Low-carb diets are low in carbohydrates, the food group that you find in ultra-processed sugary foods, pasta and bread. Those who are stuck on the “low fat” way of thinking have demonised low carb diets as unhealthy; the reality is that there’s nothing unhealthy about eating a variety of fresh foods rich in protein and nutrients, a diversity of brightly coloured vegetables, natural fats from nuts, seeds and olive oil, and some fruit.
Like them or hate them, low carb “diets” are here to stay. People get into them for a number of reasons, from weight loss and blood sugar balancing to gut health and improved clarity of thinking. Indeed, some of these reasons have more clinical research to back them up than others.
With Christmas approaching fast, nutrition practitioner Miguel Toribio-Mateas shares his top 5 tips on how to stay on a low carb diet throughout the festive season when you’re surrounded by mince pies, chocolates and roast potatoes!
Miguel will be speaking at our roadshow events in 2019, you can book your tickets, and find out more, via this link.
Miguel’s tips for a successful low carb Christmas
Here are my top 5 tips to keep to your low carb lifestyle whilst surrounded by high carb foods and those who thoroughly enjoy them! But firstly, the absolute basics for succeeding at low carb eating are:
- Make sure you have a variety of fish (can be fresh, frozen or even tinned), meat (all of it, including offal, white meat, red meat), dairy, eggs, and as many colours of vegetables growing above ground (i.e. not root veg) and natural fats, like extra virgin olive oil and some butter. Vegans can find it more difficult to do low-carb, but it’s not unsurmountable. Vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy have it the easiest, as do pescetarians.
- Minimise or ideally avoid all ultra-processed foods. This includes any food with added sugar or foods that are really starchy, like rice, bread, pasta and potatoes. Ask yourself, “how long would this product last on a supermarket shelf”. Think of a digestive biscuit. It could be there for the next 3 years in a packet for all you know! That’s the kind of thing you should be very mindful of. Have some nuts or a piece of fruit and some yoghurt instead.
1) Avoid boredom, keep it varied
People often fail on whatever diet they’re doing because they get bored of eating the same thing over and over again, or because they’re hungry and then they end up eating things they shouldn’t be eating. A lot of the “dos and don’ts” of diets I find difficult to come to terms with from a psychological perspective. I just don’t think they’re very helpful and they can almost pre-destine you to fail by making you feel “naughty” for eating “the wrong thing”. To avoid feeling naughty and to keep feeling super nice from today and into January, make sure to add a variety of the super low carb vegetables to your shopping basket. These include:
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
Why this choice? Well, because all of these vegetables contain below 5% net carbs. And what are net carbs? They are simply the grams of total carbohydrates in a portion of food. And when the portion is 100g (or around 3.5 ounces for those who find it easier to think in imperial measurements) 5% represents the actual sugars or starches left once you take out the fibre content.
Using these naturally very low carb vegetables as your staples over the Christmas period will provide you with a wide range of nutrients, and keep you nicely full while helping you stay on track if you’re carb counting. And if you’re not carb counting even better! Who wants to count anything when it comes to food! So the good news is that these veggies are so low carb you won’t even need to.
2) Keep on moving
Physical activity improves insulin sensitivity, and this is one of the main reasons why lower carb diets are supposed to help. When cells respond better to insulin, glucose (one of the main sources of energy to the body and the brain) is used more efficiently. This typically results in more balanced blood glucose levels throughout the day, i.e. fewer spikes and dangerous lows. In terms of how it feels, it tends to mean more steady energy from dawn til dusk. And if you add a little movement to that, you’re likely to get enhanced benefits.
What is very interesting is that when you keep active your gut bacteria change, both in numbers and types. Stool testing performed in athletes, versus non-athletes, has confirmed this. And tests have also confirmed that some strains of beneficial bacteria seen in those who engage in regular exercise also produce short chain fatty acids that provide an additional source of energy for working muscles. These tend to be the same types of bacteria who will also enjoy the low carb greens from my number 1 tip above, so we’re onto a winner already!
Oh and you don’t need to hit the gym for 2 hours a day. The more scientists find out about exercise and its effects on the body, the more it transpires (pun intended!) that you only need to increase your heart rate for long enough, and to mobilise as many muscles in your body for long enough for the benefits to kick in.
As to the magical “long enough”, it is likely to be highly individualised, but it’s also likely to be a lot less than we’ve thought before. So anything from a brisk stroll down the road, or down the beach if you’re by the sea, to a gentle run or a swim can get your gut bugs in the mood to keep you energised and lean, whilst also improving your insulin / glucose metabolism. Exercise is great all round, mostly free (but a luxurious gym or health club can also be very nice!), and underrated.
3) Be flexible, but stay determined
This is a little bit less directive than the previous two tips, in the sense that it is more about psychology than about specific things to do. It’s about finding that point where you feel comfortable that you’re still doing what you wanted to do, i.e. staying low carb over Christmas, whilst allowing yourself to be swayed by peer pressure, or succumbing to an irresistible homemade ginger man. I must admit I’m not a great believer in “it’s all in the balance”, particularly if you have set yourself goals that are going to take a while to achieve.
In the name of “balance” you may become too flexible, and progress may slow down considerably. So the trick of this tip is to cruise just below that tipping point so you’re flexible enough, but you stick to your determination. If it is your other half who’s tempting you to have the pudding you didn’t want (or need), get an extra spoon and have a little taste, knowing that this won’t completely spoil all your efforts. Or at least not as much as if you had decided to self-sabotage and order a whole dessert for you, saying “I’ll start properly again after Christmas”.
4) Find alternatives
In order to succeed at number 3 above, you might need to find alternatives. Some are super easy. For example, if you’re a dipper or a dunker, then ditch the crackers, the bread sticks and the biscuits (savoury and sweet) and dip bits of cucumber, celery, or mixed colour pepper slices instead.
Even if you don’t want to be bothered reading the ingredients of the actual dips, by swapping the cracker for pepper slices (with around 3 to 5% net carbs) you’ll have cut down the carb load dramatically. Carrots are a little sweeter at around 7%, but look at this in perspective, they’ve got nearly half the net carbs as parsnips (at 13%), and less than half as potatoes (at around 15%) and sweet potatoes (at 17%).
So if you’re looking for a lower carb alternative to the spuds that still feels substantial, and that complements the greens in tip number 1 above, carrots might be your Christmas “new veg friend”. Celeriac and beetroot also have the same net carbs as carrots and they’re delicious roasted as an alternative to the typical potatoes, so you can still enjoy your roast veg whilst feeling super low carb virtuous!
If you don’t want to overcomplicate things, just stay off ultra-processed food as much as you can, and this will help you reduce sugar and starch by a large amount. Think of any food product that comes in a packet and that could last months or even years on a supermarket shelf. Have as little of that kind of product as possible, and replace it with vibrantly colourful fresh vegetables and fruit. The kind of stuff that would go off in a day or two if you left it on your kitchen table. That’s just common sense, but you’d be surprised at how powerful this piece of advice is.
5) Don’t shy away from protein and healthy fat
I don’t like the word “diet”. We shouldn’t be on or off diets, but just eat healthily in a way that suits us, makes us feel good, and that contains plenty of fresh, unprocessed foods. As I mentioned previously, one of the main reasons people fail at sticking to changes in their dietary patterns is hunger. Well there’s no reason to be hungry when you’re doing low carb. And Christmas is the perfect season for getting some great quality protein and nice fat in you too! Typical Christmas roasts, whether it’s turkey, lamb, pork or beef, all contain a good amino acid profile.
Using butter for high heat cooking or roasting will provide you with some interesting fatty acids from churned dairy, and using plenty of olive oil in dressings for your roasted veg will provide you not only with healthy fat, but with lots of anti-inflammatory power. I love making a dressing with extra virgin olive oil (Spanish, of course) with crushed garlic (to taste), black pepper, sea salt (I’m obsessed with Maldon sea salt flakes!) fresh chives, and parsley. Mix everything in pestle and mortar and pour over salads or roast vegetables. Beautiful and moreish!
If you’re having fish instead of meat, that’s also a fantastic source of protein. Eggs and dairy are too if you don’t eat fish, and nuts, seeds and pulses come next if you’re a vegan. Whatever protein source you eat, think of filling at least a quarter of an imaginary plate with it. Half of that same “ideal” plate should contain a variety of low-carb veg from my tip number one above. Add a side of roasted carrots, or a side of salad.
If you’re still hungry after that, have some cheese and berries. I love cheese and raspberries. Some nice Manchego with fresh raspberries is simply divine. Or if you like a dessert, soft cheese (like ricotta or mascarpone) in a pot with frozen raspberries, some grated apple and a pinch of cinnamon is simply delicious. Mix it up and add a dollop of clotted cream to it, put it in the freezer for 5 minutes and you’ll think you’re having cheesecake.
And what about the drink?
You’ll be surprised to know that champagne is extremely low carb, as is Prosecco, at barely 2%. Red and white wine are also really low carb. Beer lovers, so sorry but you’re looking at 13% net carbs, which means a typical can or bottle will give you around 40g of carbs. Not the ideal drink for low carbers, I’m afraid! So you may wish to move onto the Prosecco for the festivities.
Also, my advice is to start drinking when you’ve already eaten something. That balances the hit of the sugar on your body, keeping you in better control of how your blood glucose reacts to these drinks. Vodka and sodas are next to 0 carbs whilst a vodka and orange can be as high as 30% carbs. Rum is potentially the sweetest of the spirits and it’s easy to have a single rum and coke with up to 50% carbs in it. So if that’s your drink and you want to low-carb it this Christmas, keep them to a minimum!
I hope you see from my advice in this post that living a low-carb lifestyle shouldn’t be complicated, and that it is perfectly feasible to have a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas whilst sticking to your preferred way of eating.
As this is my last post of the year, I would like to thank the whole of the team at Cytoplan for inviting me to write these posts for you. I’ve really enjoyed doing it in 2018 and look forward to many more in the New Year. I also would like to wish you and yours a joy-filled festive season and all the best of health for 2019.
If you use any of my tips, please tag us on Instagram as @miguelmateas and @cytoplanltd and add the hashtag #lowcarbxmas so that we can share your photos in our stories. Also, feel free to post your comments to my tips on my Instagram. I’d love to know how you got on!
Miguel is a doctoral researcher in clinical nutrition practice with wide-angle, first-hand experience of the research process. From the laboratory bench, having completed a lab-based Masters in Clinical Neuroscience focusing on brain ageing, to the design and implementation of human clinical trials on the effect of fermented foods on mood and cognition as leading investigator at the “Bowels and Brains™️” project at the London Agri-Food Innovation Clinic. Miguel has been delivering quality individualised nutrition care to his clients from 2009, translating complex science findings into meaningful recommendations that can be used by people like you to improve health and wellbeing. Miguel’s background includes 15+ years in senior consulting and training roles in life sciences and medical publishing, having trained clinicians and scientists around the world.
With many thanks to Miguel for this blog; if you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Clare via phone; 01684 310099 or e-mail [email protected]