Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. None of the words on this blog post are to be interpreted as medical advice in any way. Consult a physician before considering any sort of changes to your diet.
Ten years of eating poorly will do some irreversible damage to the human body. I’m living, breathing evidence of this fact, but not in the sense that I’m perpetually destined to stay above 20% body fat.
Rather, it’s that to reach my ideal level of fitness and body fat percentage, I simply have more significant hurdles than a twenty year old who has been eating a healthy diet for his entire life. One of these hurdles rears its ugly head when transitioning into a zero-carb state. The technical terminology for the contition is having an impaired metabolic flexibility, which manifests itself as the more commonly referenced “Carb Flu”.
It feels the way it sounds, but before I get to that, I’ll explain (in the simplest possible terms) the mechanics behind the phenomenon:
When someone is ingesting only proteins and fats, with trace amounts (less than 30g per day) of carbs, their body must “flip a switch” and start burning stored body fat as fuel. There are no carbohydrates present in their diet, so stored body fat becomes the only alternative. When this person has been eating a carb-heavy diet for a long time (even if there’s been occasions when low-carb has been implemented in the past), flipping that switch is not a simple, trouble-free transition. Their body wants carbs. Their body is used to running on carbs, and it will kick their ass all over the room until they give their temper tantruming body what it wants, not willing to “flip the switch” without putting up a hell of a fight. This “fight” happens as the result of an impaired metabolic flexibility mechanism.
The virtual fighting, temper tantrums and ass-kicking going on inside your body manifests itself as “Carb Flu”. And there’s nothing pleasant about it.
There’s lethargy, lack of motivation, and the intense, all-consuming urge to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, a doughnut, a slice of pizza, anything carb-based at any cost. Without a doubt, though, the worst symptom is the crushing, immobilizing, relentless headache. You can’t help but think about the fact that just a handful of crackers would make it all subside. It doesn’t last forever, but it’s torturous while it’s going on, and staying the course in this time period is make-or-break. Give up, and your body never fully enters ketosis (the state where you are burning body fat as fuel) until you start over again from square one.
For me, there’s no greater barrier to sticking with a low-carb lifestyle. The symptoms are reminiscent of a severe, all-day hangover, but will last two or three days before “breaking through” to a ketogenic state and a lack of physical suffering. This phenomenon doesn’t happen to everyone who goes low-carb, which for me, is a bitter pill to swallow. The determining factor in whether or not one is affected by these symptoms? Previous diet. So this agony is a direct result of my years spent wreaking absolute havoc on my metabolism via a terrible diet.
Conquering Carb Flu can only happen through discipline.
It’s a concept I’ve become well accustomed to, through the work of Mike Cernovich and Victor Pride (this is the second time in two days I’ve mentioned 30 Days of Discipline). There’s a very relevant purpose in developing discipline through unpleasant tasks like waking up early and taking cold showers. You become conditioned to discomfort. Your body wants nothing more than to crawl back into that warm bed or crank the hot water on. When you deny yourself this and say (to quote Cernovich) “I am done when I say I am done”, you develop the discipline needed for tasks like denying yourself carbohydrates, building a business, really anything that catapults you out of your comfort zone.
The sad reality is that most people, in their adult lives, tend to avoid any sort of self-discipline. I’m making a broad generalization, but the vast majority don’t really have any urge to do something unpleasant simply for the sake of conditioning themselves. There always has to be a tangible payoff like a paycheck, beating an addiction, helping someone out, or simply maintaining their lifestyle. There’s little motivation to increase one’s self-discipline because (and this subject has been covered by others far more knowledgable than I) modern living is comfortable. There’s no “point” in simply developing a characteristic through practices that normal people would consider masochstic when there’s no proverbial trophy waiting at the finish line. What they don’t grasp is that discipline is the reward, in and of itself.
But let’s get back to the issue at hand:
Carb Flu is just a collection of symptoms. It’s never killed anyone (that I know of, at least). There’s no danger in weathering the storm, just a whole lot of discomfort. I tell myself this when I’m suffering the most. “I am done when I say I am done”.
Like anyone, I fail sometimes. On Tuesday night, my Zero-Carb headache had me lying in complete silence and complete blackness, as any stimuli would send waves of searing pain through my head. I simply couldn’t function or get anything done, so I caved in and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was at 100% within fifteen minutes, but disappointed in myself. “I couldn’t stay the course. I was not strong enough” I thought, and vowed to crash through the barrier the next go-around.
The truth of the matter is that I haven’t mastered the art of self-discipline. But every day is a new opportunity to apply the knowledge and experience I have gained so far, to grow stronger, and continue sharpening this vital tool that most will never even take off of the shelf.