Sunday, September 7

Things Change. How Low is "Low-Carb"?

They say that what you learn first, you sometimes learn deepest. It's possible that between The Protein Power Life Plan and the Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, that the "20-30 carbs" part just stuck in my brain. Like some perennial idea, it has re-appeared annually and bloomed twice a season.

Maybe it's because I started so huge--ok, who am I kidding, I've lost ~150 pounds and I am still huge--but I think maybe I didn't pay so much attention to "the rest" of the lowcarb books when they got into "maintenance."

There is no such thing as maintenance when you need to lose 250+ pounds. The expected end of your 'diet' -- the induction part of the eating plan, designed for maximum weight loss -- is a distant dream, a hypothetical hope far off into the sunset.

Even planning for it is unreasonable. You just dive into induction and figure that "someday, when you are nearer a normal weight," you will "increase" your carbohydrate level. That someday becomes the same fictional date used for daydreams, based on "that mythical time when I look acceptable to others". It doesn't exist on a calendar. It only exists as a figment of my imagination.


Eventually there comes a time when things must change. A lot of people who start out "traditionally low-carb" -- basically, the Atkins or Eades plans -- eventually, have to change.

It might be that their weight loss simply slows greatly or even stops. When what you're doing isn't working, obviously, you start looking into doing something else.

It might be that they simply cannot abide eating so restrictively anymore.

It might be that they realize their whole life has obsessively revolved around food thanks to their eating plan and they just can't do that to themselves and their lives and the lives of those they live with anymore.

It might be that they were holding onto that eating plan solely with the iron grip of optimism, which after a long time and still finding themselves "really fat", finally started to falter.

It might be that they've been eating as close to zero-carb as an occasional egg and some spices and alliums make possible, and there is simply no further options in that direction anymore.

Suffice to say that people with a LOT of weight to lose can run into a whole list of problems that people who need to lose a lot less weight seldom do. And when that happens, something has got to change.


When you "expand" your eating plan, and you were "very low carb ketogenic diet" to begin with (VLCKD, <30-40/day depending on the person), obviously what that means is that you are going to be eating more carbs.

And since few of us utilize this opportunity to eat 10x as much broccoli and asparagus as we were eating previously, this means adding in new foods.


Since I began lowcarb, I had some degree of obsession with details. I got my nutrition counts from labels or USDA. I used numbers to the second decimal--third, if available. I did all my measures based on grams with an electronic scale. If it called for 1 Tbsp, I would weigh that, and then look up the grams in USDA, and either match that so my count was correct, or mathematically evaluate what my precise measure came out to. I tracked everything in my food, down to "a clove of garlic" or "some salt and pepper" which I estimated the counts for based on USDA and always estimated high. I kept detailed spreadsheets of my food down to its smallest ingredient.

Why? You could say, "four planets in Virgo; it's a curse." But the truth is probably more social: I have 17 years now of 'awareness' of how our culture at large considers all fat people to be stupid or liars. They assume that anybody fat is eating bon-bons all day or they wouldn't be fat, and anything said to the contrary either implies they are earnest but in-denial deluded, or lying out of embarrassment. So I think I "overcompensated" out of my offended-ego, trying to be obsessively detailed so that I would not ever feel that I was making one of the "errors or untruths" so many people assume on.

I've changed. I cannot do that anymore. I will not do that anymore.

I don't mind keeping a 'general' tally of what I eat, mostly because by now my eating has evolved to where it's mostly whole foods, or ingredients I put together for something, and it's just not that difficult to track even in my head. But I will no longer pursue an obsessive sub-decimal detail about my food intake. I'm not even sure I'm willing to pursue a physical list. I am SICK of it.

Do you know how obsessed you have to be in order to pull that off? How much your focus has to continually be upon food? How careful and/or the chore that even the smallest quick-food -- say, a homemade hamburger patty -- can become? It's ridiculous. I don't want to do that with my life anymore. It has taken over my life when I implement it. I become less a person who happens to be on an eating plan, than a walking eating plan who on rare occasion also focuses on being a person. I just won't do it anymore. I am fed up, put out, done with obsessing on details.

I feel that somewhere, sometime, people are going to look at me and think, "She doesn't even pay that much attention to her food, no wonder she is fat!" But I have paid attention to my food in serious anal-retentive detail and frankly, I haven't really seen that this level of attention to detail makes much difference. I seriously doubt that my calculating the carbs and calories in my garlic and spices, my calculating to a tenth of a calorie when measuring the bell pepper in my salad, really makes any difference. Maybe if I were using calories and trying to lose 3 pounds it would. But not right now.

Because it appears that my body is either willing to lose weight, and will do so with any fairly decent eating plan, or it is not willing to lose weight, and no amount of obsession changes that.

I swear weight loss is starting to seem more like magic, or maybe something in my head, than nutrition.


Apparently I need more than 30-40 carbs a day; but I need less than say, 150 carbs a day. But there are other considerations. For example, calories are not much of an issue when low-carb. But if you're eating a good number of carbs, they become an issue. And eating high-fat is just fine if your carbs are low. But if your carbs are high, eating high-fat as well is not so good; the combination will gradually kill you. So it goes without saying that if I'm going to be eating an adequate protein (for MY size) and relatively high-fat (meat-egg-cheese) diet, that I can't be eating a lot of carbs. I still need to be "low-carb".

How low is low-carb?

There is no hard set definition for 'low-carb'.

If we used research as an example, we'd have to be using the criteria of a bunch of well educated but on sad occasion, not very bright people who have been doing poor research with carefully crafted pre-determined results for a long time. Their version of 'high-fat' or 'low-carb' are numbers that sometimes defy belief. Or, still trying to be 'official', we could use the ADA definition:
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that approximately 50 percent to 60 percent of total daily calorie intake should be in the form of carbohydrates.

Let's see. If I'm trying (and usually failing to achieve this many, but it's my goal) to eat 2300 calories a day, half that is 1150, and a carb has "approximately" 4 calories each, that means according to the ADA I should be eating around 287-345 carbs per day. OK, that will kill me, but first it'll make me vastly fatter than I already am, so I have to disregard that measure as well.

No wonder diabetes is considered 'degenerative' and so many 'pre-diabetic' people end up with it, following advice like this? Perhaps that number is not accurate. I searched the ADA website for something specific. What a labrinth of non-specifics on nutrition counts! I did find this, regarding the ADA's food pyramid, with its primary base of carbohydrates:

At the base of the pyramid are bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. These foods contain mostly carbohydrates. The foods in this group are made mostly of grains, such as wheat, rye, and oats. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and corn also belong to this group, along with dry beans such as black eyed peas and pinto beans. [...] Choose 6-11 servings per day.

Well, all I know is, "That's too many carbs for my body" no matter how I count it. Given I ate high-carb my entire life, I know the only thing that does really well is make me insanely fat. So I am left using the more modern parlance or "lingo" used by "many" people in commercial books and the internet. Which, of course, varies.

The "average diet" is allegedly in the 275-375 carbs per day range.

Generally, 70-150 carbs a day is considered a "controlled" carbohydrate diet.

Generally, 35-80 carbs a day is considered "low" carb.

Generally, <35 carbs a day is considered "very low carb ketogenic".

Obviously these exact numbers are going to vary depending on who you ask. This is an 'average range'.

So what most people think of as 'LowCarb' is actually the far extreme of the measure. It isn't 'low' carb, it is VERY low carb, specifically so low that it sponsors the body into a ketogenic state. This is the "induction" part of most lowcarb plans.

Of course, most plans are designed for a brief induction, followed by a raise in carbs, eventually raising to a "maintenance" level, which is another big variable number that depends on the individual.


There is a very big difference in your food when you are eating 30 carbs versus 80 carbs. REALLY big. Condiments, sauces, herbs, become almost a non-issue (as long as we aren't talking about flour-sauce/gravies or desserts of course). You can actually eat fruit (wonderful), and carbier veggies (yum, peas!), more dairy, and even small amounts of things like whole oats and beans.

But there is a big difference in your body too, and that difference is ketosis. Ketosis is unlikely to be in place when you are eating 70 carbs a day, and it's nearly impossible to avoid (at least cyclically) if you are supersized and eating <40 carbs a day.

When ketosis makes fat fall off you, it's great. But when it ceases to cause your fat to disappear at a good clip, then its value is questionable. That was, after all, the whole point of invoking that state in the body in the first place. Why else? I never heard that ketosis was good for much of anything besides the weight loss side of it.

If eating ketogenic-level carbs no longer causes a person to lose weight at any reasonable speed, then you have to wonder if eating more nutrients in a wider array of food, with more carbs (but not "a ton" of them), might not be healthier. Or at the least, more easily maintained and more emotionally satisfying for the variety.


I don't yet have a decision or plan of action.

I do however have a few things I DO know:

I am not obsessing-in-detail about my food anymore. I just refuse.

I am not considering 'lowcarb' to be <30g anymore. If up to 100 does not make me gain significant weight or have any blood sugar or other problems, then I am going to expand my food as much as possible and eat what I can. If eating far less isn't making me lose weight and isn't noticeably improving any other health measure, then I fail to see what difference it makes anyway.

So... things change. This is not where I began. This is not what I considered "low-carb" when I began. This is a whole different approach in several ways.

But I tried the other way, the ketogenic VLC. And it worked great!--until it didn't.

So... now, as soon as I figure out what I can personally sustain, I'm going to try something else.



nonegiven said...

There was a guy on Usenet that had a theory about stalling on vlcd. Make sense to you?

PJ said...

That's a great ref! I really liked that. Then I ended up at the blog of Lyle McDonald which has a ton of fascinating stuff on leptin and more. Really... this is just so freakin complicated...!!

Anonymous said...

"I become less a person who happens to be on an eating plan, than a walking eating plan who on rare occasion also focuses on being a person."

I have no memory of writing this post, but if I didn't then you were channeling me!

RedCairo said...

I know, I saw your post and realized that we must have had a couple days where we were sharing a brain.

Can I have it now?

Patty said...

PJ, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I have been struggling with these very things, and you enunciated what I had not yet put into words. Bless you.

Vikki said...

Bravo!!! Well said. I have to agree with you 110% because I've not lost a lb in nearly a year, trying and failing miserable at trying to keep my level at <30 net grams a day. It's really had to convince yourself that that bun on your burger can do that much damage when working so hard to keep on track doesn't do a darn thing for me. So again BRAVO and as another supersized person, it's time for a change!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Eades (of the Protein Power books) has a couple posts on his blog on this very topic.

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