Warning: long read ahead…
When Dr Atkins – low carb advocate and inventor of the steak-fest that was the Atkin’s Diet – died from a heart attack in 2003, bread lovers the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief. Proof (as if it were needed) that sustaining one’s self on nothing but cheese and beef products and sugar free deserts laced with aspartame wasn’t the healthy answer to love-handle-removal we’d all hoped for.
Since then, low carb diets have fallen out of fashion, replaced with solutions such as regularly starving yourself, blending the shit out of everything, and replacing real food with heavily branded low-fat ready meals with lists of ingredients that read like the instructions for crystal meth.
Like most weight conscious members of my generation, I had a crack at the Atkin’s diet. I spectacularly fell off the wagon towards the end of the first week, when I awoke at 4am nursing the curious sensation that the blood in my veins had morphed into butter. The next day I could no longer resist my cravings for a simple orange, and that was that.
Since then, I’ve experimented with various diets (as women are wont to do), but they never work in the end. Why? Because I love food. When deprived of the foods I love, I transform into a spoilt, stroppy child. It’s the sheer damned injustice of it. It’s not fair! Why can’t I eat this entire can of condensed milk with a spoon and not get fat! It’s like some cruel joke God played on us, a toffee apple in the Garden of Eden.
It is precisely this love of food which prompted me to have another go at low carb, in an attempt to shift the fourteen pounds of chub accumulated after quitting the fags.
But this time I’ve bastardised the concept to make it work for me.
In fact, avoiding carb-heavy foods is so awesome, I’ll be eating this way forever. Not only because I’ve lost a stone (without once losing my temper or cry-eating Nutella in the toilet with my finger), but because I’m finally free from food cravings and my energy levels are completely even. All day long.
If you want to try it too – either because you’re so rotund that you’re forced to see kaftans as a permanent fashion solution; because your energy levels are more unstable than Lindsay Lohan; or just as an excuse to eat more cheese, read on.
What is a carb?
Put simply, carbs are sugars. There are carbohydrates present in varying levels in most foods, but there are higher levels of carbohydrates in sweet foods, as well as anything starchy.
Bread is an obvious one, but anything containing flour is a carb. All grains are carbs, even fruit is a carb because fruit is very high in sugar. There are also carbs hidden in processed foods – even savoury ones, and especially in low fat diet foods. Which is why everyone’s so fat.
The sugar industry cleverly re-names sugars every now and then, so there’s sugar hiding in plain view on the labels of the foods you eat. To make finding hidden sugars a little simpler, read the label, and keep in mind that any food ingredient ending in ‘ose’ is a sugar… Glucose, Fructose, Lactose…
Some other names for sugar can be found here.
That means, of course, that milk is quite high in carbs (lactose) – though, thanks to the brainwashing we received as children using the food pyramid you’ll all be familiar with, you might be confused into thinking that milk is a protein.
The reason carbs are the devil
Without getting all sciency about it, it’s to do with how your body uses food for fuel. When you eat a carbohydrate based food, your body converts it into glucose to use as energy. Anything you don’t use gets turned into fat by your liver. As we live sedentary lifestyles, this happens to the lion’s share of the food we eat.
Also, your body releases hormones to help process the sugar, such as adrenalin, cortisone and insulin. These buggers are responsible for the sugar high (and subsequent crash), food cravings, and fat storage around your mid section (the dreaded spare tyre). This process happens with all carbs – whether you’re getting them from a ‘healthy’ smoothie (the sugar equivelant of drinking a bottle of Mountain Dew) or a snickers bar.
Carbohydrate energy is short lived as well. Meaning you’ll need to eat again fairly soon to replenish your energy levels and stop you getting all moody. That’s why people snack and get sugar cravings. They are physically addicted to the quick fix you get from a carb based diet.
What happens when you stop eating carbs?
I won’t lie to you, the first few days are going to be quite difficult.
As with any addiction, you’ll experience cravings and withdrawal. You might feel lethargic and get all teary eyed when forced to refuse the offer of a mid afternoon custard cream. The initial dip in energy levels will be most noticable if you regularly exercise, and you might feel like you’ve not got enough mojo to complete your work out.
But if you stick at it, after three or four days something miraculous happens.
You lose your appetite.
Now, that might seem a depressing concept to some of you, as it would have done for me a few months ago, but as someone who almost fetishized food it’s come as somewhat of a relief to lose my food cravings and only eat when I’m genuinely hungry.
After the initial low, after around three or four days, you’ll find that not only has your appetite evened out, but so have your energy levels. Mid morning and afternoon slumps will completely disappear and you’ll never utter the words “I’m so tired all the time” ever again.
You’ll also gain complete control over your appetite. You’ll find you can piously resist devouring those Krispy Kreme glazed rings like the starving hyena you once were. And knowing you’ve evolved past the pack feels pretty good too. Try not to become a smug twat about it.
After the first week, you’ll also start to lose weight. But, most importantly, it will be fat loss – not loss of lean muscle – most noticably from your mid section.
So when you say get a nice, flat tummy and you get to say “hello” to your feet for the first time in years, you’re welcome.
After that it’s plain sailing. I promise you, you’ll find it so easy to cut out crisps, you’ll find it a breeze banning bread, and you won’t think twice about saying fuck off to fondant fancies. This is for reasons I’ll cover in a minute.
OK I’m in. What do I need to do now?
Let me be very clear about this: you need to be prepared if you’re going to make this work.
If you’re a breakfast eater, eggs with mushrooms/spinach/roasted tomatoes/all of the above is a great choice.
For lunch. Well, you can’t rely on convenience any more. Food on the go is bastard tricky – every single lunch choice available from supermarkets, delis, and convenience stores is carbohydrate based. The fuckers even hide pasta in the salads. Pret a Manger and Boots offer a protein only option. It’s an egg. In a pot.
Nuts will become your new best snack friend. Make sure your work fridge (if you have one) is stocked with lots of green salad and a source of protein. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, this will prove slightly more challenging, but I’ll assume that if you’re a conscientious, health-conscious person you’ll have done your reading. Me, I go for chicken, being an omnivore and all that. I like to keep mini sticks of organic cheddar handy too. ‘Cause I’m fancy.
You can be as creative as you like, but I like to save my creativity for the meals I eat with my beloved, and let me tell you, discovering I could fashion low carb bechamel from marscapone, nutmeg and Parmesan has been life-changing. My moussaka could make a grown man cry, and it most definitely doesn’t taste like diet food. It’s comforting, rich and fucking tasty.
Using the opportunity to reinvent your favourite foods minus the carbs is a fun game. Give yourself double points if you can actually improve the dish in the process.
Making it work long term (AKA Fuck-it Friday)
The key to making a low carb lifestyle work is to never say never. In fact I’m going to have to insist that one day per week you say “fuck it!” and eat whatever you fancy. I call it Fuck-it Friday, because it sounds cool, but it can be any day of the week. If you don’t like swearing, you could even do a Sod-it Sunday or a Whatever-I-want Wednesday, you big square. But if you don’t like swearing, how the hell did you end up here?
The funny thing about Fuck-it Friday is that after a few weeks of eating really well sans carbs, you’ll actually find you don’t want the sweet treats or doughy bread as much as you thought. It will all taste like a mouthful of syrup, and you’ll be left furry of tongue and achy of head soon after. Not sexy.
This isn’t about eating nothing but meat either – make healthier choices. Make sure you eat plenty of vegetables and research alternative forms of proteins such as beans and legumes (which also add a pleasantly starchy texture to things like Italian stews and curries).
Do’s and don’ts
Prepare. Make sure you plan your meals and have plenty of low carb snacks stashed for emergencies.
Research. There are loads of low carb communities online as well as low carb cookbooks. Learning to change the way you cook and mastering your own recipes (e.g. educating yourself) is the key to success.
Swear. Allowing yourself a Fuck-it Friday will ensure you stick at it long term, after all six days is not that long to wait for a plate of chips and because it’s allowed – née encouraged – you won’t use failure as an excuse to write the whole thing off.
Drink. You can have a glass of wine or a gin & slimline from time to time. I won’t tell. Just steer clear of beer. And cider – especially the fruit ones.
Eat REAL food. That goes for drinks too. Don’t go for convenience, as I’ve said, it’s not the answer. Don’t put all that chemical crap into your body. I know you want to be thin, but you want to be healthy too, right? Health is the biggest indicator of beauty, and you’ll only look and feel good if you eat proper, as nature intended it, food. Otherwise you’ll just look like the after photo in a ‘faces of meth’ campaign. Attractive.
Cheat. You’ll be consuming a lot more fat eating this way, that’s what your body will be burning for fuel now – including the stuff on your gut. BUT fat and carbs in combination equals a slalem ride to a fat arse, so you cannot afford to slip even a little bit. That’s what the fuck-it day is for.
Be surprised… If others have a hard time understanding what you’re doing. Don’t forget, we are brought up from day one basing our meals around carbs, so most folks can’t get their head around eliminating them. They’ll waft donuts under your nose, they’ll lecture you about how you need fruit. You don’t. You can get all the goodness you need from vegetables, lean protein, nuts and seeds. Just nod and smile and wait for them to enviously compliment your svelte new waistline.
Give up. Not before you’ve tried it for at least a week.
Stop eating out. You’ll find plenty on the menu you can eat, and no decent restaurant will object to leaving off the rice in favour of a few extra veg. The eateries you’ll find the best choices in will be Brazilian and Argentinian (obviously), followed by Spanish, West Indian, Indian and Japanese restaurants. Just avoid the rice and you’ll be golden.
Overlook your drinks. In hot drinks, swap milk for organic (non sweetened) soya milk, and of course, cease the sugar. If you can’t stand beverages without sugar, use the odd sweetener but avoid supping on diet drinks all day long. That shit fucks you up.
Please try it for yourselves for a couple of weeks.
And please tell me now you get on in the comments field.
*Credit for this joke goes to Mr Daniel Champion, colleague and 2012 quote book winner. Full name shout out, as requested.