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Thursday
May022013

Vegetarian Low-Carb Diets: An Experiment

Even though there are much newer diet fads around (such as the recent craze for the '5:2 Fasting Diet'), low-carb diets still keep popping up in one form or another, long after enthusiasm for 'The Atkins Diet' seems to have waned. As a veggie though, I’ve always wondered whether a low-carb vegetarian diet was really possible, and so I decided to finally give it a go and conduct a week-long experiment.

Day One - Monday

I’m starting ‘Phase 1’ of the diet today and I feel quite positive about it as I’ve heard great things about low-carb and lots of anecdotes about people who have lost a lot of weight. I’ve never really thought of vegetarians being able to go low-carb but I’ve read ‘The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet’ by Rose Elliot from cover to cover and it looks pretty straightforward. There are some tasty sounding recipes in there and I’m looking forward to being able to indulge in lots of cheese and nuts, seeing as I’ve had to restrict these on the low-fat diet I’ve been following up until now – to not feel any guilt when I’m eating cheese will be lovely!

I went to the supermarket to stock-up and bought, amongst other things, soya milk, (I usually drink cow’s milk in my tea), and a 12-carton of eggs (which seems like a lot, but many of the recipes and food suggestions include eggs). It felt a bit indulgent to be buying a selection of cheeses, real mayonnaise and lots of packets of nuts, but it wasn’t quite as expensive as I’d expected, having heard horror-stories about how pricey it is to follow a low-carb diet – but then, I suppose a meat-eater’s version of this diet would probably cost considerably more.

Snacking on a handful of Brazil nuts this evening....yum!

Diet Overview: 'Phase 1' of the diet lasts for 14 days and Rose recommends that you eat no more than 20g of carbs per day and at least 60g of protein. You should also eat five portions of veg a day, eat regular meals and drink plenty of water.

Typical Meal: Frittata made with 3 eggs and 50g cheddar, and half a tomato on the side.

Day Two - Tuesday

I’ve been really thirsty so I’m drinking lots of water, and it says to do this in the book anyway. I haven’t felt hungry for hours between meals so all this protein is doing a good job of keeping me feeling full. In the book, Rose says that you shouldn’t go for more than 6 waking hours without eating and you shouldn’t forget about eating – I laughed at that before I started this plan, but I am having to force myself to prepare and eat the food at mealtimes as I’m just not getting hungry. On saying that though, if I am a few hours later than I should be, I do find that I seem to go from feeling full to having an empty tummy really suddenly – or possibly I’m just not noticing that my stomach is getting empty until later on?

I’ve been buying light mayonnaise for years now, but the full-fat stuff has fewer carbs so I’m on that this week and I have to say I’d forgotten how gorgeous it is! Eating things like real butter, and ‘proper’ mayonnaise has got to be the best part of this diet by far!

I had a pounding headache when I got into bed this evening – coincidence, de-toxing, or all in my mind?

Typical Meal: Egg mayonnaise made with 3 eggs and ‘real’ mayonnaise, in baby gem lettuce cups, with a kiwi fruit for dessert.

Day Three - Wednesday

I woke up with my headache still in place but it seemed to lift later in the morning – maybe I’m a bit dehydrated. I’m still parched all the time and I’m guzzling down water like I’ve been stranded in the desert for weeks – obviously as a result of all this water, I’m constantly making tons of trips to the loo too! I haven’t been for a ‘number two’ since before I started the diet thought, so my stomach certainly hasn’t lost that bloated feeling yet as promised. I’ll persevere though, in the hope that I get to experience the “wonderful energy-increasing...effects of this diet” soon.

A lot of the recipes and food suggestions seem to be egg-based – at least the easy ones I like the sound of from ‘Phase 1’ and have the ingredients in for anyway. As a result I’m really getting sick of the thought of eating another egg today! I’m actually having to force myself to cook and eat things as my appetite has disappeared altogether and I’m feeling like I just don’t want to eat at all.

I can’t stop day-dreaming about cakes, bread and biscuits though! Rose says not to worry about getting carb cravings as they’ll only last a day or two but even though I’m veggie I could happily bite someone’s arm off in exchange for a piece of toast right now!

I spent a whopping 10g of my 20g daily allowance of carbs on a cow’s milk de-caffeinated latte today – Rose probably wouldn’t approve but I was craving something ‘normal’, and non-egg-related, and I wanted a nice comforting pick-me-up.

Typical Meal: Scrambled eggs with veggie sausages, half a tomato and mushrooms.

Day Four - Thursday

It says in the book that one of the more common reactions to this diet is irritability and I have certainly been irritable in the last day or so – my poor partner has had me snapping at him every five minutes. I’m not usually the nagging kind (honest!) but he can do no right at the minute! It says that by day four (erm, today!) that I’ll feel like a different person – I think Rose means that in a good way but while I do feel like a different person, it’s not an improvement: I’m now a thirsty, headachey, cranky sort of person!

I’m totally sick of all this protein – if I ever eat another egg it’ll be too soon. In fact, I’m still finding it hard to bring myself to eat anything at all. (On the flip-side of that however, if I hadn’t spent my whole weekly food-budget on cheese and eggs I’d be dialling for a takeaway pizza right now!) Also, I usually eat a pretty varied diet with lots of fruit and veg, which aren’t included in the first two weeks of this plan – and this fortnight’s menu just doesn’t ‘feel’ very healthy to me as a result. I know that isn’t very scientific though! In any case, I’ve been taking multivitamins this week just for insurance.

Counting my carbs hasn’t been an issue for me as I was on a low-fat weight-loss plan before this so I was used to counting, weighing and measuring my food anyway. But at least on my old diet I didn’t feel so restricted, it felt more realistic for the long-term and I was losing weight (slowly). I can’t imagine how veggies ever eat out if they’re following a low-carb diet – lots of omelettes or cheese salads I suppose! Certainly no coffee and cake with the girls anyway.

Still no sign of a ‘number two’ happening – apparently it’s quite a common complaint when low-carbing but it’s starting to annoy me. Rose recommends flax seeds, wheat bran or psyllium husks (which I’ve actually never heard of before) so perhaps if I’ve still not ‘gone’ tomorrow I’ll have to take a trip to my nearest health-food store.

I usually weigh myself on Mondays so just another three days and I’ll see if it’s all been worth it on the scales – at this point though I’ll just be happy to have survived a week on this diet, and right now I don’t even care whether I’ve lost any weight!

I’m going to try to hang in there – after all, maybe I’m just hitting ‘the wall’, and tomorrow I’ll wake up a whole new (less cranky) person. If I wake up headache-free that’ll be an improvement. I’m not sure I’d be able to manage two weeks on this diet though – if I make it to Monday it’ll be an achievement.

Typical Meal: Salad of fried tofu slices, pesto, mayonnaise and mixed leaves.

Day Five - Friday

I was hoping for ‘the miracle’ today – where I suddenly wake up and feel like a new person. Instead I woke up dreading the thought of eating breakfast. I know that this diet is supposed to suppress the appetite but I wasn’t expecting to go off my food altogether and to feel repulsed at the thought of eating another (protein-heavy) meal. I’m a big believer in the importance of breakfast and how it is a healthy start to your day, but for the first time in months I left the house this morning without eating anything. Even though I’d consider myself one of foods biggest fans, I just couldn’t face it. Well, to be more precise, I couldn’t face more protein I suppose – clearly there are still some foods I fancy because I woke up dreaming about cake! It looks like my carb cravings and my sweet tooth still haven’t disappeared yet.

I decided that maybe I wasn’t being creative enough and that I needed to break free of the food-pairs I usually go for – perhaps cheese doesn’t really need crackers, and who says that creamy mushroom sauce has to be served with pasta?! So, I tried to broaden my culinary horizons today by making Rose’s microwave ‘bread’ (which is made with ground almonds instead of flour). It wasn’t a huge success, being simultaneously gritty and damp (cloying is the word!), and it had a very odd flavour. But maybe I did something wrong in the making – if I had been making bread in my usual way I’d have known what consistency the dough should have been, but I was totally in the dark with this new low-carb version. I toasted a few slices and choked them down but I’m sorry to say that the rest of the loaf went in the bin. Maybe there just isn’t any substitute for real bread!

I do feel a bit less irritable today so that’s progress, and I’m also trying to solve this ‘not going’ problem with an over-the-counter remedy from the pharmacy. (I did go to the health-food store looking for psyllium husks but the capsules cost £10 and I wasn’t willing to part with that much money.) I also woke up with a patch of sore, dry skin on my face today, which hasn’t happened to me before. It doesn’t say anything about this type of thing in the book, so maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s a good thing that I’m not doing much socialising this weekend!

Maybe if I manage to ‘go’ today it’ll cheer me up a bit. I could do with something to cheer me up as Friday night is usually takeaway night in our house and there’ll be no such treat for me this week.

Typical Meal: Tofu sausages with a mixed leaf salad.

Day Six - Saturday

Confession time: I didn’t make it through day six! The microwave 'bread’ last night was the final nail in the coffin & the thought of facing the weekend without carbs was too much for me to bear. So, my experiment was a failure I’m afraid!

Maybe I’ll try again another time, but that’s it for now – I’m off to the shops to buy some nice crusty bread for my Sunday-morning brunch!

Typical Meal: Goat's cheese and toasted walnut salad.

The Result

Pro’s:

  • If you love cheese and nuts, but you usually avoid them because they’re not ‘low-fat’ then it will seem like a real treat to be able to eat them in generous quantities again;
  • You’ll remember just how gorgeous real butter and full-fat mayonnaise are, compared to low-fat spread or extra-light mayo;
  • Eating lots of protein does make you feel full and so it’s a useful reminder that no matter which diet you’re following, including protein with meals will help to keep you fuller for longer; and,
  • Following this plan for a little while might help you to break out of your comfort zone and try new things, seeing as you can’t rely on your usual food pairings.

Con’s:

  • Headaches, carb-cravings and crankiness might feature heavily in your life, at least in the beginning;
  • It might be difficult to follow this diet long-term – for most people I don’t think this would be a practical long-term solution;
  • Even Rose Elliot advises that it's difficult to follow this plan if you're not in control of the cooking (e.g. if you're eating-out or attending special occasions) as she suggests you ‘clear your diary’ for the first week and states that “at the beginning you will find it much easier if you avoid dinner parties or lunches where you’ll feel under pressure to eat what you’re given. Decide when you’re going to start the diet and keep the next fortnight as free as you can”. Oh, and of course “alcohol is banned during Phase 1”; and,
  • You might feel like your diet is very restricted and if you’re anything like me, this will just make you want all of the things you can’t have even more! I didn’t think I’d be missing things like apples or carrots, and while you can add them back into your meals and snacks during ‘Phase 2’ and ‘Phase 3’, it seems odd to restrict the amount of healthy fruit and vegetables in your diet.

So, finally... did I lose weight? Yes. I lost 2lbs even though I only managed to follow the low-carb diet for five days. HOWEVER, I regularly lose this amount following my usual weight-loss plan, which has no food restrictions at all – I find it much easier to fit my current plan in with ‘real life’ and I get to eat everything in moderation. Hurrah!

Also, one thing that struck me about this diet is that when I calculated the number of calories in the food I was eating, it totalled around 1400 calories per day. As the NHS advises that women should eat approximately 2000 calories per day to maintain their weight, and 500-600 fewer calories to lose weight – this seems to show why I lost weight following a low-carb diet.

As with all diet plans, at the end of the day you are eating fewer calories, and eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your weight will result in weight-loss. Whether that diet is low-carb, paleo, 5:2, Slimming World or Weight Watchers, if you eat fewer calories than your body needs, you will lose weight.

So, which diet to follow really just becomes a question of which diet you will be able to stick to on a long-term basis, and which will fit in with your lifestyle. For me, it’s not low-carb, and I’ll be switching back to my previous plan. But if you’re not a carb fan anyway, and you like the idea of eating plenty of protein, then maybe it’s worth giving low-carb a go.

 

*It probably goes without saying that nothing in this article is intended as medical advice. If you are planning on embarking on a new diet, or if you have a lot of weight to lose, talk to your doctor for advice.

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