I am so thankful I stumbled across Prof Tim Noakes’ work on Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) while trawling the web for answers one year ago today. I was looking for the link between gut health and depression and came across Tim’s lecture ‘Medical aspects of the low carbohydrate lifestyle’. It was the best use of 43 minutes in my life. What followed has been hours, weeks and months of informal research, reading and watching, devouring everything I could find on LCHF (as well as the food itself). I signed up for the first Real Meal Revolution (RMR) on-line course in November last year, but from the moment I found out about Banting a few weeks earlier, I couldn’t wait even one more day before changing my diet. After viewing that first YouTube video, I went fully low carb high fat. I’m not really one for moderation – in food or life generally – so it’s not surprising to people who know me that I haven’t strayed from Banting for even one day in the past year. No bread, no pasta, no sugar – not even one high carb meal or snack in 365 days. Perhaps it was easier for me because my story starts a few years earlier when I first gave up sugar. However, at the time, I was unaware that I also needed to avoid other simple carbs that are converted to sugar (glucose) in your body.
Stage 1: Giving up Sugar
I have always had a sweet tooth and have maintained a life-long love affair with chocolate. To say I have over-consumed it is an understatement. If I never eat another bite, I think I’ve already eaten more than my fair share. My earliest memory is ‘camping’ under mum’s bed where she kept the bags of chocolates and sweets my step-dad bought for us. I’d take a few from each bag, hoping no-one would notice. As a teenager I was tall, thin and sporty and I remember my mum and sister commenting on my ability to eat chocolate without obvious effect. They could only warn me, with some glee in their voice, that ‘One day, it’s gonna catch up with you!’.
By my mid-twenties that day still hadn’t come. I’d choose dessert before mains when I went out to restaurants, ate chocolate almost every day and generally didn’t stop at one block. By my mid-30s, I was actively trying to reduce my chocolate eating, mostly worried about the calories, but also beginning to recognise its effect on my emotions. That decade and the next, I was researching and lecturing at university and while on sabbatical in Europe, I ducked across to Switzerland, Belgium and France to study chocolate making and soon after started making my own gourmet chocolates. In my late 40s, I lost my partner, following by another family member, then another .. and the cumulative grief and sadness of those years made me turn, as always, to chocolate. I took leave from my academic career and immersed myself in the creativity and joy of running my own chocolate business – teaching, making and .. hmm .. eating a lot of chocolate.
By 2012, in my early 50s, I had continued to gain weight, I was still battling grief and depression and felt exhausted. One day, I heard Sarah Wilson on the radio talking about the ‘I Quit Sugar’ programme and between making batches of chocolates, I downloaded and read her book and then David Gillespie’s book ‘Sweet Poison’. When I finished David’s book, I decided then and there to go without sugar for the next four weeks. ‘I’m not giving up sugar forever,’ I told myself, ‘I’m a chocolatier for goodness sake! I’ll just stop for one month and see how I feel’.
After just two or three days without sugar, I felt amazing. I had most of my energy back and my body just functioned better without the constant highs and lows of sugar consumption. I felt amazing. And the weight was dropping off me .. 200g, 300g each and every day. It was like watching butter melt in a pan and after just eight or nine weeks, I’d lost all my excess weight – 15kg. I’d set out to quit sugar for just one month, but now there was no way I could return to it. I had only changed one thing – quit all sugar. I hadn’t added in exercise or started back at yoga or begun meditating or any of the other myriad of things I’d do in the past when I tried to lose weight and improve my health. Without planning to, I’d undertaken a very successful experiment of N=1. I’d kept confounding factors at bay and changed just one thing in my life: dropped the sugar.
I remained sugar-free for three months and then started experimenting with glucose (recommended by David Gillespie as a safe alternative to regular sugar as it does not contain fructose). I researched glucose and looked for a way of producing chocolate that I could eat. When I added these products to my website, I had a huge response from other people with fructose-intolerance, fructose-sensitivity or who just wanted to reduce the amount of regular sugar in their diet. For me and many others, glucose-sweetened chocolate provided the bridge from a high-sugar diet to a low-sugar or no-sugar diet.
Stage 2: Becoming a revolutionary
In the original RMR course materials, there was just one sentence about chocolate (this has since been addressed with great input from Karen Thomson). At the time, I remember messaging my instructor, quoting that one sentence and saying ‘Really? Are you kiddin’? Is this the only bit of advice about chocolate?!’. They had underestimated the needs of those of us with carb or sugar addictions as I was definitely not alone in my over-use of chocolate. And then there was the advice that some alternate sweeteners – xylitol, erythritol and stevia – are fine.
By the end of my course, I was feeling fabulous. I was back down to my target weight (60kg) and loving the lifestyle. Eating lots of wonderful food, keeping the carbs low (under 25g) and enjoying the healthy fats. I had worked out how to make xylitol-sweetened Belgian chocolate, used it to make desserts such as chocolate mousse and added xylitol to nut granola, fat shakes, Banting hot cocoa etc. Xylitol and the other ‘approved’ sweeteners are not supposed to affect blood sugar as they are not metabolised by the body we’re told, but by the end of my course, I recognised the signs of the re-emergence of my sugar-addiction. I soon discovered that they can still produce an insulin-spike as your brain registers sweetness on your tongue and prepares the body for sugar. I can over-eat anything sweet, so these sweet-tasting treats were pushing out more nutrient-dense food from my diet. And psychologically, I was back to relying on those sweetener-fueled, feel-good hormones to raise my emotions and deal with life.
After more searching, I discovered Karen Thomson’s programme, the Sugar Free Revolution (SFR). I liked the fact that the programme was coming out of South Africa (like RMR) and was endorsed by Tim. I signed up right away and learnt about food addictions generally and how to manage my chocolate-addiction in particular. Although I had already given up sugar when I began the programme, I learnt that even those alternate sweeteners were a problem for me and in the treatment of addictions, abstinence is the only thing that works. So since late January this year, I’ve been what I call ‘fully sugar-free’ (FSF) – no sugar, no alternate sugars, no artificial sweeteners. I still post daily gratitudes on the SFR forum and I’ve learnt to take things ‘one day at a time’, that it’s a marathon not a sprint, to focus on progress not perfection and continue to abstain from all sugars or sweeteners. Rather than using sweet things to push down grief, sadness and other uncomfortable emotions, I now find that life’s difficulties are easier to face without sugar coursing through my veins. No more anxiety, no more depression. Just the gentle ups and downs of normal life.
Stage 3: Enjoying the healthy fats .. but perhaps too much of a good thing?
After several months Banting, I relaxed into the lifestyle and enjoyed the fats .. a bit too much. I was in fat burning mode, with fabulous, stable energy and lots of other improvements to my health. But I had gained back a few excess kgs and although I only had three or four kgs to lose, I was having trouble doing so. Some of my Banting friends, usually women ‘of a certain age’, were also struggling to lose weight despite eating the recommended daily ratio of macro-nutrients (70% of daily calories coming from fat, 20-25% from protein and 5-10% from carbs while keeping carbs under 25g). So I decided to focus on getting back to my ideal weight and work out how I (and others) could lose those stubborn kgs on LCHF. I began by looking at my protein intake (because excess protein is converted to glucose via the process of gluconeogenesis) and then I checked my total daily calories. Eating high fat assumes reduction in hunger and therefore a lowering of daily calories despite the higher caloric value of fat compared with carbs or protein. I love the fact that Banting isn’t about calorie counting and strongly recommend ‘free-ranging’ to begin with to give your body a chance to adjust and heal itself on a low carb lifestyle. However, even Tim acknowledges that for some people, the body’s appestat can take time to recover and that ‘restraint’ may be needed. Hmm .. restraint.
So a couple of months ago, I went back to the internet and learned even more about low carb living, studied up on protein and fat consumption, and consulted more experienced Banters to find the recommended amount of all three macro-nutrients, not just carbs. When I thought I’d found the answer, again I did a study of N=1. I set my targets and closely tracked my food intake, created a spreadsheet that combines my macro-nutrient targets from the Keto Calculator with my food intake from the Meal Tracker and found my answer.
- November 2014 – my base metabolic rate (that is, the calories needed to maintain my weight at the time) was 1,566 cals. Interestingly, without knowing this, my average daily calories from my first month of Banting was 1,561 cals. Weight neutral.
- June to August 2015 – by the middle of this year, my average daily intake had crept up to 1,637 cals and I was eating an average of 138g fat, 25g carbs and 72g protein. I was over-doing the fat and, predictably, I gained weight.
- September 2015 – I set my daily targets to 90g fat, 20g carbs and 70g protein (1,172 calories) and successfully reduced my average daily intake to 1,184 cals. I lost weight.
- Present – so far, this month my average daily intake has increased to 1,391 cals. This is still less than my estimated energy requirements, so I have continued to slowly lose weight.
It took me two months to shed those last, pesky three kgs plus one more. I now weigh 59kg, the same weight I was in my early 20s and my overall health is excellent. To maintain my current weight, I can now consume up to 1528 daily calories and have set my macro targets to 130g fat, 20g carbs and 70g protein (77% of daily calories coming from fat, 5% from carbs and 18% from protein). I’ll continue to keep an eye on the macros I’m consuming until I feel I can do this without tracking.
The future – what’s next?
After a year of Banting, having over-come my addiction to chocolate, reached my ideal weight, adapted to fat-burning and feeling better than I have in years, I’ve come full circle to the question that first led me to Tim Noakes and LCHF. I’ve recently undertaken tests for microbiome (gut health), learnt to make my own fermented foods and drinks, and continue to read and learn about the effects of diet on mental health and inflammatory disease.
And now I am beginning to combine my passions .. using the knowledge I’ve gained over the past year with my qualifications in deafness and native sign language to support Deaf friends by providing them with access to information about LCHF in their first language, Auslan (Australian Sign Language).
Wishing you all health and happiness on your LCHF and Sugar Free journey.
I am very grateful to Prof Tim Noakes for doing what so many other academics seem to find so hard to do – admit their mistakes and redress their errors.
A huge thank you to Jonno Proudfoot, for conceiving the Real Meal Revolution and enabling me to interact with so many like-minded Banters via the RMR forum.
My heartfelt thanks also go to Karen Thomson for her wonderful programme and the fabulous support I still get from my sugar-free buddies on the SFR forum.
Thank you to Dr Rod Taylor for his encouragement and outstanding forums and resources provided through Low Carb Down Under.
To the growing number of researchers, journalists and writers who have contributed to my understanding of diet and nutrition with their books and research, thank you.
To my friends and family who have put up with my obsession with LCHF (particularly my walking buddy who has spent the past 365 days listening to each new discovery I’ve made).
And finally I’m so grateful for that day, one year ago, that I stumbled across LCHF and rediscovered the simple secret to good health and happiness.