Be sure to check out Part I where I discuss some of the signs of a diet too low in carbohydrates and why they’re important.
This can be a touchy subject for some, so if the topic of weight loss or manipulating your diet is triggering in any way, then I don’t recommend reading the rest of this.
Please note that there is nothing wrong with eating in a caloric surplus, and it was completely fine for me at the time and can be necessary for some people when healing their bodies. Reducing my obsession with food and my fear of carbohydrates was more important to me than gaining some weight, so the tradeoff was certainly worth it, as it often is for many others.
However, gaining weight doesn’t have to occur as part of the process (although it still may), and if I can alleviate some of that fear for women in order to get them to increase their carbohydrate intake, then I will via the information here.
As I noted in Part I of this series, I learned that calories are king when it comes to fat loss. I gained fat when I increased my carbohydrate intake due to an overall increase in calories, not the increase of carbohydrates. I was eating a sufficient amount of overall food before this increase, so when I added the carbohydrates without reducing the quantity of food elsewhere, I was then eating in a caloric surplus. In simplistic terms, I was eating a diet of moderate protein, moderate carbohydrates, and high fat.
I had subscribed to a high-fat, low-carb diet for almost a decade, so I didn’t have a barometer for a moderate or low amount of fat in my diet. It was a macronutrient I didn’t think about previously, as I was under the impression that carbohydrates were the magical ticket to fat loss or fat gain and that dietary fat could be consumed with abandon.
I knew fat has 9 calories per gram and both protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, but I was still resistant to the validity of calories in vs. calories out determining changes in body composition. As a result, I was still consuming quite a bit of fat in addition to the carbohydrates.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a diet that consists of high amounts of both fat and carbohydrates, as everyone’s bodies, lifestyles, and goals are different. However, the amount of fat I was consuming wasn’t necessary for the function of my body. Additionally, a diet high in fat often leads to consuming a large number of calories with a low volume of food.
Changes to Fat Consumption
I decided to experiment with decreasing my dietary fat intake after I had increased my carb intake to a sufficient and healthy amount, my body had become relatively weight stable, and my bodily functions were positively consistent (i.e. consistent period, sleeping well, stable digestion, performing well in the gym).
I struggled with making these changes during the first few weeks, as I naturally gravitated towards high-fat foods after eating in this manner for years. This is extremely common, as we often gravitate towards choices that are habitual and comfortable. However, after doing some research and practicing some awareness, I was able to find my groove with leaner cuts of meat and little to no additional fat intake.
Results of Consuming Less Fat
I learned that I felt less “sluggish” with the decreased fat intake, that the amount I had been consuming previously wasn’t necessary to the overall satisfaction I experienced from meals, and that I didn’t actually enjoy the additional fats I was consuming on a regular basis.
The butter in my coffee? Didn’t miss it, and I didn’t really enjoy it in the first place. The avocado with every meal? Not necessary for me to feel satisfied. Leaner cuts of meat? Not a problem, as fats are used when cooking all components of my meals (i.e. oil or butter being used when cooking vegetables, potatoes, meats, etc.).
However, I did realize that I need some level of fat in every meal in order to feel satisfied and energized. Meals that contain essentially no fat don’t lead to sufficient enjoyment of my meals, and I learned this through experimentation. This means that a meal of chicken breast needs to include a slice of bacon, sprinkle of cheese, or vegetables cooked in more fat.
I often find the results above to ring true with my clients as well. It’s easy to become so indoctrinated into a way of eating that we don’t pause to consider whether or not we should be open to alternatives. Or that we may feel better and experience more enjoyment from a different approach.
This often translates into clients realizing that they don’t need as much fat in their meals as they thought, especially with the addition of the carbohydrates.
Ways to Experiment
Today, when clients are consuming a high-fat, low-carb diet and they’re already consuming an adequate number of calories, we start with the following (please note that there is certainly nuance to each individual’s circumstances and goals, so these are not hard and fast recommendations).
- Assess their activity level and preferred type of activity – those who partake in high-intensity exercise usually require more carbohydrates, in addition to those who strength train or do weightlifting. Examples of high intensity exercise include Crossfit, Orange Theory, and sprints.
o Those who partake in long endurance sports, such as running for more than one hour, will often benefit from an increased carbohydrate intake too.
o Activities like yoga and leisurely walking don’t require much glycogen, so we can get away with fewer carbs.
- Slowly decrease fat intake (if desired) – this might include leaving off the extra fried egg, not adding the avocado, less cheese, less dressing or one with less oil, leaner cuts of meat, or PB2 instead of peanut butter.
- Slowly increase carbohydrate intake – I usually recommend starting with one meal a day due to the fear that often coincides with this, and if you prefer a portion guideline, you can use one cupped handful per meal to start.
- Consume protein in most meals – this is especially true if you’re active. This doesn’t have to be an animal source, but protein should be a component (preferably a main one) of most meals. This contributes to increased satiety and enhanced recovery.
- Assess short-term results and adjust as needed – Start with one change at a time, journal and monitor the results (physical and emotional), and adjust as needed. This might include keeping additional fats in one meal but removing them from the rest or adding an additional serving of carbs to each meal. Everyone is different, hence the reason personalized coaching can be so helpful.
- Assess long-term results – It takes time for our bodies to adjust when making diet changes, so please don’t be alarmed if it takes a few weeks for your digestion to begin functioning optimally. Hormone changes, specifically the regulation of menstrual cycles, can take several months. However, changes to sleep, mood, recovery, and athletic performance should occur rather quickly.
There is always nuance in diets and recommendations, so I can’t make specific recommendations for every situation in this post, but this is a general starting point for most people. Experimentation and adjusting based on results is an absolutely necessary part of the process, so don’t expect to nail down the optimal consumption of carbs, fats, and proteins right away.
How does this differ from obsessively tracking foods? The goal and intent behind making and monitoring these changes is entirely different. We’re assessing our current nutritional choices in an effort to FEEL better, to provide our bodies with adequate and appropriate fuel, and to unlearn the multitude of rules we learned along the dieting road. NOT to exercise control or distract ourselves from uncomfortable emotions and situations.
We should view this as an opportunity to become more in sync with our bodies and to learn about their specific needs.
If this sounds too complicated, too obsessive, or like it requires too much brain power, especially if you’re in a place of wanting to free yourself from food obsession, then please don’t feel like this is a requirement right now. Our journeys to food and body freedom take time. All changes don’t need to occur within a condensed timeframe, and they certainly don’t need to occur simultaneously.
Unlearning all of the diet rules we’ve internalized is a process, and it requires a sufficient amount of mental energy and awareness in the beginning. However, after the initial “relearning” of what our bodies need, we’ll be more in sync than ever before, not to mention better equipped to respond to changes in the future. And we’ll be enjoying a hell of a lot more carbs tooJ