Making changes—and sticking with them—is never easy, especially when you’re just starting out. Changing what or how much we eat has its own unique challenges. When you first choose to follow a low-carb diet, you might experience carb withdrawal or crash. If you decide to follow a diet with a very low-carb phase, you may come up against other challenges along the way.
It’s important to know about possible pitfalls before you get started so you’ll know how to handle them. You’ll also understand the importance of giving your body time to get used to the changes you’re implementing.
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Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Low-Carb Diet
Getting through the first week on a low-carb diet is, indeed, the hardest part. Your body normally uses carbohydrates for energy, but with a low-carb diet, it has to get used to relying mostly on fat (what you’re hoping to burn).1 The best defense is being prepared. Follow these tips to help you adjust during the first week of a low-carb diet and beyond.
The First Three Days: Carb Withdrawal
Some people use the analogy of “food as addiction”—but that may or not be your case. However, there are some common characteristics between an excessive carbohydrate diet and addictions.2 For example, it’s not unusual to experience cravings for carbs when you start removing them from your diet.
During the first few days, you may even experience a period of discomfort. Though the reason is unclear, there’s likely a strong psychological component. Remember that it’s quite normal to miss your favorite high-carb foods. You may even find yourself thinking about them often or wishing you were eating them.
During the first 3 days of your low-carb diet, here are a few tips to keep in mind to help you press on.
Focus on Fiber and Fat
Eating fat and fiber together produces a high degree of satiety,3 the feeling of being full. Foods made with flax seeds are high in both fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Salads with protein (tuna, chicken, etc.) and healthy low-carb dressing are another option that is acceptable on any low-carb diet, including South Beach, Atkins, and Protein Power.
There are many other foods that are both high in fiber and low in carb. Exploring how you can integrate them into your diet will give you a creative focus during the first few days of cutting carbs.
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Don’t Go Hungry
A low-carb diet will be different from other diets you may have tried in the past. For one thing, when you’re on a low-carb diet, you shouldn’t feel hungry for long periods of time. Some people find it helpful to plan no more than 3 hours between eating (especially during the first few weeks).
As you plan your three meals each day, take some time to plan a few low-carb snacks as well. Healthy, well-timed snacks can help offset food cravings between meals and will help you feel less hungry during the transition.
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Plan Your Meals
Nothing will make you feel more deprived than going on an austerity program when you are trying to make a big change in your eating habits. Instead, investigate the tastiest foods your plan allows.
There are many delicious low-carb menu ideas at your disposal. You may find a few of your old favorites can be incorporated with a few carb-friendly adjustments. Remember: A low-carb diet does not mean your food will be boring. In fact, you’ll likely find a whole new world of food options.
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Whenever you make a big lifestyle change, it’s important to take care of yourself. It’s especially important to keep this in mind when you’re making changes to your diet. Give yourself time to learn how to deal with cravings and reward yourself for making positive progress—even the little milestones! Not only does this help you stay motivated, but it will also make the entire experience more positive.
While it’s easier said than done, try to avoid stress as much as you can. Take a bubble bath, go for a walk in the woods, cuddle up by the fire with a book, or a move—whatever makes you feel relaxed and brings you joy. Don’t just take time to be good to yourself—make time.
Reach out to people who support you—especially those who have been where you are! Whether online or in-person, there are many people on low-carb diets who can offer support, answer questions, and share their own experiences.
It seems simple, but having plenty of water by your side can do wonders for your body and mind. Preventing dehydration is important beyond the transition period to a low-carb diet, but since it helps with digestion, it’s sure to help make the process go more smoothly. Staying hydrated can also quench more than thirst—drinking plenty of water may decrease feelings of hunger.4 If you have a hard time drinking water, try infusing it with lemons, cucumbers, or mint. Sparkling, calorie-free drinks are also great ways to maintain hydration.
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Days 3 to 5: Watch Out for “Low-Carb Crash”
After the first few days of a low-carb diet, some people experience a phenomenon known as “low-carb crash” or “keto flu.” The theory is that this response occurs when your body’s glucose reserves (stored in the liver as glycogen) are used up, but your body has not yet adjusted to getting energy from fat and protein.
Symptoms of carb crash can include:
- Feeling shaky or jittery
- A general “off” feeling (physically and mentally)
Although the discomfort of the low-carb crash usually goes away in a few days, there’s really no reason to suffer through it. Dr. Atkins accounted for the phenomenon when designing his plan. The cure is to add in a few high-quality carbs to your diet.
However, keep in mind that adding these carbs into your diet should be minimal—overloading on carbs would defeat the purpose of a low-carb diet.
If you feel shaky, fatigued, or otherwise unusually bad, try eating a serving of low-carb fruit. If this makes the feeling go away, you know you are in carb crash. You can then modify your plan for the next few days to include a bit more carbohydrate and monitor your reactions closely.
It’s also been proposed that people may experience these symptoms due to a loss of fluid and salt. Try drinking a cup of bouillon or bone broth several times per day for a few days to ease symptoms of carb crash. Additionally, make sure you are getting enough potassium during this period.
Days 5 to 14: Reward Yourself
By the end of the first week of your new eating plan, you should begin reaping the benefits of a low-carb diet. At this stage, many people begin to experience increased energy, better mental concentration, less compulsive eating, and few or no carb cravings. Some people have described the feeling like a fog being lifted that they never knew was there.
Of course, everyone’s experience is different. Some people will take longer to feel the benefits but by the end of the first week, you should start to feel a difference. To keep your motivation going, don’t forget to congratulate yourself on the progress you’ve made!