The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

My Life Without Carbs

June 12th, 2009 · 20 Comments · Posted in Wellness

Pastured cheeseburger with avocado

Pastured cheeseburger with avocado, no bun

 Robert Atkins was pilloried by the medical profession for having the nerve to question the prevailing dogma that fat is at the root of  our dietary ills. Not fat, Atkins insisted, carbohydrates. Quit carbohydrates and the fat will melt off your body and restore your health. His words were like mana to millions of Americans suffering the diseases of modern civilization–obesity, diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis.

Could it be true? Was it really possible to eat a diet rich in protein and fat and still lose weight? It sounded like a fairy tale.

People laughed. They pictured a thick steak slathered in butter and thought that could not be the road to a sleek body, a healthy heart. Preposterous! Atkins must be some kind of fraud.

Or so the American Medical Association would have you believe.

But you know what? For the last three months I’ve been on precisely the kind of diet that Atkins advocated–eliminating nearly all carbohydrates from my plate in favor of bacon and eggs and burgers–and I’ve not only lost 20 pounds but dramatically improved my cholesterol and triglyceride profile. I did not eat steak every night–not by a long shot–but I did manage to replace rice and potatoes with a variety of meats, poultry, eggs, cheese, nuts, berries and green vegetables that got me through three meals a day plus snacks.

I thought I would share a little of what eating without carbs has been like, and why I think it’s a healthier diet for anyone who has issues with insulin and weight gain. Why do I mention insulin? Because insulin, one of the body’s most powerful hormones, regulates fat storage in the body and is stimulated by eating carbohydrates. Diabetes is a disease of overexposure to insulin. And we now know that obesity and diabetes–along with hypertension and atherosclerosis–form a cluster of diseases for which insulin–not fat–is the primary cause.

I’m not saying that everyone should give up bread and potatoes, pasta and rice or cake and ice cream. But if you are like me–growing around the middle, watching your blood pressure rise, your cholesterol spike–you very likely have an issue with insulin and good reason to think twice about the carbohydrates you consume. And we now know that this is not just a problem of middle age. Even children in alarming numbers are becoming obese, even diabetic.

Is it any wonder, when you see a kid sitting in front of the television, arm buried in a bag of potato chips, guzzling a super-sized soda? We are exposing children to a veritable orgy or carbs, and they constitute a gathering tsunami of future health problems.

I did not undertake a complete overhaul of my eating habits without doing some homework. Better even than Atkins’ original text, “Diet Revolution,” were treatments by Michael R. Eades and Mary Dan Eases, “Protein Power” and “The Protein Power Lifeplan.” Don’t be put off by the goofy titles: there’s plenty of sober science behind the publisher’s hype. I had also studied “The South Beach Diet” by Arthur Agatston. But the most compelling of all was Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” a sweeping study of how a faulty low-fat hypothesis came to dominate our national conversation about what constitutes healthy eating. After five years of research, Taubes, a distinguished science writer, concluded that the American Medical Association had it all wrong.

All of these authors document the same phenomenon: deprived of carbohydrates, the body starts burning fat for fuel. The slimming process begins and other benefits follow: lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol. And here was a surprise for me: while protein and fat are essential for human health, carbohydrates are utterly unnecessary. Is our body trying to tell us something?

For me, the new regimen meant no more oatmeal for breakfast. Switch to eggs and bacon. Not just any eggs, but the ones from local hens, allowed to forage outdoors, that we bought at the local farmers market. These are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and lower in the omega-6 fats that confined chickens pick up from their soy and corn feed. I started incorporating greens from our own garden–mustard and kale and collards–into the breakfast routine. They’re low in carbs (just 8 grams in a cup of cooked kale, for instance), but full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I also find it hard to resist a spoonful or two of the yogurt we make from our dairy’s rich, creamtop milk.

For snacks, I ate slices of whole-milk cheese or hard salami, but also an occasional handful of walnuts or almonds, loaded with good nutrition, and canned sardines for the omega-3 fats.

My lunchtime addiction has become salmon salad, made with sustainably harvested Alaska salmon, chopped celery and onion, mayonnaise. An 8-ounce can makes two generous servings. I make a plate with half an avocado, sliced and drizzled with olive oil, and perhaps some salad greens simply dressed with olive oil and white wine vinegar. Avocados are rich in vitamins, potassium and monounsaturated fat. Sometimes I replace the salmon salad with cottage cheese.

At dinner we elminated the pasta, the rice, the potatoes. We haven’t really missed it, except perhaps daughter, who finds the carb-free lifestyle boring. (Like most kids, she’s addicted to pizza and pasta.) We simply ate more green vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts and green beans, all low in carbohydrates but rich in good nutrition. We became increasingly more conscious of our protein choices, ordering pastured meats such as hamburger, chuck roast and beef liver from our local dairy. The dairy also offers selections of pork sausage and lamb from local growers. We search out free-range chicken. Perhaps best of all, we started eating fish like crazy, using the list of sustainable seafood from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site to pick environmentally friendly halibut and sablefish, trout and catfish, scallops, squid and shrimp.

And we did not deny ourselves dessert. We whip the thick, whole cream that our dairy delivers with a little vanilla and spoon it over berries–strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. They’re also low in carbs (just 5 grams in a half-cup of strawberries) but full of healthy antioxidants.

My goal during these three months was to consume fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Compare that to our lopsided federal dietary guidelines, which call for an incredible 300 grams of carbs or more.  Most days I beat my own goal. Eating more protein and fat had a definite calming effect on my appetite. I no longer grazed the pantry the way I did when carbs ruled my diet. And the improvement in my cholesterol and triglycerides came without any additional exercise. I’m no fitness nut. But I had to stop using my eliptical machine when the power cord went missing. I simply left the car in the driveway and started walking everywhere I needed to go–good for me and good for the planet.

Even after losing 20 pounds I have no intention of changing my diet. I’m enjoying it too much. But I do think that consuming lots of saturated fats may be counter- productive, since the fat I’m trying to lose–the stuff around my “beer belly”–also is saturated fat. So instead of bacon for breakfast, I’ve switched to ham. Instead of cheese and salami for snacks, I’m eating herring, more sardines, and macadamia nuts. Macadamia nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat and low in carbs. We are ordering less beef in favor of fish. But pastured beef is already leaner than corn-fed beef, and doesn’t contain all the omega-6 fats that industrial beef picks up from its corn-based diet.

And we still like an occasional whipped cream dessert.

I don’t see my new way of eating as difficult or heroically disciplined. Once you know the dangers of too many carbohydrates, it’s no trouble at all giving them up. I also recognize that many people think eating animal protein is environmentally unsound. To which I say that humans spent 2.6 million years evolving on a diet composed largely of animal meat and fat. Meat is the most nutritious food we know. Surely there is merit in trying to save a place for it on our dinner plate. If we want to fight global warming, perhaps we should think more seriously about using public transportation, about not making electricitywith coal-fired power plants, about ending destruction of  the Amazon rain forest.

I don’t have anything against vegetarians. But frankly, I would rather eat one than be one.

My focus is losing another 20 pounds.

For more great stories about how we are taking back our food system, read Fight Back Fridays.

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  • fastweedpuller

    Congrats, Ed! You must be feeling a whole lot better, too.

    I’ve admitted my mom is an Atkins nut. While it has worked for her, it’s made her so dependent on boxed foods (or anything with a label that tells protein and carbs) that I think it’s made her a little nutty. Considering there are no labels on the foods in this house, I kind of have to do a bit of persuading to “get” her to eat certain things. And then she considers it a treat and not something she’d duplicate at home for herself, so…that’s my issue with my own exposure to Atkins.

    I do think the move for you away from cured meats is a good thing! And I envy you your access to good fish. Glad to hear it is going so well for you: 20 lbs is nothing to sneeze at. The CDC recently published a slideshow of the percentage change in overweight/obesity for all 50 states: it’s really chilling. Michigan is 27% of folks with a BMI over 30! Here’s the link:

    Anyway, I always think of you when I crack one of our eggs over our greens…

  • csells

    Do you think carbs should be totally eliminated from our diet? Would it be okay to have bread or pasta 1 day a week? I seriously would like to hear your response. You seem to have done a lot of research and I value your opinion.

  • Ed Bruske

    El, why don’t you get your mom one of those calorie counter books that lists the carb content of everything? Mine’s called “The Supermarket Nutrition Counter” and since the foods we buy don’t have packaging (and lots comes from the garden) I refer to it frequently. For me, I just try to avoid things from the plant kingdom unless they’re green, or unless I’ve given them a lot of thought for other benefits, such as nuts and yogurt. If it’s from an animal, it’s okay by me. But as you say, some people might want to limit cured meats.

    CS, humans have always been eating carbohydrates. Think fruits and nuts, seeds and berries. But cultivated grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes are a new thing in evolutionary terms. The introduction of these into the diet was probably not a good thing. But too late now. Nobody’s going to eliminate them on my say so. Anyone who is diabetic or experiencing insulin issues (weight gain, obesity) should not be eating them, to my mind, even occasionally. Even kids should be eating less of it (and certainly less sugar) because these problems I’m talking about–inulin resistance and diabetes especially–are things that take years of too much insulin to manifest. But if you are otherwise healthy, I’m sure an occasional slice of bread or pasta is not going to kill you. Bottom line: everyone is different, with a different metabolism rate and different tolerances. You must know your own body.

  • foodperson

    Glad that’s working for you, Ed, and you’re exactly right about everyone being different. Those of us who have osteoporosis rather than weight/BP concerns worry about the potential of high-protein diets to erode our bones–although that potential, like everything else diet and health related (as far as I can tell) is subject to some debate.

  • FoodRenegade

    What a great and encouraging story, Ed.

    Thanks for sharing!

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • Ed Bruske

    Janet, osteoporisis is over my head. I try to think of my approach to food not so much as dieting as avoiding insulin. We can’t live without insluin, but too much of it turns out to be life-shortening.

  • Vin - NaturalBias

    Hi Ed, congratulations on your improved health and your weight loss! I also follow a low carb diet, but not in the Atkins sense, and not to lose weight (although I did lost 30 lbs as a result).

    My intentions are more health related, and the obvious solution in regard to nutrition was to eat more natural whole foods. There is a nutritional philosophy called Metabolic Typing which is based on the premise that we’ve all evolved from different lineages and have unique nutritional needs. This is why some people do great on Atkins and why others have an awful time. As it turned out, I happen to be a “Protein Type” which is why a low carb type of diet works so well for me.

    I love your argument about evolution. I use that one all the time when people try to tell me that all the red meat that I eat (grass fed of course) is bad for me.

  • Ed Bruske

    Vin, I couldn’t agree more about the value of whole foods. I don’t know if any of our readers are buying processed foods. But the message is always worth repeating–eat real food, the kind of stuff your great-great-grandma would have recognized. I’ve heard about the “metabolic typig.” My sister mentioned it recently. I don’t know what type I am. Probably just ornery. Is that protein?

  • ameliam

    I just found your site and I love it. I am doing South Beach. Actually, I just read the ingredients list and am doing my own thing. Like low-fat cheese or sugar substitutes? No thanks. I try to avoid processed foods, so I’ll stick with goat cheeses in tiny portions and go w/o sugar for now. The diet did help me understand good portion sizes for healthy fats like nuts (because I’d want to eat a lot more, but I limit it for now). I’ve lost 15 pounds in about two months. I never ate much processed food, ate a lot of whole grains and all the healthy stuff everyone always recommended, but I just gained weight no matter what I did.

    I feel like this diet is really luxurious, actually (given all the fats I’ve been told to avoid since I was twelve!). Eggs? What could be better. It’s interesting to read about your success, and your approach.

    I think carbs can be integrated back in later, in moderation. The Oldways site,, has some really compelling articles about pasta as part of an ancient, healthy way of eating.

  • Ed Bruske

    Amelia, it comes down to a question of where do you get your calories. There are only three possible sources: proteins, fats, carbohydrates. I prefer to get mine from proteins and good fats, but I include healthful green vegetables, which are low in calories and carbs. I avoid calorie-dense carbohydrates such as grains and root vegetables and sweets because of the insulin reaction they produce. But there are some people who swear by grains and won’t eat meat. What I object to are people who are trying to demonize animal proteins in their efforts to press a plant-based diet on everyone.

  • melissarenee


    Great post, although I’m a complex carb fan — mixing them in with healthy proteins and fats. You’re right, fats have been given a bad name. It’s the hydrogenated oils and trans-fats we should avoid, not healthy fats, many of which you mention above. You sound a bit Weston A. Price-ish (I’m a member). I agree with you on the processed carbs, none of us “need” those (health-wise, anyway) and that is part of why we have insulin resistance and diabetes problems in this country. There are a lot of other “no-nos” I’d add to the list, but I don’t want to blah-blah on your blog.

    Congratulations on your weight loss. Good for you!

    P.S. Chopped cucumber and capers are a great addition to your salmon salad. I make my own version of salmon salad and pile it into Napa cabbage leaves — wrap style.

  • rockermocking

    are you hypoglycemic? I am one, which is why I NEED protein too, and lots of it. i could not be a vegetarian because of it and I did try for 5 years.

  • Ed Bruske

    Rocker, no hypoglycemia on my part. Just trying to keep insulin levels as low as possible. However, being a type I diabetic, my wife finds that she must eat some carbs in order to avoid problems.

  • parisj

    surely after reading good calories bad calories you realize saturated fat is not harmful, and is in fact essential?

  • Randall Moon

    I started Mar 11,2010 lost 53 LBS. I Feel good. My blood sugar stays around 100 all the time.
    I started eating Nutlettes cereal with no carb soy milk. It adds about 10 net carbs but there isn’t any glycemic load, and keeps me regular. Right now I feel like staying on this diet for life, I’m 55 now and might live forever, at least longer than I would have.

  • Afik Kutcher

    It is fine with Atkins, especially for people who have a high level of body fat.

    It is best to have a reference point before you start a diet. Get yourself a full blood profile and body mass composition analysis done before you start with this diet.

    I am in the healthcare and bodybuilding. I love Atkins but I prefer Cyclic Ketogenic Diet (CKD). As for CKD, you will continue to consume protein + fat + water (limited to say 1700kcal per day). Do this five days a week. On weekends, you can restore the glycogen level by having a normal balanced diet but lower calorie consumption.

    If you do this for 12 weeks, you should be able to lose a lot of body fat. Don’t forget to do cardio exercises at least three times a week for 1 hour a day, and strength/resistance exercise three times a week for 30 mins a day. You do not want to have saggy body with all the dieting without putting in time to exercise.

    Six pack is easy to get. It is as simple as less carb, sugar but high protein diet.


    Thank GOD I found you. Lois

  • Taryn

    What a disgusting and intolerant view of vegetarians, not to mention wholly and completely inaccurate. Meat is by no means the most nutritious food that humans consume. In fact, it is the reason behind so many of the health problems that people have. You just want an excuse to stuff your face and lack compassion. And for the absolute idiot who said that they NEED to eat meat because they are hypoglycemic and just CAN’T be a vegetarian — I am hypoglycemic and have low blood volume and am vegan. Get over yourself.

  • Ed Bruske

    Did someone get up on the wrong side of their vegetable bed this morning?

  • Cheong Boyliew

    Fantastic article. It was such a relief to know that it is perfectly ok to live a carbohydrates free diet. Thank you and your article gave insight to what to eat to bring back a healthy body. Yes!