About the Post

Author Information

I am a New Zealand registered nurse and nutritionist (Grad Cert Sci: nutrition, Massey Univ). I am a Certified Zone Instructor, and have worked teaching Zone diet principles to hundreds of clients over the last 10 years. More recently after finding that eating Paleo food choices was the "icing on the cake" health wise, I have become a Paleo enthusiast and teacher. Follow me on twitter @juliannejtaylor

Low carb paleo + crossfit, not losing weight – my recommendations

Thank you so much everyone for your comments and suggestions. I was curious to see how others would respond to this problem.

This post is a followup to my a senario that I was presented with – a  new client who has been following a low carb diet and is doing 5 – 6 sessions of high intensity exercise – yet is not losing weight. paleozonenutrition.com/2013/02/10/crossfit-and-low-carb-paleo-why-isnt-this-client-losing-weight/

I’ll go through my thinking and consequent recommendations I gave this client at the initial consultation:

Body shape, waist to hip ratio:

First – I note that the this woman is fairly well muscled, (not the one in the pic – but my client), and her shape is pear, with a low waist to hip ratio linked with being sensitive to insulin. She is young and exercises regularly. Insulin resistance in on the other hand typically associated with an apple shape, so my client is therefore unlikely to be ‘carbohydrate resistant’. Yet – she is following a very low carb diet to lose weight; I believe is unnecessary.

Exercise

She is doing 5 sessions of CrossFit per week, feels a lack of energy when training. Recovery is okay, could be better. Lets have a look at CrossFit. CrossFit is a very high intensity exercise. Workouts vary from weight lifting to bootcamp style with box jumps, kettlebells, pull-ups, push-ups, sprints etc. The primary fuel for this workout  (for both intensity and the muscle fibres used) is glucose. This will come from muscle and liver glycogen and blood sugar. So every workout pulls a fair amount stored glucose (glycogen). Fats are not easily oxidised when exercise is this intense.

This woman is eating virtually no useable carbohydrates. So every workout decreases glycogen, yet it is not being replaced. Each workout requires glucose – yet she is not consuming it to keep glycogen full.

She is constantly craving carbohydrates, and every 2 or three days gives in to unbearable cravings and eats junk carbs (sugar, refined grains). To be honest this is probably saving her from completely crashing out.

The fallacy of using high carb = high insulin = fat storage theory

This woman considers these cravings a weakness, and because she is stuck in carbs = insulin = fat gain theory, and she is not losing weight, she cuts her carbs further. The result is that cravings and hunger are worse, so she listens to advice from low carb camps to ‘eat more fat’. Which she does, snacking on nuts, handfuls a day, and adds more fat to meals. Despite eating less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day – there is no fat loss, if this theory were correct she should be losing weight.

Why high carbohydrate diets cause weight gain and moderate carb diets help weight loss

Here is why high carbohydrate diets trigger weight gain: A high carbohydrate meal increases blood glucose and insulin, and leads to a blood sugar crash, which in turn leads to hunger. Studies show when a person eats a high carb meal they get hungry sooner and eat more food. They eat excess fuel and this gets stored as fat.  These graphs show this difference clearly: 2 different high carb meals compared to a moderate carb plus protein and fat meal. Each meal has identical calories, yet the mixed meal had completely different effects on blood sugar, satiety and hunger. Square = oats, quick cooked, circle = oats, slow cooked, triangle = eggs, vegetables and fruit.

Serum glucose and insulin responses to 3 different meals, low GI omelete and fruit, mod GI slow cooked oats and high GI instant oats

Serum glucose and insulin responses to 3 different meals, low GI omelet and fruit, mod GI slow cooked oats and high GI instant oats

 

Food intake following low, med, high GI meals

(This is why calorie counting by itself is fairly useless, it does not take into account the effect of different foods on hormones,  satiety or nutrient status.)

So yes – high carbohydrate diets can be a real problem as they cause overeating.  The mistake many make is that they take this to an extreme – if a high carb meal increases insulin, then if we want to lose weight we should eat no carbohydrates. Where this may work for some, but it is a disaster for an athlete burning through carbohydrates for fuel every day. The meal in the above study that decreased eating by half, was a moderate carb meal, that contained both protein and fat also. When someone is craving carbohydrates immediately after a low carb meal and they are insulin sensitive, having a moderate amount usually fixes the problem.

(In fact long-term, even low-level exercisers may feel and be more healthy eating a moderate carbohydrate diet – see Paul Jaminet: Problems with very low and zero carb diets)

If you are eating right for YOU – you should not need to snack or have cravings

In my view – if you are fueling your body correctly you should have good satiety, good energy, good performance and no cravings or need to snack. And – be able to lose excess fat. When I see constant snacking and craving, I wonder if the fuel mix is wrong, the amount eaten is too little, or perhaps nutrients are missing.

Added to this picture – is a poor quality sleep. It could be alcohol or caffeine, however this is something I typically see in CrossFitters or those who exercise at a high intensity who go low carb.

So my thoughts – here is a person who is using carbs for fuel, yet trying to replace them with fat. And the more she craves the more fat she eats. Hmm, fats will never fill glycogen stores – they will to be shuttled into fat stores if there are excess for fuel needs. Time to switch out the fats for carbs, and get the fuel mix right.

My first recommendation?

Eat adequate carbohydrates, mainly glucose (starches) and some fructose (fruit) to replace the glycogen used from muscles and liver (fructose is good for replacing liver glycogen). How much? As a general rule a fist size of starch (kumara, taro, sweet potato, parsnip, beets etc) at each meal usually provides what your body needs. And after workouts a fist size with some protein. And 1 – 2 pieces of fruit. This works out at about 150 grams carbs a day.

Second recommendation

Cut fats. I’m not talking low-fat – have added fat to meals, but cut the snacking on handfuls of nuts. If you eat more fat than you oxidise, it will be tucked away in fat cells.

 

As commenters have pointed out there are a number of other problems with her diet:

Excess omega 6.

Fatty meat, especially poultry and pork, and some nuts have high levels of omega 6. Omega 6 is the building block of primarily pro-inflammatory eicosanoid hormones. Yes we need some, about 5 – 8 grams a day. However just 100 grams of almonds will load you with 12 grams Omega 6. It is highly likely this woman’s high fat diet has up to 20 grams a day. Excess omega 6 is linked with inflammation and obesity.

Cut out the handfuls of nuts, eat nuts and fat low in omega 6: macadamia, hazelnuts, coconut and palm kernel oil, avocado are lowest. (Use this guide to reduce omega 6) Also choose low omega 6 protein sources: ruminant grass-fed animals (beef, lamb and venison) and seafood.

Need to increase food sources of omega 3

Omega 3 enhances fat loss – use seafood at one meal every day – fish, and shellfish, crustaceans, etc. The bonus is you get a lot of minerals in seafood as well, many of these are low in land based animals, e.g zinc, selenium, iodine, and trace minerals.

Diet drinks

People assume because diet drinks are calorie free they wont contribute to weight gain. Research is showing that det drinks are linked with a number of problems. They increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and being overweight.

Alcohol

Alcohol interferes with sleep quality. It reduces the amount of time spent in deep sleep, so sleep is less restorative.

Alcohol decreases self-control and increases impulsiveness. So you go out for a meal, decide to eat well, and a couple of glasses later:  I’ll eat the triple scoop ice-cream sundae, to hell with it – I’ve been good all week.

Alcohol is fuel. Once detoxified by your liver it goes into the cells where it is converted into ATP (the energy for your cells). (Alcohol metabolism) If cells have all the energy they need that ice-cream sundae is shunted into your fat cells.

My recommendation – cut down on alcohol, save it for social nights and when you do drink – drink a small amount (1 – 2 glasses), earlier in the evening, so it is less likely to interfere with sleep, OR cut alcohol out for a few weeks to reduce reliance on it. (If you can’t do this – you have an alcohol problem in my opinion)

Sleep

Many people vastly underestimate the importance of sleep for weight loss and performance. Lack of sleep increases insulin resistance, increases hunger hormones, gives poorer appetite controlincreases muscle loss and decreases fat loss. When college athletes slept more – their performances; both strength and fitness improved in this study. I recommend the client gets 8 hours sleep per night.

Caffeine

People’s responses to caffeine vary, however for some even one cup a day can affect sleep. If sleep does not improve with dietary changes I recommend removing all caffeine for a trial of 2 – 3 weeks.

Recovery and relaxation

You can’t expect results without recovery. Many of these women thrash themselves day after day with the same level of high intensity exercise, worried that if they take time off they will stop getting results. Consequently they are likely (but not always) suffering adrenal fatigue. I recommend taking time out from high intensity exercise, have relaxation and rest days or weeks, don’t train when fatigued. Get tested for adrenal issues.

 

Portion Control

I give this guide for portion control:

Protein – amount needed is approx 1.5 – 2 grams per kilo ideal body weight per day. For most people following this rule – 1 – 2 palms of protein food per meal just happens to work out very closely to this. (If you want to be more precise – use this as a guideline: Protein amounts in seafood, meat and dairy) I recommend ‘leanish’ protein as I’ve sometimes noticed excess fat in protein foods can keep fat cells topped up rather than allowing them to empty. Make one meal a day a seafood meal. Eggs, 3 per meal for most females, 4 for some.

Carbohydrate: for adequate carbohydrate – at least 100 grams per day, closer to 150 grams (or more – you might need up to 400 grams a day for heavy workouts) works for females doing a this amount exercise. A fist of starch at each meal and one post workout usually supplies enough. (For a more accurate guide to carb amounts use this: Paleo diet carb list and carb counter.)

The amount needed if you are exercising and insulin sensitive is from 2 – 6 grams/kg/day. Play around with this and see what makes you feel best.

What about fat? Eat about a thumb size at each meal. 2 – 3 teaspoons of added oil or fat, if nuts about 2 – 3 tablespoons, if avocado; 1/4 to 1/2. Make sure you eat low omega 6 fats and foods high in omega 3 (Use this as a guide: Omega 3 and 6 in fats, oils, meats and seafood)

Other food recommendations:

Eat organ meats for their high nutrient value once a week (liver, kidneys etc)

Make bone broth and drink a small cup most days, or use bony meats like ox tail and lamb necks in slow cooked casseroles. These are rich in collagen and glucosamine, good for joints and gut.

Probiotic foods: kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut for healthy gut bacteria

Non starch vegetables: Eat a lot for nutrient content, prebiotic fibre and polyphenols. At least one cup per meal in addition to starch. Try to get one to two cups per day from each of the sulphur group, green vegetables, and  bright colours. Also add some sea vegetables for minerals.

Supplements:

Continue to get sun at midday to keep vitamin D levels high. Supplement in the winter, 2000 – 4000iu per day. Vitamin D is needed for insulin sensitivity, fat loss and strength.

Magnesium is useful for helping sleep improve. The more exercise you do the higher your magnesium requirement.

I also recommend a good quality multivitamin initially as it can help weight loss and reduce cravings linked to nutrient deficiencies.

The Results:

I send my clients away with a meal template, specific recommendations and a paleo guidebook. And usually see them in a follow-up visit 2 weeks later.

This is what these clients typically tell me next visit:

Diet changes: The client was a highly motivated person and put in most of the diet changes I recommended above. She cut out the diet soda, followed the meal template, stopped snacking. She even cut out alcohol after realising subsequent to the visit on her first weekend of her new programme that she completely derailed herself with weekend drinking.

Lifestyle changes: She made an effort to get a minimum of 7 hours sleep a night, and found with the increased carbs and magnesium she slept soundly.

Exercise: She continued 5 sessions a week of CrossFit, and found she had no problem with this with the diet change, she hit PB’s and has greatly improved recovery

How is her sleep? much improved, sleeping far better and going to sleep more easily.

Any cravings? cravings gone, no need to eat between meals. “I feel SO much better eating more carbohydrates!”

How is performance? good, getting PB’s at the gym, great energy in workouts and good recovery. One client noted ” I thought it was normal to feel sore for days after a workout, with more carbohydrates this no longer happens”  (Some commenters suggested cutting back on exercise, I prefer to see if the problem is a fuel issue before recommending that, in most cases like these it is, and correct fuel will fix the performance, energy and sleep issues)

Weight loss – slowly reducing (the best way), judged by measurements, not just scales

What if weight loss is not happening?

Occasionally a client will not have the expected fat loss, and then other factors need to be considered, like stress, over exercising, eating too much, hormonal imbalance, undiagnosed thyroid issues or adrenal fatigue (I usually recommend they see a holistic doctor for tests) Before that I suggest putting their meals in a diet analysis for 2 – 3 days – this usually pinpoints an overeating issue, which is easily fixed. I’m not a fan of counting calories but there have been times this helps a client. I much prefer adjusting meals and portions and judging the success by how they feel, sleep, and perform, plus giving fat loss.

Stress, sleep and recovery MUST be addressed. If not you will never get results, no matter how good your diet.

There are a few articles others have written on this subject that I highly recommend you read:

Robb Wolf:  Low Carb and Paleo: My Thoughts Part 1

My Thoughts on Low Carb and Paleo, Part Deux

My thoughts on Low Carb and Paleo Episode 3: A New Hope

Jamie Scott: Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 1).

Calorie Rants and Ketosis (part 2)

Prof Andro Protein & Carbs How Much do You Actually Need After a Workout?

 

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17 Responses to “Low carb paleo + crossfit, not losing weight – my recommendations”

  1. Thank you so much Julianne, for posting your recommendations. I am going to apply some of your suggestions to my own diet to see if I can yield the same results as your client… If not, then I am booking a session to come and see you!!!
    Love your blog posts! Keep ‘em coming :-)

    February 21, 2013 at 12:20 pm Reply
  2. Cherie #

    You *might* be right about this, BUT….

    Most people who fail attempting a low carb diet do exactly as she is doing – not holding out for longer than three days.

    The thing is that to be successful with a low carb diet, you have to break the addiction to flour and sugar. In order to break the addiction, you have to first go through a sort of withdrawal phase, where you feel like crap for about 3 days as your body adjusts to burning fat for energy rather than carbs. After that, it gets a bit easier.

    If you never make it past that crucial 3-day threshold, you’ll never truly benefit from the low carb diet, and never make it past the struggle stage.

    I personally have Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, and struggled with my weight for years. I used to starve myself at under 1000 calories a day, and would work out on the elliptical 3 to 5 times a week, burning 900 calories per session (according to the machine), felt hungry all the time, and still couldn’t lose weight. I tried eating more, eating less, working out more, working out less, nothing worked.

    My first success losing weight came with Atkins. I was a total carb addict, so it was difficult to get past that 3-day threshold and I felt like crap, but then I started feeling a whole lot better after that. It was popular back then, so I had been forewarned about the first 3 days, and had planned ahead and prepared myself for it. After not being able to lose weight except in extreme cases of starvation and exercise, I lost 15 lbs in under 2 months, which is super fast for me.

    After that, I was able to control my weight, but still had to be super careful with carbs. Then I discovered Crossfit and paleo, and found a new level of success. I’m now back down to a size 4, like I was back in the beginning of my college days. I can now eat about 1600 or more calories per day without gaining weight, which is amazing for me, considering I previously had to keep it to about 1000.

    I never go hungry anymore, and I never crave sweets. I now have low-sugar desserts made with coconut milk, I eat 85-90% cacao dark chocolate, or I just have berries and macadamia nuts for dessert.

    May 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm Reply
    • All of those struggling on low carb were on it for weeks or months, so had got past that transition. This is a reaction to too low carb over the long term.

      May 9, 2013 at 10:52 am Reply
      • Cherie #

        Hi Julianne, thanks for your response!

        I should have clarified that I was referring to this client in particular, where you wrote “She is constantly craving carbohydrates, and every 2 or three days gives in to unbearable cravings and eats junk carbs (sugar, refined grains). To be honest this is probably saving her from completely crashing out.”

        The unbearable cravings come just before the body switches to burning fat to energy (I’m guessing it happens *after using up the glycogen stores*), rather than our society’s typical simple carbs as the primary energy source. It takes about 3 days of strict low carbing without cheating for the body to make that transition.

        If she never makes it past that *crucial 3-day threshold*, she’ll never get past the struggle stage or make that beneficial transition.

        The people who succeed long term with a low carb lifestyle are the ones who have made it past that threshold to the point that they are more easily able to burn fat for energy, and therefore less likely to crave the carbs that cause the glycemic reaction, hormonal problems, diabetes, and fat gain.

        For me, this is how I overcame my constant weight struggle, and my struggle with feeling hungry and grumpy all the time, having to work out all the time, and having to limit myself to about 1000 calories per day.

        Other than that, I agree that CrossFitters in general may need a certain amount of carbs here and there for optimal athletic performance. But for anyone who never gets past their glycogen stores to the point of burning fat for energy, they are likely to struggle with their weight a lot more than those of us who have overcome what I call the addiction to sugar and flour. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing low carb for months or years if you’ve never made it past that crucial 3-day threshold without a major carb refill.

        I’m not a medical expert, but that has been my observation (both personally, and from others who have also successfully lost weight and kept it off), and fits everything I’ve read so far.

        May 10, 2013 at 6:05 am Reply
  3. Jennifer #

    This is exactly what I just discovered with myself. I started paleo last fall and immediately dropped from 143 pounds, 23 percent body fat to 126 pounds, 17 percent body fat within 3 months. I don’t do crossfit but I lift weights for about 30 minutes 6 days a week and do about 20 minutes of interval training 6 days a week. After those first 3 months I really wanted to lose my last 5 pounds so I dropped all carbs except for veggies. In the first three months (when I effortlessly lost the weight) I was allowing myself to eat 2 servings of fruit per day, some cheese, greek yogurt, and sweet potatoes. After dropping all these carbs I immediately began my weight gain and over the next 5 months I gained all my weight back :(. I recently started researching what could be causing my weight gain and I discovered it was definitely the low carb eating. Since adding all the carbs back in I’ve begun to quickly drop the weight again and my performance in the gym is AMAZING! So I’m convinced that low carb is NOT beneficial. This article is perfect and definitely makes me feel confident that what I’m doing is right.

    June 19, 2013 at 4:43 pm Reply
    • Thansk for sharing your experience. Great to hear that you are making progress.

      June 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm Reply
  4. Lisa #

    What different recommendations would you have made if your client was “apple shaped”? For those folks, I consider insulin-resistance and have no good ideas. Thoughts? Love your blog!

    June 20, 2013 at 1:03 am Reply
    • Dont eat carbohydrate alone, always with protein and fat. Dont overeat carbs at any one time. Eat the bulk post workout, and about 1/2 a fist at each meal. If you are exercising – your insulin sensitivity increases.

      June 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm Reply
  5. Sean Murray #

    Love your thoughts on a client of mine. She’s plateaued after intial gains on paleo and crossfit training (3-4 times a week). Been doing both for 18 weeks but hit the wall after 7 weeks. recently tried limiting fruit intake..then starches but still no consistent improvement. She’s a pear shape with a 0.64 waist to hip ratio and carries it her weight on bum, hips and thighs. Concerned about insulin resistance or thyroid issues. Asked her to get thyroid tests done at doctors to rull out hypothyroidism. Any suggestions regarding the eating?

    September 9, 2013 at 4:42 am Reply
  6. Sandy #

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Let it be known to all you paleo eating cross-fitters that feulling your exercise on carbs does cell membrane damage that doesnt happen with fat. This taxes your recovery more and when overtaxed you will burn through your stem cells and shorten your telemere lengths . . . and your lifespan.

    Dont believe me? Prove me wrong by getting your telemeres tested and see how much older you are biologically the chronologically. Otherwise, continue as you are and even though you’ll look and feel great, eventually you will be the best looking corpse in the cemetry and you’ll probably get there faster too.

    For the client given as the example in this article . . . less exercise, more recovery time . . . and permanent fat loss via adipose tissue apoptosis induced by cold thermogenesis. This will also make sure you rid yourself of visceral fat first before subcutaneous fat.

    Now lets see if this makes it on-line in order to help people or if it is withheld in order to make a buck.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am Reply
    • Kerry #

      Sandy if you could spell “telomeres” I any have given your comment a second thought. “A little bit of knowledge” indeed …

      November 1, 2014 at 8:00 am Reply
    • Sandy – I resent the “in order to make a buck” comment – you have no idea how much time I put into blog posts for absolutely no bucks at all. Some people donate which is appreciated, but most people gain info from blogs like mine for free.
      If you make scientific statements like the carbs will shorten your telomeres – please link to valid research backing up your statements.
      Sugar carbs? refined grain carbs? or sweet potato carbs in moderation – there is a difference.
      My client was taking crossfit seriously and hoping to compete. She wasn’t doing it for fat loss, she was told a little fat loss would benefit performance.
      And yes for some – less exercise and more recovery is the answer.

      November 1, 2014 at 3:59 pm Reply
  7. sylvie #

    Thanks for writing the article, it’s given me some insight into why low carb doesn’t work for me. That said, what would you advise for a woman who strength trains 4x/wk and gains strength over the months, hitting PRs, but doesn’t lose weight or inches from the hips, waist or bust? Classic pear, so no insulin issues. How is possible to be stronger without that being reflected in weight or measure,net changes? Thanks!

    June 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm Reply
  8. Jessica #

    Loved your article!
    Im struggling with weight loss, and I would like to hear what you think.
    Im weighing 150 pounds, and my body is not pear shaped, Im really muscled and dont know what to do, either low carb or moderate carb.
    I keep on ganing muscle and I want to cut fat %.
    Thanks

    July 29, 2014 at 11:15 am Reply
    • Try some paleo zone meals – see my post on weight loss

      July 30, 2014 at 12:47 pm Reply
  9. Jen #

    Hello. Perfect timing reading this. What would you suggest for me pls….if I did vlc for few years lost last 15 lbs and was shredded…I loved it!!! But my energy tanked….all the while I changed job and worked out slightly less but food stayed exactly the same( i weigh it out and enter on fit day daily). I have now worsened my ever lingering GI issues from bad to horrible now with sibo and cannot handle fiber….I am fruit dairy grain and gluten free. I am down to eating squash and cooked zucchini and carrots with abpit 6 T fat and 8 oz meat daily Mentally I feel better but cannot lose a pound even after added weight training daily for 15-20 min on top of yoga and cardio. How do balance carbs if they are all starchy and can I lose weight if I don’t eat many n greens

    August 11, 2014 at 8:43 am Reply
    • Yes – high fat and protein and low vegetable carbs can alter gut microbiome in the wrong way. If you increase starch decrease fat in meals.

      November 1, 2014 at 4:00 pm Reply

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