Tips for supporting long-term success on low-carb diets
Low-carb diets are an effective tool for helping people lose weight, reverse markers of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and improve overall health. However, eating low carb only works if done consistently. It’s no secret that most people struggle with changing their dietary patterns. While anecdotally many clinicians feel this is much improved on a low-carb diet, it still is far from easy. In this guide, we provide tips and tools to better equip you to help your patients with long-term success.
This page is organized in the following sections:
- Diet troubleshooting
Queries about hunger, protein amounts, weight stalls, gaining weight, allergies, fat intake, vegetarianism, achieving ketosis, and diet during women’s cycles.
- Family, medical, or social supports
Queries about maintaining the diet with non-supportive spouse, health practitioners, children, family and friends, low incomes, busy travel.
- Weight is stalling or increasing
- Allergy to nuts
- Female patients with cycle-related weight gain
- Ketosis cannot be obtained or maintained
- Patient is vegetarian
- Patient is fat phobic
- Patient’s ketone levels are high
1. Weight is stalling or increasing
Weight can fluctuate by two or more pounds from one day to the next simply from fluid retention. A temporary weight gain does not mean your patient is gaining fat. Remember that the scale is not the best indicator of success. Waist circumference and how clothes fit are usually better ways to evaluate progress.
However, if weight is definitely increasing without a reduction in waist circumference, ask your patients about the following potential problem areas:
- Eating snacks between meals. Encourage them to eat two to three meals per day without snacks. They can increase protein and fat at meals to keep full and reduce snack cravings.
- Consuming lots of nuts, dairy or excessive fat. Eliminating snacks will help, as will removing added fat from coffee or tea.
- Eating close to bedtime. Recommend eating the last meal at least three hours before sleep. Adhering to time-restricted eating helps with this.
- Drinking daily alcohol. Encourage patients to stop drinking or switch to low-carb alcohol options.
- Consuming too much or too little protein. Too little can stimulate hunger, and too much can increase calories and potentially gluconeogenesis. Optimal protein intake is likely in the range of 1.2-1.7 g/kg of lean body mass per day.
- Eating beyond satiety. Advise patients to eat slowly, start with small portions, wait to register hunger signals, and only go for second helpings if hunger pangs persist.
- Chronic stress or inadequate sleep. Encourage meditation, stress reduction, and better sleep hygiene.
See Diet Doctor’s tips for losing weight:
Help your patient learn to ask, “Is this really hunger?” Sometimes we mistake hunger for what is really stress, boredom, or cravings. Sometimes we eat simply because others are eating or because the clock says it’s time to eat. Sometimes we feel hunger when we are actually thirsty, anxious, or tired.
If it is truly hunger, your patient may not be eating enough protein or fat, or both.
See below for guidance on determining how much protein is “enough”.
Encourage hungry patients to increase fat intake at meals, making sure they are satiated at the end of the meal. If they are struggling with time-restricted eating (TRE) or intermittent fasting (IF), it may be too soon for them. They should go back to eating three meals per day for a couple of weeks and then try TRE or IF again.
How much protein is enough?
Protein recommendations can differ between practitioners and specific needs of individual patients. However, despite apparent differences, protein consumption for most patients should remain moderate, between 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg of lean mass per day.
It is always best to have a rough idea of your patient’s body composition since protein goals are based on lean body mass and not total weight. If it is not possible to obtain that information from a DEXA scan, hydrostatic weight or other reliable method, then use the patient’s reference body weight in kilograms to calculate protein needs.
If a patient is sedentary, aim for the lower end of the spectrum. If the patient is active, recovering from sickness or surgery, or elderly with sarcopenia, it may be better to aim for the higher end of the protein range. The key is to not have them go too much above or below the reference range.
One of the main concerns with protein is that it can stimulate the production of insulin, which may be of particular concern in patients with diabetes.1 However, it also stimulates the production of glucagon, which can decrease hunger and food intake.2
Although the liver can theoretically turn excessive protein into glucose and thus body fat, ingested protein normally has little impact on glucose levels.3 If patients are not losing weight or are not seeing significant ketone generation, check that their carbohydrate intake is low, they are not snacking between meals, and they are not consuming excessive fat. If none of those are issues, then ask them to calculate protein intake to see if they are over- or under-eating protein.
Some patients may need to temporarily reduce their protein intake to about 1.0 g/kg of lean mass if they are struggling to get into ketosis. However, we still need to ensure they have adequate protein intake long term to avoid sarcopenia and to promote building lean body mass. Therefore, approach protein reduction as a temporary trial rather than a long-term change.
Learn more about protein recommendations in our guide, Protein on a low carb or keto diet.
2. Allergy to nuts
Many patients worry they cannot do LCHF or keto successfully if they cannot eat nuts. Many low-carb recipes — especially ones for keto bread, pancakes or other replacement high-carb products — rely on nut flours, especially almond flour.
Nuts may be useful, especially at first when adapting to this new way of eating, but they are not necessary for success.
Coconut flour can be used instead because coconuts are not part of the nut family. Recipes will need to be adjusted, as coconut flour requires more liquid. (Note: Lupin flour should not be used, as there is a risk for cross-allergy with nuts.)
Even better, encourage your patient to focus on whole foods without nut products, as they are not necessary for a nutritionally complete, low-carb diet.
3. Female patients with cycle-related weight gain
Weight gain around the menstrual period is common for women, usually due to increasing water retention.
However, cravings and staying on-plan with a low-carb diet can also be difficult for some women, especially at the premenstrual time of the cycle. Here are ways to patients deal with cravings include:
- Recommend reducing or eliminating sugar substitutes during other times of the month to reduce the taste for sweet foods.
- Alternatively, if sweeteners are generally not used but the patient craves sugary foods during the premenstrual phase, suggest using non-caloric sweeteners during this time only.
- Eating pork rinds or cheese can remedy cravings without spiking insulin or glucose.
- Low-carb substitutes for high-carb foods — such as Fathead pizza, keto pancakes, or keto brownies — can satisfy a craving without undermining progress toward health goals.
Help your patient understand that this is a common occurrence, and if it happens to them, they should prepare for it, instead of getting caught off guard every month.
4. Ketosis cannot be achieved or maintained
This is not uncommon in the early stages of a low-carb diet. It usually takes time for the body to enter and stay in ketosis, even when the diet is very low in carbs. This depends on many factors, including the severity of baseline insulin resistance.
Verify why patients want to be in ketosis and if not being consistently in ketosis is causing them stress. They may think they need to be in ketosis in order to lose weight or reverse their diabetes, which is not true.
Asking your patients to keep a detailed food journal or use a macro-calculating app might reveal hidden carbs.
If patients are using urine strips to verify their ketone levels, this might not be reliable after a few weeks of ketosis, when the kidneys begin reabsorbing ketones more efficiently. Patients may want to invest in a blood ketone meter if results will provide information and motivation to stay on the diet. Learn more in our guide to testing ketones.
If a patient clearly benefits from being in ketosis and there isn’t an obvious dietary fix, you can also consider time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting to help maintain ketosis.
5. Patient is vegetarian
A nutritionally complete, low-carb vegetarian diet is challenging but completely possible. The main concerns are eating too much carbohydrate and not enough protein. Yet with proper attention to eating legumes and tofu, non-starchy vegetables, dairy and eggs, you can reassure your patients who choose a vegetarian diet that they can do it. However, since vegetarians may be more likely to over-do carbs compared to non-vegetarians, they may need to track their intake of carb grams, at least in the beginning, to ensure they are staying below their carb goals.
Read more in our evidence-based guide, How to follow a healthy vegetarian keto diet.
A healthy, nutritious LCHF vegan diet is even more challenging but also doable with proper attention and supplementation. Again, make sure your patients who choose a vegan diet are not over-consuming carbohydrate and that they are getting adequate protein for long-term health.
You can read more details in our evidence-based guide, How to eat low carb as a vegan.
6. Patient is fat phobic
After more than 40 years of low-fat messages, some patients have a strong distaste for or even outright fear of fat. Success on a LCHF diet, however, usually means at least some increase in fat consumption, even if it a small one. While there is no need to consume fat bombs or add butter and oil to everything, patients should feel comfortable adding enough fat to their diets to feel full at meals and to enjoy their foods.
The following advice is for patients who are fat-phobic and who also need to add fat to their diet in order to reduce hunger and avoid under-consumption of calories. As noted above, adding too much fat to the diet when it is not needed can prevent patients from using their own body fat for fuel, which can lead to a stall in progress toward health goals:
- Add avocado or olive oil to vegetables and salads.
- Add one to two tablespoons (15 to 30 mL) of fat, such as butter, to each meal.
- Add cream, MCT oil, or coconut oil to coffee or tea in between meals.
- Take a tablespoon (15 mL) of whipping cream, MCT oil, or coconut oil on its own when feeling lethargic.
- Have a fat bomb for dessert.
Note: Warn patients to be careful with MCT oil, as taking too much too fast can cause diarrhea. This oil is almost tasteless and can easily be added to coffee or tea. We suggest starting with a teaspoon or less and increasing gradually.
7. Patient’s ketone levels are high
Some people have a higher threshold before their bodies halt the production of ketones. While optimal ketosis is anywhere from 0.5 to 3.0 mmol/L, some patients will register levels between 4.5 and 6 mmol/L. This seems high, but it is still far from the ketoacidosis zone of 10 mmol/L and above.
Higher ketone levels do not necessarily mean more weight loss is happening or that the body is using ketones properly. Ketones can also increase with fasting and exercise or may simply “run high” without a clear explanation.
In addition, higher ketone level can occur secondary to your patient eating large amounts of coconut or MCT oil. After absorption into bloodstream, MCTs go straight to the liver, where they can be converted into ketones. If this is the case, the patient should cut back on added fat, as this may be preventing the body from burning its own fat stores.
Check that your patient is eating enough protein at each meal, especially if vegan or vegetarian. A lack of protein may increase the production of ketone bodies as a form of starvation ketosis.
Family, medical, or social supports
- Unsupportive health care professionals
- Unsupportive spouse or family
- No time to prepare two meals for non-LCHF family
- Travel or life demands restaurant meals
- Low income
1. Unsupportive health care professionals
Since LCHF or ketogenic eating is not uniformly recognized as a standard of care for weight loss or diabetes reversal, patients may hear conflicting or unsupportive messages from members of their health care team.
This can cause patients considerable confusion or even hesitation to continue the diet.
We encourage pointing them to evidence-based resources like our science of low carb and keto guide. This may help them see the differences between conclusions drawn from the science of dietary fat and outdated national dietary guidelines.
Make sure to highlight any health improvements, such as lab results, body weight, waist circumference, or even the freedom of no longer having fluctuations in energy and hunger during the day. If patients are still concerned about the inconsistent messages, you can always suggest a self-experiment where they try various diets for 30-60 days, such as low-fat calorie restriction, DASH, Mediterranean, or others. They can track how they feel and how much they weigh, and they can recheck lab markers after each experiment.
That may help them find the right dietary choice for them, at least in the short term. Then you can work together to create a plan for continued long-term follow up to ensure health markers continue to improve.
It is important for your patients to know that they are not “on their own” but rather are part of a healthcare team with you. That way, if they hear from another healthcare professional that they are “killing themselves with all that fat,” or they “need whole grains for their health,” they will feel confident that they are being adequately monitored, and you will know right away if any negative health consequences occur.
2. Unsupportive spouse or family
Lack of support at home is one of the most common reasons for lack of success with a LCHF lifestyle.
We suggest some of the following actions for your patients:
- Ask family members for the space to try it without criticism for 30 days. People tend to become more willing to commit to a time-limited experiment. Then, if family members start to see results, they will likely be more supportive long-term. It may seem like overkill, but having a written contract helps some people understand the importance of the situation.
- Consider not discussing diet and fasting schedule with friends and relatives who are unsupportive. If asked, patients can simply say they are focusing on eating plenty of vegetables and protein and cutting back on sugars.
- Join an online community such as the many on Facebook for ongoing support.
- Ask children or partners to only eat processed, high-carb food outside of the home or at least not in the presence of the patient. Some people find it helpful to explain that they have an “intolerance” to grains and sugars.
We suggest more frequent follow-ups with such patients, as they are at higher risk of giving up due to pressure from their families and friends. Have your nurse or support staff give extra initial encouragement.
3. No time to prepare two meals for non-LCHF family
Many patients simply don’t have the time to make a low-carb meal for themselves and higher-carb meals for the rest of the family. We suggest avoiding one-dish starch-based recipes like lasagna, pasta dishes, or shepherd’s pie. Instead, instruct them to keep meals simple. Prepare meat or fish with green vegetables and olive oil and add a simple starchy side dish like potatoes, rice, or pasta for those who want it. Having a “deconstructed” meal like this makes it much easier to keep everyone happy. The other trick is to make good use of leftovers to prevent cooking every night.
It is also important to point out that all members of the family, especially children and teens, can benefit from eating less sugar and refined carbohydrate. There are dozens of delicious recipes on Dietdoctor.com that are family-friendly and very popular. Some of the most popular are the starch substitutes like keto bread, zucchini noodles, and keto pizza.
4. Travel or life demands restaurant meals
We should encourage freshly-prepared, home-cooked meals, but in reality that isn’t always possible. A heavy travel schedule, long work days, or family demands may lead to grabbing food on the go from restaurants or fast food spots.
The good news is that it’s possible to eat low carb in almost any type of restaurant. Some places may not have the same selection of quality meat or unprocessed cooking oils, but it doesn’t mean your patients have to go off plan.
Encourage your patients to order burgers without ketchup, buns, or fries. Most places will provide a lettuce wrap or bowl. A quarter chicken with a side salad (skip the croutons) is another easy option, as are breakfast sandwiches without the bun — just the eggs, ham and cheese — eaten with a knife and fork.
In sit-down restaurants, it’s usually possible to have a steak, chicken leg, or filet of salmon. Simply skip the starchy sides and ask for extra green vegetables with olive oil.
If a basket of bread is placed on the table, keep the butter, but ask the waiter to remove the bread.
Traveling is also a perfect time to encourage your patients to try intermittent fasting.
5. Low income
For some people, a low income or small food budget may seem like a barrier to nutritious, low-carb eating. While there are many fancy online recipes with expensive ingredients like grass-fed beef, almond flour, erythritol, MCT oil, and others, it is not necessary to bake or cook anything elaborate. Here are some simple tips for your patients:
- Try intermittent fasting, if appropriate, to cut down on total meals and meal prep.
- Breakfast can be a hot beverage, like coffee or tea with cream or butter.
- Focus on restricting carbs more than seeking the highest quality and most expensive ingredients. For instance, two conventional burger patties from a fast food place provides adequate protein with few carbs.
- Organ meats and the fattiest cuts of meat are often the cheapest ones. Suggest that patients buy what is on special each week at the grocery store and explore new ways to cook these cuts.
See more in our guide, Low-carb and keto on a budget.