Cutting your carbohydrate intake in favor of a high-protein, high-fat diet is one of the simplest ways to get lean fast.
As long as you stick to whole foods and get the right ratio of protein, carbs, and fat, this way of eating will accelerate fat loss and preserve muscle mass so as to optimize body composition.
Eating more protein and fat is also an efficient way to improve health and decrease risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. However, there are many mistakes that can be made on reduced-carb diets that have profoundly negative effects.
Low-carb diets gone wrong can hinder fat loss, cause massive hormone imbalances, produce chronic inflammation, or have other ill effects that lead to higher disease risk and make you feel terrible. This is one reason that many doctors and nutritionists are reluctant to recommend low-carb, high-fat diets to patients—they fear all the things that can go wrong.
Troubleshooting a low-carb diet fits into two categories: simple issues and complex issues. The simple issues address the hidden things you may not be aware of, and once you fix them, it’s smooth sailing.
Complex issues tend to have to do with systemic imbalances that mean your body is not functioning as it should. They’re harder but more important to fix because if you don’t, you may be increasing your disease risk.
This article will address both types of issues and provide strategies for troubleshooting. For the more complex issues, it is recommended that you get a health professional to assist you.
#1. Your carb intake is too high for fat loss.
Low-carb, high-protein diets are effective for fat loss. This is a scientific fact. But, low-carb is a vague term.
If your goal is ketosis such that body runs on fat versus glucose, carb intake needs to be below 50 grams a day to achieve fat loss, according to a review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Solution: Avoid all refined carbs and get your 50 grams from vegetables and select fruits, such as berries and other low-carb fruits. Eliminate all grains—whole and processed.
#2. Eating too much protein if your goal is ketosis.
Higher protein diets are ideal for reducing body because they improve satiety, reduce hunger, and preserve lean body mass when losing weight.
However, if you go overboard and eat too much protein than the body needs, some of the amino acids in the protein will be turned into glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis. This will reduce the body’s ability to burn fat and may hinder fat loss, particularly if your goal is ketosis.
Solution: Lower your protein intake in favor of low-carb vegetables and fats. Be sure to eat high-quality protein from animal and seafood sources so that you get the greatest amino acid intake per calorie.
In addition, you can check for ketones with a urine test to get a general sense of where you’re at. Unfortunately, these tests are not very reliable because the level of ketones in the urine doesn’t necessarily reflect the level in the blood. Ketone blood tests are another option but are very expensive.
#3. Poor gut health due to a diet high in animal protein and low in indigestible fiber.
Gut bacteria will live off of what you eat. People who eat more animal protein tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables and consume less fiber, though this tendency may not be typical in people who follow a Paleo-type diet.
Low-fiber, higher animal protein diets have been found to increase inflammatory gut bacteria, which is one reason that eating meat is often linked with greater disease risk.
One example of the dangerous effect of having inflammatory gut bacteria is that these bacteria release a compound called TMAO after you eat animal protein, which increases plaque buildup in the arteries, elevating inflammation.
Solution: Support gut health by eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, and probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, and kefir.
One of the easiest ways to improve gut flora is to consume raw unmodified potato starch because it stimulates the production of anti-inflammatory bacteria in the gut.
#4. Chronic inflammation from high intake of protein and few fruits and veggies.
People who eat a lot of protein have repeatedly been found to have greater lean muscle mass and less body fat. For example, simply getting 10 grams of essential amino acids at every meal is associated with low visceral belly fat and leanness.
But there’s a negative effect to eating more protein and reducing carbs: A recent Tufts University study found that young, healthy people with more lean mass had more oxidative stress and inflammation.
The scientists think this is caused by low fruit and vegetable intake, which leads to a poor blood antioxidant capacity. Recall that people who eat more animal protein tend to eat fewer plants.
To get an idea of the degree of deficiency in people when they eating a very low-carb, high-protein diet, one self-reported survey found that subjects averaged 2 to 7 grams of fiber a day, which is a terribly low fruit and vegetable intake.
Solution: For those on very low-carb diets, the following veggies are packed with nutrients but are lower in carbs: broccoli, rainbow and Swiss chard, collards, dandelion and mustard greens, arugula, Brussels sprouts, avocado, and peppers.
If you’re allowing a few more carbs in, go for the dark-colored fruit powerhouses: blueberries, tart cherries, raspberries, blackberries, pomegranates, kiwi, and grapes.
Whey protein, green tea, and coffee are other nutrient-rich foods to include as you go high in fat and protein.
#5. The “if some is good, more must be better” belief: Drinking high-saturated fat foods such as butter or coconut oil may not be a good idea.
Saturated fat and cholesterol have been vindicated from being a primary cause of heart disease in recent studies.
In addition, eating reasonable amounts of saturated fat as part of a diet that de-emphasizes carbohydrates (below 130 grams a day for example) can enhance the immune system and provide vitamins A, D, E, and K in a form that is easily absorbed by the body.
However, humans are notorious for thinking that if some is good, AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE IS BETTER. Take a step back, and we all know that this is not the case.
Anecdotal reports suggest that having a high intake of fat can elevate blood lipids that increase heart disease risk. If your apolipoprotein B and LDL particle numbers are elevated, this is a valid indicator that you may have higher levels of cardiovascular inflammation.
Solution: Eveyone will benefit from getting an advanced lipid panel (not a basic panel) that tests for C-reactive protein, LDL particles, and apolipoprotein B. It is a necessity if you have a high saturated fat intake.
Be cautious about how much fat your eating—track your diet and analyze it regularly.
#6. Going overboard with “beneficial” fats: Mega dosing fish oil.
Fish oil is another amazing fat, but that doesn’t mean you should take extremely large quantities of it. Ever wonder where this idea came from?
The reason for taking a lot of fish oil was to counter high intake of omega-6 fats that is very common in the Western diet. The goal was to reduce omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to closer to between 4:1 and 2:1 from the more common ratio of 25:1 that Westerners are eating.
Because people were eating huge amounts of omega-6 fats, it was thought that the best solution was to balance it with a high intake of omega-3-filled fish oil. However, recent evidence indicates that this is not the best practice.
A better solution is to reduce your omega-6 fat intake by avoiding vegetable and seed oils and all refined foods. Opt for animal fats, which are low in omega-6s, when cooking because they aren’t easily oxidized. Boost omega-3 intake by eating a variety of seafood.
A related caution: a 2013 review by Fenton expresses the concern that people may inadvertently get too many omega-3s in their diet if they eat fatty fish a few times a week, take fish oil, and eat multiple servings of omega-3 enriched foods (eggs, bread, butter, oil, orange juice are just a few of the foods being fortified with omega-3s).
Whether hypersupplementation is intentional or accidental, it appears to cause a dysfunctional immune response that leaves the body vulnerable to infection and disease.
If the omega-3 fats being consumed have been oxidized, which often occurs with poor quality fish oil because omega-3 fats have a lot of fragile carbon double bonds, they can damage tissue and DNA, and may increase disease risk.
Solution: Try to radically lower omega-6 fat intake by limiting vegetable fats to well below 10 grams a day. Then balance that number with omega-3 fats from a variety of sources including fatty fish, pastured meat, and high-quality, stabilized fish oil.
#7. Out of whack blood sugar abnormalities despite low-carb intake.
Low-carb diets can significantly improve blood sugar tolerance and insulin health in people with insulin resistance and diabetes.
As you probably know if you’ve researched low-carb diets, in the long-term, very low-carb eating can cause the metabolic hormones, insulin and leptin to get out of balance. The absence of insulin release due to massive, chronic carb restriction leads to no leptin release, and leptin is the hormone that blunts hunger.
This is the reason that some form of carbohydrate cycling can be beneficial: Eating carbs every so often (such as every 5 to 7 days) keeps the cells sensitive to insulin and the brain responsive to leptin so that you don’t experience deranged hunger.
Problems arise when cheat meals get out of hand. For example, have you wondered what happens to your body if you eat a high-carb, high-fat cheat meal or, simply have a standard high-fat, low-carb dinner but top it off with a higher carb treat (wine or chocolate)?
Any excess glucose in the bloodstream will attach itself to available protein in a process called glycation. Glycated protein causes oxidative stress, and over time, increases disease risk. One of the proteins that often gets glycated is LDL cholesterol.
Glycated cholesterol has a negative charge on the proteins surface so that it is more attracted to the wall of the artery and will cause plaque formation and atherosclerosis.
The higher the blood sugar, such as after a carbilicious cheat meal of pasta, pizza, bread-laden Italian food, or sweets, the more glycation of LDL takes place and the more damage occurs.
Solution: First, everyone should test their fasting blood sugar whether they’re eating low-carb or not. Fasting glucose is your window to insulin health, which is your window to inflammation in your body.
Fasted glucose should be between 70-90 mg/dl, with a goal of below 84 mg/dl.
Second, be honest and cautious about what you are actually putting into your mouth. Track your diet so that little things don’t slip into your mouth and past your consciousness.
Watch out for very high-carb cheat meals from refined foods. Consider carb cycling instead of cheat meals, favoring complex, whole carbs such as sweet potatoes, squash, fruit, and possibly boiled grains.
Third, get your hemoglobin A1c level tested, which provides an idea of how your body is handling glucose over the past three months. Hemoglobin A1c reflects hemoglobin that has been damaged by glycated glucose. A level below 5.5 percent is indicated and below 5.3 percent is preferable.
#8. A chronic acid load that degrades lean tissue and increases cancer risk.
Eating animal protein, dairy, and grains lead to the formation of acid in the body. In contrast, eating fruits and vegetables leads to the production of bicarbonate, which adds alkali to the body, neutralizing acid.
Healthy people with well-functioning organs who eat decent quantities of fruits and vegetables are generally able to manage the acid load so that it is not dangerous. But with aging, the acid load isn’t handled well due to declining kidney function.
Or, if your high-protein, high-fat diet is poor in plants relative to protein, as most are, you’ll experience a high acid load. The body responds by trying to neutralize excess acid by breaking down muscle tissue and bone.
Now, due to inconsistent study outcomes, scientists haven’t come to a conclusion on the benefit of monitoring pH (an indicator of the amount of acid) for disease prevention.
But, a higher pH does appear to be beneficial for muscle tissue repair and bone building, and the foods you eat to improve your pH are all consistent with those that are recommended for health and longevity—an emphasis on fruits and vegetables and a de-emphasis on grains—so it’s not a bad idea to eat for an alkaline status.
Solution: Despite the debate about the benefit of monitoring your acid load with pH strips, eating more fresh plants is rarely a bad idea. Realistically, high-protein diets call for at least a few pounds (2 to 3) of veggies a day. If you’re not close, boost your intake and see if you don’t feel better.