Starting a low-carb diet for the first time can be hard, I know. If you’re anything like me, then you’ve spent most of your life believing that fat is the enemy, and trying your best to avoid it (well, maybe not your best…but you were aware of it, right?). So you’re just finding out about low-carb living, there’s all these rules about macros and calories and what you can and can’t eat – it can seem like a minefield. But don’t worry. In this article I’m going to take you through some of the most common low-carb dieting mistakes and pitfalls, and armed with this knowledge, you’ll be prepared to deal with any of them if they crop up!
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the top 10 low-carb diet mistakes!
1. Thinking you can eat as much as you want
This is a sneaky little mistake. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already done some research about low-carb diets, and how they promote fat loss through making the body fat-adapted. And they do, it’s true.
The trouble is, some people see this as an excuse to gorge themselves on fatty foods. Hey, if my body is burning fat for fuel, I don’t need to worry about calories, right?
Wrong. Just because your body is fat-adapted doesn’t give you license to eat 5000 calories a day of fat. If you do that, you WILL still gain weight (although you may still see some initial water-weight loss). Remember, the key to effective weight loss is burning more calories than you consume – a low-carb diet just makes that a lot easier to stick to.
2. Not weighing/tracking your food
This is the less purposeful (but slightly more insidious) cousin of the point above. You’ve done your research, you know that you have to eat at a caloric deficit. Good on you! That’s the first step to a successful diet.
Then, despite your best intentions, you don’t take the next, necessary step – measuring and tracking your food. This is why, in my keto review, I advised getting a calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal, and a good kitchen scale for weighing your food. Because unless they’re very experienced, people are BAD at estimating calories and macros (source: I was bad at it). It’s far too easy to forget about that handful of nuts you had earlier, or miscalculate the weight of your steak, or similar.
Weigh your food where you can, and track your calories with a calorie tracker. It will make dieting that much easier.
3. Eating too much protein
This, of course, can be avoided if you’ve worked out your macros, and then adhere to point 2 (above) and keep track of them.
A lot of people think that low-carb necessarily means “high protein”, but in general, this isn’t the case. High FAT, moderate protein, low carbs. If you consume too much protein, a process called “gluconeogenesis” occurs, which means that excess protein gets converted to glucose, kicking you out of ketosis (if that’s your goal). Basically, if you eat too much protein, you’re somewhat negating the main benefits of a low-carb diet. Avoid it.
4. Eating too many nuts
Oh man, nuts. They’re such a great snack…too great, sometimes. If you have an open bag of nuts to hand, it can be very difficult to stop at just one or two small helpings…and before you know it, you’ve eaten half the bag.
Why is that a problem? A couple of reasons. One, depending on the type of nuts you’re eating, you may be getting a lot more carbs than you realise (chestnuts are the worst, followed by cashews and pistachios). And two, you’re almost certainly getting far more calories than you realise. They may be full of healthy fats, but that means that they’re also very calorie dense. 3.5 ounces (100g) of cashews is around 550 calories.
Tip: If you have a bag of nuts, don’t keep it next to you. Weigh out nuts every time you want to snack on them, and track them (see point 2).
5. Not eating enough fat
If this is your first time eating a low-carb diet, the amount of fat you’re expected to eat can be daunting. Particularly if, like me, you’d believed up until now that fat was evil. It can take a big mental paradigm shift to be OK with eating the amount that you’re meant to.
Honestly, the best tip here is just to push through it. You might feel guilty about your fat consumption for a while, but as the pounds drop off you’ll realise that it’s NOT as bad as you always thought, and that can be liberating.
Also, try to get your fats from healthy sources – fish, avocados, nuts, etc. While emerging research suggests that saturated fat may not be the demon it’s made out to be, mono- and polyunsaturated fats both have demonstrable health benefits, and are therefore relatively better for you.
6. Not getting enough fiber
You’ve gone low-carb, cut out all the starchy foods, your weight is dropping…and you’re all blocked up, back there. It’s a common problem on a low-carb diet – when people drop carbs, their fibre intake is also likely to drop drastically, which isn’t a great thing. Fiber is essential for healthy gut activity and regular bowel movements, so you need to make sure you keep your intake high.
Remember, fiber doesn’t count towards your daily carb limit, so you can consume as much as you like. Green, leafy vegetables, and lots of them. Broccoli. Cauliflower. Flaxseed. Fiber supplements (make sure they’re sugar-free). Whatever it takes to keep your fiber up!
7. Not getting enough sodium/potassium/magnesium
If you’re on a low-carb diet with the aim of entering ketosis, you’re going to be peeing a LOT as your body uses up glycogen, taking valuable electrolytes with it. Add to that the fact that you excrete more sodium and potassium with ketones, and you may find yourself low on these essential nutrients.
In general, the guidelines for someone in ketosis are to consume 5000mg sodium a day, 1000g potassium, and 300mg of magnesium. A lot of this CAN come from diet alone, if you’re careful, but you may also need to take supplements. Once again, use MyFitnessPal to track these.
Important note: Magnesium supplements can mess with you if you have kidney problems. If you’re unsure about dosages, see a doctor.
8. Eating too little
This seems in direct contradiction to the first point, but some people may go “I’m on a diet, I must restrict everything a stupid amount”. This isn’t a great idea – in my keto summary article I mentioned that, when working out macros, you probably shouldn’t aim for more than a 15-20% daily deficit. This isn’t only because of the potential psychological difficulty of sticking to an extremely restrictive calorie level; it’s because if you eat TOO little, your body is probably going to start looking for energy elsewhere, i.e., your muscles.
To avoid too much muscle loss, just don’t go overboard with your calorie restriction. Use a calorie and macro calculator (there’s one on my keto summary page), and stick to that. Be patient – the weight will come off.
This is a bit of an obvious one – if you’re cheating reasonably often and sneaking a bunch of carbs, you’re either going to not enter ketosis at all (if that’s your goal), or you’ll bounce in and out of it, slowing your progress. And even if you’re not aiming for ketosis, just general carb restriction, every time you cheat, you’re reinforcing the carb-craving pathways in your brain, making it harder to stay away from them (and probably going over your calorie limits, slowing weight-loss).
So try to avoid habitual cheat days – the longer you can go without cheating, the less urges you’ll feel, and the easier it gets.
10. Thinking that a cheat day is the end of the world
We all stuff up from time to time. Or you go out with friends and there’s absolutely NO WAY you could stick to low-carb. Or it’s your birthday. Whatever. The point is, sometimes you’ll break, and eat a bunch of carbs.
Sure, it can be demoralizing, but remember – it’s not the end of the world, nor an excuse to go on a 2-week carb-fuelled bender. Just say “OK, I had a cheat day. It was delicious. Tomorrow, I will be low-carb again”. Don’t beat yourself up about it, as the guilt and anxiety you feel over it are more likely to prompt further guilt-induced cheating. Accept it, and move on.
I hope that being warned about these mistakes helps you either not make them, stops you if you’re currently making them, or makes you feel better if you’ve already made them! Let me know if there are others you think I should include, using the form below!