Reduce fat intake? On a low carb or ketogenic diet?
Amy, have you done lost yo' mind?
You know people use the abbreviation “LCHF,” right? And that means low carb high fat, right?
Yes. Yes, I know. But remember what Ted Naiman, MD, said:
I’ve heard from many, many people who are struggling to lose body fat on a low carb or ketogenic diet. And while there are many possible reasons for this, the simplest, most obvious, and most common one is, they’re eating too darn much fat.
Too much fat?
On a ketogenic diet?
What is this madness you speak of?
Too much fat. On a ketogenic diet.
This is possible. It is, as they say, “a thing.”
Remember: when you reduce your carbohydrate intake to the point that your body must switch over to running primarily on fat for fuel, you go from being a “sugar burner” to being a “fat burner.” But what this means is that you’re burning fat. It doesn’t mean that the fat you’re burning will automatically and unfailingly come from your
love handles and thunder thighs adipose tissue (your stored body fat). It could be coming from your fatty coffee, avocado smoothie, fat bombs, or a heavier-than-you-realize hand with nuts, cheese, and ranch dressing.
Bottom line: the more fat you eat, the less of a need your body has to tap into its stored fat to use for fuel. If you’re already lean and happy with your weight, this is no problem. You might need a bunch of fat just to maintain your weight. (
I hate you. Lucky you.) But if you’re struggling with fat loss on low carb despite doing “all the right things” and being on-point with your diet, there’s a chance you’re simply overdoing the dietary fat.
It’s true. If your carbs are very low, then insulin will be pretty low, which is what allows you to get into “fat burning mode.” But just because insulin is low doesn’t mean you’ll magically drop body fat regardless of how many calories you take in. Even if you’re in ketosis, the food energy you take in still has to go somewhere. It has to be used or stored. And if you’re using the fat from your food, you’re not going to be using the fat from your hips or belly. After all, that’s what stored body fat is there for: as an energy supply to be used when there isn’t enough energy coming in. If you drink a cup of coffee loaded with 400 calories of butter and coconut oil, your body has no reason to use its backup supply of fat.
Am I saying it’s all about calories? After writing a post like this one, am I actually saying that?! No. It’s not all about calories, but it’s maybe a little about them. Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot eat unlimited fat and still lose body fat on a low carb or ketogenic diet. If you are following a strict ketogenic diet and adding extra fat to things in order to arrive at a “ketogenic ratio” in the ballpark of 75-80% of your calories from fat but you’re having a hard time losing weight, stop doing this! This is the single biggest mistake I see people making with this way of eating. (And I’ve done it, myself. Believe me; I’ve learned the hard way. The running joke on this blog is that I’m not allowed to keep mayonnaise in my house, because it starts as a spoonful with my food, but then, before I know it, it’s me, the jar, a spoon, and 3000 calories later...)
If you’re using a low carb or ketogenic diet for the purpose of losing body fat, you do not need to eat a super, super high-fat diet. If you’re using this way of eating to manage a specific medical condition that might require a high level of ketones for efficacy, that’s a totally different story. (See here for details on this.)
So, if your goal is weight loss, but you’re having a hard time, here are some tips for reducing fat intake while still keeping carbs low:
- Nuts and cheese. These are the two most notorious culprits standing in the way of fat loss. To be clear: Nuts and cheese are totally acceptable on low carb and ketogenic diets. It’s not that they’re “not keto.” The issue is that they are very delicious and very easy to overeat. Many of us suffer from “hand to mouth syndrome” when it comes to nuts. You’re on the couch or in your work cubicle, you’ve got the bag within arm’s reach, and before you know it, you’ve blown through half the bag and about 1000 calories with what was supposed to be a snack. Same with cheese. Maybe one string cheese is no problem, but if you sit down with a block of aged gouda or sharp cheddar and a knife, it’s game over. The problem isn’t these foods, per se; it’s that most of us overdo them. If you can control your portions, have at ‘em.
- Fatty coffees & teas. If you’re having a hard time with fat loss, stop drinking calories. Much better to get fat that occurs naturally in your food (steaks, pork chops, eggs) than to add gobs of it to a beverage. This is the low carb equivalent of fruit juice and sugar-sweetened soft drinks: you know enough not to drink liquid sugar anymore; now you can progress to not drinking fat, either. (What about heavy cream, you ask? Keep reading.)
- Fat bombs. Again, nothing wrong with these if you’re at your ideal weight. But if you’ve been eating these tasty morsels of extremely high fat and you’re frustrated because your body fat isn’t budging, well, I’ll leave you to connect the dots here.
I’ve found that for many people—myself included—a great deal of extra fat comes in the form of condiments. Ranch or blue cheese dressing, sour cream, mayonnaise, etc. The key to keeping things delicious and low carb without racking up a lot of extra fat is to swap out the fattier condiments for things that provide flavor without much fat. Here are some suggestions:
· Hot sauce – just read labels; you’d be surprised what they sneak sugar and corn syrup into. Our beloved Sriracha has sugar in it, but if you’re using small amounts, this is fine.
· Mustard – yellow, spicy brown, dijon, horseradish – all are fine except honey mustard
· Pickles/relish – read labels; some contain sugar or HFCS
· Soy sauce, fish sauce, coconut aminos, or tamari (wheat-free soy sauce)
· Salt & pepper – you’d be amazed at how good these two simple seasonings can make just about anything taste, if you use enough of them. Don’t be shy. Salt is good for you! (Especially on a low carb diet.)
· Herbs & spices – garlic, basil, oregano, sage, thyme, dill, curry powder, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, parsley, cilantro, etc. – they’re all fine!
· Vinegar – all varieties are fine, but go easier on balsamic (slightly higher in carbs)
· Homemade vinaigrettes – heavy on the vinegar, easier on the oil; use mustard or an egg yolk to emulsify/thicken
· Fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice – in the amount you might use on a salad or squeezed over a grilled chicken breast or piece of fish, the total amount of carbs is almost negligible. (Fresh squeezed lime is totally underrated!)
· Canned tomatoes – read labels; many have only 3-5g of carbs per fairly generous ½ cup serving, and there are several varieties available, all of which lend a ton of flavor. (Plain, Italian herb, fire-roasted, green chilies, etc.) Don’t bother with any reduced sodium varieties. You want the sodium on a low carb diet. Canned tomatoes are great for both sodium and potassium.
· Low-fat salad dressings – Heresy, I know! When you have a few minutes to spare in the supermarket, read labels on some low-fat or “lite” dressings. You might be surprised at what you find. I was. Not all low-fat items are loaded with sugar. I found several that have 1-2 grams of carbs more than their full-fat counterparts, but this small increase in carbohydrate was more than offset by a dramatic reduction in fat. Maybe they don’t all have the greatest quality ingredients (e.g., soybean oil), but only you can decide what’s right for you.
· Sugar-free dressings – I’ve found some pretty good ones. I’m a big fan of Maple Grove Farms. These aren’t labeled as low fat, but most of them have much less fat than other dressings, with still only about 1-2 grams of carbs per 2-Tbsp serving. (I’ll have a detailed post on these coming soon.)
Other tips & tricks:
Here are some simple swaps & substitutions that will keep the flavor while reducing the fat:
Trade heavy cream (a.k.a. heavy whipping cream) for half & half. Again, total heresy, I know! If you are really, truly, using only about a tablespoon or so in your coffee (or tea, or whatever), then heavy cream is fine. But if it’s more like 2-3 Tbsp multiple times a day, that fat adds up quickly. Just like with the low-fat salad dressings, the very small increase in carbohydrate (literally like 1g) between half & half and cream is almost negligible compared to the large difference in fat & calories. (Depending on where you live, you might see “table cream” or “light cream” at your local store. This is richer than half & half, but not as thick & rich as heavy cream. It's basically in between the two.)
Consider using reduced fat cream cheese & sour cream. You might be better off cutting these things out entirely if you’re having a very difficult time with fat loss, but if you really enjoy dairy and having these things makes low carb/keto easier for you to stick to (this is true for many people and it doesn't make you a bad person, I promise!), then read the labels and see if you’d be wise to switch to the reduced fat versions for a while. They often have only 1 or 2g more carbohydrate than the full-fat versions, with significantly less fat. (Some of them don’t even have more carbs at all!)
Water down your dressing. If you absolutely cannot stomach the thought of buying anything with a low fat or “lite” label and you must, must have your favorite blue cheese, ranch, caesar or other high-fat dressing, consider thinning it a little with water and vinegar. (Use plain white distilled, apple cider, or champagne vinegar, depending on the dressing.) This changes the texture a little, yes, but you do want to lose body fat, right?
Enjoy your food without added fat. Just because you can add butter, sour cream, mayo, olive oil, and cheese to your food doesn’t mean you have to. I know I sound like a broken record here, but if you’re using this way of eating to lose body fat, then you don’t need to add heaps of extra fat in order to keep your diet at a certain “ketogenic ratio.” In fact, doing this might be directly contradictory to your goal. If your steak is already fatty, it doesn’t need butter melted on top of it. And seriously, don’t underestimate the power of salt & pepper. They really, truly do make things taste better, even without any added fat.
EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN. The #1 biggest pitfall I see people getting into on low carb and ketogenic diets for fat loss is that they eat higher fat at the expense of inadequate protein. DO NOT DO THIS. If you are trying to lose body fat, protein is your friend. Like, your best friend. Don’t be afraid of gluconeogenesis. It is not true that too much protein “turns into sugar.” This is a total misunderstanding and bastardization of the biochemical mechanism at work there, and I wrote a very long post (as usual) about it here. How much protein should you be eating? Probably more than you are.
I’m gonna borrow from Dr. Ted Naiman again, because he is that good at explaining things simply and clearly.
What diet plan has the very highest protein and lowest carbs of all?— Tᕮᗪ ⚡️ ᑎᗩIᗰᗩᑎ (@tednaiman) June 3, 2017
POST-BARIATRIC SURGERY DIET.
🤔 🤔 🤔🤔
🤔 🤔 🤔 pic.twitter.com/E00BhvG5o7
If you’re aiming for fat loss, think higher protein, lower carb, and lower fat. Not only is this a post-bariatric surgery diet intended to help people lose fat and keep it off, but it’s also an approximation of the diet bodybuilders use to lean out. You’ve already mastered the low carb part. Now, to get the stubborn body fat moving, cut back a bit on fat. This doesn’t mean you’ll be living on grilled tilapia and steamed broccoli, or skinless chicken breast over lettuce. I don’t mean for this post to make anyone afraid of eating fat. Fat is delicious and yummy and good for us. What I’m trying to say is, when you’re looking for fat loss, the percentage of calories you’re getting from fat will be high, but only some of that will come from dietary fat. The rest of it will come from your own body’s stored fat. You will be able to increase the amount of dietary fat you consume as you get closer to your goal weight and there is less stored fat for your body to draw upon. And when you get to the point where you are trying to maintain weight (not lose any more), you might be able to eat even more.
Even during active fat loss, though, you do need some fat in your diet, for optimal nutrient absorption, keeping your gallbladder up and running, and for mental health. You will go stark raving mad and your hormones will get wacky if you go too low fat for too long (no, really, you will), but there’s a difference between avoiding every speck of fat & oil in preparation for a physique competition and simply cutting back a bit because you’re stalled on a low carb diet.
To get stubborn body fat moving, think low carb higher protein. I know you’re all semi-terrified of “too much protein,” but don’t be. Seriously, don’t be. It’s okay to have skinless chicken or lean pork, and add a little olive oil (or avocado or toasted sesame oil if you like those). It’s okay to eat low fat cottage cheese, or tuna or sardines canned in water. You’ll still be getting plenty of fat; the difference is, it’ll be coming from your body instead of your fork.This is a good one, from Tom Naughton, who created the fabulous movie Fat Head.
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Also, we’ve got to—got to—talk hormones. All that I’ve said here applies to those of you whose metabolism-regulating hormones are within normal operating parameters. On the other hand, if you are one of the many, many people out there whose thyroid or pituitary glands have been slacking for a few years, you will struggle mightily to lose weight almost no matter how diligent you are with respect to diet and exercise. I have a few posts coming up on thyroid function for those of you who—LIKE ME—feel like your best efforts are stymied by things that feel out of your control. (They’re not, but they sure feel that way!)
Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.