a selection of whole foods showing primarily low carbohydrate foods, protein, healthy fats and green leafy vegetables

Food matters: a low-carb guide

6 Mar, 2024 | Metabolic Health, Nutrition, Weight Loss

As I’ve mentioned before, the arena of food and diets can be more fraught than any discussion on religion or politics. So we’re going to stick to the science and acknowledge that no two people will respond in the same way to the same eating plan. There is however occasion to set out some basic guidelines which can be tailored around dietary preferences, cultural and religious norms, genetic predispositions and health goals. Let’s kick-off this series with some guidelines on how to approach a low-carb eating plan.

Often this way of eating is recommended for someone who needs to reduce blood glucose levels, control insulin, achieve good gut health and perhaps lose weight. When we consider the three macronutrients in light of this way of eating, it would mean fewer carbohydrates (think grains, breads, pastas and starchy vegetables), more protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes) and moderate fat (avocado, nuts, some dairy, olive oil). A very strict version of this diet is known as the ketogenic diet, where nett carbohydrates are limited to about 10g per day. For the purpose of this article we will limit the discussion to a meaningful reduction in carbohydrates and a focus on healthy proteins and fats. I will address a full ketogenic diet in another blog post.

The purpose of a low-carb diet is essentially to regulate insulin, and in doing so promote and maintain weight loss. There are a couple of fundamentals that need mentioning. It is assumed that we are eating whole foods and avoiding as much as is reasonable, processed foods. We are also accepting that natural fats are no longer the enemy as was long touted, but rather an essential part of a balanced diet. The consumption of more protein and fat is also likely to lead to greater feelings of satiety and an overall reduction in calorie intake. 

The actual food – what to eat (and drink)

I’ll say it again … depending on your genetics and current health status, you may need to adjust what you eat. The following recommendations are a broad guideline and should give you a basic idea of what constitutes a low-carb way of eating. 

Vegetables (that grow above the ground)

One of the biggest misconceptions of low-carb, is that it’s also low-veg – nothing could be further from the truth. You can (and should) eat lots of vegetables. Leafy greens are packed with proteins, fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Because of the number of anti-nutrients in many of these vegetables, we generally recommend cooking them for better tolerance and absorption. Try to include variety and colour, not only will this keep our palette interested, it will also introduce antioxidants, carotenoids, phytochemicals and lycopene, to name but a few. Vegetables should make the bulk of what you consume on a daily basis.

Root vegetables are generally high in carbohydrates, especially potatoes, and the low-carb-life is made easier by avoiding them. If elimination seems too daunting, opt for a lovely roast sweet potato instead.

Protein

Meat packs a nutritional punch – it’s filled with high quality protein, heme iron, minerals, vitamins and omegas. Furthermore it has a stabilising effect on your blood glucose levels and improves feelings of satiety. When it comes to red meat and poultry, it’s best to choose free-range or organically raised animals, if your budget allows.

Fish is another great source of complete protein and depending on the type of fish, may add valuable omega 3’s to your diet. Opt for fish such as mackerel, sardines, herring, salmon or trout.

Eggs are fantastic, not only are they super versatile and easy to cook, they pack a delightful 12,5g of protein per 100g of whole egg. Beyond the macro’s, they also contain a host of micro nutrients, beneficial to health.

Plant sources of protein are gaining popularity, and going low-carb on a vegetarian or vegan diet is achievable, but may take some finer planning. Soy is an affordable and available protein and lends itself to a smorgasbord of cooking possibilities. Add some hemp seeds and nuts and you’re off to the races. Legumes will add to your protein consumption of the day, but beware that they do still contain a substantial amount of carbohydrates, more than double the grams of  protein.

Dairy

If you can tolerate dairy, it can be a great source of protein, fat and micronutrients. Go for full fat options like butter, full fat yoghurt and hard cheeses. These contribute to greater feelings of satiety. Careful of milk as it contains a significant amount of milk sugars, contributing to your intake of carbohydrates. Again it is best to be conscious of the source of your dairy, it has been shown that organically raised cows contribute to nutritionally superior dairy. Moderation is the name of the game here.

Fats

Much controversy still exists around fat consumption. We’ll stick to the basics, as we have with everything else. The research is clear, saturated fats from processed food – accounting for the largest proportion of saturated fats consumed in the SAD (Standard American Diet) – is bad. Fats from happy cows and chickens (read pasture raised) is richer in its composition and generally considered beneficial as part of a balanced diet. When it comes to vegetable fats, it gets more nuanced and the research murkier. We like extra virgin olive oil for salads and dressings, avocado oil for cooking, coconut oil on certain occasions, and sesame oil too. Avocado’s and nuts are also considered healthy sources of fats and come with a substantial dose of fibre to boot.

Fruits

Fruits are great sources of fibre, minerals, vitamins and polyphenols. Some can be very high in carbohydrates, especially fruit such as bananas and grapes. Berries are a great go to and a very rich source of fibre, antioxidant polyphenols and vitamin C. Regular consumption of berries have also been linked to a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors. Bonus!

Drinks

If there’s one thing I wish I could make disappear from the planet (okay, there are a few!), it would be sugary drinks. They are associated with an increase in metabolic disease and overall poorer health outcomes. And if you think you’re out of the woods with artificial sweeteners … think again. It has been shown that they cause significant alterations in the gut microbiome. No one said this was going to be an easy read.

Water, coffee and tea are all zero carb options, and how much of what you add is up to you, but at least you can control that. The odd glass of wine is permissible, but most other alcoholic drinks will tip you over the carb edge.

The pitfalls

Always opt for fresh, wholefoods over processed foods. And if it does come in a packet, make sure you can pronounce the ingredients. 

The biggest challenge of changing a way of eating is lack of planning. We all default to what we know and what is easiest. The kindest thing you can do for yourself is sit down once a week and plan your meals. Then plan your shopping. Then plan your prepping. It can seem really hard in the beginning, but after a while it will become second nature.

Meals out at restaurants or with friends can be tricky. At restaurants there will usually be a workable option or two. If your bestie however decides to cook you that mac n cheese, you’ll be left making choices between your HBA1C and friend’s favour. You have to figure out what works for you and where your boundaries are. It’s also important to have fun and enjoy food. If you have a carb heavy meal or night out with too many drinks, get straight back on the bus the next morning. 

Deciding to eat low-carb isn’t just about counting macros, ultimately it’s about fostering a habit of eating whole-foods in a conscious manner. It’s the long game, so don’t freak out if you lose a point here or there.

Useful tools

It has to be the unsexiest advice ever … but do consider a food diary. It has been well recorded that humans lie. And more so to ourselves than anyone else. For a few weeks, track what you eat and how it makes you feel. From gut health, to energy, even feelings of overwhelm. You will be surprised how much we can trace back to what we’ve put in our mouths.

You can use tech for this and an app like Cronometer is great for tracking what you’re eating. The advantage is that it gives you a complete breakdown of your macros, micros, fibre and more. I’m not a fan of weighing food or counting calories, but tracking your food consumption in this way will give you a very good idea of how many calories you are consuming, where those calories are coming from and what food you can be more liberal with (and which ones not!).

Consider getting a continuous glucose monitor. It was a revelation when I experimented with one. I used the Freestyle Libre, a sensor on my arm and an app on my phone. I managed to avoid too many food spikes, but yikes did that G ‘n T send it! It was equally interesting to see what effect different types of exercise had on my blood glucose levels. You wear the device for 2 weeks and it gives you a pretty good idea of how your body responds to different foods, drinks and activities. Once you see that graph, your ability to course correct becomes almost superhuman.

Warnings

Although a low-carb diet is generally considered safe, the following situations call for additional monitoring and guidance: people on medication for diabetes or hypertension and those currently pregnant or breastfeeding. If you fall in one of these categories or have a known health condition, please contact one of our practitioners or speak to your healthcare provider for advice.

The foods recommended are generally well tolerated, however, this does not take into account food allergies, intolerances or genetics SNPs. If you suffer from sinus, seasonal allergies, joint pain, brain fog or struggle to lose weight, you should consider looking into how your body is tolerating different types of foods. Please get in touch with us to guide you through this process.

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