I’ve been on a self improvement kick for the past year. Don’t roll your eyes too much, because if it worked for me, it can work for you, too! (Kidding, you should roll your eyes).
But in all seriousness, I’ve found that I’ve begun to optimize the things I do each day, both big and small.
One of the best and most effective improvements in my life was the Slow Carb Diet, which Tim Ferriss popularized in his book “The 4-Hour Body.”
So what is slow carb? In short, you only eat lean meats, legumes, and vegetables. But you get one day a week to pig out on anything you want.
This diet isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is for those who want dramatic results quickly. Tim said he lost 20 pounds in 30 days, which is about 2 whole clothing sizes (ex: size 10 to 6 or XL to M). I lost 8% percent of my bodyweight in a summer, which is about 9 pounds. If you’re intrigued, read on.
I had just finished the last month of the spring semester, which includes Carnegie Mellon’s carnival weekend, finals week, and senior week, so lots of junk food and terrible health habits.
When I went home for summer break, I realized that I gained 6 pounds in a month that went straight to my face and stomach. Something had to change, fast.
As with all “diets”, there are clear do’s and don’t’s that you should follow to maximize the benefits (and trust me, you’ll want to adhere to them), so here goes.
- Organic eggs (I love the yolk, so I keep it in. You can do egg whites if you want).
- Chicken breast/thigh
- Fish (salmon and catfish are my favorite).
- Grass-fed beef (you can eat normal beef, but grass-fed is ideal).
- Peanut butter (the only ingredients should be peanuts and maybe salt. Limit to 1-2 tablespoons a day).
- Bacon (turkey or organic)
- Black, pinto, and red beans (I stick with black).
- Soybeans (in moderation, especially for women).
Feel free to add variety.
- Spinach (I eat this with two, if not all, meals a day).
- Broccoli (Other go-to).
- Bok Choy
- Sauerkraut (I didn’t try this because I can’t handle the smell, but I’ve heard great things).
- Cruciferous Veggies
- Asparagus (I hate the taste of asparagus, but again, I’ve heard good things).
Spices and Flavor Kicks
- Soy sauce
- Salsa (no added sugar)
- Garlic salt
- Garlic sauce
- Steak rub (Montreal)
- Balsamic vinegar
- Olive, grapeseed, macadamia and oil
- Water, lots of it
- Unsweetened tea
- Coffee (protip: replace cream with cinnamon. It’s tasty, but don’t put in too much – the first time I tried this, I basically did the cinnamon challenge).
- Red wine (1-2 glasses a day don’t seem to affect anything).
They’ll make you fat.
- Bread (whole wheat is still a no-go).
- Rice (white and brown).
- Tortillas (sorry, burrito baby, I’ll see you on cheat day).
- Fried food (breading).
- Whole grains
- Steel-cut oats
- Basically anything white
Don’t imbibe your calories.
- White wine
- Liquor (although I’ve heard that tequila is okay).
All of it.
The only exceptions: You can eat tomatoes, and avocados in moderation. Keep the avocados to one cup/meal a day.
- Remind yourself that the diet is meant to show results, not necessarily be fun.
- Make breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up.
- Eat a meal every 4-5 hours.
- Make the same 5-6 meals every day to work yourself into a routine. I know it sounds boring, but it’s honestly not. It’ll also save you time and make it easier – practice makes perfect.
- If you’re eating out, replace the carbs with extra vegetables.
- Mexican and Thai places, and steakhouses, seem to be the easiest places to maintain a Slow Carb diet, but obviously hold the rice, bread, chips, and noodles.
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining; Ours is Called Cheat Day
Surprisingly, eating whatever you want (once a week) is really good for you. A heavily increased calorie intake one day a week ensures that your metabolic rate doesn’t go down from your limited calorie intake during the other 6.
This means that it actually helps with weight loss. This means that you can and absolutely should eat your heart out.
My designated cheat day is Friday. It consists of a combination of mac and cheese, chocolate ice cream, and/or Chipotle burritos. Plus alcohol.
A few important side notes:
- If you’re just beginning the diet, start 5 days before your chosen cheat day. So I would start on a Sunday since my cheat day is Friday.
- Don’t freak out if you gain weight right after cheat day, it’s normal. You can expect dramatic weight fluctuation during this time because of the water weight, but it’ll go away after a day or two, I promise. After my cheat day, I “gained” 4 pounds.
- If you’re a woman and are experiencing menstruation problems (i.e. your period stops or becomes irregular) like I did after beginning the diet, it’s (most likely) because your leptin level is too low. I recommend eating a high protein and slow carb breakfast and starting your cheat day after. I saw an improvement after 2 complete cycles. I recommend seeing your doctor if you see no change after ~2 months or if you’re getting paranoid.
Here are excerpts from the journal that I kept at the beginning of slow carb. Featured is my commentary on learning how to cook, too.
I made a trip to Trader Joe’s and got the following things for the week:
- 2 bags of Baby Spinach
- 3 cans of black beans
- 5 chicken breasts
- 3 1-lb cuts of pork
- 3 .5-lb packages grass-fed beef
- 2 salmon
- Jar of salsa
- A dozen eggs
I also picked up potassium, magnesium, and calcium supplements, and fish oil to be taken everyday. The total weekly bill was $40 ($55 with the supplements), which equates to $2.22 per meal.
I imagine it would be even cheaper if you go to your local grocery store. But I love TJ’s laidback vibe, Hawaiian shirts, and pretty signs.
10:00 AM – Breakfast: I wake up and put 2 eggs over easy, 2 pieces of organic bacon, and two handfuls of spinach on the pan. I turn on the kettle to make some tea, and take my vitamins and down the fish oil teaspoon like it’s a shot of something horrid. This whole cooking process takes 6.5 minutes. Everything is set, so I plate it, open my Kindle, and chow down. I’m feeling pretty motivated and excited about this whole thing. New LBD, here I come.
2:00 PM – Lunch (first time cooking something other than eggs and ramen, pray for me): I bought a lot of chicken, so I’ll start with that. I poach 2 breasts (one for today and one for another day) and follow all the instructions. I also make half a can of black beans and a handful of broccoli. Salsa on the side tops off today’s lunch. It’s a little dry, but I didn’t burn the house down. Good work, team!
6:30 PM – Dinner: Steak time, my favorite. A little butter, salt, and pepper is all you need. Cooking is easier than I thought; maybe I should quit business school and become a chef (jokes, I’m not that skilled). I’m really digging spinach, so I make another 2 handfuls of that and finish the other half of the black beans. I burnt the steak, better luck next time, fam 🙁
Overall: I’ve never tried a diet, but I think this is actually sustainable. Turn up.
11:00 AM – Breakfast: Same breakfast as yesterday, but I scramble the eggs and add some salsa, which takes less time and skill than it did for over easy.
3:00 PM – Lunch: A Chipotle just opened by my house, so I go and catch up with a friend and I order a bowl. Usually I go for lemon water, but I hold the lemon this time (no fruit allowed). I thought I’d miss the rice but it doesn’t make as big of a difference as expected.
My Slow Carb Chipotle Order: bowl, no rice, black beans, fajitas, steak, mild and medium salsa, lettuce, guac. Pay the extra few bucks for the guacamole. Guac is a major key. Some people keep the sour cream and cheese, but I decided to skip them this time.
7:00 PM – Dinner: Salmon is supposed to be easy to make, so I go with that. I combine garlic powder, basil, and salt, and then rub the mix evenly onto the salmon. I melt a tablespoon of butter on the pan and cook the salmon until it’s brown and flaky, which takes about 6 minutes on each side. I simultaneously prepare some broccoli and lentils. It’s so tasty and easy to make that I didn’t mess it up the first time around.
Overall: Future husband will be proud that I’m learning how to cook, so that’s good.
10:30 AM – Breakfast: 2 eggs with lentils instead of beans. Mom also bought smoked salmon so I replace that with the bacon this morning. Spinach is the move again. I eat it and I realize I really don’t enjoy lentils, at least not in the morning.
3:00 PM – Lunch: I eat the chicken from day 1 and make the same meal. It’s not dry this time, plus the salsa is amazing.
7:00 PM – Dinner: I need to conquer this steak business, so I try making it again. I marinate it with soy sauce and pepper for an hour and then fry it. My mom had a bunch of bok choy in the fridge, so I make a handful of that because it’s my favorite vegetable. Plus a solid serving of lentils and a glass of malbec. The steak is really good (mostly just because I didn’t burn it), so I’m impressed with my learning curve.
Overall: I weighed myself and I lost 3 pounds already! But I felt hungry and a little sluggish during the day. I consulted a friend and he told me that I need to eat more than usual since I’m not eating carbs (not sure why I didn’t realize this myself). Duly noted.
The Rest of the Week
I’m going to skip days 4 through 6 because they more or less reflect the start of the week. If you’d like to see those summaries, let me know and I can send them to you, but by day 6, I’ve lost 6.5 pounds, I feel amazing. But I’d like to fast forward to cheat day, since that’s the only thing that changes.
Day 7 – Cheat Day!
10:00 AM – Breakfast: Go to the deli and get a glorious Long Island egg sandwich (1 egg with sausage on a roll, please). I come back home to enjoy it, along with my daily breakfast tea.
1:30 PM – Lunch: It’s burrito time. I go to Chipotle and eat my tortilla-wrapped and brown rice-filled heaven in, like, 10 minutes. It’s delicious. I get some chips and guac for a snack later, too. I run across the street to get my guilty pleasure from Starbucks – a grande caramel macchiato.
3:00 PM – Snack: Chips and guac time. The salt and lime on the chips are so good.
7:00 PM – Dinner: I just returned home to New York, so I’m craving pizza. A few friends and I split a pie, and I down 2 slices. I’ve missed this in Pittsburgh.
10:00 PM – Snack: We see a movie, so I carb up on popcorn, finishing out cheat day with my favorite snack.
The next day, I’ve gained 4 pounds. I’m alarmed even though I was warned, but they disappear throughout the next 36 hours or so.
The Following Weeks: Slow Carb with a Job
I wanted to emphasize the beginning of slow carb because I found that to be the hardest part (you’ll start to find your rhythm and preferences by the middle of the second week, anyways).
However, I began the diet before I started an internship in NYC. Working made it trickier, but it was relatively easy to adjust quickly.
Here’s a sample schedule:
7:30 AM – Breakfast: I woke up 10 minutes earlier than usual so I had time to make and eat my standard breakfast. I also made some tea and took it in a thermos to enjoy on the train.
12:00 PM – Lunch: Because I couldn’t freshly cook each meal, I prepared lunch for the week on Sundays, and put my food in containers to bring to work – 1 slab of meat, beans/lentils, lots of greens. I changed up the combination of those three components each day, but the categories of food remained the same. For me, I alternated between chicken and pork during the week, and went out on Friday since that’s my cheat day.
3:00 PM -Smaller Lunch/Snack: Carrots and guacamole or hummus.
7:00 PM – Dinner: Same dinners as before. If you have a busy week, I recommend cooking all your dinners on Sunday, too. I usually had beef or fish with veggies and legumes.
But What About Exercise?
The great thing about slow carb is that you don’t actually have to exercise to see results. However, you should exercise because it’s good for you. I personally get too antsy when I don’t do physical activity, so I resumed working out after the first week.
My summer “project” was yoga. I hit the studio for a 1.5 hour class 4 times a week, ran a 5K once a week, and took Fridays off (again, cheat day). I’ve also recently started lifting and feel great on slow carb (if you’re bulking, it’s okay to eat rice, but limit it to only that).
If you’re working out, be sure to eat more than usual – you’ll figure out the balance as you go. If you’re feeling hungry, eat more during your regular meals, or pick a smaller second lunch to hold you over. Eating four times a day is perfectly fine. And of course, don’t forget to hydrate – water is so important!
Slow Carb changed the definition of what’s “normal” for my body, both mentally and physically. Here are my favorites takeaways:
- I’ve never looked better. As I mentioned before, I lost 8% of my body weight, which was just below 9 pounds. I admit, I’ve never been someone who struggled with weight, but I was also never stick-thin. The combination of slow carb and a little exercise immensely improved my physique: my belly from the spring was gone and my face was slimmer, both of which my friends and family noticed (such a great motivator!). I felt more fit than ever before, and I wasn’t self-conscious on the beach. Additionally, over the past month of lifting, my physique has further improved. I gained weight, but it’s okay because it’s muscle. I look more toned than before and feel significantly healthier.
- My skin drastically improved. I have moderate eczema and mild acne. Cutting out all the unnecessary food (especially carbs and sweets) helped to lessen my symptoms, which made me 10 times more confident showing some skin in the summertime.
- Put an end to small talk. Slow Carb is a great conversation topic with friends and strangers alike. People are genuinely curious about improving their lifestyle, so help them out.
- I don't feel tired. Previously, I ran on 3 cups of coffee a day, but I still felt lethargic around mid-day (ever heard of carbocide? It’s a thing). Now I only drink a cup of my favorite tea in the morning because I enjoy it and not because I need a caffeine boost.
- I don't feel hungry. Because I’m eating a substantial amount of nutritious and protein-packed food every 4 hours, I don’t feel hungry in between meals. There’s nothing worse than being hangry (hungry + angry).
- My productivity levels have never been higher. Because I’m never tired or hungry, there are no distractions. I can work easily throughout the school/work day without frustration.
- It’s the ultimate test of willpower. Finally, my favorite benefit. Slow Carb is a great test of willpower and self-discipline that translates nicely to other aspects of my life: if I can maintain a semi-challenging diet, I can go for a run, improve my 5K split time, run the extra mile, I can study another hour, I can go to the gym, lift the extra few pounds, hold the plank a little longer. All good things.
- I feel good about yourself. My confidence, self-esteem, and happiness have never been higher.
Looking back, the changes in my diet are small sacrifices compared to the overwhelmingly positive outcome. I feel good, I look good, I do good.
Being on a “health kick” is a good feeling. Starting small by changing your diet for one week will build up the motivation and momentum to do it for a month, a year. Once you start feeling good, your momentum will make it easier to pick up more healthy habits like pursuing a new hobby or sport (yoga and weightlifting for me), finding a better sleep schedule, or a creating a better work/study schedule.
Now that you know all the benefits, get off your computer and go to Trader Joe’s 🙂
If you give slow carb a try, send me your favorite recipe. And let me know how it goes or if you have questions. Best of luck!