Where to eat on a low-carb diet

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Like most people, I love eating out but passing on the carbs can be a  difficult thing to do. Most places serve bread, pasta, chips, alcohol, soft drinks and sauces of all kinds. More importantly, you don’t know exactly what is in some foods and sauces unless you make it yourself, and it can vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. So, the best advice I can give you is to just not go out at all! Problem solved.

But that’s no fun, is it. Here’s what I do for restaurants, plus some specific places around town. I live in the UK so if you don’t have some of these places where you are, hopefully you can find somewhere equivalent.

Restaurant x

If you’re going to go out to a restaurant, just steer clear of the biggest culprits like breads (pizza, the bread tray, breaded finger foods), pasta, potato and chips, and you should be ok. Life is too short to worry endless about what is in the sauces. If you’re not sure about it, either only have small amounts or skip it altogether.

Generally the places I tend to go have steak, so I’ll get a steak with vegetables and some sauce, or there’ll be chicken or fish. Have a large cheese burger with bacon and skip the bun.

Other good options are of course salads with any kind of meat; chicken cesar, any kind of fish salad, eggs or cheese.

Unfortunately in most cases you’ll have to skip the desserts as there’ll be enough sugar in there to blow your socks off. Instead, wait until you get home and have some full-fat greek yoghurt or drop a few fat bombs.

Subway

In case you didn’t already know, Subway also do some quality salad boxes in addition to awesome sandwiches that are also a bit cheaper. Choose one or two main “meats” (tuna, steak, chicken, etc) and then the salad that you want on top, plus a bit of mayo and cheese, and you’re sorted. At the time of writing, you get a bottle of water too!

Starbucks/Costa

I really like my cafe latte, but unfortunately the milk isn’t really conducive to a low-carb diet. However, most gourmet coffee places will do you an Americano with cream instead of milk, if you ask for it. They also do sweetener, but there are varying types and I would encourage you to take around a little box of Stevia-based sweetner with you.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen (gbk)

GBK do some fantastically expensive burgers, but they are pretty tasty. Fortunately, they also do a “naked” option where you get either corn on the cob or salad instead of the bun (personally I go for the salad). For some reason that I haven’t managed to work out, it does cost 50p extra to do this, but I think it’s worth it. I mean, how much do you value you health? Much more than 50p right?

Oh, and do try the halloumi bites and the blue cheese coleslaw – both are amazing.

Nandos

Nandos mainly do chicken, which is great. Here I usually skip the chips and garlic bread (my old favourites) and instead get a portion of ratatouille and halloumi instead. Go easy on the sauces as they do contain sugar and vegetable oil.

Toby Carvery

An old favourite amongst myself and my work colleagues, Toby Carvery is great for meat and vegetables. Have as much meat as they’ll give you and grab some veg; cauliflower cheese, carrots, cabbage.. just skip the potatoes, yorkshire puddings and peas. Take a little gravy but be careful as it contains a lot of corn flour and sugar.

Those are the main chain places I visit for something to eat – got any more to share? Let me know!

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Where to eat on a low-carb diet

How I started off with Keto

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If you’re thinking about getting started with a low-carb lifestyle but not quite sure where to start or how to go about it, I can explain how I went about it.

What is keto?

Keto is a nutritional lifestyle which with a focus on eating few carbohydrates and replacing it with good saturated fats for fuel, with a normal amount of protein to sustain muscle mass. Keto focusses on eating natural food sources like meats, and excludes all wheat-based food products and other packaged foods. It works by helping to regulate your internal production of insulin so that your body may once again access your fat stores for fuel.

Day 0 – macros and myfitnesspal.com

When I decided I was going to start doing Keto, I wanted to be sure that I was eating the right amounts of the right things, and not eating too much. So, I used the Keto Calculator – an online tool for roughly working out what amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fat you should eat. It works by asking a few questions about your lifestyle and body measurements, and then suggests some targets to hit. As a male of height 6’1″ who weighed about 98kg, mine worked out at roughly:

  • 25g carbs
  • 100g protein
  • 180g fat

Next, I used MyFitnessPal.com to track what I was eating on my phone (they have apps for all the major mobile OS‘), which is great because you can simply scan the barcode of the thing you’re eating (or just look it up if it doesn’t have a barcode) and it records the nutritional information as part of your diary. An even more important feature is that you can enter the nutrition goals that were suggested to you by the Keto calculator, so that MFP can tell you whether or not you’re achieving them!

Important: The thing about MyFitnessPal is that most of the nutritional information for a given food is provided by the community – they might not always be correct or accurate! You should double-check the product you’re adding if you’re not sure, or look up the nutritional information from the producer’s website. Also, a LOT of the articles and blog posts are not very keto friendly – they target the audience still partaking in the “traditional western diet”, so read them at your peril!

I’d say that when you’re starting out on a diet like this, it’s very important that you start tracking what you eat (even roughly) so that you begin to get an idea of what kinds of things you can eat, and what you can’t. Some things have a surprising amount of carbohydrates in it that you weren’t expecting! Once you get into the swing of things, you can perhaps ease off on the tracking, or only use it when you cook something new and you want to record what’s in it in terms of nutritional value. Yes, tracking food and meals can seem like a ball-ache to start off with, but it will be worth it.

You can also record your exercise with MFP too – if you go walking or running and have the ability to record how many calories you burned, you can stick it into MFP too.

A note about calories

According to conventional wisdom, you’ve probably heard that if you create a calorie deficit (i.e. eat less calories than you burn), you will just lose weight. I don’t believe that to be strictly the case. It really does depend on what those calories are made up of; if you need 1800 kcal per day to sustain yourself, and you only eat 1000 kcal, then you have created a deficit of 800 kcal. But if those calories that you’ve eaten are just made up of carbohydrates then sure you’ve eaten less but you’ve also completely denied your body the opportunity to get access to your fat stores for fuel, thanks to all the insulin coursing through your veins. It would be much better to eat 1500 kcal of good fats, proteins and a tiny amount of non-wheat carbohydrates than to create such a deficit.

For the same reason, you might not necessarily gain weight if you eat more than you should. Thanks to experiments like the 5,000 calorie-a-day experiment, where he ate nearly 5,000 calories a day for 30 days on a Keto diet, he only gained a tiny amount of weight. Nowhere near the amount that the calories in vs. calories out formula said he would.

Much more important is to look at the nutritional density of food, rather than the caloric density. Besides, the values quoted for any given food item can be grossly miscalculated as the process for measuring calories in something is inherently inaccurate, by as much as 30%!

So what should I eat?

Generally speaking, these are the kinds of foods that I cut out of my diet altogether:

  • Pasta (spaghetti, lasagne sheets, penne.. all kinds, including whole wheat varieties
  • Any type of bread; white, brown, whole wheat.. they’re all as bad as each other and have a higher glycemic index than pure sugar
  • Rice, all kinds
  • Milk
  • Breakfast cereal, all kinds
  • Fruits (just to start off with)
  • Packages sauces, used in curry or for pasta
  • Any type of bought ready-meal
  • Juice drinks, even the no-sugar types
  • Alcohol
  • Legumes, beans and peas
  • Potatoes of any kind
  • Anything with “low-fat” or “fat-free” written on it
  • Anything with trans-fats in it

That probably discounted about 90% of what was in my cupboards, meaning that I was pretty much going to starve. Unfortunately, this list also forms about 90% of the things we eat that are either created from wheat, have added sugar or contain starches that you don’t really want to be eating if you’re interested in looking after your health. But, this is what I added or otherwise continued to eat instead:

  • Eggs
  • Fish, particularly salmon and mackerel
  • Meats, like chicken, turkey, pork, beef, mince, bacon, sausages (the higher the meat content the better). Try not to cut off the fat – it’s good for you!
  • Cream, single or double. Ever since I was tiny I drank tea with milk and half a sugar, but I swapped it for coffee with single cream and a Stevia sweetener
  • A small amount of vegetables, particularly green ones like broccoli, asparagus and pepper
  • Cheese. Cream cheese is great with a full English, or just to dip your green vegetables into
  • Olive oil and coconut oil (never use vegetable or sunflower, when heated they produce Formaldehyde amongst other things, which are highly toxic)
  • I swapped margarine for butter
  • Whole, unsalted nuts
  • Classic basil pesto (goes great with breakfast)

Ok, so the list isn’t as big as the stuff I took out of my diet but, with the exception of the vegetables, they all contain relatively little carbohydrates. Besides, there is so much stuff you can cook with all this! Plus, it will be a lot tastier and you can finally feel good about eating all the “shit” that you felt bad about eating before.

For example, try this: take a bunch of asparagus, split them into bunches of 3 or 4, wrap them in parma ham, coat them in olive oil then roast them in the oven at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Eat them with a good dollop of full-fat cream cheese. You can thank me later.

I’ll be posting some more awesome recipes in the blog posts to come.

What to watch out for

As I alluded to in my previous post, the first week or so of being on Keto and following your brand new food plan will be tough. You will feel more lethargic than usual, but try not to be tempted to take anything to pump you up. Just ride it out. All it is, is your body having to switch over from the one source of fuel that you’re used to, to another. From carbohydrates to fat. Thanks to the sudden shortage of carbs and the glucose hit that you normally get, your liver will start flooding your system with ketones, almost like an emergency fuel source that can readily be burned by your body, and your brain. Your body is now in a state of ketosis (hence the name Keto for the diet) and is a sign that your body is looking for an alternate source of fuel. It should only take you a couple of days to get into this state if you’ve been eating correctly.

Finally, I’ve mentioned it before in this post but low-fat products are ones to watch out for.. avoid them if you can. They’re low in fat but they add sugar to try and replace some of the taste. You’ll find that a low-fat variant of a product is usually higher in carbohydrates than its full-fat equivalent. This is for things like mayonnaise or cream cheese. Without the sugar they would just taste like cardboard.

How do I know if I’m in ketosis?

There are a couple of ways of detecting whether you are in ketosis or not:

  • Physical changes – you may develop a slight case of halitosis (carry some Spearmint gum and/or use mouthwash more regularly!), or your pee may take on a funny odour. Not unpleasant, but still a bit odd
  • You can test yourself using Ketostix – I used theses ones from Amazon. Basically, you pee on them a bit and the colour changes to reflect exactly how deep into a ketosis state you are. If the colour doesn’t change, you are not in a state of ketosis

The last point is interesting. If you make changes to your diet and cut out carbohydrates, you will enter ketosis reasonably quickly. After a few days, test yourself to make sure you are. As time goes on, you will slowly start testing negative. Provided you are still not eating very many carbs, all this means is that your body is making full use of the ketones in your system and isn’t expelling any through your urine. Ketostix are very useful for testing but only really at the beginning of your keto diet.

The only other thing to watch out for is the preparation: make time to make a meal with this stuff and put some effort into eating the right thing. If you take lunch to work, make sure you can make something that morning (or the night before) and have a container into work and have the means to heat it if necessary. This is possibly the hardest adjustment to make. If you don’t feel like you have time before you’ve even begun, I’d suggest that more radical changes are needed in your lifestyle to make sure that you eat the right thing in or out of the house. Otherwise there’s no point. If you don’t take something to work because you didn’t have time, the temptation to “skip a day” and eat something you shouldn’t only escalates.

With keto, you can’t afford to have off-days. Having an off-day sets you back so far and you basically have to start over again. However, it may make it slightly easier to get back into ketosis than if you’re just starting for the first time.

But won’t I be hungry all the time?

Generally, no. You’ll find overall you’ll probably want to eat less. The protein and saturated fats will satiate you extremely well and you shouldn’t feel like you want to eat all the time. It’s a little weird to explain. Before I started, I would snack on random things all the time because I felt like I wanted to eat, but on the diet I didn’t even think about it. Didn’t even cross my mind. It’s like the subconscious takes over and stops you diving in the fridge before you even walk in the kitchen.

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You feel hungry on a typical carb-loaded diet because when you eat carbs, you feel satiated but then your blood sugar spikes, floods your system with insulin and removes all that glucose that you were trying to use for fuel, then your brain goes “Waaaiiit!! Whhaaa…?!” and then thinks it’s hungry again since you’ve just taken away its fuel source. Cravings and bad things ensue.

It’s fine to skip meals if you want to. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. You don’t need to eat three square meals a day. You also don’t need to stop eating after 8pm – eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Listen to what your body is telling you.

But what about my cholesterol?

If you didn’t know, cholesterol is good for you. In fact, it’s not just good for you, it’s essential for your well-being and longevity. It’s so important, most cells in your body can make it. Your body makes a certain amount of cholesterol every day, but it’s pretty smart because if you take in cholesterol through your diet, it stops making it’s own. It regulates itself.

Besides, you do have so called “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol. In a nutshell, carbohydrates promote your bad cholesterol which contributes towards inflammation of the arteries and CVD, and saturated fats help clean all that up and promote your good cholesterol.

The challenge

Try it for 30 days. That’s all, and if you don’t like it you can go back to eating what you were eating beforehand. I know I did, and I put on a boatload of weight again – almost everything I lost.

But if you stick with it, you could shed those pounds that you’ve been dying to get rid of for a long time. Once you’ve gotten into the routine, it won’t seem like such a hardship and you can enjoy it!

Further reading

At the bottom of my previous post, I outlined a few resources you can check out if you happen to be interested in reading into the science a bit more, but here it is again; some extra reading for when you have the time:

How I started off with Keto

So… why go low-carb?

bacon

When I mention that I don’t eat carbs to people, I usually get one of a variety of reactions:

  • They just stare in disbelief while they work out what that means
  • they scrunch their faces up at the thought of not being able to eat chocolate or toast
  • they laugh
  • they try to explain to me that it’s extremely damaging to my health, or
  • they field some genuine questions about it

I’m not going to kid anyone – going low-carb sucks, and it’s hard to stick to for a variety of reasons. But it’s also very, very good for you for even more reasons. I’m going to try and explain some of them here.

Why you should consider it

2 million years of human evolution, that’s why!

That’s not enough for you? Ok, how about this:

  • It’s a powerful tool for losing weight. Those “fat burning” sessions you’re putting in at the gym without any real results? If you’re still eating carbs, you can forget it. Thanks to the carbohydrates elevating your insulin levels and preventing your fat stores from being accessed, there’s nothing that the gym can do to help.
  • If you have been told to reduce your saturated fat intake to help prevent cardiovascular disease, you should know that it’s total bullshit. Carbohydrates and insulin levels do a good job at increasing the risk of inflammation in your arteries and, along with an increased LDL and Triglyceride count, put you at risk of CVD. Good saturated fats help reverse this process
  • Eating carbohydrates on a regular basis will, over time, make you increasingly resistant to insulin, slowly turning you into a Type 2 diabetic. This means that you can no longer produce enough insulin the glucose in your blood, which will instead poison you.
  • It just doesn’t fit in with human evolution. If you compress the timeline of human evolution into an hour, we’ve only been eating carbohydrates and wheat for the last 5 minutes! We were never designed to eat them in the quantities that we do today, and we still haven’t evolved to process them correctly. How is it that we could have survived for 2 million years before agriculture came along? Could it be that we don’t actually need carbs? Of course we don’t.

Personally, I cut out carbs initially so that I could lose weight, as nothing else was working. As I read more into the science behind it, it became much more apparent that there’s much more to it. As it turns out I had some great success with my weight loss attempt at this time, losing nearly 15kg in just a few months without any real changes to my exercise habits.

so Why wouldn’t you do it?!

Low-carb is not for everyone. Cutting out carbohydrates from your diet means that you can’t eat a lot of stuff that you’re used to. Chocolate, cakes, breads, dairy like semi-skimmed milk or cottage cheese, a lot of fruit, too many vegetables, pasta, rice, most packaged sauces, ready-meals, fast food…

No bread? That’s right, gone are your lunchtime sandwiches. No semi-skimmed milk? Nope! No more milky tea. Bread is convenient because it’s so easy just to throw together a sandwich for lunch, or just go to the supermarket or Subway to buy one.

That’s the hardest thing about getting rid of the carbohydrates – convenience. You have to plan a bit more ahead and spend a little more time in the kitchen preparing something. Most things you can buy quickly and easily, save for salads, will contain carbohydrates of some sort and should be avoided.

I am in the fortunate position that, as a single male without any dependants, I can just cook for myself and stock my cupboards with whatever foods I want without worrying about someone else, if they would happen to eat carbs. If you have a family, or someone who isn’t sold on the idea of ridding carbs from their diet, then it can make this that bit more difficult to stick to.

The problem with any nutrition advise concerning weight loss is that there are so many fad diets out there that are mostly such bullshit that most people can see them for what they are, yet try them out anyway as they just might work for them. Not having any carbs after 4pm? Bullshit. It doesn’t matter when you eat them, 4pm or 11pm, they’re still carbs. This may actually help you lose weight, only because it may cause you to eat less carbs daily, not because you stop eating them when Countdown comes on the telly.

At the end of the day, it is a lifestyle change which could be quite drastic. But, if you really want the change, you will take the necessary steps. If being able to eat cake and the breads and pasta that you’re used to is more important to you, then that’s also your choice!

Why I chose a low-carb diet

Why did I choose a low-carb diet instead of any of the other diets out there? Mainly because this one has real science behind it that makes total sense. It’s pretty simple – eat carbs, and your blood sugar spikes, releasing a dose of insulin which stores fat and prevents it being used as an energy source. Don’t eat carbs, and your blood sugar doesn’t spike, allowing the body access to your fat stores for energy.

So where should you get your energy from? Natural fats, like from animal meat, butter, cream, olive oil and suchlike. What? Your mum told you they’re bad for you? Bullshit. They save your life, and they taste pretty awesome. Furthermore, since you’re no longer eating carbs, the fat you’re eating isn’t stored and is instead used for energy. That fat you see on bacon and on a nice juicy bit of steak that you cut off every time because you don’t want to get fat? It’s helping prevent disease and reducing your cholesterol. So eat it!

Huh? Saturated fat gives you heart disease? No, it doesn’t give you heart disease. Saturated fat has been shown to help clean up bad cholesterol (Triglycerides and type-2 LDLs) and reducing your overall cholesterol. Where does bad cholesterol come from? Carbohydrates. Triglycerides are what fat is packaged into under the effects of insulin when they are being transported around for storage. The increased count increases the “traffic” in your arteries, causing collisions with the artery walls, inflaming them, producing cracks and a build-up of plaque which will eventually cause CVD.

In light of this, I chose to make certain changes in my diet which would allow me to get my weight on track, so I specifically stuck to the guidelines behind a ketogenic diet. That is, restricting my carbohydrate intake to less than 25g per day, an intake of protein of around 100g (no-one should skimp on their protein!) and a total fat intake of around 180g per day.

Other than cutting out bread, wheats and pasta, some specific changes I made:

  • I was an avid tea drinker (milk with half a sugar) – I swapped this for coffee with single cream and a stevia sweetener (or double cream, depending on what I have handy)
  • I steered clear of low-fat products and always went for the full-fat versions. Mayonnaise, greek yoghurt, etc
  • Made sure most of my 25g of carbs were from green vegetables
  • Cut out fruit temporarily
  • Swapped margarine for butter
  • Introduced more meats with fat (bacon, pork, mince, steaks, etc), fish and cheese

The result is that I lost nearly 15kg on that alone. I was walking around 15 miles per week to and from work, but that has been a constant for the last couple of years, diet or no diet. I didn’t step into a gym in that period (I hate them and how much money they cost). Additionally, I found I had more energy, I was sleeping much better and I really did feel great when I was able to buy smaller clothes that fit me much better; it was immensely empowering.

Conversely, over the last year I had put most of that weight back on simply because I began to reintroduce the carbs and step back into my old habits, again without any real change to my exercise habits. They do say that weight loss is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise, and you should believe it.

Don’t take my word for it..

I realise that this blog post hasn’t been backed up by any real sources or references to scientific study or suchlike, but is instead a brain dump of all the stuff I’ve read over the last year or so, and what worked for me. It’s definitely not as simple as I present here. The problem is that nobody actually knows the real truth, but the evidence is certainly mounting against carbohydrates and people are starting to wake up. The fact that as a species we have survived without them for long enough, was enough to convince me.

The most important thing I’m trying to convey to people, is that all of this information is available in various communities, books and videos, and I encourage you to go and discover for yourself whether or not Keto, or Paleo, or just going low-carb is right for you or not.

Here’s some things you can go check out if you want to get more information and actual “proof” that this is the right thing to do:

If you only do one thing..

Finally, if you forget about all of those links and only do one thing, then watch the Fat Head movie. My brother turned me on to it at the start, and ultimately ended up convincing me to give it a go. It explains everything I’ve talked about here in more detail, but in a humorous and light-hearted way. Please watch it. Then you can decide whether or not this is right for you. Settle down though, it’s nearly 2 hours long.

Here, I’ll link it for you:

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to try and expand on the topics I talk about above, as well as throw a few good recipes in there for stuff you can eat that tastes delicious and contain very little carbs!

So… why go low-carb?

The journey begins.. again

I say again, because this is the second time that I’ve given this a serious go.

I’m Steve, I work in the North-East of England in a mostly sedentary job and I try not to do any intensive exercise if I can avoid it. I’m a very keen advocate of the low-carb lifestyle (think ketogenic or paleo diets – what this blog is all about) and I’m also a skeptic.

In August 2013, I weighed 96kg (around 210lbs), nearly busting out of size 38 waist jeans and I was partial to a bit of pizza.

In January 2014, I weighed around 80kg (176lbs), was about to buy my first pair of 34″ jeans and I hadn’t eaten pizza in 5 months. That’s around a 17% weight loss in a relatively short space of time, entirely achieved through modifying my diet and disregarding conventional wisdom. I didn’t put any extra hours in at the gym (in fact, I cancelled my membership a few months prior), I didn’t take any special diet pills and I certainly didn’t have any surgery.

Now, in January 2015, I’m back up to 96kg and it’s getting out of control. The only lifestyle change I have made in 12 months is to revert back to my old ways of eating whatever, as I thought “Hey, I’m thin enough now – bring on the pizza!”.Unfortunately, it has been my undoing.

Hence, I’m starting the journey again. This blog is not an attempt to somehow provide accountability when everyone can see when I fail, but is instead an outlet for educating others that altering your diet in certain ways does not have to be painful or fruitless, but can (and does) promote weight loss – if that’s your goal – but also generally improving your health, including mitigation against type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other dreadful illnesses that could be prevented if only we would alter our approach to food, to the food industry and to the people and organisations who are supposed to be guiding us with this sort of stuff, not making us sicker.

There are a lot of people blogging and writing about the real effects of a low-carb diet (I’m loath to use the word ‘diet’ as it seems temporary), including food nutritionists, scientists and people like you and me who have seen the light, and I’m just adding to the pile. It’s still an uphill struggle though and there’s a long way to go, but I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t at least try to help educate people.

In this blog you will find:

  • Personal stories of my journey back to health and well being
  • Accounts of where industry and government have failed us
  • Recipes and photos of the stuff I make and eat
  • Other paleo/keto related ramblings

Hopefully you’ll find it interesting and that if you’re not already engaging in a low-carb diet but want a change or want to try something new, perhaps some of the stuff I write about will inspire you to start!

The journey begins.. again