A low carb high fat (LCHF) diet is a way of eating that maximizes the body’s natural ability to access one’s own fat-stores for energy. Fat takes the place of carbohydrate as the preferred source of energy, so most of the body’s energy needs comes from a wide variety of healthy fats. All low carb high fat diets minimize carbohydrate-based food, have a moderate amount of protein and high amount of healthy fats, some versions (e.g. Phinney and Volek) have higher protein and lower fat during the weight loss phase.
When we eat this way, our body uses dietary fat that we eat and our own stored fat for energy and by keeping carb intake low, insulin levels are allowed to fall, which in time makes our cells more sensitive to it. As insulin levels fall, so does hunger – so we eat meals when hungry, until we are no longer hungry – but are no longer hungry every few hours.
The low carb high healthy fat diet
These are the categories and types of food that are available to enjoy on a low carb high healthy fat diet;
The exact ratio of macronutrients in your diet (i.e. grams of carbs, fat and protein) will differ depending on your age, gender, activity level, current body composition as well as any health conditions or medication you may be taking – and of course, which style of low carb high fat diet you follow.
Here are some general guidelines to give you an idea;
A low carb high healthy fat diet does not have unlimited amounts of animal protein, although some variations of this style of eating do. As mentioned above, some versions of this eating style have higher amounts of protein than fat only during the weight loss phase.
One thing all low carb high fat diets have in common, is that they are lower in carbs than the conventional low fat calorie-restricted diet and high in fat.
During weight loss, some approaches have ~60% fat and higher amounts of protein, whereas others have 75-80% fat (e.g. Fung’s approach) and moderate amounts of protein. But isn’t all this fat “bad” for us – especially saturated fat?
It’s important to keep in mind that only ~ 20% of the saturated fat in our body comes from diet, with the remainder being made by our body. If it were that ‘bad’ for us, why would our bodies naturally manufacture it?
How much saturated fat should we eat?
According to Phinney and Volek (The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living), when someone is adapted to eating a low carb high healthy fat (i.e. are in “fat-burning mode”), saturated fats do not raise LDL cholesterol. That said, why eat only saturated fat? Eating a wide range of healthy fats from a variety of natural sources provides our bodies with all the essential fatty acids we can’t make, as well as provides us with foods that can reduce inflammation.
Beyond saturated fat that is found in the diet’s protein sources (meat, fish, egg, cheese and poultry), I recommend that people look mainly to mono-unsaturated plant-based fats such as those found in avocado, olive, and avocado oil along with saturated fat and medium chain triglycerides from coconut oil (processed through the lymphatic system rather than the liver), modest amounts of omega 6 fats from nuts and seeds, as well as plenty of omega 3 fats found in fatty fish.
It’s important to note that nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pistachios are a source of carbs (ranging from ~1.5–4 grams net carbs per ounce (30g)), so it’s important to use these in moderation, such as a few as a topping for a salad. In addition, nuts are high in omega-6 fats which are pro-inflammatory as they compete for binding-sites with omega-3 fats such as those found in fish.
Chia and flax seed are approximately 1–2 grams net carbs per 2 Tbsp (50 ml) and are excellent sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
All fats on the meal plan are healthy – which is why I call this approach “low carb high healthy fat”, but for a small percentage of people for whom high LDL cholesterol continues to be a concern, eating less saturated fat may be beneficial. Each person’s needs and familial risks are different, so no one low carb high healthy fat Meal Plan is the same.
Carbs are a healthy part of the low carb high fat diet, but the quantity of carb is minimized.
There are naturally-occurring carbs in non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruit (such as lemon, lime, eggplant, cucumber and tomatoes) as well as berries, as well as those found in nuts and seeds, as mentioned above.
Some versions of a low carb diet do not include nuts, seeds or berries during weight loss.
When starting a Low Carb High Healthy Fat Diet
Although not everyone does, some people experience some of the following symptoms, which usually subside within a couple of weeks. For each, I have offered some suggestions to minimize them:
- headaches: often a result of eating too little salt. As insulin levels fall, so sodium is excreted by the kidney in urine. The drop in sodium results in the headache. Taking 1-3 gms of salt per day (I prefer sea salt) will alleviate this. If you are taking medication for high blood pressure, be sure to check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. “Bone broth” is another way to restore electrolytes that are lost as insulin levels fall. Be sure you’re drinking plenty of water and also consuming enough salt/sodium.
- sleep disruption: often a result of needing to urinate more, but sometimes experienced when people of switching from being in “carb-burning mode” to being in “fat burning mode”. Some people find taking some magnesium (with calcium) before bed helpful.
- digestive changes: some people find they get slightly looser stools or get slightly more constipated when starting. I can help troubleshoot this with you to get things back on track.
- aches and pains: some people feel a little achy and almost flu-like for a few days when they are switching fuel sources. Some people call this the “keto-flu”. Making sure to have a balanced amount of sodium/potassium and calcium/magnesium as well as taking extra omega 3 fatty acids is helpful.
My role as a Dietitian
As a Dietitian, I make sure that you understand the effect that following a low carb high healthy fat diet can have on your body. If you are taking medication for high blood pressure (hypertension) or to lower blood sugar, I’ll ask you check with your doctor before starting, as blood sugar and blood pressure medications may need to be adjusted lower, as insulin levels fall.
If you aren’t taking any medication, I’ll help you transition into understanding that fat in and by itself is not ‘bad’ and that eating good quality healthy fats, nutrient-dense carbohydrate-containing foods and high quality animal protein is part of a healthy diet that will enable you to feel better, lose weight and lower insulin resistance.
I’ll design your Meal Plan so that it is adequate in macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals – especially Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, B-Vitamins, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin K and Vitamin C) and sufficient in soluble and insoluble fiber – suitable for your age, gender and activity level, and that factor in any diagnosed medical conditions you may have.
I’ll make sure that you are eating sufficient food in each of the food categories to meet your dietary needs, while adjusting for weight loss, if that is also a goal – so that you can just focus on eating healthy, ‘real food’.
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To your health!
Note: Everyone's results following a LCHF lifestyle will differ as there is no one-size-fits-all approach and everybody's nutritional needs and health status is different. If you want to adopt this kind of lifestyle, please discuss it with your doctor, first.
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