I have a confession to make: I’m on the Atkins diet. Last night for dinner I ate filet mignon wrapped in bacon with a small side of spinach. I’m a nutritionist by profession, and I’ve spent my adult life persuading clients, friends, and family to eat more vegetables. Yet now I find myself at brunch counting the carbs from my mesclun greens and ordering a side of bacon. No, Dr. Atkins did not die of a heart attack, and fat will likely not give you heart disease or make you overweight – but carbohydrates just might.
About 70% of my calories come from fat, 20-25% from protein, and the teensy rest from carbohydrates. I eat mainly meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, fats and oils (like mayonnaise, heavy cream, olive oil and avocado), some nuts and seeds, and about 2-3 cups of non-starchy vegetables per day. The scientific name for this way of eating is the “ketogenic diet”. Avoiding carbohydrates shifts your body from carbohydrate to fat metabolism. The fat in your cells (or in the food you eat) gets broken down in your liver to “ketones”, which fuel your brain when glucose is scarce. This fat-dissolving system is fully functional in about a week and for obvious reasons is quite handy for weight loss – but it won’t happen unless you abstain almost completely from carbohydrates. You can have about 20-30g of carbs per day, which you’ll get in 2-3g increments by eating a serving of nuts, avocado, or green vegetables, and from vinegar in your salad dressing or the lemon juice on your chicken. If you eat more than the allotted amount you will shut off ketosis and miss out on the super-charged fat burning phase. That means no sugar, grains, flour, fruit, potatoes, beans, or starch of any kind.
Seem impossible? Well, it may not be a long-term lifestyle for everyone – although there are some hard-core, very-low-carb-for-life dieters out there! There is a compromise for those of us who can’t imagine giving up fruit for the rest of our lives. Most keto dieters use the approach for short-term (e.g., 2-3 months) fat loss and transition after that to a more lenient, low carb way of eating, like the paleo diet. And if keto is not at all for you, you can lose a good deal of weight just by sharply reducing your carbs. Take stock of your diet over the course of a week. Look for things like bread, flour, sugar (or other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or rice syrup), grains (couscous, rice, oats), fruits, and starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn), and cut them in half. Start eating your sandwiches open-faced, with only one slice of bread. Take half your usual portion of rice, quinoa, and other grains when offered. If you’re a lover of sweets get on board with the 3-bite rule and learn to store the rest for another day or share with a friend. All of these changes will make a huge dent in your calorie and carb intake and go a long way to reducing your weight and your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
As a dietitian I know that there is not one perfect prescription for nutritional health. For the most part, if your diet consists of whole foods like fresh vegetables, high-quality proteins, and a good portion of healthful fats, and you avoid processed, fried, and overly sugary foods, you’re in the ballpark of a “very healthy diet”. If you’re normal weight, full of energy, and have no abnormal blood tests, this basic diet probably works for you. But if you’re struggling with extra weight and haven’t found success on a low-fat, low-calorie diet, then you may want to try a very-low-carb ketogenic diet.