Starting to eat low carb - what is normal?
January 24, 2021 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I've started eating in a low carb way, not particularly aiming for ketosis or counting macronutrients, just avoiding bread, potatoes, rice and pasta (these are usually a fairly big part of my diet). The goal is weight loss - I'm in good general health, no diabetes or high blood pressure, but carrying 20kg more than I would like. My diet over the past two weeks has consisted mainly of meats of various kinds, full-fat yogurt, fruits and vegetables. I've noticed a few effects, and I'm not sure if these are temporary effects of the adjustment in diet, or potential deal-breakers.

1. I can't sleep. Like, tossing and turning until 2am, when I usually fall asleep quickly and mostly stay asleep for 7-8 hours. I experimented with a bowl of porridge an hour or two before bed, and that seemed to help. Perhaps I should be eating low-carb apart from half a cup of oats to help me sleep? Exercise is something else I'd like to improve (I currently walk quite a lot but that's about it) but I didn't want to change everything at once - if it'll help the sleep, though, perhaps I should introduce something more intensive.

2. I don't have a lot of appetite on this new regime, but despite that and the lack of sleep I am kind of buzzing with energy. I have never been diagnosed with bipolar but this is how I imagine mild mania might be (before I started eating like this, I think I was mildly depressed if anything)? It is not unpleasant, but I fear it's unsustainable.

3. I've had a few headaches, but I think paying attention to drinking enough water and adding a little salt to my meals has helped with that.

4. The scale is only down a pound or so, though it's only been a week.

I'm wondering how much of the above is typical and how much I should worry about. So far, this seems like a sustainable way to eat, so I'd like to continue with it but not at the expense of my long-term mental health. Any anecdotes, experiences, science are welcome.
posted by altolinguistic to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: (my personal experience as someone who has been eating keto)

People in ketosis often report loss of appetite - that's pretty normal. I have never heard of buzzing with energy like that though. Sounds very strange to me. Possibly just some excitement about doing a new thing? If anything I would say I feel the opposite, where instead of having high and low "energy levels" I just feel average all the time.

Headaches and sleep issues might be from dipping in and out of ketosis if that's a thing you think you could be doing, like you ate low carb except for an apple every morning or something. The porridge thing makes me think that's exactly the issue. I know I do not feel good on the diet you're describing (low-but-not-keto-low carbs) and I suspect that's why.
posted by ToddBurson at 7:17 AM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Re headaches: have you changed your coffee habits? If so it might be caffeine withdrawal.
posted by zadcat at 7:32 AM on January 24, 2021

Response by poster: Nope, drinking the same amount of coffee as usual (one large strong cup of black coffee in the morning, anything after midday wrecks my sleep).
posted by altolinguistic at 7:37 AM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: I'm not sure I trust any of the common recommendations for weight loss anymore or fully believe it's possible for most people to lose weight long-term. That said, I know what is often recommended, so I can at least speak from that standpoint.

No. 4 is more like the rate of weight loss that's recommended, for folks who are able to lose weight and don't have other metabolic stuff complicating it, so I wouldn't be at all concerned if you're only a pound down after a week or so. A pound a week is what a lot of recommendations suggest. So that in itself seems OK so far.

For No. 1, I wonder if you're getting more B12 than usual with all the meat and greens. When I first took a B12 supplement, it made me super anxious. B12 supplements don't do that to me anymore, because I'm now deficient in B12 due to long-term medication use, but they do still seem to give me more energy. I wonder if that could be anything. Oatmeal is a good source of mostly gluten-free, low-glycemic-index carbs, so if that's helping, that seems like a pretty good choice!

I wonder, though, if you might be having trouble sleeping for any other reasons as well. I and others I know here in the States have certainly been self-reporting a lot of nights where sleep is fairly elusive lately, for some clear reasons, heh. So not that it couldn't be diet-related, but is it possible you're more sensitive to any shifts in your body or mood while starting this and just noticing that more?

Regardless of whether the extra energy is from the B12 and protein or from stress, there's a commonly recommended solution to both: You might try using the extra energy by moving your body and/or specifically exercising or lifting weights. A lot of people experience better sleep after exercise, apparently.
posted by limeonaire at 7:39 AM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi I'm back on super-low-carb right now and I can confirm, this is all normal. It's a much more satiating diet, I find, so I'm hungry a lot less (and when I get hungry I get HUNGRY). The switchover really screws with your water retention/electrolyte balance, so yeah, headaches = drink more water and make sure you're getting sodium/potassium/magnesium. The energy increase pretty much remains, for me. It's why my wife bullied me into doing it again after a really terrible year of food choices that make me feel like shit.

And yeah, two pounds a week of weight loss is considered the maximum safe loss, not counting water weight, which varies day-to-day. You may or may not lose weight on low-carb - I feel a lot better and am a lot less bloated on it, but it's not at all a miracle diet.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:42 AM on January 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, one other thing: Low-carb diets (any change in diet, really) can alter your gut microbiome in various ways. That in itself can have dramatic effects on how you feel day-to-day. Don't forget that what you eat is food for bacteria, and they respond to changes to your diet. How your specific body responds to that is going to depend in some part on the composition of your personal microbiome, so it's not going to be entirely possible for us to know what might work for you or what might be having the effect. You can experiment with this yourself, though, by adding or removing things and seeing their effect on how you feel that week.
posted by limeonaire at 7:44 AM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

1. This is about getting your body signals to get to sleep. Probably prior to this you had a bunch of carbs and the processing/insulin dump made you tired. About an hour before bed, add some cold/take a shower. Cooling down your body says "It's time for sleep." Possibly some melatonin (like .3mg - the usual amounts are way high
2. Carbs/sugar breeds being more hungry. This is pretty normal. The energy? Again, it's the *lack* of an insulin dump. Same reason you'd be tired at night (prior to this - essentially #1) is the reason you have energy.

4. Scale.

Here's the dead truth. Keto, slow carb, IF, weight watchers, Atkins and anything else?

It's all a caloric reduction. Can you keep up the reduction? Is it a healthy longer term way to eat?

Are there possible other benefits? (Less refined carbs/sugar, less insulin dumping into your bloodstream, ) Sure.

But if you're not putting food in the front, you can't gain weight.

Scales f**k with my head. But I personally need a feedback mechanism/barometer to what I'm doing. I'm using an IOS app called "Happy Scale" (shows trends) along with a scale that measures weight/water/muscle/fat. Daily.

The scale lets me track the information (weight up but muscle is up and fat down? Great. Weight up and fat up? But water is up too?). Happy Scale evens out the readings - so I'm able to focus on the consistent goal (eat smarter) rather than just a number. So I'm watching the trend over a 10 day basis, not any one data point.
posted by filmgeek at 8:27 AM on January 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Depending on how much sugar you were eating before, the extra energy could be the lack of a sugar crash.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:33 AM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The energy thing might be about you having had some intolerance to the foods you were previously eating, that your body doesn't have to deal with anymore. But who knows! It could also just be a placebo effect. Regardless, maybe keep track of all these effects for a few weeks and see if they even out.
posted by trig at 8:42 AM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: I do keto and definitely get the "buzzing with energy" feeling (I call it 'gratuitous amounts of energy'; and it also makes it hard to sleep). Rapid weight loss is especially likely if you were very overweight before; I dropped a lb a week easy when I was obese and started it.
posted by The otter lady at 9:08 AM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is so common that I'd be shocked if you werent experiencing it. The answer to all of those issues: electrolytes. The sleep thing is usually fixed with Magnesium supplements, and the headaches are usually solved by general electrolyte supplementation (potassium and magnesium and sodium.) It's usually only needed in the early days because low-carb tends to jettison lots of water weight in the beginning, and with the water goes lots of electrolytes, and things get out of wack. It's definitely not a crisis or hint of something wrong, unless you have other medical issues. But yeah, going from a bloated belly to a flatter belly, etc... well, that's water and its going somewhere and taking water and minerals with it.

Magnesium can be supplemented with things like Natural Calm or epsom salt soaks or Nuno sports tabs, etc. For potassium lots of people just use salt substitute on their food, which is mostly made up of potassium. Add a fair amount of sea salt to your food too. The keto subreddit FAQ is actual filled with lots of helpful info even if youre just doing low-carb (search Keto Flu + Reddit and you'll see endless amounts of info on this and ideas for supplementation, recipes for making your own 'ketoade', etc.) It should fully resolve in a few weeks. Good luck!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:15 AM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All of this is typical for me, including the light mania in the first couple of weeks. I also tend to go through a cranky phase around days 4-6.

Don't just add salt to your food, add electrolytes to your water. (I use this, also helps with sleep, restless legs, and charley horse cramps.) I tend to put mine in my water over the course of the day, but I give myself a bigger final dose about an hour before bed (the magnesium can stimulate the bowels, so don't do it right as you get in bed or you may have to get back up again 30m later) and that evens out most of the sleep issues.

All of this evens out over a few weeks, including the lack of hunger which sometimes roars back with a vengeance. You may want to plan for that to kick back in and have some easy protein on hand - I find this is exactly the time my brain starts whispering about how carbs would be faster/taste better.

I always advise people to pick at most a weekly (or monthly, if it's causing too much stress) weigh-in morning and that is the official number. Weighing any other morning is only trend data (which I personally find helpful because I'm so prone to water retention, but I have to draw a very firm line in my head that the number does not matter, only the delta). What can be much more enlightening with a low carb diet is measurement, and most people at least do hip, waist, and chest. (I also find wrist and thigh to be interesting data.)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: In addition to what others have said I would strongly advise adding some exercise, even just a basic stretching routine. In my case that's immensely helpful with sleeping patterns. Also the suggestion of weekly assessment rather than daily is a good one; at least for me that daily kind of assessment is disheartening and counterproductive.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:23 AM on January 24, 2021

I’m on a low-carb diet and have been since my diagnosis with T2 diabetes last year. So my experiences may not apply to you. But OTOH, insulin resistance is common and may not be diagnosed by annual blood tests, which generally measure fasting glucose but not your body’s insulin response following a meal (also relevant, possibly even more so).

Going low-carb gave me a LOT more energy, consistently, than I had had in years, and less hunger. I was used to napping several hours a day on weekends and needing to eat very regularly and immediately after getting hungry or else feeling shaky and horrible. I figured the former was just me getting older, and the latter was just what my body was like. But it turns out both are linked to carbs for me. An experiment with eating some white flour-based dumplings after I’d first started eating low-carb resulted in dramatic fatigue and needing a nap about a half hour later. So I suspect your inability to sleep is actually the lack of a post-carb blood sugar crash. Adding more exercise into your routine should help.

I haven’t experienced headaches myself but it sounds like a common side effect due to electrolyte hinkiness, as mentioned above.

Good luck. I miss carbs, but cutting back on them has drastically improved my quality of life day to day. I lost about 15 lbs in the first month or so, have put some of that weight back on since, but I lost interest in measuring my weight day to day as the improvements in the way I feel have felt way more rewarding. I’m not doing actual keto, but I try to eat under 30g of carbs per meal/15g per snack per my dietician’s recommendation. I think focusing on sticking to your diet and paying attention to the way you feel for a month or so before weighing back in would probably be rewarding for you. I find myself getting derailed sometimes by seeing weight gain or seeing my weight loss slow down.
posted by music for skeletons at 11:35 AM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: I couldn’t sleep (never tried magnesium but would now if I were low carb), felt more energetic and and got headaches on low carb. (Was only for a month, did the Whole30.) I didn’t lose any weight.

I did lose 40lb and have kept it off for several years just through regular calorie counting. I lost it extremely slowly— probably about a pound or two a month— but I was consistent about healthy habits and returned to them after any “off” periods (holidays, random depression jags, etc.).
posted by stoneandstar at 11:56 AM on January 24, 2021

There’s something called ‘keto flu’ that a lot of people go through.
posted by bq at 2:44 PM on January 24, 2021

You didn't ask and usually I keep my mouth shut but I have lost 60 pounds in about 7 months on a low fat, high carb, starch-based diet which is so excellent and easy and satisfying that it is just how I eat now. Whole food carbs like potatoes, whole grains, beans and lentils are your highly satiating friends. It is processed carbs that are the problem. I never weigh or measure anything, because I have no interest in doing that for the rest of my life. I have not exercised outside of walking my dogs. I will be very glad to send you the film Forks Over Knives on dvd if you'd like to watch it and learn more about this healthy, satisfying and planet-friendly way of eating. Just send me a memail. If not, nevermind!
posted by Glinn at 3:14 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I went low-carb last year mainly for diet reasons. I'm not a fanatic, but I realized that pasta, white rice, potatoes and bread weren't really worth it, in terms of calories, compared to the nutrition they provide. (This is a voice of privilege speaking; if you're loading up on rice and beans because that's all you can afford, I have no place to criticize.)

Like you, I experienced insomnia the first few weeks and still get a touch of it now, a year later. I find that protein before bedtime (low-fat yogurt is good) helps moderate that.

I lost about 30 pounds last year and expect to continue slimming down. It's not a diet: it's a life-style change and not difficult at all once you get into it. Good luck.
posted by SPrintF at 4:06 PM on January 24, 2021

You're probably underestimating the quantities of electrolytes you need. Mark Sisson's books and FB group and the KetoGains community have been invaluable resources for me.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:14 PM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: There's a book called Potatoes not Prozac where they suggest eating a potato before bed helps boost serotonin and helps you sleep. Apparently, reheated potatoes have modified starch that has several health benefits for sugar sensitive people, and a bonus of reducing depression and inducing lucid dreams. There are many foods that have resistant starch, too, not just taters. There is an interesting article here. and about
posted by waving at 6:29 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

1) you are probably going through sugar withdrawl. it is awful. warn friends and loved ones you may be grumpy.
2) start your day with 16-22g protein. I suggest a shake.
3) the only liquids you should drink are water and coffee. no juice. no soda. no booze.
4) whenever you think "i'm hungry" try a glass of water, if that doesn't work, have a protein shake.
5) no matter what, weigh yourself every day. the individual numbers don't matter, the trend lines do.
6) don't get discouraged, I'm rooting for you.
7) eat as much lettuce as you'd like.
8) apples dipped in peanut butter are your friend.
posted by evilmonk at 1:03 PM on January 26, 2021

Response by poster: Ten days later - thanks, everyone, the negative stuff has calmed down, I'm sleeping better and feeling less jittery. Down 1kg in 2 weeks, and it all feels very sustainable.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:23 AM on February 2, 2021

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