This article was the feature article in an issue of "Coffee With Jim".
Induction Junction, What's Your Function?
Let me begin by telling you that, like you, I too subscribe to some online newsletters. In fact, I got my idea for this article from an article in Tom Venuto's newsletter, Fitness Renaissance.
Now Tom is not a low carber. I subscribe to his newsletter because he is an absolute expert when it comes to burning fat with exercise. (He has kept his own bodyfat percentage in the single digits for years). In fact, if you want to burn fat fast, I highly recommend that you combine a low carb lifestyle with the kind of exercise system that Tom promotes in his book, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.
I have read Tom's book, and it gets my highest recommendation -- with the exception of some of his dietary advice. Again, Tom is not a low carber. The lowest carb he might go would be something like the Zone diet.
Anyway, Tom was ranting a little bit about the typical low carb diet in his latest newsletter.
Now as you know I have been a big fan of the low carb lifestyle for some time. Contrary to Tom, I think the Zone is at the absolute upper boundary of where our carbs should be. But I thought Tom had some points in his newsletter that were worthy of consideration.
Now don't worry. I haven't been converted away from the low carb lifestyle. But I was prompted to investigate something that has always been a question in the back of my mind.
Is the induction phase of the low carb diet necessary? And, if not, is it even good for us?
Here is a quote from Tom's article "Induction Destruction; The Perils of Diving Headfirst Into Strict Diets:"
"Induction has little to do with science, health or permanent fat loss. It has everything to do with marketing and instant gratification. Dieters flock to the gurus that promise 12 to 15 pounds of weight loss in the first two weeks, while sneering at the idea of losing a paltry 2 pounds of fat per week. 'Give me results now' is the mindset, with no thought given to body composition, health or long-term consequences."
Now I don't know anyone who would "sneer at the idea of losing two pounds a week". I certainly wouldn't. But you have to admit that losing 15 pounds in two weeks sounds pretty enticing, doesn't it? A perfect marketing gimmick if ever there was one.
But, contrary to Tom's claim, Dr. Atkins claimed that there was science behind induction. It's not just smoke and mirrors. He claimed that it "jumpstarts" your fat burning metabolism, and breaks your cravings for carbohydrates (DANDR 121,122).
So who is right? Is induction just a gimmick to give dieters a potentially dangerous psychological boost? Is it just a gimmick to be able to make fast weightloss claims? Or is it an essential part of a successful low carb diet?
I believe it is a little of both.
The Upside of Induction
So what is the upside of induction?
First, even Tom Venuto recognizes that many people really do lose 10-15 pounds in the first two weeks. I've never lost more than 10 pounds in two weeks on induction myself, but some people do lose up to 15 pounds. That's exciting.
Second, induction does break the carbohydrate addiction. Around day 3 and 4 the withdrawl symptoms are the strongest, and then it's pretty smooth sailing for a while after that.
Third, induction does switch us quickly into lipolysis, or "fat burning mode".
The downside of induction
But what's the downside?
Venuto claims that an induction phase increases the likelihood that you will fall off the wagon and gain all your weight back again.
Atkins himself warns against "zig-zagging" or going between maintenance and induction repeatedly:
"Induction can be abused and that abuse can ultimately threaten your ability to maintain a healthy weight. ... People who repeatedly regain weight and go back to Induction sometimes find that they do not experience the dramatic and easy weight loss they initially enjoyed. .. your body pays a price healthwise if you dramatically switch back and forth repeatedly from a fat-burning to a glucose-burning metabolism" (DANDR 215, 216)
And not all low carb diet gurus even recommend Induction at all. Dr. Wolfgang Lutz is the Dr. Atkins of Europe. He wrote a wonderful book called "Life Without Bread."
"The dramatic reduction of carbohydrates to almost zero levels promoted by various other authors is not necessary to achieve the health benefit of low-carbohydrate nutrition ... Too rapid reduction of carbohydrates to almost none in the diet can cause serious initial side effects, if you are elderly or already have a major disease." (LWB 195)
In LWB Lutz advises that people just start at the equivalent of the maintenance phase of the Atkins diet. He recommends about 72 grams of carbs per day. This gives you about 12 grams per meal if you eat six meals a day.
With all this in mind, I start to wonder how important induction really is. Here are the conclusions I have come to.
First, I think the downside can be overstated. Millions of low carbers all over the world have done induction and have done so without major problems. So don't be overly concerned about doing induction provided you have checked with your doctor.
But there is some indication that repeated bouts can reduce the effectiveness of the induction phase, and may, in fact, make it more likely that you will relapse.
With those things in mind, here is my advice. Don't do induction unless:
1. You absolutely have to lose 15 pounds in two weeks for the high school reunion or wedding coming up. And you have checked with your doctor.
2. You find that you can't start with maintenance and stick to your diet. And you have checked with your doctor.
For some people it is easier to cut out carbs completely and get the cravings out of their system before adding them back in judiciously.
However, if you can just start in maintenance I would recommend that. I would go with a plan like Dr. Lutz's, or the Maintenance phase of the Atkins diet. You won't lose weight as fast in the first two weeks that way, but you won't face any of the potential problems that might arise with severe carb restriction either.
You also might not get into fat burning mode as quickly, but you will get there.
You might also find that you lose only 1/2 pound a week, rather than your hoped for 2 pounds a week, this way. If this happens I would advise you to rely on exercise to make up the difference, rather than on diet alone.
Dr Lutz doesn't even stress weight loss as the major reason for adopting a low carb diet. A low carb diet will facilitate weight loss, but exercise should be relied upon as well. According to Lutz (and Atkins mentions many of these things, too) the real benefit of a low carb diet is to head off many diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many digestive and intestinal disorders.
If you choose a low carb diet for these reasons, and you take the weight loss as a pleasant side effect, and use exercise to speed up your weight loss, then there is no need to take any chances with a severely restricted carb phase.
I've done my share of induction phases, and might do so in the future again. But then again I might not, because I'm not convinced that the phase is essential for those who are patient and who adopt a low carb way for more than just quick weight loss.
If Not Induction, Then What?
Here is my rough rule of thumb for my diet now. I would recommend something like this for those just starting out, too.
I aim for six meals a day. I try to have a piece of meat, or eggs with cheese or something. With that I have a vegetable, and a half a piece of fruit (like an apple or an orange, or grapes). This comes to about 12-15 grams of carbs per meal.
If I am at a time and place where I am still trying to lose weight, I monitor my weight, and if this eating plan isn't producing the results I want, then I tweak my exercise plan rather than my diet.
Again, if you want a great book on how to burn fat with exercise, there really isn't a better book out there than Tom Venuto's
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.
And if you haven't seen Dr. Lutz's book "Life Without Bread", I would recommend you pick up a copy of that, too.
With those plugs in, I don't want you to think I have anything against Dr. Atkins book. It's a wonderful book. But I'm guessing most of my readers already have that one ;-)
1. Atkins, Robert. Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution (DANDR). (Quill Press, 2002).
2. Lutz, Wolfgang. Life Without Bread (LWB). (Keats Publishing, 2000).
3. Venuto, Tom. Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM). Self Published.
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