low-carb confusion
May 21, 2014 5:56 AM   Subscribe

I've gone low-carb but I am coming across some conflicting advice in regards to a few items

I'm not following any specific plan, I'm not shooting for a specific number of carbs a day, but I do want to be under 100g of carbs a day. Mostly what I am doing/have done is:
1. cut out all sugar from my diet. Really need to get this sugar monkey off my back....
2. cut out all "obvious"/significant sources of carbs (breads, pasta, rice, etc). Not too hard, especially since I am gluten intolerant, so a lot of those "obvious" sources were off the list anyway. And I am frankly glad to bin the gluten-free-replacement foods (rice pasta, gluten free bread, etc). Too expensive, unhealthy, and always disappointing.
3. drastically increased my veg intake. Eating some fruit but mostly focused on veg.
4. increased protein intake (but not insanely)
5. drinking more water
6. avoiding as much pre-fab/bottled/packaged foods as possible. Major focus on real foods.
7. allowing for occasional small amounts of veg-based carbs, like sweet potato and fruits.
8. only drinking liquor (whiskey mixed with diet pop, which is apparently zero carb, though that still doesn't entirely make sense to me..) on the weekends, and not to excess

I feel pretty good about my plan and how I'm eating, except for that last point. I am reading a lot of conflicting information in regards to
a) artificial sweetener - some say it is fine on a low-carb diet, others say that sweeteners still trigger your body's response, triggering increased hunger, blah blah blah.
b) alcohol - some say it is fine as long as you drink low-carb/carb-free options like vodka, whiskey, etc. Others say it isn't fine. Personally I am really confused, I assumed (apparently incorrectly) that alcohol = sugar alcohols = carbs, and therefore liquor was a no-go.
c) diet pop - some say there is no reason why not to (apart from artifical chemicals, etc), others says that diet pop can throw your low-carb diet out of whack for the same reasons as artificial sweeteners

Can anyone clarify these for me? Are they okay on low-carb?

(and if you have any tips in general for being low-carb please feel free to share)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Individual bodies vary a lot, and what works for someone else may not work for you. Try your way for a while and see how you like it. Then try cutting out artificial sweeteners and alcohol and see how it's different. Compare and decide which one you personally prefer. That's really the only way to know for sure.
posted by Andrhia at 6:01 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I ate keto/low carb for 18 months (and lost a significant amount of weight). Loved every minute of it.

- I find that sugar alcohols (the '-itols', like those found in sugar-free hard candies) were very tough on my digestive system and I gave them up quickly. Subjectively I felt like they increased the feeling of hunger in a strange way, but I've got nothing to back that up.
- On the other hand, I drank a lot of diet pop and had great success with it. I still do and recommend it without reservation.

I'm not a drinker, so I can't offer any alcohol suggestions, sorry.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 6:16 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think for those three things specifically, the jury is mostly out on them. Too many people think "n = 1" studies have any validity (i.e. someone blogging about their personal experience). Add all these bloggers up, and all you realize is that everyone is different. Everyone has different reactions to food - the body is an immensely complex engine. For some bodies, maybe artificial sweeteners cause increased hunger. For some, they don't.

I've been very low-carb (under 20 net carbs a day). The easy way to tell if it helps you is to try a few weeks or a month with those three factors, and then a few weeks without. On which do you FEEL better? Which makes you more likely to stick to it? That's the most important feature of any diet, after all. A week in I hadn't really lost much weight, but I felt better. Three weeks in (with two cheat days for special events), I'm starting to lose weight at a steady pace. More importantly, still feel really good. That's all that matters with any diet - does it make your body run better.
posted by aggyface at 6:19 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is no clarification to be had really. Some low-carb diets say no to all of the above; some say go for it. I've never seen any hard science behind either approach.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:19 AM on May 21, 2014

Hi, as someone said before it all depends on your body but ultimately:

1) You are trying to be more natural, and artificial sugars may cause insulin in some individuals which later does turn into fat. This is not my individual case.

2) Alcohol definitely has carbs. If you are in a low carb diet, this is fine...if you are in a NO carb diet (which I don't recommend) then do not try it. If I were you, I would limit all drinking for three months then try it again and see how you feel.

3) Diet soda is super unhealthy...if I were you I would avoid it. In any case, depending on who you are it stills triggers insulin.


posted by The1andonly at 6:20 AM on May 21, 2014

It's really going to depend. Me, I prefer to have just less of real sweetener (sugar, honey) in something, but mostly because artificial sweeteners leave a weird aftertaste. I found that overall, less sweet stuff in general, whether made with real or fake sweeteners, helped the worst of cravings go away sooner.

I drink my liquor straight, or mix it with club soda and a squeeze of lime or lemon.
posted by rtha at 6:27 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good questions and good answers!

My take on the nitty gritty of low-carb eating is that you need to work out for yourself what works and what does not. This is probably the number one reason to actually follow a specific diet plan for at least the first couple of months.

I will give Atkins Diet as an example. They have you cut out almost all carbs for two weeks. This is to help kill that sugar monkey on your back and to reset your metabolism to have it expect to use fat as an energy source. Give your body too much carbohydrate and it will never really adjust to burning fat as the main energy source. Then, this diet has you add back in certain carby vegetables and fruits (and eventually some whole grains, too) slowly so that you can figure out what will work for you and what won't . There is nothing like the feeling of adding back in a food and discovering that it really triggers your hunger. For me, beans are mostly ok, but grains send me into a feeding frenzy. This is a learning process.

In general, figure out if artificial sweeteners or milk sugar or alcohols trigger you. So, to answer your specific questions:

a and c. There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners actually trigger an insulin response. The studies that link them to weigh gain or obesity are all observational studies that are about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane. I would recommend you try going without for a couple of weeks and see what happens. Then add something back in to your diet and see what happens then! I, personally, find that diet soda help keep me from eating other sweet foods.
b. Alcohol is another thing you should avoid for a while and then add back in. I will drink some wine and some liquor without it triggering me. You need to test that after a couple of weeks cold turkey, IMO.
posted by BearClaw6 at 6:34 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

None of them are great for you and should be consumed in moderation anyway, but they won't mess up your low-carb diet.

I will say that, when I was low-carb, having a couple drinks often brought out the "woohoo, let's get cheese fries and sundaes!" urge. If you're feeling deprived on a low-carb diet and have a tendency to get a little impulsive when you drink, this might be an issue for you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:38 AM on May 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

You can take my coke zero from my cold dead hands.

Some studies say sweet tastes without the 'hit' of sugar just leave you craving more real sugar, but you seem to have a handle on things. So if you are certain that it won't lead to a downfall which will require an ask.me intervention, then I say do it!

Personally I find the wee little 222mL cans of coke zero to be the perfect size for getting a treat, getting the taste of coke without being disappointed / getting that ugh feeling / wanting more 'other' stuff.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:46 AM on May 21, 2014

A couple of related things that may be useful for you to know:

1. Some members of our faith would challenge your consumption of fruit (though some support eating berries).

2. Especially if you suspect you are prediabetic, glucose testing might be helpful in identifying which foods present problems. From what I've seen, starches especially seem to vary.

3. Spirits served neat generally do not have carbs. Wine and beer do, and the amount can vary quite a bit. And spirits with diet beverage mixers can get you drunk faster than non-diet mixers.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:06 AM on May 21, 2014

Diet soda is super unhealthy

I don't think there's any hard science that backs up that claim outside of some correlative findings (which are not meaningless, but "I don't think it means what you think it means"). I drank a lot of diet soda when I was low-carb, and I can say that for me-- well 1) I'm still alive and 2) it didn't increase my hunger at all. No insulin swings (and when you've been low-carb for awhile and you get an insulin spike you can flippin' feel it) for sure.

Same deal with artificial sweeteners, although I did try to use Splenda rather than the stuff that comes in the blue-or-pink packets.

This is what I "know" about alcohol from doing my own research: Your body recognizes alcohol as both a distinct fuel source and a poison. The reason (some, I guess) low-carbers will drink hard alcohol is because they have very few/no carbohydrates relative to their alcohol content (as opposed to beer). When you put alcohol in your body, it stops processing any other fuel source (protein, carbs, or fat) and runs as much as possible on alcohol until it's gone (because, as earlier, it's a poison). That's why low-carb desserts use sugar alcohols; it "pauses" the ketogenic process your body uses when it isn't running on carbohydrates until the sugar alcohols are gone, but it doesn't actually "stop" it the same way it would if you ate a bag of candy or a pizza. Long story short, if you're going to drink while low-carb, you're probably going to get very friendly with whiskey and diet colas.

To respond to some other things people are saying in this thread, very few foods actually have -No Carbohydrates- in them, but a lot of foods have so few carbohydrates in them that they are effectively not there for purposes of your diet; things like "0 calorie" soda, for instance.

Did you know that companies aren't required to post calorie values for increments smaller than five? That's why a 20 oz. Diet Mt. Dew can have "0 calories" by serving size but there are 10 calories in the whole 20 oz. Crazy!

Oh! And : You should pay very close attention to the carbohydrate content in both the fruit and the vegetables you eat. Fruit is literally nature's candy, and you should take that very seriously if you want to successfully eat low-carb. Lot's of vegetables have sneakily high carbohydrate content as well; please don't assume that just because it's a vegetable you don't have to think about it while doing a low-carb diet. Especially if you're eating colorful fruits, as they tend to be the ones with the most carbs (but still keep an eye on the others).

I'm not sure, to answer your overall question, if there's a way to eat low-carb without actually being aware of carbohydrate counts At All. At the very least, I would expect that you would have to spend a couple weeks (or a month, really) looking at the label on everything you eat to get a sense for how much everything was "worth". Carbohydrates are very sneaky, and if you're running on the nutritional knowledge osmosis of day-to-day living there is every excellent chance that you're making some wrong assumptions which will come back to mess with you.

And finally, don't eat anything labeled "lite". They put that there to helpfully let you know they swapped out the fat for a ton of sugar, and you don't want to eat it.
posted by Poppa Bear at 7:09 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Poppa Bear...just to clarify...sugar alcohols are called that for a very specific chemical reason and they have no other relationship with 'alcohol' than a simple chemical trait. They are NOT metabolized by humans, do not cause an insulin response and face one of two fates depending on which sugar alcohol they are. One, some pass through your body and are digested by the bacteria in your gut...this sometimes results in excess gas that gives the unfortunate smelly flatulence outcome that some people experience. I have personal experience with a whole box of sugar free chocolates that I don't want to ever experience again but makes it really clear that this type of sugar alcohol sure didn't get absorbed into my blood stream! Two, some are absorbed into the blood stream and then removed by the kidneys to pass in your urine. I believe this is the advantage of erythritol in not causing the gastric distress. Sugar alcohols are NOT metabolized, do not alter the ketogenic metabolism and essentially count as zero calories but may have distasteful gastric results....just search Amazon.com for reviews of sugar free gummy bears if you want to see the worst-case outcomes!
posted by BearClaw6 at 7:25 AM on May 21, 2014

Agreed with everyone here that your mileage may vary based on how your body responds to these items. On principle they are fine to consume on a low-carb diet. Some people drink tons of alcohol (hard liquor) and diet sodas and still stay in ketosis and lose weight. Other people need to really limit their consumption to keep their body happy.

Another thing to consider that isn't on your list is dairy - the natural sugars found in milk can be enough to knock a lot of people (women especially for some reason) out of ketosis. It's the one supposedly-low-carb thing that I really have to limit in my very-low-carb diet.

But all of this said - what's your goal? Are you trying to just reduce your intake of grains? or are you actually looking to go into ketosis for the purposes of losing weight? Because if you just want to reduce your intake of grains and eat more veggies, then you shouldn't stress too much over whether alcohol and diet soda is "okay." It only really matters if you are trying to do low-carb for weight loss, in which case your questions have to do more with whether they will kick you out of ketosis. But if ketosis is your goal, you should consider being even more strict about your carb consumption - the general rule I've seen is to stay under 50g of net carbs to achieve that.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:28 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question about alcohol back in 2009. Answers include a link to this wikipedia article on alcohol metabolism as well as this very precise metabolic answer by dephlogisticated. Bottom line: alcohol is processed differently from carbohydrates. It's less clear whether alcohol disrupts the goal of a low-carb diet.
posted by Nelson at 7:39 AM on May 21, 2014

Everyone else has answered this, but I'll just chime in that mileage varies so much on those things that it's impossible to say which will be true for you AND for how long they will or won't be true.

I am trying to back down on my diet drink consumption because I suspect that as I get older they are becoming a bigger problem. As they are a shopping hassle and bad for my teeth, it's not the worst thing I could do.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:44 AM on May 21, 2014

Read the labels (OK, we're fortunate in that carbs have to appear on the label, you might not be).

Some sweeteners are 100% carb, others are 0%.

But even at 100% carb, how many grams a day is that?

Same thing goes for diet drinks. What sweetener is in there and how much carbs are in there.

Alcohol... well, alcohol counts towards your 100g, supposedly. If you can do that then fine. A glass of white at 12% alcohol can't contribute more than 30g or so -- and I take note of "alcohol is metabolised differently", that might well be true, if it is then I'm talking nonsense :)

Of course this is only from a low-carb point of view. In other words, alcohol is still bad for you and diet drinks might be too, but it's a different issue. Tim Noakes is completely against a whole bunch of stuff that's both high fat and low carb but "processed" and hence "bad".

Wife and I went reduced carb (I've never been low fat, refuse not to eat the fat on the pork chop, that kind of thing) and I'm down six seven kilos which puts me on the low edge of a good BMI while the wife is down 20 kilos or some such which puts her towards the top edge of a good BMI. We cut down carbs for supper, almost completely. You eat this huge plate of pasta and go to bed and where are the carbs supposed to go? We didn't cut down alcohol much, although I've been drinking "lite" beer for years and she's partial to dry white.

We both feel a lot better so it's working.
posted by wrm at 7:49 AM on May 21, 2014

I think the hardest thing about alcohol is that it lowers your inhibitions and makes it harder to resist temptation, so you're more likely to drink more of it and eat things that aren't on your diet plan.

Also, for me personally when I eat low carb my tolerance drops considerably so I get drunk incredibly fast.
posted by sweetkid at 7:55 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well... I guess it is good to know that there is a reason why I couldn't find anything conclusive in regards to these things. Blarg. But a lot of good info and a lot for me to think about.

But all of this said - what's your goal?

My goals are weight loss, avoiding gluten, managing blood sugar concerns (my dad is type 2 diabetic and I just don't want to have to deal with that myself), generally feeling better and having more energy.

Re. carbs in fruits/veg, I am fairly mindful of this. That is why I am trying to not eat much fruit, and for veg I am mostly eating leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc) and stuff like brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. I am eating very little in the way of potatoes, corn, cooked carrots, etc. I have also started tracking my foods in My Fitness Pal to keep a solid look at my carb levels day by day. Carbs (like gluten and sugar) ARE sneaky and can show up in unexpected places.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:59 AM on May 21, 2014

There are low carb fruits, berrries and cantaloupe (and maybe other melons, but I love me some cantaloupe.) Stick to those.

Fiber is really important, so be sure that your veggies are fiberous.

I've heard all kinds of things about diet soda and artifical sweeteners. I've taken to using Stevita in my coffee and iced tea, no weird aftertaste, and natural and healthy (rather than not)

There are stevia sweetened sodas too. But I really like Coke Zero, so it's a balance.

Make your own salad dressings, and do as much home cooking as you can. Carbs are in the weirdest stuff, so you're better off if you DIY when you can!

Atkins talks about 20 carbs a day at first, and it's hard but doable. I like to add beans to the mix (I just really love beans!)

Basically work with it until you reach a combination that works for you. We're all different, and I was shocked at some of the foods out there that DO NOT agree with me.

If you feel good, keep doing it!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:21 AM on May 21, 2014

Yipes! Cantaloupe and "cantaloupe" (=muskmelon) is almost all sugar with a bit of fiber and protein to boot.
posted by ftm at 8:28 AM on May 21, 2014

Have you heard of the #NSNG (No Sugar No Grains) movement popularized by Vinnie Tortorich? Check out the #NSNG 101 podcast from December 2nd last year. He and Anna Vochino dish out lots of great information with great guests describing the lifestyle and the science behind it. The show proudly earns it's explicit warnings so be aware if you are sensitive to such things. The 101 show is free from most of that and provides the framework for the lifestyle based upon double blind science. If you are already aware of the show, F Quinoa!
posted by danstark at 9:51 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone who went "low carb" in February to deal with some health issues, alls I can say is get edumacated, either by speaking with an endocrinologist or another specialist who really understands how the body processes sugars.

It seems rather strange to me that you are willing to be vigilant about sweet potatoes (high carb, for sure) but are seemingly unwilling to kick the diet soda habit.

For me anyway, part of "low carb" is an attempt to approach food differently, to make sure that I truly enjoy what I am eating, both during and after eating it.

So why mix liquor with diet soda? Is it to mask the taste of the liquor? Because, let's face it, cheaper brands taste pretty terrible (think Johnny Walker Red Label), so if you are not enjoying the taste of what you are drinking when served "straight", switch to something else.

If you are drinking to get a real buzz on (ie, more than a couple of drinks) rather than for the taste, well, that's a different story, and is definitely not part of what "low carb" means to me.

Personally, I think the only way to kick the sugar habit is to avoid sweet stuff altogether, and this includes diet drinks. You would be surprised how much you notice how sweet something is if you don't eat refined sugar regularly.

Personally, I like to drink a six-pack of beer (pilsner) over the weekend. I also like to drink maybe a half-bottle of red wine too, but I think this is overdoing it. As the weather gets warmer I will probably switch to vodka, soda, and lime. Low-calorie and refreshing and fun... in small quantities.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:49 PM on May 21, 2014

You may find the Atkins carb counter helpful. Not as a rule book, but as a source of general info and carb loads.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:14 PM on May 21, 2014

If you're trying to keep your blood sugars even, it's important to have your carbs with protein and fat. (Fat is also great when you're dieting, as it will make you feel full.) My [pre-diabetes consulted] dietician has me eating about 30 grams of carbs with 15 grams of protein at regular meals (and half of each for snacks). So if that's the level of low carb you're doing, it does open up things like a small baked potato with lots of cheese, or a sweet potato with chicken. Both berries and orchard fruits are fine as long as I don't go nuts with them and eat them with nuts or seeds. Try not to restrict yourself too much -- that way leads to madness (and quitting the diet).
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:54 PM on May 21, 2014

I would research the various LC plans and pick one and follow it. IIRC, Atkins is no booze, and artificial sweeteners are okay on a limited basis. Diet pop in most cases would fall under the sweeteners balloon.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:23 AM on May 22, 2014

Just a suggestion that you may want to read more about the Whole30 protocol. If your goals are eating real food and eliminating gluten, and feeling good, you'd likely achieve all that plus weight loss on a Whole30-style diet (although it's not intended to be a weight loss type of thing, it tends to be effective in that for most people, certainly works for me).

The basics are:
no dairy, no grains, no soy, no legumes, no alcohol, no sugar or artificial sweeteners, and importantly, no trying to make "paleo" or "low carb" versions of stuff like pancakes and breads. It's partially based in science and research (i.e. fat doesn't make you fat, saturated fat isn't bad for you, eating cholesterol doesn't give you a high cholesterol), and partially based on psychology - emotionally, if you are trying to get off sugar and grains, their argument goes, then why would you try to substitute other foods for what you wish you were really eating? For example, you eat a Paleo pancake, and you can't help thinking about how much better a real pancake would taste. Or you simply don't change your food habits radically, so once you go off the 'diet', you haven't really changed your mentality or lifestyle. They also suggest that cutting all sweeteners (aside from fruit juice) and artificial sweeteners will make other foods, like vegetables, taste that much sweeter and more wholesome, i.e. change what your palate is used to instead of constantly barraging it with flavors that are frankly addictive to us and bad for our health/habits. So mainly what you eat is protein sources, nuts, oils, vegetables, and limited servings of fruit - there's a meal template of eating a full serving of protein, plus a "good fat" plus the rest of your plate filled with vegetables for every meal, and fruit as a side thing on occasion.

Anyway, I'm not a Whole30 spokesperson, and I think that the whole physiologic explanation they put forward in their book ("It Starts With Food") is based on some pretty controversial medical claims. But like I mentioned, a lot of it is based on really good science and evidence (i.e. Cochrane reviews of literature, etc), and somehow the idea that fruit and some vegetables are "bad" for you and should be off the menu just doesn't seem to fit with a philosophy to simplify, eat real foods, cook it ourselves, etc. Whole30 excludes white potatoes because of some of the trouble people have with fries, mainly, but does not exclude delicious foods like berries that may have carbs and be sweet but are also full of antioxidants and other nutrients and really are not comparable to candy at all. Just throwing that out there in case a modified type of Whole30 (maybe one that allows hard liquor) might be something that would appeal to you.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:30 PM on May 22, 2014

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