are considered a “fat-burner” rather than a sugar-burner”.
The initial stages of this diet are quite difficult however, as it requires getting carbs to a very low level, and keeping them there consistently (no cheat days on keto). That is an extremely challenging change for many people, and this way of eating is often more successful when people ease into it through a slow carb or low carb diet first.
Goal Metrics to track: Typical percentages of macros on a ketogenic diet that includes moderate to intense exercise is often quoted as: 60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs. The most important metric to track on MFP would be carbs, aiming for less than 30 grams carbs per day.
In a nutshell: The Standard Ketogenic Diet is…..
Very Low-Carb — Moderate Protein- High Fat
IV. Level Four: Cyclical Ketogenic Diet:
Who is it for?
· people that are willing to be meticulous in meal planning and very disciplined in compliance.
· People who travel a lot and find low-carb eating challenging while on the road;
· People with an active social life that cannot fit continuous low-carb eating into their lifestyle;
· People who experience prolonged negative side effects of a ketogenic diet. A cyclical diet may reduce some of these side effects through limited and scheduled carbohydrate intake;
· people that are bodybuilders or athletes tend to use this approach most effectively
The basics: This diet involves periods of higher-carb or higher-calorie refeeds, such as 5 ketogenic days followed by 2 high-carb days. A nuanced approach to this cyclical keto diet is to target your higher carb days around intense workouts (aka the Targeted Ketogenic Diet).
A few details: Like the keto diet and the slow carb diet, the fat loss premise revolves around hormones and the insulin response to sugars and carbohydrates.
Low-carb days keep insulin levels low, which means glucose isn’t taken up by cells and fat stores are used as energy instead of the preferred glucose. High-carb days cause insulin levels to spike which will prevent the body from adjusting to a lower metabolism that would accommodate a low carb or low calorie diet.
The very first thing you must know as you go about designing this type of diet program is that in order to see your best results, you should be doing your highest carb diets on the days you perform your hardest workout sessions (i.e., leg day or full-body workout day)
The second key is to understand FAT/CARB associations:
HIGH-FAT-HIGH-CARB is not part of any weight loss plan. It is bad for your health and your belly both.
LOW-FAT-LOW-CARB doesn’t work for sustainable fat loss or weight loss (you get too hungry);
This approach is all about balance, tracking and tweeking. Balancing a weekly calorie intake, balancing the high carb timing with your intense workouts, and balancing the macros against each other. Definitely the most complex form of a low carb approach, but if done right it can be quite effective and sustainable.
Goal metrics to track: low carb days need to be under 30 grams carbs (ketogenic). All other metrics will vary based on the schedule of the individual and the intensity of the workouts. Intermittent fasting often fits into this regime following the refeed days.
In a nutshell: This approach needs to be customized. It is most effective for bodybuilders, athletes or people that like to experiment and get geeky with numbers.
Here are a few of the more popular protocols for a cyclic approach:
Weekend cycle: 5 days on a low-carb diet, then a 2-day high-calorie refeed.
Mini cycle: 11 days on a low-carb diet followed by a 3-day high-calorie refeed.
3 on, 1 off: A 3-week low-carb diet followed by a 5–7 day high-calorie refeed.
Monthly cycle: 4–5 weeks on a low-carb diet followed by a longer 10–14 day higher-calorie refeed
The amount of diet information out there is overwhelming. My focus is on low carb approaches because it helped me lose 35 pounds 5 years ago, it has been a sustainable lifestyle, and I have witnessed the efforts of 250 clients reach some degree of success.
The first key to success is to evaluate your lifestyle and decide where you might best fit on the continuum. The second key is to be clear on your true goals and tweek the plan as you go without losing sight of the goal.