Thursday, June 24, 2010


No, this blogpost won't address the ethics of writing out the answers for an exam on your hand. In the context of low-carb, cheating means going off the diet for a short time or for a long time.

One of the hardest concepts about low-carb dieting is that it's for life. Those of us who have dieted all our lives are used to losing weight, regaining it, and losing it one more time. We may have sets of "fat" and "skinny" clothes in our closets to accommodate this lifestyle. Unfortunately, low-carb doesn't work that way.

When we follow the low-carb lifestyle, we learn to eat meat, eggs and cheese for protein, green vegetables and berries for vitamins, and lots of delicious fat to give us energy. If we stay away from the carbs we find that our appetites are satisfied and we start to to lose weight. Our skin and hair improve, our HDL increases and our triglycerides decrease, our elevated blood sugars become less of a problem, and gradually even our blood pressure starts to come into a normal range.

But what if we step out of our normal routine? What if we go to a restaurant? It's easy to take a roll out of the bread basket or eat a few chips with the salsa that's on the table. And after the meal is over, it's hard to resist dessert, especially if there is a sugar-free version available.

The body is able to adapt to all sorts of things, and an indulgence once in a while probably doesn't hurt. Our paleo ancestors no doubt ran onto the odd honeycomb or patch of blueberries and were able to stuff themselves with no ill effects. The difference, however, is that in the paleo world, when the honey or the berries were gone, they were gone. In the 21st century, the restaurant is available several times a week and so are the rolls, chips and desserts.

For low-carbers, especially low-carbers with insulin resistance, this spells trouble. Eating moderate protein and relatively high fat does not protect a person from the effects of insulin unless that eating is done in the relative absence of carbs. Add carbs (and the rolls, chips and sugar-free desserts do have carbs) and insulin will be released. And as long as insulin is present, any excess calories will be converted to fat, which will be stored our fat cells and then kept trapped there until our blood insulin comes back to a low level. Even if a low-carber is able to convince himself that the cheat didn't count, that he "deserved" the cheat or that he really eats very few carbs on most days, his body will tell the tale.

The scale always fluctuates day-to-day, but as the rolls, chips and desserts become a more constant feature, eventually the fluctuations will start to trend upward. The low-carber may be able to brag that he fits into a certain size, and his mirror may lie to him about it for a while, but eventually the signs of "Dunlap's disease" (the belly done-laps over the belt) will become undeniable. Excellent lab values will start to return to their previous levels. It may be possible to get away with low-carb cheating in the short term, but not in the long term. Unlike the proctor on a test, the body is always paying attention.

What to do? That depends on the low-carber. First of all, we have to decide if sticking to the program is worth the effort. Were we happier when we were fatter but had fewer food restrictions? Are we able to live with a loss in overall health if that gives us the opportunity to eat certain types of food?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then it's our body and our life. Low-carbing is an individual decision, not a regime to be imposed on unwilling participants by a group of food Nazis.

If the answer to one or both questions is no, then it might be time to go back and remind ourselves why we've chosen this way of eating. We can make lists of what life was like before low-carb and what changes happened after. We can re-read the books by Dr. Atkins and the Drs. Eades as a reminder of what does and doesn't work on low-carb. We can get involved in one or more low-carb bulletin boards. We might search around the internet to find new blogs about low-carb and paleo eating to get a new infusion of energy. Or we could even start a blog to help give back to others what low-carb has given us.

Cheating happens. But it's within our power to decide if it continues to happen. I'm hoping that any readers who find themselves in a cheating situation will use this reminder to take the steps they need to, to get back on a happy healthy low-carb path, and to keep on keeping on.


stormycatalyst said...

First, welcome back from vacation.

This post is so right on and descriptive of what happens when I ignore the rules of engagement with the enemy. The enemy being all things containing carbohydrate; with the resultant insulin production when any thing that resembles an excess carb is consumed. For me the carb limit to maintain is between 40 and 60 grams (gross not net) per day. Recognizing the slippage is easier than taking the required steps to return to a carb count low enough to remove the Dunlap before it becomes the Michelin Man or Pillsbury Dough Boy. Retreat, and regroup, to fight another day becomes the motto that must be put in place. Holding Michelin Man at bay, placing Dunlap under siege, assault plan in place, and beginning the charge toward 15 to 25 grams carbohydrate per day to jump start the removal of Dunlap.

All this sounds good, now to put it in action and return to extreme low carb, not zero carb, but much lower than most of the world. I’ll keep you updated on how this battle goes.

Stargazey said...

Excellent word picture, stormycatalyst! Best wishes as you head into the battle against excess padding!

Hans Keer said...

I never eat more than 10 grams carbs per day, but every now and then the scale still gives me a warning. When I start checking my diet, it appears that I won the weight on too much protein and dietary fat. It's clear that the excess protein is transformed into glucose and fat and that the excess fat is stored in the fat tissue.

So I can loose track and not cheat at all :).

Stargazey said...

Hi, Hans! Most low-carbers do gain weight because they gradually incorporate too many carbs back into their diet.

However, I can say personally that I share your frustration. Although this post deals with cheating, my own weight gains happen in the absence of cheating. I keep my carbs low, but when I eat too much fat and protein, I gain. For me, it's the appetite monster. I eat protein because it helps with satiety, but too much protein turns into glucose turns into fat. And I don't tolerate hunger very well, so am still trying to figure out the solution.

Trevor Gamble said...

Hi Stargazey,
I just finished reading through all of your posts and the comments. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain the various terms and processes relavent to our health, and in such a user-friendly language.

I have a couple of questions which I would love to get your expertise on when you have the time. (I didn't know where else to write this besides in response to your post)

1. Fructose as a sweetener vs fructose in fruit.

Fructose when used as a sweetener (HFCS, sucrose, agave) seems to be widely viewed as destructive to one's health. Fructose in fruits is another matter with adherents strongly in both camps. Some saying that fructose in fruits is fine because of the fiber (apple is good, apple juice is bad) while others say that fructose is fructose, and having it in your diet, whether or not there is some fiber in the food, will have deleterious effects on your body. Since you are a master of biochemistry, I am wondering what the difference is biochemically when we eat fructose not from a fruit vs fructose in a piece of fruit.

2. Conventional vs Organic.

In the low carb literature I continually hear to eat organic foods, but without any scientific basis. The authors say they are more nutritious, don't have carcinogenic pesticides, etc. I am wondering what the science is in terms of how pesticides and fertilizers actually interact with the plants on a biochemical level. Are they actually decreasing the amount of nutrition that we are getting from the conventionally raised plants? Are the amounts of synthetic pesticides found on foods actually enough to disrupt processes in our bodies? And if so, how does that work?

I know these are both in-depth topics, but as I've been looking around at various resources I have been disenchanted with many "experts" who just spout an opinion that sounds good without having much if anything to back it up. I am very impressed with and appreciative of your reliance on science.

Thanks again for all of your work!

Stargazey said...

Hi, Trevor! Thanks for your comments!

As for your questions, the first one is easy. Fructose is fructose, whether it is being used as a sweetener or is found in a fruit. The nature of the molecule doesn't change, and it's the molecule itself that is the problem. Our bodies aren't equipped to handle very much fructose, and overindulgence can result in a fatty liver, protein glycation and even gout. See discussions here and here.

If the fruit is a few berries, that probably isn't enough fructose to worry about. But if people choose to eat large amounts of fructose, it's important to realize that when fructose reaches the liver, it will treated the same if it comes from honey, from a large apple or from a drink with HFCS in it.

As for your second question, that will require a bit more thought. From what I have seen so far, in many regards it seems to be a matter of personal preference. The extreme positions taken by some low-carbers and paleo folks are what engendered my Food Nazi post a while back. Let me think about it and see if I can come up with a reasonably intelligent post on the topic.

Trevor said...

Thank you for you rapid response to my fructose question, Stargazey!

If fructose acts like fructose in our bodies, no matter what it is surrounded by, it makes me wonder why people like Dr. Lustig would go on and on about the evils of fructose, and then say you can eat as much as you'd like so long as it is in the company of fiber. He made it seem like our bodies would not experience the ethanol-like effects of fructose if it were in the form of whole fruit, because of the fiber. That was a leap he made that I didn't see the scientific support for. Does the presence of fiber change the way our body digests fructose? I'm getting from your response that the answer is probably no, but I'm curious.

Thanks again!

Stargazey said...

I can't prove a negative, but as far as I can tell, the presence of fiber does not change the way the body digests fructose.

Here is a link to a Google collection of pathways for fructose metabolism. If you check them out, you'll notice that none of the pathways makes a note that the metabolism of fructose changes in the presence of fiber. I can see where fiber might slow the absorption of fructose a bit, but once the fructose molecules hit the liver, the presence of fiber in the gut has nothing to do with their metabolic fate.

Trevor said...

That was very helpful, Stargazey. Thanks so much for clearing that up for me!

DogwoodTree05 said...

Welcome back to blogging, Stargazey! Hope your vacation was as restful as mine.

I read somewhere that fructose is bound in fruit and in sugar whereas fructose in HFCS is free, which impacts metabolism. Do you know anything about this?

Stargazey said...

Thanks for the welcome back, DogwoodTree! I didn't find any stargazey pie in London, but hope to get back there someday and taste it. And yes, it was a restful vacation.

Do you have a reference for fructose being bound in fruit? It is found as free fructose in HFCS but as far as I know, it's also present as free fructose in fruit.

Could they possibly be referring to oligofructose? That's a polymer of fructose found in chicory roots. It is poorly digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract and is used in food chemistry to sweeten and add a bit of fiber to some foods.

Stargazey said...

Okay. I've been Googling and I may have found an example here. It says, "Since the dawn of man, humans have consumed fructose (mostly in fresh fruit where the fructose is actually bound to the fruit fiber, thus slowing its absorption in the body)..."

If by "bound" to fruit fiber they mean that the fructose is covalently bound to fruit fiber, that doesn't happen, except in the case of specific types of fiber like inulin and oligofructose. To remove a fructose covalently bound to fiber, the gut would need a fructase enzyme, and it doesn't have one.

If by "bound" to fiber they mean some sort of noncovalent association of the fiber and the fructose, that's possible, but all that does is slow down the absorption of the fructose by the gut. Once the fructose molecules have been absorbed, they are free to do their damage (premature aging, formation of fat in the liver) no matter what food they came from.

Trevor said...

Thanks for the response to DogWood's question, Stargazey. That helps me understand the situation even more. I wasn't aware of the types of bonds with fructose.