Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Low-Carb Diet Success Story (and Survival Guide)

This week will mark 6 months of successful maintenance on my own modified version of the Atkins diet. I call this a success story because I intend to prolong that six months, and have already met the challenge of encroaching weight. Let me explain.

Don't let this happen to you!
This was (at least) my sixth go-around of low-carb dieting. Of those six, only four--counting this time--were successful. But the mere fact that I'm on it again is a testament to the curse of most any diet: falling off the wagon. The weight returns faster than it comes off, as almost everybody knows. And after you hit a certain weight in the wrong direction, our response is often, "Oh, what difference does it make now?" That kind of attitude can cause an even bigger problem, pun intended. It seems that each time we fall off a diet, our "ceiling weight" goes up. I found after my last backslide that I couldn't even exercise the weight off without also dieting. My 5' 8+" body was finally pushing the scales past 180 lbs. And with my endomorphic frame, that just didn't work. If I stay at that weight long enough, it spreads around to my face, my legs, even my fingers.

School cafeteria Ranch Burgers
made on low-carb bread.
It's not a good look for me. So, last September 6, I decided I was going low-carb again, and this time I approached it with the same fervency that I gave quitting smoking: no excuses. I kept my carbohydrate intake at no more than 20-25 carbs at all times. By late October, I had shed 25 pounds. And by Thanksgiving--11 weeks after I started--I was down to 150, which is at least 30 pounds, possibly a little past that. Since then, I haven't ever gotten heavier than 154 (briefly), or lower than 147. My high school weight of 140 does seem out of reach, so I've given away all of my sub-32" waisted pants, and all of the over-33" ones!

Cheesy Faux Potato Bake.
We're almost never without it.

I've instituted and rule, a rule that is certainly not as challenging as "no more cigarettes." That rule is, if the scale even approaches 155 (a weight which I thought was "heavy" when I was in my 20s), I step up the diet and exercise. An addendum to the rule is that if I've maintained 150 or lower for a couple of weeks, I can have a cheat day. More on that in a minute. And so far, it has worked. Barring a catastrophic event in my life or my family, I intend to keep these rules. My goals are now at monthly intervals. I'm shooting for a year. And I'll take it six months at a time like that until this is just life for me. After all of these tries at the diet, I feel like I'm finally in a pattern that works. So, here are some of the things that have helped me keep the weight off, if you're trying the diet too.

• Start the diet by ridding your house of snack foods, and most any tempting high carbohydrate product.
• Be on the lookout for carbs/sugars in things that don't seem like they'd have much (they put high-fructose corn syrup in everything these days, even some "diet" items).
• Be wary of "serving sizes" of even low-carb foods. Sometimes a tiny package will claim it has seven servings.
• Remember that you can subtract fiber grams from carb grams to get your "net carb" number. If the food has a lot of fiber, it will cancel out and equal number of carb grams.
Cauliflower Faux Fried Rice &
Stir Fry. Amazingly good.
• Stock up on diet friendly items that can relieve any suffering you might be having on this restrictive diet, such as:
  • Pepperoni slices (which you can microwave on paper towels, if you're scared of all that fat)
  • Cheese in cubes, slices, bricks. There are some carbs in some cheeses, but most are very low.
  • Eggs. Buy the 60-egg flat at Sam's or Costco. Eggs are a wonderful meal any time in many varities, and can be used in egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, and on and on. Bacon is also good in all of those salads!
  • Dill pickles, in full, spears, hamburger slices or gherkins.
  • Cauliflower, radishes, turnips, lettuce, green onion, green beans, broccoli. Turnips and cauliflower can often be used as a substitute for potatoes, in roasts and bakes.
  • Butter, for recipes.
  • Bacon, cook your own, pre-cooked and/or crumbled (for countless recipes).
  • Hamburger patties.
  • Hot dogs, bratwurst, sausages (just check carb counts first).
  • Meat, from roasts, to pork loin, to London broil, to steaks. Prepare a lot on the weekend, and package lunches or freeze portions for later.
  • Seafood, if you dig it (I don't).
  • Flax meal, if you're a baker. There are countless recipes for breads, muffins, pizza dough etc. online.
  • Powdered diet drink mixes (check the label).
  • Atkins diet bars and drinks (but more about sugar alcohols below).
  • Mission brand low-carb white tortillas (all other low-carb tortillas I've tried tasted awful. These are good!).
  • Chicken wings. Read nutritional info to be sure of the carbs. I love Tyson tequila lime, and I sprinkle some Cajun seasoning on them, and cook them longer so they're crispy.
  • Kroger brand (also Ralphs, Smith's, etc.) Carb Masters yogurt. 4 carbs each, and delicious! 
  • Beef jerky, but check the ingredients. Jack Links Original has only 3 cars each.
  • Ingredients for homemade soups. You can make chicken or hamburger soups that are delicious and low-carb, and use egg drop for noodles! See here.
Pizza on a flaxseed crust. Tastier the
second day. Personal pizzas on
Mission low carb tortillas are better.
There are a few items that only certain people on a low-carb diet can eat and drink without disrupting their diets. I'm one of the lucky ones who can have everything in this list (don't hate me because my digestive system is efficient!). So if you have any of these things, add them a little ways into your diet, and see if they make you stop losing, or actually gaining:

  • Nuts, particularly peanuts and almonds. My favorites are dry roasted peanuts, and smoked almonds.
  • Alcohol, like vodka, whiskey. Red wine doesn't seem to hurt my diet either. Low-carb beers in moderation are also okay. Probably should avoid all alcohol in the first two weeks. Watch out for sweet liquors or flavored rums too.
  • Caffeine. Dr. Atkins said no, I said, "Screw you, Dr. Atkins, you're dead!" And I've had no issue.
  • Diet soda. Many people are concerned about artificial sweeteners, their affect on the body, on hunger levels, and whether they are safe. I figure I've been drinking them since the 80s. If they're gonna kill me, they're gonna kill me. And can they really be worse than high-fructose corn syrup? I drink it like a fish, and I still lost 30 pounds.
  • Diet ice creams and other treats (like Atkins bars and drinks). In these items, you start with the carbohydrate grams, subtract fiber grams, and also subtract sugar alcohol grams. This is sort of controversial, and apparently doesn't work for everybody. But it works for me, yay!

Flaxseed focaccia cheesy bread.
Not outstanding, but pretty good.
My saving grace this go-around has been the internet. Since the low-carb diet craze faded, and people moved to other things, there are fewer companies making low-carb items. So getting some recipes was essential. In addition to recipes I've invented myself, I've got quite a variety of things I can eat without getting bored. I have highlighted several of those recipes on this blog in the past, and if you go to this post, it will link to others, which will link to others. . . My favorites are the Faux Cheesy Potato Bake, the Cauliflower faux fried rice, and the Low-carb Pizza (both on Mission tortillas and on Flax crust). And if you don't find what you're looking for within those links, or the ones below this post, you can type, "low carb," "Atkins" or "cauliflower" into the search box at the upper left of this page for more targeted searching. Feel free to write me for advice or questions!

Now, about the cheat days. There are two types. The first is a scheduled "anything goes" day. This is particularly good for big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, or littler ones like birthdays and summer cookouts. If you've been really good for a while, hit a personal goal, etc., go ahead and splurge. Even turn it into a weekend if you want. Then go back on the diet and exercise full-bore following your scheduled "time out." The worst damage you're going to do is a couple of pounds, and the cheat--for me anyway--often seems to jump-start the diet. The second type of cheat is to use carb blockers, like Carb Intercept, which is available at Wal-mart and other stores, or can be bought cheaper online. Now, I have no idea about the science behind this product, but it allegedly prevents the absorption of carbohydrates by the body. I don't even care if it's a placebo (don't tell me!), because it seems to work. I take these on days where it is difficult to avoid carbs (popcorn at the movies, special events), when I'm not looking to jump start, not looking to go nuts. I still try to limit these events. But "cheat days" overall can save your sanity. Let's be honest, can you give up potatoes, rice, bread, cake and cookies for the entirety of the rest of your life?

PS. I should note that The Other Half--who had gained quite a bit of weight over the past 10 years decided to join me on the diet this time around, after saying "it doesn't work for him." This time, he stuck to it, and it did work. He's lost over 50 pounds! And he started in October.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I exercise 5-7 days per week, most weeks. And by exercise, I usually walk 4 miles, or about 45 minutes on the treadmill. If I do it at the gym, I follow with a little swimming. I really ought to do more at the gym, but suiting up to just go walking is so much easier and less time intensive!

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