Muscle Cramps on a Zero Carb Diet

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Muscle cramps, especially in the legs, are a common experience for many when they first adopt a Zero Carb diet. It is one of the many unpleasant symptoms that can occur during the adaptation period, but sometimes they can continue for longer. There are a number of reasons that these muscle cramps occur, but the main one is an electrolyte imbalance.

When you first go on a low-to-no carb diet, you lose a lot of excess fluid from your cells. As this fluid gets flushed out from your body, it carries electrolytes with it. There are four main electrolytes: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride. Many folks who experience muscle cramps when they first begin a Zero Carb diet have found that both extra salt (containing both sodium and chloride) and extra magnesium can help to prevent muscle cramps during the transition process. However, increasing these three electrolytes is not universally helpful, and it is my opinion that potassium is often the electrolyte that most needs to be supplemented.

The RDA for potassium is about 5,000 mg per day. It takes about 3 lbs of fresh meat to meet this requirement. Whether the RDAs are the same for people following an all meat diet is certainly open to debate, but I offer it here for reference. However, whether 5,000 per day is necessary for long term health on a Zero Carb diet or not, it is highly likely that the amount of potassium being excreted during the transition and adaptation period is excessive enough to tip the balance in the wrong direction and cause muscle cramping.

Traditionally, even the most knowledgeable Low Carb doctors have recommended consuming additional salt and magnesium during the early stage of a person’s transitions to such a diet. And Dr. Phinney explains that without adequate sodium, the muscles cannot retain adequate potassium inside the cells. (To read more about this, please see my article on Salt.) However, it baffles me that he never once recommends including extra potassium. I suspect that the reason for this oversight by Dr. Phinnney may be that he is promoting a Low Carb diet that still includes low carbohydrate plant foods, like leafy greens and berries. All fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium. But, on Zero Carb, our only source of potassium is from the meat we are eating, and while some folks can consume 3 pounds of meat a day, many others cannot.

Consequently, it is my opinion, that if a person new to the Zero Carb diet is experiencing muscle cramps, they would be wise to consider supplementing with extra potassium, in addition to the other three electrolytes. Unfortunately, potassium is a mineral that the FDA has very strict regulations on, and all supplements must not exceed 99 mg per dose. This makes is difficult to obtain adequate supplementation through a capsule or tablet and is more expensive than it really needs to be.

The restrictions on potassium were put in place because too much potassium can lead to hyperkalemia (high potassium) which is very dangerous. But the amount of potassium that one needs to ingest to reach toxic levels is quite high. Dr. Max Gerson, a highly respected German-born physician who treated cancer, prescribed a diet that included about 10,000 mg of potassium each and every day, both from food and supplements, without any negative consequences. The only time that normal moderate potassium supplementation can be dangerous is in people with severely compromised kidney function and out-right kidney failure.

A natural way to increase potassium on a Zero Carb diet is through meaty bone broth. (Please see my earlier article on this subject: Can Bone Broth Be Used as Part of a Zero Carb Diet?) Broth from just bones without meat on them will not contain much potassium, but broth that has been prepared from meaty bones or meat alone will. This is because the potassium is in the meat and not the bones. If a person is unable to consume bone broth due to glutamine sensitivity, then broth made from just meat, like lean round or rump roast, will serve equally well for this purpose. You can buy whole round roasts at Costco for less than $4.00/lb. Every pound of beef contained 1,200 mg of potassium which will get transferred to the water it is cooked in. I also like to use turkey parts, such as backs, necks, wings, and drums because they are a nice combination of both meat and bone and fairly affordable. Whole chicken works equally well. I always toss the meat and bones after cooking because all of the nutrients have been cooked out of them.

If making meat or meaty bone broth is not a task you wish to undertake, you can add a little extra potassium to your regimen through a supplement. The best product for the price is Potassium Gluconate Powder by NOW Foods which provides 270 mg of potassium per 1/2 tsp. For some reason, this particular product is not being held to the strict FDA limitation of 99 mg per serving that every other potassium containing supplement on the market. It is pretty affordable at $18.00 for an 16 oz. bottle that provides over 250 servings.

Long term Zero Carb-ers like Michael Frieze had to go through the adaptation period on therir own with little support from others or knowledge of what to expect. Many of these individuals experienced muscle cramps for the first few months after beginning the diet, but the cramps gradually became less frequent and disappeared altogether. Michael – taking the advice of Owlsey Stanley, a.k.a. The Bear – decided to remove salt from his diet completely at the same time he began a Zero Carb diet. His body eventually adapted to a salt-free, all-meat diet, and he has had no issues with inadequate electrolytes or any other deficiencies for the past 5 years. So, the worst case scenario if you do nothing, is that you might have muscle cramps for a few months while your body is adapting. But, meaty bone broth and/or a good electrolyte formula like the one mentioned above will likely make your transition easier.

While I think an electrolyte imbalance is the primary cause of muscle cramping in the early stages of adopting a Zero Carb diet, another possible cause is inadequate water intake. Sufficient water is needed for the electrolytes to do what they need to do. There is some difference of opinion in the Zero Carb community about how much water a person should drink. The advice most often given is to drink according to thirst, but I am not convinced that thirst is our best indicator of when we need water. I base my opinion both on my own experience and the works of Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj.

Dr. B was an Iranian-born physician who found that many different illnesses went away in his patients when they simply started drinking more water. According to Dr. B., water is the single best natural anti-histamine that we have at our disposal, and this is one of the primary reasons that drinking an adequate amount can have such a positive impact on so many different health problems. He wrote several very interesting books which I have read and highly recommend: Your Body’s Many Cries For Water; You’re Not Sick, You’re Thirsty; and Water Cures, Drugs Kill: How Water Cured Incurable Diseases. He has written several other books that I have not yet read, but which might also be worthwhile. You will find them all through Amazon by searching on his name.

I have helped two personal friends of mine to virtually eliminate their seasonal pollen allergies and lifelong asthma by getting them to follow Dr. B’s protocol. Both of my friends were coffee drinkers and neither of them liked to drink water. Coffee is dehydrating, so drinking it in place of water can compound the problem. Dr. B says that it takes about 2 months for the cells of your body to become fully hydrated once you begin his protocol, so results may not be immediate. By the time allergy season rolled around, however, both of my friends had been drinking more water for a few months and the results were quite stunning. Their allergies were basically non-existent, and the one with lifelong asthma only needed to use his inhaler about 3 more times and never got his prescription refilled.

Some people have a lot of resistance to increasing their water consumption because they don’t like the way plain water tastes. I think this is due mostly to the poor quality water most of us have access to today. I have tasted water coming out of natural mountain springs and it is nothing like what comes out of our kitchen tap or the filtered bottled waters sold in stores.

Buying really good bottled natural spring water like Fiji is prohibitively expensive for most people. But it is important to take the time to find a water that is both pleasant tasting and affordable, or get a filtration system that will turn your tap water into something drinkable. Nora Gedgaudas recommends the Berkey water filtration system, for both its effectiveness and its price. I have tasted the water produced by a Berkey and it is excellent in my opinion.

We often forget the basic needs of the human body, seeking answers in more complicated and esoteric directions. Adequate water is extremely important to the proper functioning of our bodies. In the late 1800s, Dr. James Salisbury and his protege Mrs. Elma Stuart healed many people of many different illnesses simply by prescribing a diet of beef and water. They considered the water to be just as important as the beef, and their protocol is surprisingly similar to that of Dr. B.

Like Dr. B., Dr. Salisbury and Mrs. Stuart recommended that a minimum of 2 liters of plain water be consumed throughout the day. Many people of their time reported greatly improved health simply by following the water protocol alone, without even changing their diet. It seems that the vital importance of water for human health must continually be rediscovered in each generation. You can read more about the beef and water diet they recommended in Stuart’s wonderful volume What Must I Do to Get Well ?

So, the importance of water and the role is plays in supporting the health of our beautiful bodies should not – in my opinion – be underestimated. Increasing your water consumption is a very simple thing to do and is a great place to start if you are experiencing any type of chronic health problem, be it muscle cramps or something more serious. If you are drinking less than 2 liters of water per day, and you are struggling with an all meat diet, I think it is worth considering a 30 to 60 day trial of increased water consumption to see if it makes a positive difference in the way you feel.

 

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Zero Carb Interview: Kevin Fenderson

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Kevin today.

1. How long have you been eating a Zero Carb (No Plant Foods) diet?

I’ve been eating zero carb for a little over a year now. Although, I was trying to eat zero carb for about six months before I finally committed to it. I probably could count all the way back, as some people consider those times we fail as still zero carb as long as we learn from them. Others are super-strict and say you need to restart your count any time you step outside the zero carb path. Three years in and you have a stick of celery? You’re now back on day one! I take a more moderate view. As long as you’re consistently on the right path, a rare misstep isn’t cause to restart. My original six months had far too many missteps for me to claim any sort of consistency though.

All that to just say, a little over a year.

2. What motivated you to try this way of eating? Weight? Health?

Honestly? It was probably just curiosity and fascination. There might have been a little health improvement thrown in, but that really just pointed me in the right direction. I discovered that fiber caused me more problems than it helped. That eventually led me to reading more on it. I think Ash Simmonds posted something in the reddit keto group about fiber being bad. I didn’t know much about him at the time. I read his post on fiber and the links.

Somewhere along the way, I stumbled on The Fat of the Land by Stefansson on Ash’s website. That book remains my strongest influence. When I have a question, I usually find that it’s answered somewhere in there. I kept thinking to myself, “I want to do that.” That is going a whole year eating just meat.

When I first found out about it, I was still losing weight. But, weight loss didn’t play a role. I figured that I had weight loss solved with keto. This wouldn’t interfere with keto, but it wasn’t like I needed this for weight loss. I also felt better than I had in years, because of the weight I had already lost, so I didn’t think I had any health issues that needed curing. Nope, it was just fascination and my love for trying new things out on myself.

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Kevin prior to beginnging his low carbohydrate journey.

3. How long did it take you to adapt to a Zero Carb diet, both physically and psychologically?

I adapted physically really quickly, but that is probably because I had already been eating a very low carb diet. The mental transition was hardest for me, especially because I didn’t know other people who were doing it when I started trying it out. I had read that it could be done. Then I would stay awake at night worrying that I would end up getting scurvy or something and everyone would know how stupid I had been. I would last a week or more and then eat some vegetables, just in case. That is probably why it took me six months of failing before it stuck. Then, I saw Amber O’Hearn’s 30-day guide and decided that other people were out there who had done at least a month and survived. Up until this point, I was still set on going a whole year because I wanted to replicate the experiment Stefansson had done for myself. That was too much to mentally commit to. It’s probably part of why I kept failing. So, I decided I would do a month. A month is a lot more doable. I could do a month.

There was only one problem. She said no artificial sweeteners (AS). And, I started looking into that. That’s also when I found Zeroing In On Health and their forum. I read through there and they were all doing meat only. But, they were also very against artificial sweeteners. I thought that was stupid. I didn’t have any problems with them. I had lost weight just fine with artificial sweeteners. I decided the first thing I would test would be their theory on AS. I don’t know why this took priority. Maybe it was a last ditch effort, mentally, to find an excuse to not just give up plants for 30 days.

I was at my goal weight already and losing more while eating as much as I wanted (on a ketogenic plan) and not counting/restricting calories. I decided that I would give the month of June as an initial 30 day challenge. I would eat 1 or more artificially sweetened things each day. I would ensure I stayed below my carb goal, but every single day I would eat something sweet. I would also continue to eat as much as I wanted. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to state that June was a total train-wreck for me. I gained weight way beyond even what the increased calories suggested I should. I started to realize how I the sweeteners caused cravings for me and how I ended up eating more because of them. I had only had sweet things every once in a while, up to this point, and their impact had been minimal compared to the weight loss from keto. They clearly were not good for me. Then again, maybe this was all the power of suggestion? Maybe I believed I craved more because I had been reading that they caused cravings? I don’t know. I do know that the 500 or so calories a day I was eating didn’t explain why I went from losing over a pound a week to gaining over a pound a week.

After that, I decided I would do it “their” way for 30 days. I would just do meat, coffee, some cheese, and avoid all the sweeteners. I would also stop taking any supplements except my daily allergy medicine. Naturally, you would assume that I started on July 1st. No, I kept putting it off. I don’t know exactly why. It wasn’t until the middle of July that I actually started.

When I started, I lurked on the old forums every day, read through The Bear’s megathread, and read everything else I could find. I think knowing it had been done before by lots of people helped me. In two to three weeks, I was already sure that I wouldn’t be stopping when the 30 days were over. I was already feeling better than I had in my whole life. When I started, I would have argued that I was in good health. I didn’t know how bad I felt all the time because it was what I thought was normal.

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Kevin prior to beginning his low carbohydrate journey.

4. What books or people were most influential in guiding you to this way of eating?

Without a doubt The Fat of the Land remains the most important book for me. That would be followed by Bear’s megathread, which could be a book in itself. Then I have to give credit to Ash Simmonds whose research and website – High Steaks: Meat is Life – helped point me in this direction. Amber, like I said, is the one who made it bite-sized for me and that encouraged me enough to actually do it. And, of course, all the other zero-carbers out there. Back then, they were all congregated on the ZIOH forums. Now they’re spread over several facebook groups.

With all that said, I think The Fat of the Land should be required reading for those considering eating this way.

5. Do you eat only meat, or do you include eggs, cheese, and cream in your diet?

I include eggs and dairy in my diet. I am currently trying a period without any dairy, but it’s not having any dramatic impact on things. I will probably go back to the occasional slice of cheese with my burger. I don’t use a lot of cream (sour or heavy), but I have used some of the past year. I don’t worry too much about dairy. I do know I’ll gain a little weight and retain it for a while after eating a bunch of dairy. It’s nothing extreme (a kg or so) and it does go away, but dairy is a good way to get my weight up.

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A whole chuck roast purchased in bulk.

6. What percentage of your diet is beef versus other types of meats?

I eat mostly beef. When it comes to percentages, it would be at least 90%. Some weeks it’s 100%. I also like lamb, bacon, ribs, and chicken wings. If I could find cheaper lamb or mutton, that would make up a large portion of my diet. The problem is that lamb is easily twice as expensive as beef where I am. If they were the same price, it would be 50/50 beef and lamb. As it is, I probably eat more pork than lamb because it’s cheaper.

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The chuck roast cut into steaks and ready to freeze for the week.

7. When you eat beef, do you cook it rare, medium, or well done?

It depends on what I feel like. When it comes to ground beef, I’ll do medium to medium well. Steaks and other cuts I like as rare as I can get them.

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A meal of rare steak and eggs.

8. Do you add extra fat to your meat? (i.e. butter, lard, tallow)

Almost never. I will sometimes add grease when cooking, but I don’t intentionally add it to already cooked meat. That said, if the meat is really lean or dry, I am probably going to add some fat to make it palatable.

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Chuck roast steaks on the grill.

9. Do you limit your meat consumption or do you eat until satisfied?

I don’t limit myself at all. I eat until I’m not interested in any more or I’ve run out of food. I try and cook enough so that I always end up with leftovers.

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Big grilled chuck roast steak ready to eat.

10. Do you eat liver or other organ meats? If so, how often?

I have had some liverwurst and sweetbreads in the last year. They’re not a big part of my diet. Maybe once every 3-4 months. I happen to like them. I also roast and eat bone marrow on a semi-regular basis. Maybe once every couple of months.

11. Do you consume bone broth? If so, how often?

Nope. I’m just too lazy to make things that far in advance.

12. How many meals do you eat per day on average?

Usually two meals a day, sometimes three. I have rare days where I eat only once and other rare days where I eat four or more times. I don’t restrict myself to a certain number of meals. I do try to avoid snacking. If I am going to eat, I am going to eat enough to be a full meal.

13. How much meat do you eat per day on average?

To be completely honest, I have no idea. I don’t measure it in any way and I prepare as much as looks good to me. It’s certainly more than a pound and probably less than three. I figure my purchases around a little over two pounds a day. Sometimes it lasts longer than I expect and others it’s gone sooner. It’s hard to really say for sure, because I don’t really track it in any detailed manner. When the meat gets low, I go and buy around 30 pounds (13-14 kg) with the expectation that it will last another two weeks.

14. Do you eat grass-fed/pasture-raised meat, or regular commercially produced meat?

I buy the regular commercially produced meat. I’ve bought the other stuff, but didn’t find any significant difference in how it made me feel or even how it tasted. I realize that some people claim to be able to taste the difference, I didn’t taste anything better or special about it.

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Kevin treating himself to some ribeyes.

15. Do you drink any beverages besides water? (i.e. coffee, tea)

Coffee is my main beverage. I’ve switched to mostly decaf and I pour it over ice and drink it watered down and cold most of the day. I also drink a lot of sparkling water and plain old tap water.

16. Do you use salt?

I love salt. I don’t always use it. I have had days where I didn’t want or use it. But, I just like it a lot. I don’t believe it’s a necessity. It’s a habit and a taste that I have kept. I do salt most of my food.

17. Do you use spices?

I will use spices with my meat. I have a couple steak mixes that I like. I also have a rib rub that I use. It’s my brother-in-law’s rub and he made me a big batch without the usual sugar. I don’t use any rub with sugar in it.

The majority of the time, it’s just salt and maybe a little pepper though. It’s simple, but that’s what I like.

18. Do you take any supplements?

No. I decided to stop taking supplements when I decided to test this out. I figured that if I needed to take supplements, there was something missing from this way of eating.

19. How much money do you spend on food each month?

I spend about $200 a month just on myself. I could probably get it lower than that, and I could easily get it higher than that. But, that is a comfortable place I’ve found between economy and taste preference.

20. Do you have any tips for making this diet more affordable?

Buy in bulk and buy uncut hunks of beef or use a lot of ground beef. Really, it’s not more expensive than I was eating before. It might even be less expensive because vegetables and fruit are very expensive on a per calorie basis.

21. Do you exercise regularly? If so, how often and how vigorously?

Define regularly. I exercise when I feel like it and to the degree I feel like. I would probably say no to it being regular and most of it is low intensity.

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Kevin participating in a recent race.

22. What benefits have you experienced since beginning a Zero Carb diet? (i.e. recovery from illness, overall health, body composition)

This is the hardest question for me to answer. It’s not that I have received no benefits. It’s just that I’ve ranted about them all before and I don’t like repeating myself. I’ll go over them and try and add ones that came later.

One of the biggest benefits is unseen by everyone. I am no longer at war with my own body. I trust it now and we’re on the same team. I used to fight against what my body wanted, because when I gave it what it wanted I got fatter and more miserable. Because of that, I was monitoring and controlling everything. These days, I count and monitor almost nothing. I weigh myself daily, although I don’t care if it goes up or down, and I keep an eye on the level of meat in the fridge. I don’t want it to get too low. I have one shelf just for me, I prefer to keep it looking like this.

There’s about six pounds of ground beef, 15 pounds of ribeye, and some leftover roasted leg of lamb (in the container at the front left). You can’t see the second five-pound tube of ground beef, it’s under the container in the back. That one has a chuck steak. This is the only thing I worry about when it comes to food. If that shelf gets bare, I need to go to the deep freeze or get to the store.

I don’t worry about how much I eat. I go out of my way to not measure it. I trust my body to let me know when it’s had enough. I trust that, when it does, I’m not going to get fat again.

I have lost all desire for breads, starches, and sweets. That’s major for me. I used to bake bread, bagels, and rolls weekly. I lived on bread and rice. I couldn’t imagine life without it. Now, I can’t even remember why I liked it so much.

My digestion (the whole process from eating to elimination) is massively better. I burp less, I fart less, I have no more of those stinky tonsil stones, I don’t “gurgle” as I digest, I don’t get cramps, I don’t get plugged up. Hell, I don’t even think about it. I didn’t realize how messed up my gut was until it wasn’t messed up any more. I remember an ex-girlfriend who could tell, over the phone, if I had eaten pizza because she could hear my gut complaining. I no longer have issues with hemorrhoids.

I haven’t had a migraine since going keto, which has continued through zero carb. This is huge. I would get a few a year. They had decreased from when I started getting them, but they never went away. The migraines would be debilitating. I would just write the whole day off as a waste. None. I haven’t had one in what will soon be two years. Unless you suffer from migraines, you can never know how awesome that is.

Around the 6-8 month mark, my allergies stopped bothering me. I don’t know exactly when. I know I tried to get off the allergy medicine before the six month mark, but I couldn’t do it. I forgot to take it a few days around the eight month mark, and realized I was fine. I never resumed taking it and the allergies never returned.

Overall, I have never felt better physically or mentally in my entire life. I just feel good all the time.

23. Have you conceived, given birth, or breastfed while on a Zero Carb diet? If so, what was your experience?

Not from lack of trying. [wink, wink, nudge, nudge] I’m a guy, so I can’t actually do any of those things, and my wife and I aren’t trying for a child at this time.

24. Have you raised children on a Zero Carb diet? If so, what has been their experience? How difficult is it to keep carbs out of their diet in today’s world?

I wish, but I am the only person in my household who eats this way. My [step]son is very observant and will often comment on how I eat. He is acutely aware of how much sugar is in everything. He will never be zero carb though. When he’s at his dad’s house, he drinks green juices and other stuff like that. His dad and I have almost the opposite idea of ideal nutrition.

25. What do you enjoy most about eating a Zero Carb diet?

Well, the food is great and it makes me feel great. I get to eat all the foods that I like, and I don’t feel horrible all the time anymore.

26. Do you have any advice for someone who is just beginning a Zero Carb diet?

Aside from reading The Fat of the Land? Sure. It would be to trust the process and give it six months, at a minimum. Maybe break it down into a 30 day trial, but six months is a major turning point. It’s hard at first. It gets easier and easier.

27. Are your friends and family supportive of your Zero Carb lifestyle? If not, how do you handle this?

This area has improved dramatically, but not everyone is on board. My wife used to hate this way of eating. It was annoying/embarrassing when she wanted to go out to eat. I was probably slowly killing myself. I spend too much on meat. Although, I will reiterate that the amount I spend on meat is less than the total I was spending on a mixed diet before. She begged me to “eat normally” for our honeymoon, just so she wouldn’t be worried or stressed about me eating while we were on vacation. Stupidly, I agreed. Well, all my issues (gas, cramping, lethargy, etc.) returned with a vengeance as soon as I started eating crap. It was day two or three when she came to me and said, “You can go back to eating just meat again. I like it a lot better when you eat that way. You don’t fart and you’re a lot happier.” Ever since then, she’s never questioned it again. She won’t do it herself, but she knows it’s right for me.

I have a couple close work friends. They are fine with it. They ended up accepting it without too much question. I get a lot of comments from family, especially some members who are in an MLM-scheme that pushes vitamins and supplements. But, everyone who is close enough to know about this is also close enough to know that I’m going to do things my way, so they just don’t fight it.

28. Is there anything you would like share about this way of eating that I have not already asked you?

Nope. I think I have pretty much covered it.

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Kevin enjoying life with his beautiful wife.

Please visit my Interviews page to read the stories of other long time Zero Carb veterans.

If you are interested in meeting others who practice an All-Meat diet, please feel free to join Charles Washington in his Facebook group Zeroing in on Health or Michael Frieze in his Facebook group Principia Carnivora for guidance and support. These two groups use different approaches, so if you find that one does not suit you, please check out the other one.