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Getting Through the First Week

Helping Your Body Adjust

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Updated July 11, 2014

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Getting Through the First Week

The first week of a low-carb diet is often the most challenging, but great rewards await.

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Any time we decide to make a major change in something as basic as what we eat, we can expect a bumpy ride. It’s good to be well-prepared by following suggestions such as these.

If you decide to follow a diet which has a very low-carb phase, you may have other challenges as well. It’s important to know about some of the possible pitfalls ahead of time. That way, you will know what to do if you encounter these difficulties and you will understand the importance of giving your body some time to adjust to the diet. Getting through the first week on a low-carb diet is absolutely the hardest part. Your body is used to using carbohydrate for energy, and it must convert over to using mostly fat -- hopefully the fat you are currently wearing!

The First Three Days -- Carb Withdrawal

Although I’m not fond of the “food as addiction” analogy, there is something about excessive carbohydrate that does have some characteristics in common with addictions. Those components are carb cravings when we have too much carb in our diets, and a period of discomfort (the reason is unclear) when we cut back. Usually this discomfort takes the form of simply missing high carb foods and thinking about them a lot. Here are some tips for the first three days:

1. Eat lots of fiber and lots of fat. Fat and fiber together produce a high degree of satiety. I highly recommend foods made with flax seeds, as they are high in both fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Salads with protein (tuna, chicken, etc.) and lots of dressing are another good bet. These foods are acceptable on any low-carb diet, including South Beach, Atkins, and Protein Power.

2. Don’t go hungry! This isn’t like diets you may have been on before where you can expect to go for long periods being hungry. Some people find it’s helpful, especially for the first two weeks, to plan not to go more than 3 hours between meals or snacks.

3. Plan delicious things to eat. Nothing will make you feel more deprived than going on an austerity program when you are trying to make a big change in your eating habits. Investigate the yummiest foods your plan allows.

4. Be good to yourself. You are making a big change and deserve all the pats on the back you can get. Don’t stress yourself out in other ways at this time. Take a bubble bath, take a walk in the woods, cuddle up by the fire with a trashy novel -- whatever makes you feel good.

5. Get Support. Find people who are on your side. There are lots of experienced people in out Low Carb Forum waiting to answer questions, give support, and share experiences.

6. Drink lots of water.

Days 3 to 5 -- Watch out for 'Carb Crash”'

There is a phenomenon that happens to some people after a few days on a very low-carb diet. I call it carb crash. The theory is that it happens when your body’s glucose reserves (stored in the liver as glycogen) are used up, but your body is not yet used to running on fat and protein. People tend to have symptoms such as feeling shaky or jittery, feeling irritable, feeling fatigued, or just not feeling “right." Although it would go away in a few days, Dr. Atkins didn’t feel people should just put up with this, and neither do I, especially when the cure is so easy -- simply add some high-quality carbs to your diet.

So if you feel shaky, fatigued, or otherwise unusually bad, try eating a serving of low-carb fruit. If this makes the feeling go away, you know you are in carb crash. I suggest you modify your plan for the next few days to include a bit more carbohydrate, and monitor your reactions closely. (Don’t start to “carbo-load," which will be self-defeating in the long run.)

Tip: Mary Vernon, M.D. says that people often lose a lot of salt with the fluid the first few days, and feels that some of the symptoms are due to this. She recommends a cup of bouillon several times per day for a few days. Also, make sure you are getting enough potassium during this period.

Days 5 to 14 – Reward Time!

By the end of the first week of your new eating plan, you should start to reap the rewards of low-carb eating. This is the stage where many people begin to experience increased energy, better mental concentration, less compulsive eating, and few or no carb cravings. Some experience it as a “fog lifting” that they didn’t even know was there. Of course, everyone’s experience is variable, and it takes longer with some than others. But if you are someone who is sensitive to carbs, you will probably experience a lot of benefits of this way of eating, and it usually begins around the end of the first week. Congratulate yourself for taking the first steps of a positive change!
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