Many people successfully lose weight on diets only to see the pounds creep back on. Frustrating? Yes. Expected? Sadly, research says yes to that too. But not all diets are created equal. The Slow-Carb Diet, which focuses on noshing on a smaller range of foods, suggests followers will have an easier time shedding the pounds and keeping them at bay.© Shana Novak – Getty Images Can this diet help you as a runner or is it just another over-hyped diet preaching unhealthy eating practices?
Designed by self-improvement guru and best-selling author of books including The 4-Hour Chef and The 4-Hour Body (catch the theme?) Tim Ferriss, this addition to the plethora of diets focuses on eating a scaled backlist of acceptable foods that won’t promote fat storage, with the allowance for one cheat day a week. Adhere to a handful of guidelines including trimming your carb intake and ditching sweets, and proponents promise you’ll maximize the fat-burning potential of your body to spark weight loss. No calorie counting required.
Using information he says is gleaned from self-experimentation and “the collective wisdom” of experts including physicians, Ferriss’ Slow-Carb Diet employs five main tenets. Let’s break them down and see if bringing them all together can indeed help you as a runner or if it’s just another over-hyped diet preaching unhealthy eating practices.
Rule #1: Steer clear of “white” carbohydrates.
Carb-loading can be a challenge on this diet since it instructs you to avoid what is referred to as “white” carbohydrates on diet days. This includes bread and pasta made from refined flour, white rice, cereals, baked goods, potatoes, and fried food with breading. There is also little room in the diet for whole grains like oats, as followers are instead encouraged to get their carbs from legumes and vegetables. Like the ketogenic diet, the Slow-Carb Diet seems to be based on the premise that eating fewer starchy and sugary carbs could aid weight loss by increasing the breakdown of fat for energy and increasing feelings of fullness.
Need to Know: There is some merit to this guideline. After all, refined grains and sugary cereals aren’t as nutrient-dense as their less-processed counterparts and their lack of fiber could lead to the blood sugar fluctuations that contribute to fat gain. But users will also notice that it’s not just white carbs that are shunned, but whole-grains are also largely axed in the diet.
“Whole grains have so many other nutrients and compounds that are important to our health that it would be a detriment to fully restrict them,” says Rebecca McConville, R.D., L.D., C.S.S.D., author of Finding Your Sweet Spot.
And contrary to what many believe, a diet richer in whole grains—not fewer—have largely been shown to help in weight loss pursuits. The mechanisms could be many including their ability to increase satiety due to fiber and reduce fat absorption. “And once you cut out a food group like grains it makes it harder for athletes to get the calories and nutrients needed to sustain training,” notes McConville. “I find most athletes are under-fueling and cutting out grains will likely make this worse.”
Your Move: It’s fine to limit the amount of white refined carbs on your dinner plate, but whole grains like quinoa and brown rice can provide you with vital nutrients and valuable energy to fuel your workouts, especially when consumed in appropriate portions.
Rule #2: Eat the same meals from the same foods.
The Slow-Carb Diet directs followers to obtain their daily calories from five main food groups: animal protein, non-starchy vegetables, legumes, fats, and spices. Each meal can consist of eating as much as you want of the first three food groups, plus smaller amounts of the last two. Calorie-counting is not required, instead, eat until you feel full. It’s recommended that you find a few simple meals you like and stick to them.
According to Ferriss, the more options you have to choose from, the more likely you are to deviate from the plan. Compliant proteins include chicken, beef, fish, pork, eggs (particularly egg whites), and beans. For veggies, focus on non-starchy options such as spinach, broccoli, and asparagus. Fats can hail from avocado, nuts, and olive oil. Except for cottage cheese, consuming dairy is discouraged since it’s said the food group can raise insulin levels making fat loss more challenging. The big idea is to mix and match the allowed foods from each food group to build meals and then repeat these meals on most days.
The emphasis is on high-protein meals, and snacking is generally frowned upon on the Slow-Carb Diet. The guidelines suggest that if you’re eating large enough portions of the permitted foods at the diet’s four meals per day, you should not be hungry for snacks.
Need to Know: There are a few things to unpack here. Indeed, there is some research showing that reducing diet variety in overweight people could be an effective way to naturally slash calorie intake to encourage weight loss. Not to mention making meal planning and grocery shopping less onerous.
On the flip side, beyond the risk of monotony, McConville points out that limiting foods like dairy makes it harder for athletes to get all the necessary calories and nutrients for optimal health and exercise recovery, not to mention it can fire up cravings.
“When we cut out foods our brain will turn on mechanisms to ensure we get what we are deficient in. So the more we don’t allow ourselves to have particular foods, the more we think about them,” she says.
There is only so much chicken breast and steamed broccoli you can eat before suffering palate burnout. And consider your breakfast options without oatmeal, yogurt, or toast. There is also a concern that this diet encourages the intake of large amounts of animal protein, which could set you up for an increased risk for heart disease, especially when it comes to eating lofty amounts of red meat and poultry.
“Our bodies desire more balance,” McConville concludes. So it’s a good idea to ease up a bit on the animal protein intake in favor of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, and tofu. (Often shunned by other diets like Paleo, legumes are given a green light in the Slow-Carb Diet, which is a bright spot.)
“We know that beans and lentils offer runners a good mixture of carbs, protein, fiber, and many beneficial plant compounds, so I equate them with getting more bang for the buck,” says McConville.
There are reasons to gravitate towards the diets high-protein recommendation at meals. For instance, a British Journal of Nutrition (BMJ) study found that increasing the amount of protein at breakfast can lead to sustained feelings of fullness when following a calorie-controlled diet. So bumping up your protein at breakfast could put the brakes on overeating later on in the day thereby contributing to weight loss. Another study showed that eating more protein can help preserve lean body mass when losing weight, and that is important for keeping your metabolism revving.
Going heavy on non-starchy veggies is definitely a good thing as items like leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses. But McConville stresses that, like whole-grains, starchier veggies including carrots and beets is another example of a food that could offer us, runners, useful carbohydrates, fiber, electrolytes, and phytonutrients to aid in performance and recovery.
Your move: It’s okay to focus on eating a handful of nutritious staples, and you should make sure to get enough protein at each meal, but as long as you choose the most nutritious options more often than not from all the food groups, including dairy, there is little harm in playing the field.
Rule #3: Don’t drink your calories.
This diet encourages people to guzzle plenty of water throughout the day and supplement this with only non-caloric beverages, such as black coffee and unsweetened tea. Drinks that deliver calories, including fruit juices, soda, milk, and non-dairy milk (like almond) are off the table. There is, however, an allowance for a nightly glass of wine, especially dry types as well as a bit of creamer in your morning cup of joe. The thought here is that caloric drinks are not as satiating and deliver less nutritional value than whole foods.
Need to Know: For the most part, experts like McConville agree that getting most of your calories from foods not drinks is wise. Sipping water throughout the day will keep you hydrated, and research suggests doing so may help keep your hunger in check. There is also data to show that calories in liquid form are less satiating than calories in solid form, which could contribute to overeating. And certainly, sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to weight gain. With that said, if you are running up a storm, the calories from the occasional glass of OJ or postworkout smoothie won’t do you any harm.
Your move: “Strive to obtain most of your nutrition from foods first,” advises McConville. So instead of slamming the door shut on all caloric drinks as dictated by this diet, you could shoot for getting 90 percent of calories from solid food with about 10 percent hailing from liquid nutrition, such as milk or smoothies.
Rule #4: Don’t eat fruit.
Even though most dietitians will say that fruits are part of a balanced diet, it’s a common theme among carb-stingy diets to gang up on fruit, and the Slow-Carb Diet is no exception. It claims that this food group is not necessary and not helpful when you’re trying to lose weight.
This idea is based on the belief that fructose, one of the sugars in fruits, could stymie the weight loss process by increasing blood fat levels and decreasing fat-burning capacity. Two exceptions are tomatoes and avocado, which are most often considered vegetables but are botanically fruits. To keep calorie intake in check, avocado consumption should be limited to one meal per day and no more than 1 cup.
Need to Know: While consuming too many added sugars impacts your weight, the connection between the naturally-occurring sugars in fruit and midsection fat has not been found. In fact, investigations, such as this one in the journal Nutrients and this one in the publication Frontiers in Nutrition, show the opposite to be true: Daily servings of fruit can be an ally in weight loss.
McConville explains that the amount of fructose in studies shown to lead to weight gain is much higher than you’d get with typical servings of fruit. “This is a perfect example of misconstrued research that still has lingering effects,” she says. Besides, any sugar in fruits like berries and apples come bundled with fiber and nutrients that runners need for performance and health, while their natural sugars help power your sprints. Without fruit and grains, it would be a challenge for runners to get the carbs they need from legumes and kale alone.
Your Move: There is no reason why eating fruit can’t be part of an eating plan geared toward getting leaner or supporting your run training. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that we should eat at least two cups of fruit in our daily diet. The more you run the greater your fruit allowance can be.
Rule #5: Take one day off each week.
On this eating plan, you get one cheat day per week in what’s known as a “Dieters Gone Wild” day. Here, you’re encouraged to eat and drink whatever you want in whatever quantities your stomach desires. The diet author believes that one-day gluttony can provide psychological benefits, lessen cravings for vice foods on the other six days, and improve fat loss efforts by bumping up calorie intake once per week and making sure your metabolic rate doesn’t drop in the face of caloric restriction.
Need to Know: There’s no real medical evidence for the assertion that single-day binges do much to maintain diet compliance or keep your metabolism revving along. “First off, the name in itself [Dieters Gone Wild or Cheat Day] creates a negative connotation and a heightened excitement creating an unhealthy relationship with food,” cautions McConville.
“Cheat days also create even more categorization of foods into good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy, which is a slippery slope for disordered eating,” she adds. If you can’t wait for an eat-what-you-want cheat day to come around, it’s a good sign that mentally you think the rest of your diet is restrictive or undesirable.
Your Move: A better approach is to cut yourself some slack and scatter moderate amounts of your favorite foods throughout the week as part of an overall balanced, health-forward diet that supports your training. That way, you won’t be left with feelings of lingering guilt or be creating an unhealthy relationship with food.
The Bottom Line:
Yes, some have successfully lost weight and kept it off by following the rather straightforward eating guidelines of the Slow Carb Diet. But in many cases, rigid diets like this one, which leaves little room for a more balanced approach to eating, are a recipe for failure. You’ll likely drop pounds at the outset when following the diet’s blueprint, but that is the case with nearly any diet and research shows it rarely lasts. Plus, the restrictions may not sufficiently support your run training.
Using data from 121 clinical trials, a report in The BMJ found that 14 popular diets led to modest weight loss and improvements in blood pressure at six months for overweight people, but by 12 months the effects on body weight and heart disease risk had largely disappeared. Really, for any diet to work it needs to be sustainable long-term, and this one may not be it.