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.