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Slow Carb or Keto?

Your Personality Type Matters

Michele Kyrouz
Published in
8 min readMay 31, 2020

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Michael Pollan says to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems like a good idea. Pollan has 64 rules which are helpful. Other folks have come up with a variety of more specific plans — slow carb, keto, whole 30, LCHF, Ornish. Which one of these diets will help you lose weight and get healthier?

I don’t think science has a single answer to this question yet, but looking at your personality type might help you decide an approach that will work for you. And of course you should consult your doctor, this is not medical advice.

Abstainer or Moderator?

First, you need to know something about yourself — this is where personality type comes in. Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? These terms come from Gretchen Rubin’s fabulous book called Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits. In my view, this fundamental personality distinction is a useful place to start when thinking about diet. Gretchen determined that it was actually easier for her to avoid something altogether than to try to indulge in it moderately — so she gave up sugar for good. She writes:

“When we Abstainers deprive ourselves totally, we conserve energy and willpower, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster. ‘Abstainers’ do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits. ‘Moderators,’ by contrast, are people who do better when they indulge moderately.”

This really resonated in our house, where I am a Moderator and my significant other is an Abstainer. The strategies that work for each of us are totally different. When he wanted to change his eating, the Slow Carb diet recommended by Tim Ferriss was the perfect choice, because it allowed him to give up white carbs and sugar 6 days a week, but indulge in them on Saturdays. Abstaining all week was easier than making choices every day, but he couldn’t envision never having ice cream again. But as a Moderator, I have no interest in binging on Saturdays, I’d rather have a bite of something here and there during the week.

Which are you — Abstainer or Moderator? I think the answer to this question is the first step in figuring out what kind of eating plan works for you. Can you eat just one cookie or small square of chocolate? Or are you more likely to finish the batch? If you can polish off a pint of ice cream in a sitting, you are most likely an Abstainer who does better with an all-or-nothing approach. If your significant other or family members berate you for not following their plan (“why can’t you just have one cookie?”) figure out if they are Abstainers or Moderators and you’ll understand why you disagree.

Abstainers Like To Follow Rules

Many of the popular eating plans out there are best suited to people who are Abstainers. Abstainers like to follow strict rules rather than make a decision each time they consider what to eat. The Slow Carb diet works well for Abstainers — you avoid white carbs, sugar, dairy, and fruit entirely for six days a week and indulge in whatever you want on Saturdays (or whatever day is your cheat day). If you’re an Abstainer, making rules to follow rather than waking up each day and struggling with choices will be easier for you. Whether you choose Slow Carb or Keto or something else, if you pick a set of rules and live by them, you will probably have more success than trying to decide every day what you should eat.

I originally thought that the Keto diet was also just for Abstainers. It is generally viewed as even more strict than Slow Carb. But there’s a slight difference because Keto restricts the amount of net carbs you can eat in a day but not the types of carbs you can eat. After trying the Keto diet for several months, I realized that you can pick and choose what to eat as long as it is within your carb “budget” for the day. So you can have some low carb fruits like blackberries or strawberries, and you can have dairy that is low carb — which means cream and cheese are fine, but not milk. As a Moderator, I actually found that the Keto Diet was easier to follow because I could have small amounts of many different things, rather than having to follow a strict no-fruit or no-dairy rule.

But Keto does require keeping track of your carbs and other macros using an app and recording what you eat. My significant other much prefers the Slow Carb diet because he doesn’t have to record or keep track of anything, just follow the basic rules. Keto is based on re-wiring what your body burns for energy. So if you cheat and don’t follow the macros strictly, you lose much of the benefit. Falling out of ketosis and going back in is difficult and can be unpleasant. So it does require following the overall carb limit, which means you can’t eat too much of certain things, but I found that easier to follow than the strict rules about what to eat.

But if the Keto guidelines are too restrictive for you, Moderators can also make up their own plan based on healthier eating principles without specific daily rules.

So What’s a Moderator To Do?

If Abstainers are good rule-followers and better at sticking to a plan, what’s a Moderator to do? Make your own flexible plan. Even if you feel like you always “fail” to follow a diet, Moderators can still mix and match healthful eating practices. Rather than fixating on each day, and whether dessert was consumed or what percentage of carbs were white, you can try to balance things out over the course of a week or a month. This probably won’t lead to dramatic weight loss or results, but it may be better than yo-yo dieting with strict rules for a few weeks and then falling off the wagon. If you know strict rules don’t work for you, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve your eating using a more balanced approach. Here are a few ideas:

More Protein
Try to have protein first thing in the morning as many days as you can. Some people do this by eating sardines out of a can or some fresh sashimi salmon. This is not happening for me. (Ok, once I had sashimi at the Tokyo fish market, but I had a cinnamon bun at the hotel first.) I try to eat eggs as many days as possible. I heat up some black beans and put two eggs over easy on top with some sliced avocado. But I can’t eat the same thing every day, so sometimes I have plain Greek yogurt with berries and a little granola. And then there are days when I have a delicious doughnut or French toast. But I try to make the default practice something with more protein.

Fewer White Carbs/Sugar
Sugar is bad. White carbs like bread, pasta and potatoes turn quickly into sugar too, that’s why so many diets suggest avoiding them. The problem most of us have is that it’s hard to feel full without eating toast with your eggs or having a bagel or pastry. And if you’re running out the door, it’s much easier to eat an English muffin than some eggs. But the more times you can choose something other than white carbs/sugar the better. If I end up having white carbs for breakfast, I try to avoid them the rest of the day.

Good Fats
It’s hard to feel full without eating a bunch of carbs, so eating good fats like avocado and higher fat foods like nuts and salmon can help. Eating avocado or cheese with your eggs works pretty well. Same for salad at lunch time — add some meat, cheese, nuts or avocado and it is much more satisfying. It’s better to eat fat than to eat sugar/carbs so choosing healthy fats and pairing with vegetables and protein is a good choice.

Eat All the Vegetables
Eating vegetables, lots of vegetables, is always a good idea. I try to make three different vegetables every night for dinner and have salad or soup with vegetables for lunch. That might sound hard, but I cook some batches on Sundays and reheat during the week. I am not that great at avoiding carbs/sugar in the morning, but I really don’t need rice, potatoes, pasta and bread every day at lunch and every night at dinner. I find that if I eat lots of vegetables with some meat or fish, I don’t really miss the extra carbs. Eating your vegetables is also good for getting all the vitamins and minerals and other good stuff your body needs.

Eat More Fish, And Chicken, And Pork
Eating vegetables is probably best, but for most people it’s more healthy to eat fish, chicken and pork than to eat bread and pasta. So if you need to fill up your plate, adding some lean protein is better than a starch. And it’s better for you and the planet to eat less beef and more fish, chicken and pork. I think it’s worth spending money on quality protein that is sustainably raised and organic.

Dessert Is Not A Right
Some people were raised with the idea that every night after dinner you have dessert. If this is you, it’s probably best to kick that habit and view sugar as a sometimes, not all the time, event. It seems pretty likely that sugar is worse for you than most things, so if there’s one change you can make that would have the most impact, it’s probably eating less sugar. And definitely give up all soda! You can also steal some recipes from the keto diet and use sugar substitutes like stevia along with almond flour to make desserts that avoid white flour and sugar but still give you a little treat after dinner.

Bottom Line

The question of which diet will work for you might depend on whether you’re an Abstainer or a Moderator. Abstainers do better with a fixed set of rules determining ahead of time what their choices will be. Slow Carb and Keto are both great options for losing weight.

Moderators like to decide each day what to eat based on looser guidelines. Moderators might appreciate the flexibility of Keto in terms of types of food to eat in small amounts, but the overall carb limitation might feel too strict. Moderators can still be successful in moving to more healthy eating by mixing and matching from a broad set of healthful practices rather than berating themselves for failing to meet rigid diets.

There may not be one right answer for weight loss — it might be different for each person. This might explain why your neighbor had great success with a particular diet and it hasn’t worked for you. It seems entirely plausible that the reason many scientific studies about food contradict each other is that the outcomes differ by person — that our DNA and microbiome affect how we react to different food and exercise regimes. And in a non-scientific setting, our personalities affect whether we are amenable to following different regimes. You can start by determining your personality type and trying an eating plan that will be easier for you to follow.

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Michele Kyrouz
What to Eat

writer | lawyer | author of The New Mobility Handbook | host of Smarter Cars podcast