A while back, I mentioned that the book Good Calories, Bad Calories had gotten me curious about low-carb diets; here’s an update.

On the reading front, I figured I’d take a look at the Atkins book, since he has the most experience with diets of this sort. And, frankly, I wasn’t too impressed: if I’d read that book first, I probably would never have started on this path.

Which is a bit unfair: that book is primarily targeted at people who want to lose weight, and I have no particular desire to do so, so I’m simply not in its target audience. But there was too much propagandizing, and too many recommendations that didn’t fit my core beliefs of “eat good food” and “don’t pretend that X is a substitute for Y”.

I am largely unwilling to eat sugar substitutes, and I’d be quite surprised if the low-carb flours that he mentioned were a good substitute for the real thing. Also, I roll my eyes at the notion that wild rice could be considered a substitute for other forms of rice. (Not that I have anything against wild rice, it’s a fine food, but you want to pair it with an almost completely different set of foods than you’d want to pair white rice with.) Most of all, my eyes rolled every time they encountered the phrase “Dr. Atkins’ Vita-Nutrient Solution”.

The book also didn’t go very far in terms of answering my questions about the science behind the diet. For example, he recommends an induction phase where you eat almost no carbs: is the claim here that this phase is useful somehow to cause your body’s metabolism to change paths (i.e. is it the case that the sequence 1) lots of carbs, 2) almost no carbs, 3) moderate carbs will have your body processing food differently than if you skip step 2) in that sequence?), or is it just useful in the context of a diet, to prove that you can lose weight this way? Also, Good Calories, Bad Calories suggested that it’s not just the number of carbs that matters, it’s the way that your body processes them (so, for example, brown rice is better for you than white rice), while Atkins didn’t make any such distinction (other than between fiber and other forms of carbs); what’s the deal there?

And, finally, it didn’t give me as much practical advice that I’d like, given that I’m not trying to lose weight. For example, the single area where I find it hardest to avoid carbs is at breakfast: I don’t have a lot of time weekday mornings, so ideas like cooking eggs or bacon are a non-starter. So what should I do? He had a few suggestions that fit my constraints, but not nearly as many as I’d like.

The above paints an overly bleak picture of the book: on the whole, I’m glad I read it. But I’m also glad I checked it out of the library instead of buying a copy.

So that’s my reading. As to eating: we did try brown rice and whole-wheat pasta. We’ve stopped using whole-wheat pasta: it tastes pretty different from regular pasta, and Liesl and I both felt that it went significantly less well with our pasta recipes than regular pasta. (For what it’s worth, pasta turns out to have a better glycemic index than most grain products, by the way.) Brown rice was a pleasant surprise, though: yes, it tastes different from white rice, and has a different texture, but I actually perhaps prefer its taste and texture. It’s not for all situations—I wouldn’t want brown rice sushi, for example—but I’m quite happy to eat brown rice with Indian food. The only drawback is that it takes longer to cook than white rice (we’ve been cooking it for 45 minutes and then letting it sit uncovered with the heat off for 5 minutes), but it’s usually easy to work around that with scheduling. And if not, the occasional white rice won’t kill us.

In general, our dinners are less pasta-heavy than they were; we’re cooking it twice most weeks, but that’s less than we were before. When I started this, we were only cooking pasta once a week; maybe we should get back to that more often?

Lunches have been a big change for me: instead of packing a big tupperware full of pasta, I pack it only half-full of whatever dinner leftover I have (still usually pasta, because pasta meals are easy to double and hence overrepresented as leftovers), but I now always pack three side dishes as well. Exactly what the side dishes are varies, but my most common selection is some form of cheese, some kind of nuts, and a veggie. This only adds a couple of minutes to my morning routine, which is no big deal, and I’m extremely pleased with the results: while I wasn’t complaining before (I quite like the main dishes that we cook), the extra variety really improves my lunches. (Especially the cheese. Fresh mozzarella, yum.)

As I mentioned above, breakfasts are the biggest problem: on weekday mornings, I still don’t see any good alternative to cereal. I took a look at my cereal cabinet and decided that I should try to avoid refined sugar almost entirely (fortunately, I’m just not that big a sugar fan), and the more whole grain the better. What I’ve settled on for now is plain instant oatmeal, topped with cream and fruit. That’s a bit of a shot in the dark, but I will say this: I really like having an excuse to have cream every morning.

Desserts have stayed the same: we still eat a lot of chocolate. I haven’t changed the food I eat when going out very much, though I do try to avoid potatoes now.

As far as my health goes: while I haven’t noticed any particular difference in my day-to-day experiences, my doctor’s reaction to my last blood check was “Your cholesterol levels are excellent. They are so good that I am actually wondering if you’ve changed the way you take the medication or changed your diet or exercise. Whatever it is that you are doing, keep doing that.” I don’t want to ascribe all of that to the diet: my previous results were only a month or so after I started taking simvastatin, and for all I know it may take more than that amount of time for the drug’s full effects to be known. But I am pleased that my triglyceride level has plummeted compared to where it was before: triglycerides are apparently pretty important (rather more so than, say, LDL levels), and one of the claims of low-carb diets (or low-glycemic-index diets) is that they specifically help triglycerides.

But even if I can’t ascribe all (or conceivably any) of the improvements in my cholesterol level to my new diet, that is at least strong evidence that my eating less carbohydrate and more fat (see the cream and cheese mentions above) isn’t hurting me in the way that low-fat diet proponents claim that it should. So I’m sticking with it for now: I’m enjoying what I’m eating, I see no sign that what I’m eating is causing me any health risks, so what’s not to like?

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.