What to Expect During the First 6 Months on a Low-Carb Diet
We all have expectations (as well as hopes and dreams) for what will happen when we change our diets. It's important at the start to remember that everyone is different with respect to weight loss, and you can't expect your experience to be the same as someone else's. The best approach is simply to become an interested and careful observer, finding out how your own body responds to different changes you make. That said, there are definitely things you can expect on a low-carb diet, especially if you have a body that doesn't deal with carbs or sugars well.
What to Expect Metabolically
The most important changes in your body are only somewhat related to weight loss. If you have any of the signs of , they should start to correct fairly quickly. These signs include higher-than-normal blood glucose (impaired glucose tolerance or above 89 fasting blood glucose, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists), high blood pressure, high waist-hip ratio, high blood triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol. If any of these signs are out of whack and you have found the right amount of carbohydrate for you, they should start to change within a few weeks, and sometimes a few days. Much as we love to lose weight, these are the most important changes, and you should make note of them and celebrate.
The other thing that will happen if you are on a very low-carb diet (under 50 or so grams of carbohydrate per day) is that your body will start to adapt to using fat for energy instead of carbohydrate.
What to Expect in Terms of Weight Loss
Of course, the rate of weight loss varies a lot both by individual differences and how overweight you are—the higher the starting weight, the faster you will tend to lose. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, by the end of the first month your rate of weight loss should stabilize (allowing for variations for women who are menstruating). If you stick to your plan you should continue to lose more or less at that rate for a few months. At some point, there will be some slowing in the rate of weight loss, and you could experience stalls in your weight loss. Don't worry about stalls of a week or two; just be super-sure you aren't allowing more carbohydrate to sneak into your diet.
One reason for a slower rate of weight loss is that metabolism tends to slow down as time goes on, so eating the same amount of food will not yield the same rate of weight loss. The best way to combat this is with an exercise program. If you haven't started exercising yet, it's important to begin, even if it's baby steps at first. If you are already exercising, try adding a component of strength training. However, the "slow down" that happens with weight loss isn't just a lack of exercise or resting metabolism, it's in the amount we tend to move around in general, known as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Try to pay attention to this aspect of your activity as well. When, for example, talking on the phone, stand instead of sitting, walk instead of standing.
What to Expect Psychologically
At some point during this period, you may experience what is known as "The End of the Honeymoon". The Honeymoon Period is a phase of most life changes where life is good! You're happy to spend time learning about your new way of living, you're experiencing positive benefits, and you happily spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. (Friends and family may start to tire of hearing you talk about it, though.) This is a great time to solidify your new way of eating and do what you can to make it second nature because, at some point, your romance with your new lifestyle may come to an abrupt halt. This is normal, and it's good to plan for it. It can happen at two weeks or one year, but psychologists will tell you that 3 or 4 months into a behavior change is the most typical time for this to happen.
Sometimes the "End of the Honeymoon" is triggered by a life event that changes your routines. You get a promotion at work, your mom comes to visit, you sustain an injury, and suddenly you find yourself falling into old patterns of eating. At other times, people just start to miss their old way of eating. They pass the bakery and a pang of longing for old favorite hits. The sudden thought, "Does this mean I can never have ice cream again?" is painful. (Changing your diet doesn't mean you can never have a favorite food again, by the way.)
The most important thing you can do at this point is to squarely acknowledge what is going on. The tendency is to almost unconsciously let yourself slide back into your old ways. This is a bad time to go unconscious. This is absolutely normal and to be expected, and you need to sit yourself down for a heart-to-heart talk. Do you really want to continue with this? What are the benefits? Is it worth the losses? What are your goals? Talk to others who will support your feelings, and be brutally honest.
Warning: Almost all diet studies show that by the six-month mark people are not following the diet as well as they did at the beginning. "Carb Creep" is a very common phenomenon, where more carbohydrate sneaks into your diet. It's best to track your carbs each day, but even if you do not do this, every so often you should run a day of your eating through a nutrition program to be sure you are staying on track.
Stop Dieting; Begin your Low-Carb Life
Other than dealing with the End of the Honeymoon (if it happens), you have one main job during the first six months: Convert your low-carb eating from being a "diet" to being "just the way you eat." How are you coming with this task? Are there snags that are keeping your eating from running smoothly? Are your pantry and fridge stocked with low-carb foods you enjoy? Do you need to deal with people who aren't supportive? Are your meals tasty? Identify the obstacles you've found in making a low-carb eating routine enjoyable and snag-free. Warning: cooking may be involved.
- Gardner, Christopher, Alexandre Kiazand, Sofiya Alhassan, et al. "Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women." Journal of the American Medical Association 297(9):969-77.
- Kirshenbaum, D.S. et al. Stages of change in successful weight control: A clinically derived model. Behavior Therapy 23 (4) 623-35 Autumn 1992.
- Maclean, Heather M. Patterns of diet related self-care in diabetes. Social Science & Medicine, 32(6): 689-696. 1991.
- Shai, Iris, et al. "Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet." The New England Journal of Medicine 359:229-241.
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