LCHF means Low Carb High Fat (sometimes also referred to as a "ketogenic diet") and is an acronym much heard in Sweden these days. News of this (actually very old, not a fad or a trend) lifestyle diet is already making waves around the globe thanks to books like Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories".
(LCHF is very similar to what in the USA often is referred to as "paleo", "paleolithic", "stone age" or "caveman" diet... Natural unprocessed food stuffs that would have been around at the time our ancestors evolved, but LCHF places a higher focus on upping the fat content as primary source of energy. It is not really "a version of the Atkins diet", where carbs are first cut away, proteins increased lots, and then slowly some carbs are added back again.)
Lifestyle diet? Yes. Some promote it for weight loss, but I would like to point out that weight loss is only one potential benefit. A growing number of people consider LCHF a long term choice for healthy living, not short term actions to reach a goal measurement.
Cooking wise, LCHF can be limiting but there are still lots of great recipes to explore. Check out the "Low Carb High Fat" recipes category and paleo section of my blog, or see my LCHF recipes saved in Delicious. If your are more of the visual type, I also post photos tagged with LCHF to Flickr, where you can find various low carb food related groups, so you can contribute your own.
If you want a really quick overview, with graphics (!), suggesting how to eat and exercise for a healthier life without going on stupid meal plans or paying expensive gyms, check out Mark's Daily Apple and his Primal Blueprint. There is even a website where you can sign up for a paleo nutrition plan, ingeniously named paleoplan.com.
If you can read Swedish, check out the LCHF magazine which now has well over 5,000 paying subscribers (July 2010).
At the core of LCHF lies a discussion where the current dogma on how our diet should be composed, especially with regards to diabetics and people with heart problems, is thoroughly examined and challenged. Compelling evidence exists showing that a high carb diet really is what leads to many of the health problems we see in developed countries today: obesity, diabetes type 2, coronary problems. There is even compelling evidence high blood sugar is linked to various types of cancer.
Personally I jumped on this bandwagon when a friend pointed out to me that people with IBS and other gut related problems have been helped by switching to an LCHF diet. I tried it, and lo and behold, it helped me.
Here is a summary in English on what this is all about, and some simple guidelines and links to get started.
So what is LCHF (Low Carb High Fat)?
Look at your plate of food. Typically you will have a small piece of meat, a number of greens and half the plate full of pasta or potato. Now take away the pasta/potato and replace it with something fatty, like spiced butter on the meat, a nice creamy sauce made from double fat cream and creme fraiche or a piece of brie cheese. Fat has twice the calorie content of carb, so if you worry about calories (you shouldn't, but realizing that took me some time...) you should replace the carb content with about half the fat.
That's it, really. Stop thinking about low fat products, make sure you use real butter, full fat cream, full fat yoghurt, full fat creme fraiche. Eat cheese. Eat the fatty parts of the meat. The web is chock full of great recipes with which you can follow a high fat diet.
What happens as you cut out the carbs (which essentially all are sugar) is that your body produces less insulin. With less insulin, your body's metabolism can access the fat stored on your body for fuel. So at night, and between meals, when your body has burned away what you just ate it will start pulling from your body fat for energy. Hey presto, weight loss. Or, in slim people, natural regulation of body weight. When you get hungry, eat. If you are not hungry, don't. You will find that when you don't eat sugar all the time your food cravings and need for snacking more or less go away. Read on for more detail on how this works.
It is important to realize what "high fat" means. LCHF is not about increasing your protein intake, it is not about reducing your calorie intake. It is about replacing the carbohydrate content of your food with fat.
Why eat a high fat diet?
It is all about why you should not eat a high carb diet. Carbs in bread, potato, rice, flour and so on all turn into glucose (sugar) in your body. Glucose raises your blood sugar levels, which spikes your insulin (the hormone the body secretes to keep blood sugar low as too high blood sugar will kill you, this is what is broken in people with diabetes type 1).
Not only does insulin promote fat storage (so a high carb diet will inevitably lead to you gaining weight unless you exercise stupendous amounts), over time your body also becomes increasingly insulin resistant which may lead to diabetes type 2.
This can be somewhat mitigated by following a low GI diet, but you can also go all the way and cut out the carbs, bringing additional health benefits. When you cut out the carbs, your body needs energy from another source, and the best source for that is fat.
- stable blood sugar (important for diabetics - reduces need for insulin - very important to check blood sugar often when switching to LCHF)
- stable blood sugar (also important for non-diabetics - reduces need for snacks and improves mood!)
- normalises weight (if you're overweight you are likely to lose weight, if you are underweight you are likely to gain weight)
- weightloss without hunger (fat gives more satiety than carbs - eating fat does not make you fat)
- improvements to your balance of LDL and HDL cholesoterol
- many practitioners claim improvements to stomach complaints such as IBS
- many practitioners claim improvements to joint complaints such as arthrosis
Some say that following an LCHF diet is what the human body evolved to do (sometimes you hear the phrases "hunter diet" or "paleolithic (stone age) diet" being used). Again, do check out MD Kurt G. Harris's blog Paleolithic Nutrition.
We have only been farmers and eaten grain and potato for a few generations, compared to the very long time we spent as hunters and collectors, where refined carbs simply did not exist in the diet. Over the past few generations, we have reached a stage where refined carbohydrate (in various forms of processed food) makes up the biggest part of our diet...
There are several well documented examples of peoples throughout history, even in modern times, living on the equivalent of LCHF. Those peoples typically have very little or no recorded knowledge of obesity, diabetes type 2, coronary problems. Recent research even indicates that cancer tumours need high blood sugar and insulin for explosive growth (and, consequently, also cancer is historically very rare among peoples on a traditional hunter diet).
Low Carb High Fat sounds very strange!
Yes, gorging yourself on saturated fats and not really caring about calories flies in the face of today's dietary advice. I can only recommend that you look into the current official take on dietary advice yourself (see WHO who wants to get 55-75 percent of our energy from carbs, BUPA, FSA...) and critically check whether or not those advice seem to help people combat obesity and other "health problems of the developed world". Do we really see less cases of diabetes, obesity and heart problems? Not really. There is even talk of the diabetes time bomb...
Now, the Gary Taubes book is really heavy and scientific reading. But use Google to find some popular health science web sites with critical / unbiased articles and read up on recent discussions. You will probably be as surprised as I was as to what you will find out.
Here is a great, very balanced article on the fat-carb controversy. In fact, that site is chock full of great stuff on diet, nutrition and health.
"But it will make me fat and give me heart problems!" No. It won't. Why? Here is a short, very instructive video summary to get you started on the explanation. Off you go!
Once you are done with that video introduction, you can check out these 7 really good reasons why you should eat more saturated fat, and if you want even more information check out this great article by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon called The Truth About Saturated Fat.
It will only take you a few minutes but it might make you change your entire outlook on food and health.
What's ok to eat with LCHF?
Interested yet? Good. On to some practical advice. You can eat anything from these food groups.
- beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs
- cheese (whole fat)
- whole fat cream and milk products (not sweetened)
- vegetables that grow above ground (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, rocket...)
- olive oil, butter
- mayo (full fat)
- wine, red or very dry white
Can be eaten sometimes
- dark chocolate 70%
- beans, lentils
A good rule of thumb is to look for foods that contain less than 5% carbohydrates.
Remember the old food pyramid? Well, it has changed considerably since I was a kid, but the concept of food in a pyramid is still valid. When eating Low Carb High Fat the distribution is slightly different though.
This great illustration shows you how the food pyramid might look if LCHF was the diet advice du jour.
So what's not ok to eat on LCHF?
- any sweets, cakes, icecream, buns, anything sweetened with refined sugar
- low fat or sweetened dairy products
- polyunsaturated oils
- white flour
And for frak's sake, stay away from trans fats (the food industry has come a long way on that) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) (still ridiculously prevalent in food and drink but just as dangerous over time as trans fats)!!!
What should I be aware of when reducing my carb intake?
The first few days or even weeks you could feel dizzy, tired, unfocused. This is natural and comes from the body needing some time to switch from burning sugar to using fat as fuel. During that transitioning the body becomes a bit confused and struggles a bit to keep your energy levels up.
For most people these problems go away after a short while and you emerge on the other side feeling fantastic.
One note: this diet does not make it unnecessary to exercise! While exercise has very little to do with weight loss, there are numerous other benefits that come from keeping your body active. Your body truly is unique, and should be treated with respect. Any machine that is not used regularly will clog up and eventually break down. Walk, run, box, go to spin classes, play hockey, do gardening... Whatever. Find something you enjoy to do, and make sure yo do it, and your body will love you all the more for it.
If you are a person that trains or even competes a lot (to me "a lot" would be high intensive cardio minimum three to four times a week), switching to LCHF can be difficult since high intensity exercise most likely requires the quick energy available in carbs (when on LCHF your glycogen levels get depleted and there is no glucose to replenish them, thus the body is not able to pull from those stores when needing more explosivity). If you are an endurance kind of athlete though, over time your fitness levels should come back as again the body adapts to the fat based fuel.
Slight caveat here: Some books I have read claim that intense exercise requires carb and that carb loading is necessary for high performance (along the lines presented here). However, the web is full of anecdotal evidence of that not necessarily being true... See for example here, here and here. Very little research actually seems to exist on this topic (low carb / high fat diets and intense exercise), but there are books available on ketogenic diets and exercise (this one claims carbs are necessary for muscle growth though) and actually a few high profile athletes, most notably in Sweden, that lately have shunned carbs and still perform incredibly well.
As already mentioned above, switching diet from being sugar based to burning fat take some time. Expect a few weeks of no performance at all! Think of it as a detox from carbs. For some it takes longer - the body can in theory take months to switch to fat-burning.
A good resource to get further information is the Swedish Doctor Annika Dalhqvist's low carb dietary program in English.