20 Tips for Staying Low-Carb Healthy during the Holidays (and all year long!)

low carb tipsHo Ho Ho! Uh Oh…

The holiday season is upon us and we’re about to be bombarded by deliciously addictive sugary and starchy foods. Yum.

How can you say no to Grandma’s luscious, love-infused apple pie? Your uncle’s homemade egg nog? Your cousin’s world-famous candied yams that she made especially for you? And if your coworker leaves a beautiful tray of festive Italian Christmas cookies in the break room and nobody sees you eat one, does it really count?

So why not just give in for the season? You can just go back to healthy eating in January, right? That’s how I used to think. I believed I could make up for weeks of splurging by “being good” again. I thought that overeating sweets and starches only affected my weight, and that as long as I got back on track after the holidays and lost the 10 or 15 pounds I’d gained, then no harm done.

But I’ve come to understand that this is not true.

The Price of Indulgence (or the Science of Splurging)

Eating too much sugar can permanently damage your metabolism. The more often you indulge, the more insulin-resistant you can become. You can’t get your carbohydrate tolerance back; once it’s gone, it’s gone. The more sweets you eat over the course of your lifetime, the more likely it is that you’ll gradually lose your ability to process even healthier whole food sources of carbohydrates, like fruits and vegetables. While some people are more susceptible to this process than others, we are all at risk. [To learn what insulin resistance is, how you can tell if you have it, and what to do about it, please see my post How To Diagnose, Prevent, and Treat Insulin Resistance.]

More than 50% of Americans are already insulin-resistant, pre-diabetic, or diabetic.1)http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2434682 This means there’s more than a 50/50 chance that you, and most of the people you love, are in the same sugary boat. And it’s not just obesity or type 2 diabetes waiting for you down the road; insulin resistance is the single most powerful risk factor, by far, for the health problems we all fear the most, including cancer, heart attacks, and dementia (read my article in Psychology Today about how insulin resistance causes Alzheimer’s: “Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease Is Easier Than You Think“).

THAT’s why it’s worth trying to limit how many treats you eat this winter. Even if you don’t want or need to eat a low-carbohydrate diet, avoiding sugars and refined carbohydrates is the single most important thing any of us can do for our health, regardless of how old we are, how much we weigh, how much we exercise, or whether or not we already have any medical or psychiatric problems. And while it’s true that you can halt or even reverse many carbohydrate-induced diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol by eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diet, conditions like cancer or dementia are much tougher to reverse.

People with more severely damaged carbohydrate metabolism, or with more serious health problems like cancer or dementia, may even need to limit protein as well as carbohydrate, because excess protein can turn into sugar in the body. This is where ketogenic diets come in—a ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat, adequate protein diet that forces the body to burn fat for energy. [To learn more about ketogenic diets, please see any of these posts].

Practice Makes…Less Imperfect

But I’ll be honest with you—it’s not easy to change from a regular diet to a low-carb diet. And it can be hard to stick to, especially during the holidays. I can’t promise you that I won’t succumb to temptation a few times this joyous season—we shall see! My goal will be to do my best, which is all any of us can do. It’s not about perfection, it’s about practicing making healthy choices as often as possible, and not judging yourself or anyone else about which sweet or savory treat may somehow find its way into one’s body. [Hey, how did that cookie get in there?]

Here’s a suggestion: decide now what your goal will be. Will your goal be to splurge only on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day? Or only at the Hanukkah party? Only on New Year’s Eve with your sweetie? Or are you planning to go the distance and stay true to your LCHF diet throughout the season? And if you do decide to take a holiday from your healthy diet, what will your definition of splurge be? You may want to set your heart on very specific indulgences that will really be worth it, as opposed to having a free-for-all. If you establish very clear goals you’re more likely to stick to them than if you try to wing it. Then, once you’ve decided on your goal, tell other people about it so they can support you.

So, in honor of bread-stuffed birds, gingerbread men, and figgy pudding, I thought I’d do something a little different in this post, and share some tips, tools and insights that I personally use to try to transition to and stay on a low-carb diet. Below you’ll find helpful lists of:

  • Products that are valuable to me in my daily low-carb/ketogenic practice
  • Tips and insights that make eating low-carb easier for me
  • Links to resources to inspire you, support you, and add variety to your diet

Some of the items listed below make great holiday gifts for low-carb friends and family members. A couple of years ago I had fun putting together a healthy low-carb gift basket for a friend who was just starting her LCHF journey.

And away we go!

But First…What Do I Eat?

Unfortunately, I have a lot of food sensitivities (histamine, crucifers, nightshades, garlic, dairy, eggs, nuts, avocado, etc.). As a result I can’t take advantage of a lot of the common strategies most low-carb dieters use, so hopefully you will find some tips here that are new to you. I would also love to hear any tips you may have for me and for your fellow readers in the comments section.

I eat primarily a whole foods, pre-agricultural, low-allergen, high-fat/low-carb diet. I have experimented with ketogenic diets off and on for the past few years, and have been back on a ketogenic diet again for the past six months, because my carbohydrate metabolism is so damaged that this diet is the only one that keeps my blood sugar, weight, and appetite within a healthy range. I aim for about 60 grams of protein per day, 0 to 30 grams of carbohydrate per day, and as much fat as I want. I don’t count calories.

The foundation of my diet is fresh/frozen animals, the fattier the better—seafood, lamb, duck, chicken, pork, and liver. I eat naturally-raised meats whenever possible. We are proud members of Hettie Belle Farm, a wonderful local meat CSA in Warwick, MA that offers pastured pork, beef, lamb, poultry, liver, sausages and bacon. I supplement meat, poultry and fish with small amounts of the handful of plant foods that I can tolerate: low-carb squashes (zucchini/yellow squash, spaghetti squash, pumpkin), olives, mushrooms, cucumbers, lettuces, spinach, jicama, carrots, and small amounts of low-sugar fruits from time to time, such as berries and papaya. This is a very limited diet compared to most, but I have found some ways to make it more interesting and convenient.

If I can do it, with all those restrictions, I know you can do it! Most of you lucky devils can enjoy the richness and variety of eggs, cheese, coconut, heavy cream, macadamia nuts, and butter! What a wonderful world that would be! If you are struggling with the challenges that special diets can pose for holiday gatherings, read my Psychology Today post Dealing With Dietary Differences During the Holidays.

Now, finally, without further ado:

20 Low-Carb Tips for the Holidays

  1. packages of Miracle NoodlesMIRACLE NOODLES. I first discovered these zero-carb “yam” noodles (shirataki) at an Asian market near my home and would eat them as a low-carb side dish on occasion. Then, my local food co-op started carrying Miracle Noodles, and my life was forever changed. These no-carb noodles come in a variety of shapes and flavors like fettuccini, rice, ziti, and spinach! These have become a staple in my diet because they’re a wonderful vehicle for bacon fat or other leftover fat and make for a delicious and satisfying side dish or lunch. My go-to recipe is a bag of (well-rinsed) noodles, ¼ cup of pumpkin puree, some sage, fennel, and porcini salt (see below), all cooked in as much bacon fat or other drippings as they’ll absorb. Sometimes I add mushrooms or zucchini, too. Strictly speaking, Miracle Noodles are not whole foods, but you have to choose your battles. Unlike other low-carb pasta substitutes, they are grain-free, soy/legume-free (except miso variety), and egg-free. They’re made from glucomannan, a soluble fiber extracted from the root of the konjac plant, which is native to Asia. I find them so helpful that I decided to enroll in their affiliate program, which offers my readers a 10% discount by using coupon code: AFF10MN. Smaller quantities are available via this Amazon link.
  2. BACON/SAUSAGE ON THE GO. Bacon is a great breakfast food for me because it’s relatively low in protein and very high in fat. Unfortunately, it takes a while to cook and can be messy. Breakfast while staying at others’ homes can be challenging because most people don’t eat fatty meat for breakfast, and most hosts don’t take kindly to you commandeering their kitchen to cook large quantities of splattering strips of bacon. So my partner had the brilliant idea of pre-cooking uncured bacon at home, and packing it in a cooler for trips. Voila! Our car became an instant bacon-mobile. Then I just re-heat it quickly or enjoy it as a cold snack at my destination. We do the same thing with fresh or frozen fatty sausages. My favorite are sweet Italian pork sausages from our wonderful local butcher (Sutter Meats in Northampton MA), or for a super-convenient alternative when you’re pressed for time, try Applegate frozen Chicken & Sage Breakfast Sausages. I actually prefer pastured pork belly (the cut of pork that bacon is made from), or better yet, lamb belly, to bacon, but these don’t travel as well.
  3. GOURMET SALT. Last year while visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a Sound of Music Sing-a-Long (I’d never seen so many nuns or Gretls in my whole life), we discovered a small shop called the Salt Cellar and my life was forever changed. I can’t tolerate most marinades, rubs, or spices, so gourmet salts opened a whole new world of flavor to me. The Salt Cellar carries dozens of varieties of smoked, flavored, and natural salts. We have become regular mail-order customers, buy in bulk, and if any of our friends hasn’t received salt for Christmas yet, they’re about to. My favorites are espresso (a revelation on pork), porcini, applewood smoked (amazing on grilled beef), merlot (great with duck), chardonnay smoked (delicious on chicken), lemon or lime (for fish and summer squash), and vanilla bean (just for fun)!vinegars and salts
  4. GOURMET VINEGARS. Just as gourmet salt opened a new world for me, so has gourmet vinegar. On a cold and rainy summer day, a friend we were visiting on the coast of Maine introduced us to a wonderful shop in Rockland called Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars, where they let you taste all of their products before buying. High quality infused vinegars can be intensely, deliciously sweet, and they do contain a little sugar, but a little bit goes a long way. Just a teaspoon or two drizzled over meat or vegetables can add a burst of flavor for only a few grams of carbohydrate. The absolute best, in my opinion, is their 18-year aged balsamic vinegar, but other favorites include black currant, espresso, and cinnamon pear. I do have histamine intolerance and therefore can’t have much vinegar, so be careful if you have issues with aged foods.
  5. bacon grease keeperBACON GREASE KEEPER. The other half of eating low-carb is eating high-fat! The great thing about bacon is that not only do you get to enjoy it in all of its glory when you eat it, but you can then collect and save all of the bacon fat for later cooking. A bacon grease keeper is essentially a ceramic crock with a sieve on top that sifts out the leftover charred bits of bacon. I keep my bacon fat in the fridge because I find it easier to use when it’s solid, and it keeps longer, but some people prefer to leave it on the counter. If you eat a lot of bacon, this is a must-have! You can also take it out and pass it around if it’s time for those party guests who have overstayed their welcome to head home.
  6. MYFITNESSPAL. There are people out there who can wing it, but I’m not one of them. It’s too easy for me to go astray if I’m not keeping track of everything I eat and holding myself accountable. This is the best app I could find on the market, and the free version does everything I need it to do. I use it to track protein and carb intake, the foods I’m eating (in case I have a food reaction I can look back to see what the culprit may have been), morning blood sugar, morning blood ketones, weight, and body fat percentage. The app lets you store common combinations of foods as meals so you don’t have to enter each individual item every time. It also lets you store custom recipes, and share meals with friends. You can adjust the settings on the website to customize what you want to track. The few limitations of this app are that it insists on tracking fat, calories and fiber (things I don’t care about at all), and you have to set your macro-nutrient goals as percentages of calorie intake rather than maximum grams per day. Since my goals are to eat a maximum of 60 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbohydrate per day, I had to set my daily caloric intake at 2400, although I end up eating much less than that on most days. It’s probably easier to customize goals with the paid version of the app, but it’s pricey. If you know of an app that I or other readers may like better, I’d love to hear about it!
  7. vegetable spiralizerSPIRALIZER. We love our vegetable spiralizer! My sister gave it to us for Christmas last year and it was one of our favorite gifts. Eating a low-carb diet means giving up pasta, but with this nifty gizmo we can turn plain old zucchini, carrots and cucumbers into beautiful extra-long curly strips of various shapes that are great when you need to see a little special something on your plate. I enjoy thinking of it as a medieval vegetable torture device:) It comes with different attachments so you can make thick, wide, or thin strips. We use the Paderno World Cuisine 3-blade model, which is affordable, sturdy, and easy to use (we’ve heard mixed reviews about the hand-held models).
  8. SodaStreamSODASTREAM What’s left to drink after eliminating soda, juice and other sugar-sweetened beverages? Pretty much just water, and unsweetened tea and coffee. A SodaStream allows you to carbonate your own water to make seltzer at home. I love seltzer and used to buy multiple bottles a week, lug them home, and then have to cart the empties to the local transfer station. SodaStream comes with reusable bottles, saving you all of that hassle, and we never run out of seltzer anymore. You can flavor your water with fresh lemon or lime juice or a splash of fruit juice if you like (skip the flavor packets that come with your new SodaStream, because they contain sugar or artificial sweeteners). My mom has a manual SodaStream that has worked perfectly for her for years. We purchased an automatic SodaStream model a couple of years ago that frequently exploded and flooded the countertop, so we traded it in for a KitchenAid Sparkling Beverage Maker. If you choose the original SodaStream brand I’d just recommend avoiding the automatic models.
  9. SLOW COOKER. A slow cooker is a must-have for busy whole-food low-carbers, especially in the colder months. But if you’re eating a ketogenic diet and need to count protein grams, once you’ve got meat, vegetables and broth all mixed together in a brothy stew, how do you accurately measure how much protein and carbohydrate is in your serving? This is what we do: cut the meat into single serving portions before you put it into the slow cooker. That way you don’t have to fight the broth. More appropriate if you are trying to control protein quantity, but may be applicable to carbs too. Advantage of slow cooker: fast and easy prep; multiple servings of meals.
  10. BLOOD GLUCOSE METER. Testing my blood sugar every morning gives me the daily reality check I need to keep myself honest. If I eat too much protein or carbohydrate, I may not see the scale go up and I may feel fine the next day, but that blood glucose meter will let me know that my metabolism is unhappy, and reminds me of why it’s important to continue with my low-carb eating plan. Blood sugar testing can be so much more meaningful than tracking weight, because blood sugar values are all about the metabolic and health benefits of low-carb eating, not about how you feel about your body shape or size, or what the number on the scale may mean to you or anyone else. Blood sugar values are purely objective and carry no stigma or shame. The cost of the meters themselves is usually not the issue, it’s the blood test strips that run into money, so compare strip prices when shopping. The meters I own are the OneTouch UltraMini, which measures blood sugar only, and the Precision Xtra Blood Glucose and Ketone Monitor, which can measure blood sugar and blood ketones (separate strips required). Ketone strips are expensive, but thanks to Dara Smith’s recommendation in the comments section below, I now order strips from an Australian distributor for about $1.50/strip.
  11. FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT. I wish I could tell you exactly how many carbs you can eat per day to make an LCHF diet work for you, but everyone’s carbohydrate threshold is different. Most people do well if they stay below 25 grams of carbohydrate per day, but some people can get away with up to 60. If you find that you’re still craving carbohydrates, then you’re probably still eating too many carbs for your metabolism. Take heart! Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the less carbohydrate you eat, the less carbohydrate you’ll want to eat. Carbohydrates cause cravings. Reduce the carbs to the point of your personal threshold, and the cravings go away. Then you will find that you are eating only when you’re hungry, not because you just feel like eating. If you have lowered your carbohydrate as much as you possibly can and you’re still struggling with cravings, see #18 below.
  12. EAT MORE FAT. Bacon fat and duck fat and lard, oh my! These are my personal favorites for cooking. Other healthy fat options you may find helpful are olive oil, coconut oil, palm fruit oil, and avocado oil. Avoid seed and vegetable oils as they are almost always highly unnatural, industrially refined oils, and they are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation. Carbohydrates make you hungrier, whereas healthy fats are satisfying and delicious and don’t raise your appetite. For people who are new to low-carb eating and are used to avoiding fat, this can be a big adjustment. Practice embracing fat as your friend!
  13. MAKE A WEEKLY MEAL PLAN. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but since you will be eating primarily perishable foods, you’ll need to remember to take things out of the freezer in advance or plan your shopping trips so you don’t run out of good food. If you run out of food and get hungry at an inconvenient time, you’re more likely to go off the rails.low-carb tips sample menu plan
  14. BRING YOUR OWN FOOD AND/OR EAT BEFORE YOU GO. It can be particularly difficult to stay on your diet when you are at a party surrounded by deliciously sugary foods. Arriving with a full or partially full belly can help you resist temptations, and if you bring scrumptious food that you can enjoy, you can take part in the social aspect of eating without having to eat foods you are trying to avoid.
  15. DON’T GO IT ALONE. It is SO much easier to stick with a key lifestyle change if you have a support network. An LCHF diet, unfortunately, is still a rather unconventional diet, so you may face a lot of skepticism or even face pressure to give it up. If you have at least one other person on your side who is also eating an LCHF diet, you can share your challenges, your recipes, and your successes, making your journey a lot easier and a lot more fun. There are also many on-line forums that can be helpful for people looking for additional support and community (see resource list below). Having supportive people in your life is especially important if you’re the only one in your household who lives the low-carb lifestyle and your cupboards are filled with tempting sweet and starchy foods.
  16. BE A RESPECTFUL ROLE MODEL. Remember Grandma’s love-infused apple pie? If your goal is to say no, be polite and complimentary, and explain that you love her pie and wish you could have some, but that you have to turn it down for health reasons. A helpful sentence is: “My doctor told me I have to be careful with carbohydrates.” If you practice setting a healthy example, other people in your family may be inspired to change their diet in the future, especially when they see the obvious changes in your health. It doesn’t usually work to get preachy or tell other people how they should eat. Just focus on yourself and if others are curious and want to know more about how you got healthy, they’ll ask you.
  17. YOU’RE HUMAN, NOT PERFECT. This is perhaps the most important tip. Don’t beat yourself up if you go astray. Sugar is addictive. You spent much of your life enjoying sugary foods and you love them. You’re trying not to eat them, yet you are constantly bombarded with advertisements, social messages, and convenient carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks everywhere you go. It’s only natural that you’re going to be tempted. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do the best you can as often as you can. The key, though, is to get back up on the horse and return to your low-carb daily practice as soon as possible. You have made a commitment to your health. Don’t let the occasional human moment derail you. With practice, it gets easier and easier to resist unhealthy foods, partly because you’ll find it takes a few days of sheer willpower to get back on that horse, and you’ll get tired of the struggle. It’s a lot easier to stay on the horse than to keep climbing back up there. For a really funny commentary about trying to adapt to a low-carb diet, I highly recommend Dr. Michael Eades’ post: Tips and Tricks for Starting or Re-starting Low-Carb.
  18. NOT LOSING WEIGHT? If you’re eating low-carb partly to lose weight, and you’ve gotten your carb grams as low as you possibly can, what else can you do to fix your broken scale? Some people can’t lose weight if they are including certain mischievous items in their menu. The most common weight loss blockers are: dairy (raises insulin levels), low-carb sweeteners (raise insulin levels and trigger sweet cravings), caffeine (destabilizes blood sugar, insulin, and stress hormone levels), and too much protein (turns into sugar). If you’re not already exercising, add some strength training to your plan. Resistance training lowers blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity.
  19. constipated pufferfishCONSTIPATION ON LCHF? Contrary to popular belief, constipation is not caused by a lack of carbohydrate, but by the presence of specific foods that are difficult to digest. LCHF and ketogenic dieters often experience constipation because they are suddenly eating higher quantities of potential intestinal stoppers such as nuts and dairy products. For a more complete list of foods that can stop you up, along with explanations, please see my post Constipation and Ketogenic Diets.
  20. DON’T FEEL WELL ON LCHF? GOT THE “LOW-CARB FLU”? If you feel worse on a low-carb diet, especially if you’ve given yourself enough time to adapt to it (approximately 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the person), you may be sensitive to a food you either never used to eat before or are now eating a lot more of than you used to. When I first went ketogenic in 2013, I felt awful. It turned out I had a sensitivity to histamine and other biogenic amines. These sneaky little devils are found in things like fermented, aged and preserved foods. I cut them out and felt great! My suggestion is to keep a food diary that records foods and symptoms to try to isolate your culprits. Common low-carb food sensitivity culprits include nuts, coconut, dairy, artificial sweeteners, and histamines/biogenic amines.

Helpful Resources

  • Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades have been studying, prescribing, and writing about low-carbohydrate diets for more than 20 years, and are generous treasure troves of information: https://proteinpower.com/
  • Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt is a Swedish physician whose wonderful website is dedicated to low-carb high-fat diet education and inspiration: http://www.dietdoctor.com/lchf
  • Professor Tim Noakes is a South African elite athlete, professor of exercise science, and diet revolutionary who turned to a low-carbohydrate eating plan called the Banting Diet to manage his own type 2 diabetes: http://realmealrevolution.com/
  • Jimmy Moore is the low-carb community’s most valuable educator, communicator, and ambassador—podcasting, tweeting, periscoping and blogging passionately about the science and experience of low-carb living. He has interviewed virtually all of the experts in the field and is a tireless advocate for public health. His site is packed with more information than you could ever want! http://livinlavidalowcarb.com/blog/
  • Dr. Jeffry Gerber is a family physician based in the Denver area who hosts a very informative and accessible website about the how and why of low-carbohydrate diets and health: http://denversdietdoctor.com/dr-jeffs-blog/
  • Dr. Ann Childers is a psychiatrist and weight management specialist based in Oregon whose website includes blogposts, videos, and podcasts about LCHF diets and mental health: http://lifebalancenw.com/
  • Dr. Sarah Hallberg is a weight loss specialist affiliated with Indiana University who has an interactive website dedicated to teaching people with type 2 diabetes and other metabolic problems how to improve their health using low-carbohydrate diets: http://fitteru.us/
  • Ellen Davis is a clinical nutritionist who hosts a welcoming and comprehensive website devoted to ketogenic diets. It is packed with great information, meal planning advice, and tips: http://www.ketogenic-diet-resource.com
  • Libby Jenkinson is a pharmacist-turned-low-carb educator based in New Zealand. She hosts a beautiful website full of tips, recipes, and information for people of all ages who want to understand and apply LCHF principles to their lives: http://www.ditchthecarbs.com/
  • Carrie Brown is a chef and writer with a vibrant and eclectic website that includes wonderful recipes for a variety of special diets, including low-carb diets: http://marmaladeandmileposts.com/archives/category/food/recipes-other-lifestyles/low-carb
  • Laura Dolson is a health and food writer who hosts a wonderfully practical site about low-carb eating that includes lots of great recipe ideas along with posts about how low-carb diets affect your health: http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/

I hope that you or someone you love will find these tips and tools useful. Remember, don’t focus on what you’re giving up on an LCHF diet—focus on what you’re getting! Deliciously satisfying fatty foods, freedom from carbohydrate cravings and yo-yo dieting, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that how you’re eating now actually optimizes your whole health, not just your weight or your appetite.

Happy Healthy Holidays, everyone!

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