What is LCHF?
As any teacher will probably tell you, you should never start explaining something based on what it is not. So that is exactly what I will do! LCHF is NOT about losing weight through the creation of a deficit of calories. LCHF is NOT about weighing, measuring, and keeping track of every little bite you put in your mouth. LCHF is NOT about feeling hungry and deprived and just wanting to either crawl into a black cave to perish or go crazy in a candy store.
LCHF is about eating real food that keeps you satisfied and is good for you. LCHF is about stabilizing your blood sugar and controlling your sugar cravings. And LCHF is about sleeping better, having more energy and losing excessive weight.
The short version of the explanation is to eat a diet consisting of few carbohydrates and plenty of fat. A somewhat accurate description would be to say that you have to turn the current health guidelines upside down and avoid all grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes and – of course – sugar.
The nerdy of LCHF
The body needs energy to perform the multitude of processes that together constitute a fully functional organism. Today, for most of us the primary source of energy is carbohydrates that are broken down to glucose molecules – tiny sugar molecules. Every time you ingest carbohydrates, the level of glucose in your blood rises meaning that your blood sugar goes up – and your body’s reaction is to release insulin. Insulin is the hormone that helps transport the glucose into the cells where it is broken down into smaller components while simultaneously releasing the energy that is stored in the chemical bonds. But, the insulin also stimulates the storage of fat in our fat cells – and the more carbohydrates, the more insulin and, subsequently, the more fat storage….
If the intake of carbohydrates is stopped or significantly reduced, no insulin will be released as there is no spike in the blood sugar level that needs regulating. The blood sugar remains stable, one of the most important features of the LCHF diet. Fat, on the other hand, becomes a much more readily available source of energy. The body will adjust to using fat as the primary source of energy, a metabolic state known as ketosis as opposed to glycolysis. In LCHF and ketogenic diet forums you will very often find that there is a lot of interest around the ketosis – how to get to this state and how to measure ketone levels in the blood. However, ketosis is not necessary in order to lose weight and reap the health and wellbeing benefits of the LCHF diet. Just the fact that the blood sugar is stabilized will cause you to feel less hunger and better be able to control those otherwise uncontrollable cravings.
So what can I eat with LCHF?
The principles of LCHF are not complicated at all. Only if you want to make LCHF-versions of your favorite high-carbohydrate foods or your focus is on how to bake delicious LCHF treats, does it become more complex and requires the use of a number of specialty products. I know it can be very tempting to start out with that LCHF brownie but if you’re in this to initially lose some weight or to try if this is a lifestyle for you, I would focus on the basics for a while…..
Anyway, what you should eat is:
- A huge amount of vegetables, preferably primarily vegetables that grow above ground. Below-ground vegetables tend to be more starchy but there are huge differences and many liberal LCHF followers eat some below-ground vegetables.
- Meats – all kinds – including poultry, fish and plenty of eggs. Chose the high-fat content meat – and eat the fatty edge of your steak and the crispy skin of your chicken. This is particularly recommendable if you get meat from grass-fed organic animals as the fatty acids are better distributed in these animals. Also, coming from someone who cares a great deal about animal welfare, they have typically led a better life before they became your dinner.
- Healthy fats from butter (grass-fed, I recommend Kerrygold brand), high-quality oils (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil etc.) and avocados.
- High-fat dairy: Cheese, heavy whipping cream, sour cream, full-fat Greek yoghurt
- Some berries and nuts – but be careful, nuts are very energy dense and berries have some carbs.
And what should I avoid?
In general, you should focus on eating whole foods and avoid any kind of processed foods. In addition, some whole foods are very high in carbs and should therefore be eliminated or severely limited. An example of the latter category is fruits. We have grown up to believe that fruits are extremely healthy, the health snack. And they are. Most fruits provide a lot of fiber and vitamins. However, they also break down to sugar in your body and therefore triggers a spike in your blood sugar level. You could say that your body cannot tell the difference between eating fruit and eating candy and cakes. My personal take on fruit is that I consider it a special treat, one that I allow myself in small doses. For a serious weight loss effort, I would avoid fruit and get the same vitamins and fibers from vegetables.
For shopping, I generally use 2 rules of thumb: Don’t buy if 1) it has more than 5 ingredients and 2) more than 5% of the energy is from carbs
- Grains – bread, rice, cereal, pasta. NB! Gluten-free is not the same as low-carb
- Sugar – candy, sodas, sweetened drinks, pastry, cakes etc.
- Beer – equates to liquid bread
- Low-quality fats – margarine, shortening, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil
- Artificial sweeteners, light products
Strict, liberal or ?
There are different “schools” of LCHF, of course, like there are different schools of almost any other diet or lifestyle out there. I find that the most common categorization is strict, “Normal” or liberal LCHF. In layman’s terms, the difference is primarily the amount of carbohydrates allowed:
Strict: Max. 20g of carbohydrates per day. This very low amount of carbohydrates makes it somewhat difficult to include a lot of vegetables, dairy, and nuts in your diet.
Normal: 20-50g of carbohydrates per day
Liberal: 50-100g of carbohydrates per day
Even though some people feel the need to weigh, measure and record their food intake, one of the advantages of LCHF is generally perceived to be that you don’t have to. As soon as you get adjusted to the lifestyle, your body will tell you what is enough. However, I do feel that it makes sense to do a little tracking in the beginning, just to know where you are at with your macro nutrients. And if weight loss is a requirement and it is not happening or stalling, keeping track of intake over a period of time makes perfect sense. There are a number of apps that can help you do just that.
The generally accepted best distribution of macro nutrients on LCHF is 5% carbs, 15% protein, and 80% fat. Please be aware that these are energy percentages so it is not like 80% of your food should be fat but rather that 80% of your energy should come from fat. Most weight loss and fitness apps will calculate the energy percentages of a food, a meal or a day’s meals for you.
A shopping rule of thumb for LCHF is to choose foods that have less than 5g of carbs per 100g. In Scandinavia, this is an easy rule to follow as all manufacturers are obligated to declare the contents of fat, protein, and carbs per 100g. It is, however, a little more complex in the US as declarations are typically per serving, and a serving can be any arbitrary weight. A little more math is therefore required.
If you have a little time, approx. 10 minutes, take a look at this video from YouTube: