Why is Eating Low Carb Harder the Second Time?

Science by Michael Eades, MD

I’ve advocated for low carb lifestyles for decades, and during that time, people have frequently asked me why it seems so much more difficult to successfully follow a low carb lifestyle the second or third time around. I’ve observed this phenomenon in myself and in many others whom I have treated or advised, and it’s a subject worthy of exploration.

I’m going to list the reasons experience has taught me below, starting with situations over which we have no control and moving to those over which we have total control.

Aging
We all get older every day. Sadly, with aging, all systems deteriorate[1]. Some slower, some faster, but all get a little older and a little less functional every day. If you achieve success on a low carb lifestyle and find yourself 70 pounds lighter, you’ll also find yourself a year or two older. If you regain that lost weight, then decide to start another low carb diet to re-lose it, you will likely be a couple of years older than you were on that first try. Just as it’s a little more difficult to pick up tennis at age 41 than it is at age 39, it’s a little more difficult to get everything moving with a low carb lifestyle when you’re a couple of years older.

Built-in survival mechanisms
Although most dietary recommendations are fairly simple, our bodies are unimaginably complex. Not only do we have a complicated metabolism centered around and directed by the liver, we have multiple neurological and endocrinological feedback pathways between the liver-directed metabolic system and the central nervous system. And we have gut hormones that get into the act sending signals of fullness or lack thereof. It is an intricate system designed to allow us to survive on all kinds of food and to keep us alive as long as possible in the face of famine. I like to think of this entire interconnected system as having its own memory. It will allow you to fool it once or maybe twice, but then it gets wise.

Almost everyone who starts any kind of lifestyle for the first time sees pretty rapid results. Pounds seem to fall off quickly and effortlessly. At some point, though, it starts becoming progressively more difficult to lose more weight because the body starts catching on to what’s happening and starts fighting back[2]. This phenomenon seems to occur less with a low carb lifestyle because if it is a good quality low carb lifestyle, the body is getting all the nutrition it needs and doesn’t rebel quite the same as it does with nutritionally inadequate lifestyles. But it does rebel a little, nevertheless. And worse, it remembers.

If you lose weight then regain it and restart a low carb (or any other) lifestyle, the body is not quite so willing to shed the first pounds as quickly as it did the first time. It remembers. If you diligently restrict carbs for about a week, then fall off because of a party, wedding, etc., then try again for another week before falling off, you program your body to hang in there for at least a week before letting go of fat. The body says, “Well, here we go again with another week of this nonsense. Let’s hold steady on and we’ll be back to our regular high-everything lifestyle within a week.” What you will find after a few turns of this cycle is that although the first time eating low carb you may have lost six pounds the first week, the fourth time, you will lose almost nothing the first week. Then the doubt creeps in. And you begin to wonder if the low carb lifestyle will really work for you. It will, but you’ve got to get past the body’s lifestyle memory first.

Increased insulin and leptin resistance
Animal and human studies indicate that we become progressively more insulin and leptin resistant as we age[3]. This is especially true for people who have become overweight or obese and have maintained that state. Sadly, it is also true for those who became overweight or obese and lost the excess weight, which is most of us. The more insulin and leptin resistant we are, the more difficult it is to lose weight. So, the increase in this phenomenon just from the years passing between the first attempt to the second on a low carb lifestyle makes it a little more difficult the next time, even though, ironically, adhering to a low carb diet is the best way to combat insulin and leptin resistance[4].

 

 

Hormonal dysfunction
Women who are wildly successful eating low carb when they are in their 30s/40s/ premenopausal and who then try again when they are in menopause often find it almost impossible to lose weight. For women interested in hormone replacement, it requires fiddling with hormone levels by replacing them with natural hormones and getting the system back into balance before a lot of weight can be lost. Even if the hormones do get back to where they need to be quickly, it takes some time for the body to respond. Often just getting the hormones balanced results in weight loss spontaneously without lifestyle changes. But eating low carb helps the process along more quickly, and it can help women who aren’t interested in hormone replacement therapy[5].

Now we get to the issues that we do have control over. As a team, my wife and I have taken care of more overweight people on low carb lifestyles than possibly anyone alive today. We’ve had thousands and thousands of patients in our clinics and we’ve dealt with many others secondhand through books, lectures, etc. We’ve also monitored the care of many friends, relatives, friends of friends, associates, etc. In shepherding all these people (not to mention ourselves) on low carb lifestyles, we have learned a few things. What follows is a summary of what we’ve learned, not about the biochemistry and physiology of low carb eating, but about the psychology of low carb eating.

Lack of commitment
In my experience, most people don’t seem to commit as strongly the second, third, etc. time around. The first time, people make a major commitment. They lose weight. They feel better than they have in years. They are excited. Then they either continue on their low carb lifestyle and maintain or they don’t. If they don’t, the weight comes back. Then a couple of years later when it’s time to start again, they just don’t have the commitment they did the first time around. And, due to the above reasons, it’s a little more difficult the second time around. They never really get into the swing of it like they did the first time, and then the notion that maybe it won’t work starts to gnaw. And then they start doing a half-hearted low carb lifestyle, which works okay for maintenance, but not for weight loss. Discouragement sets in, and they bolt from the lifestyle. I’ve seen this cycle in action countless times. Don’t fall into it.

People learn how to cheat in their first low carb go round and remember how when they start again
The first time around eating low carb is exciting. You’re actually getting to eat all these forbidden foods–steak, eggs, real butter–that you’ve been taught make you fat and are losing weight like crazy. It’s unbelievable. But sooner or later, you get a little weary of steak, eggs and real butter, and you start looking to expand your food choices. If you stay on your carb restriction, you discover the low carb or “dirty keto” facsimiles of the high carb packaged foods you love so much: low carb brownies (or at least they call them “low carb”), low carb waffles, pancakes, bagels, etc. You are in heaven. You can have your cake and eat it, too, so to speak, and you don’t realize that you’re overindulging. You don’t pay as much attention to ingredients, macros, or nutrition. Maybe carb creep even sets in. Around this time, the weight loss starts to really taper off and maybe even comes to a halt.

A few years later, you’ve regained your lost weight plus some, remember how effortlessly you lost it on a low carb lifestyle, and decide to do it again. But this time, instead of starting with the steak, eggs, and real butter, you stock your pantry with store-bought low carb brownies, bagels, chips, and more. Strangely, the low carb lifestyle just doesn’t seem to work as well this next time around.

If you want a low carb lifestyle to work for you the first time or the next time, control the things you can control. By sticking with high quality, low carb foods and remembering that you control what goes in your pantry and your mouth, you’ll find more success and happiness with your low carb lifestyle.

 

About Dr. Michael Eades

Dr. Michael Eades is a physician and co-author of 10 books in the fields of health, nutrition, and exercise over the last several decades—among them the New York Times bestseller Protein Power and its follow-up The Protein Power LifePlan that laid out one of the first nutritional concepts of a paleo lifestyle.

Dr. Eades regularly writes articles at proteinpower.com and in his weekly email newsletter, The Arrow that incorporates his views on nutrition, medicine, critical thinking and more.

Dr. Eades has appeared as a guest nutritional expert on hundreds of radio and television shows, including national segments on FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC. He speaks at medical and scientific conferences, to the public, and to various lay organizations on the connection of diet and health, exercise, and the benefits of the low-carb, paleo, and keto diets. He and his wife (Mary Dan Eades, M.D.) are currently working on their next book, Protein Power 2.0, slated for publication in 2023.

References

  1.  Karakelides H, Irving BA, Short KR, O’Brien P, Nair KS. Age, obesity, and sex effects on insulin sensitivity and skeletal muscle mitochondrial function. Diabetes. 2010 Jan;59(1):89-97. doi: 10.2337/db09-0591. Epub 2009 Oct 15. PMID: 19833885; PMCID: PMC2797949.
  2.  Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL. Models of energy homeostasis in response to maintenance of reduced body weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Aug;24(8):1620-9. doi: 10.1002/oby.21559. PMID: 27460711; PMCID: PMC4965234.
  3.  Balaskó M, Soós S, Székely M, Pétervári E. Leptin and aging: Review and questions with particular emphasis on its role in the central regulation of energy balance. J Chem Neuroanat. 2014 Nov;61-62:248-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jchemneu.2014.08.006. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25218974.
  4.  Ebbeling C B, Feldman H A, Klein G L, Wong J M W, Bielak L, Steltz S K et al. Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance: randomized trial BMJ 2018;  363 :k4583 doi:10.1136/bmj.k4583
  5.  Ford C, Chang S, Vitolins MZ, Fenton JI, Howard BV, Rhee JJ, Stefanick M, Chen B, Snetselaar L, Urrutia R, Frazier-Wood AC. Evaluation of diet pattern and weight gain in postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. Br J Nutr. 2017 Apr;117(8):1189-1197. doi: 10.1017/S0007114517000952. Epub 2017 May 16. PMID: 28509665; PMCID: PMC5728369.

This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.