Cut Carbs Without Killing Granny

Two years ago my wife and I tried cyclic ketogenic dieting. We knew that many of the concepts behind these diets were valid but there was a practical, behavioral problem for us: we could no longer function as stable, productive human beings on such low carb intakes.

I got too irritable; she got fatigued and cranky. We couldn't even enjoy weekday life before reaching our scheduled weekend carb oasis. I became hermit-like and unsociable with visiting relatives. If Grandma bumped into me with her walker, I'd lose it and have to be held back while shouting, "You wanna piece of me, old lady!? Do ya? Do ya?"

Okay, it wasn't that bad, but together with the restricted dietary variety and reduced fiber we sometimes endured, we ditched the super low carb diet. I don't think our experience was unique, so just in case there are others who find ketotic carb restriction too torturous and irritating, please consider the following as an alternative to smacking your grandma.

The Right Carbs at the Right Time

At risk of demonizing a particular macronutrient, I still think we could all use some potential strategies for reducing carb intake in our processed, soft and fiber-less world. You don't have to adopt a totally Atkins-like diet, but reducing carb intake is probably a good idea for most people wanting to lose fat and stay healthy.

A while back I wrote a two-part article called Temporal Nutrition. This strategy basically calls for a reduced carb load during late afternoon and evening hours when carbs are less beneficial to the physique athlete. (Hours of frequent muscular contraction – mostly AM hours when outside the gym – combined with diurnal hormone fluctuations, help explain why "Temporal Nutrition" works.)

But what about getting practical? What actual dietary choices are more sensible? Hold onto your glucose transporters, because here are two separate but complimentary shopping lists that provide quality carbs at the time of day they're most beneficial.

By dividing a grocery cart into an AM part and a PM part as I shop, I've personally been able to plan my week's eating (barring post-exercise feedings, perhaps) to my waistline's advantage. If you choose to follow a similar strategy, protein foods will, of course, be in both parts of your cart. Each AM menu suggestion has a Temporally-adjusted PM counterpart.

Table 1: Example Grocery Cart


Four daily AM feedings, two are major meals: 8:00 and 12:00, and two are minor snacks: 6:00 and 10:00 AM.


Three daily PM feedings, one is major: 8:00, and two are minor: 2:00 and 10:00 PM.

Mostly egg white omelet stuffed with shredded Pam-fried potatoes or served with flax pancakes also fried in cooking spray.

Whole omega-3-egg and veggie-chicken-cheese omelet, fried in olive oil-based margarine (solid foods/meats increase fullness during low-satiety PM hours).

PROTEIN/CARB BEVERAGE: Skim or 1% milk (remember, milk has 12 grams of carbs per 8 oz cup!)

ZERO-CARB BEVERAGE: Mineral water with twist of lemon or lime or barely-sweetened green tea.

CARB SIDE DISH: Whole wheat bread or higher-fiber rye (12 g carb, 2 grams of which are fiber). Add no-sugar-added preserves or low-fat margarine.

LOW-CARB SIDE DISH: Light whole wheat bread (6 g carb, 2 g of which are fiber). Add peanut butter or olive oil-based margarine.

LOW-FAT CONDIMENT: Low-fat margarine or non-fat "butter spray."

FAT CONDIMENT: Zero-trans fat, olive oil-based margarine.

PROTEIN/CARB MAIN COURSE OR SNACK: Oat bran hot cereal mixed 50/50 with Cream of Rice or Cream of Wheat cereal (50 g carb, 6 g of which are fiber). Add berries and/or small banana (~24 g carb, 3-4 g of which are fiber), protein such as Grow! (+20 g PRO per scoop) or even milk powder if you can handle the lactose.

PROTEIN/LOW-CARB MAIN COURSE OR SNACK: Oat bran hot cereal mixed 50/50 with wheat bran hot cereal (26 g carb, 13 g of which are fiber) and 2 Tbsp milled flax (6 g fiber). Add sweetened protein powder (+20 g PRO per scoop).

CARB MAIN COURSE: Muesli, All-bran (wheat), Kashi or oat bran-based cold cereal with low-fat milk (30-70 g carb, 4-15 g of which are fiber); read label.

LOW-CARB MAIN COURSE: Vegetable soup or vegetable-rich chili with chicken breast or beef chunks (adding beans makes this one double as an AM carb meal).

PROTEIN/CARB SNACK: Weight gain Grow! shake containing maltodextrin with low-fat milk or dilute fruit juice (blend-in berries, bananas, other fruit for ~25 g carb, 4 g of which are fiber).

PROTEIN/LOW-CARB SNACK: Meal replacement shake like Low Carb Grow! with water (try blending-in cottage cheese and creamy natural-style peanut butter).

PROTEIN/CARB MAIN COURSE: Grilled chicken breast or 93% lean burger on 100% whole-wheat bun (~25 g carb, 3 g of which are fiber).

PROTEIN/LOW-CARB MAIN COURSE: Pork rind-coated fried chicken in olive oil.

CARB SIDE DISHES: Medium potato, Pam-fried red slices (~40g carb, 4 g of which are fiber), flax-containing or whole-grain pasta (45g carb, 5 g of which are fiber); half-cup kidney, black or other beans (20 g carb, 8 g of which are fiber).

LOW-CARB SIDE DISHES: Mushrooms, onions, broccoli, red peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, etc.

CARB SAVORY SNACK: Baked chips or much better oat bran pretzels or whole wheat low-fat Triscuit-type crackers (~30 g carb, 1-5 g of which are fiber).

LOW-CARB SAVORY SNACK: Mixed nuts, perhaps pork rinds.

CARB SWEET SNACK: Apple, banana, dates, breakfast bars with minimum 3 g fiber (25-30 g carb, 3 of which are fiber); best with some protein (shake or just skim milk).

LOW-CARB SWEET SNACK: Sugar-free gelatin (many flavors), 70/30 mixture of protein powder and sugar-free instant pudding mix made with cold water and minimal milk.

Notes: 4:00-6:00 PM is omitted for traditional pre-/mid-/post-workout feedings. Also, use gluten-based low-carb breads as a treat, not a crutch!

Regarding generalities as the day progresses, morning cooking spray (for frying eggs) is replaced by olive oil in the evening, morning non-fat "butter spray" is replaced by an olive oil-based margarine come evening, and morning oat bran or oatmeal (moderate carb) gets replaced with unprocessed wheat bran and milled flax (low carb). Lunchtime beans or occasional red potatoes (again, quality carbs) get replaced with fibrous veggies (low carb) in evening hours and morning fruit or grain snacks are replaced by evening nuts.

You get the idea, but let's further explain some of these seemingly simple menu choices. First, notice that the preponderance of non-exercise-influenced calories (four meals versus three) and carbohydrate load is planned for early in the day. This period typically involves greater non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), increased blood flow to skeletal muscle, uptake of blood glucose by those contracting muscles, and a hormonal environment more conducive to blood glucose disposal (see Part I and Part II of my "Intolerable" series for more info).

Second, a focus on naturally low-fat whole fruits, whole grains and legumes early on provides quality carb sources without the stress of always counting grams of each. Few people can carefully measure foods and count grams for very long, but active people who eat as I've described above are almost never fat.

High-satiety, fiber-rich meals (with protein) alter your physiology for the better and reduce calorie load automatically. And – this is critical – those early AM carbs replenish glycogen, preventing dinner table and bedtime-snack compensation. (Translation: Fewer Lucky Charms freak-outs at night!)

Conversely, increased healthy fat choices and even more fiber replace carbohydrates in the PM side of our shopping cart. Nuts, vegetables and wheat bran/milled flax are added to solid-source food items to further provide fiber and satiety in otherwise diet-ruining PM hours. Examples include mashed-almond crusts, 50/50 or greater dilution of whole wheat pasta and wheat bran, or flax-added meatloaf and meatballs.

Two of these suggestions, fibrous veggies and wheat bran, are also great "calorie dilution" techniques for those persons looking to feel full while reducing overall daily calorie intake during dieting phases. (I'll provide more on calorie-dilution techniques in an upcoming article.)

Reduce Carbs, Stay Sane

As we've seen, this kind of AM/PM approach provides adequate carbs for glycogen replenishment, which is good for fat loss as well as performance – less fatigue, better biochemistry, nitrogen sparing and even immune/stress response suppression. (3, 4) It also provides fats that in sufficient quantities can keep up Testosterone concentrations, maintain lipolytic ("fat burning") pools and pathways, and further enhance immune modulation. (5) And let's not forget that overall dietary variety is both healthy and compliance-facilitating.

Can't survive on near-zero carbs until Saturday? I'll bet you can make it until tomorrow morning, especially if you're filling up on other foods. This moderate approach helps one meet with more dietary success, preserves sanity, and still reduces carb intake by hundreds of grams over the course of a week. This approach also gets you much closer to the 30 to 40 grams of dietary fiber recommended for adult men.

Those who follow my writings know that when it comes to "dieting" or simply healthy eating, I don't believe in obsessive portion control. Of course gluttony is always unacceptable–have some sense. Toward this end, a focus on the "do's", not the "don'ts", goes a long way toward preventing annoying and unhealthy feelings of forbidden fruit and subsequent guilt. Hmmm. With an Atkins-esque low-carb diet, "forbidden fruit" becomes rather literal, eh?


When we eat in a way our DNA recognizes (less processed, whole foods), we don't have to constantly fret. Sure, genotypes and phenotypes vary, but ultimately we've all evolved on the same planet.

Eating is one of the simple pleasures of life; it's just a matter of slowly teaching ourselves new preferences. This does admittedly take months. (Hey, it's not my fault we've been socially programmed to crave pre-packaged, soft, trans fat-riddled, fiber-less stuff. It's not my bad that Americans actually prefer fast foods so soft that teeth are optional equipment–even for the meat!)

I'll leave you with a physiological fact. Did you know that the lateral hypothalamus contains both hunger and anger centers? It's no wonder that going hungry and carb-deprived hacks so many of us off. My simple hope with this article is to keep this brain region from excessive stimulation and save grandmas everywhere.

References and Related Reading

1) Heacock P., Hertzler S., and Wolf B. Fructose prefeeding reduces the glycemic response to a high-glycemic index, starchy food in humans. J Nutr. 2002 Sep;132(9):2601-4.

2) Layman, D., et al. (2003). A reduced ratio of dietary carbohydrate to protein improves body composition and blood lipid profiles during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr 133(2): 411-417.

3) Nieman DC, Influence of mode and carbohydrate on the cytokine response to heavy exertion. Med Sci Sports Exerc May;30(5):671-678, 1998.

4) Utter, A., et al. Effect of carbohydrate ingestion and hormonal responses on ratings of perceived exertion during prolonged cycling and running. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. Jul;80(2):92-9, 1999.

5) Zderic, T., et al. High-fat diet elevates resting intramuscular triglyceride concentration and whole-body lipolysis during exercise Articles in Press. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab (October 14, 2003). 10.1152/ajpendo.00159.2003