What is a Zero Carb diet?
Traditionally, those who practice a Zero Carb diet consider almost anything from the animal kingdom to be fair game, as long as it does not contain a appreciable amount of carbohydrates. Many long time practitioners express a preference for beef because they find it to be the most satisfying of all the meats. But, Zero Carb-ers may also eat pork, bacon, sausage, lamb, poultry, fish, eggs, hard cheese. They eschew milk and yogurt because these dairy products contain significant quantities of carbohydrates. If the meat they are eating is too lean, they will add extra butter, ghee, tallow or lard. Some may also use coconut or olive oil, but these two oils come from plants and may be problematic for some people due to their salicylate content. Similarly, some Zero Carb-ers use herbs and spices to season their meat, but if you do this you need to be observant of your body’s response and make sure they don’t cause you to be abnormally hungry. Because spices are derived from plants, they too contain salicylates and can have a negative affect on some people. See my page Salicylates for more information on this.
The term “Zero Carb” is a bit of a misnomer because there is a small amount of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen in some animal foods such as egg yolks and liver. Cream also has about 1 gram of carbohydrate per ounce and can be problematic for individuals who are very sensitive to carbohydrates. A more accurate way to describe this way of eating would be to call it a “Zero Plant Foods” diet. That is a bit cumbersome, however, so “Zero Carb” remains the dominant descriptive terminology. I am not sure who first use the appellation, but it may well have been Owsley Stanley, also known as The Bear. Mr. Stanley ate a Zero Carb diet for over half a century and is, perhaps, the most well-know of the Zero Carb-ers. He ate a diet free of all plant foods from 1958 (age 23) until his untimely death in a car accident in 2011 (age 76).
For those wishing to follow a Zero Carb diet, Mr. Stanley offered these tried and true Words of Wisdom:
- Eat only from the animal kingdom.
- Eat nothing from the plant kingdom.
- Do not eat milk and yogurt.
- Cook beef rare to preserve nutrients.
- Eat plenty of animal fat.
- Eat the fattiest parts first.
- Organ meats are not necessary.
- Supplements are not necessary.
- Do not eat vegetable oils.
- Do not eat salt or salted butter.
- Spices are okay for flavoring.
- Drink plenty of plain water.
- Eat as often as you are hungry.
- Do not worry about calories.
This is how Mr. Stanley ate for more than 5 decades. It is hard to argue with his degree of experience and success spanning so many years. Clearly, he did not seem to suffer from a lack of plant foods in his diet. For read more of Mr. Stanley’s thoughts, see The Bear’s Writings which have been extracted from comments he made on a now defunct low carbohydrate forum back in 2006. He is quite a character and – while I do not agree with everything he says – his ideas are certainly worth exploring if you have chosen the Zero Carb way of life.
Some long term Zero Carb-ers have found that dairy products do not agree with them, especially cheese and cream. Either it reduces their feeling of well-being, or it causes them to gain or retain excess body fat. Therefore, these folks choose to eat only meat, or meat and eggs. Butter is rarely a problem, but – for the small minority who do react negatively to it – ghee (which has had the milk solids removed) can usually be used instead if desired. Likewise, some people following the Zero Carb diet follow Mr. Stanley’s recommendation to abstain from salt, while other use it liberally. The best advice is probably to experiment both ways and see which feels best to you. Please read my page on Salt for a more thorough discussion of this subject.
Another question often asked by those new to Zero Carb ask is whether or not coffee and artificially-sweetened or flavored drinks are acceptable. The zero Carb veterans take a very firm stand against non-caloric sweeteners of any kind, natural (Stevia) or artificial (Sucralose, etc), because they keep the desire for sweet things alive. According to Dana – an 8-year Zero Carb veteran – they are the number one reason that people get derailed from Zero Carb.
Dr. H.L. Newbold, an early proponent of an All-Meat diet, writes, “No patient attempting to lose weight should be given any source of sweets…over-weight patients need to forget about the taste of sweetness. Unless they do, they are setting themselves up for a lifetime of torture and probably ultimate failure in maintaining a normal body weight. If you avoid sweets altogether for a long enough time, you forget about them.”
However, they tend to take a more lenient view of coffee because different people seem to react differently to it much like dairy. Many long term veterans started Zero Carb while continuing to drink coffee, but eventually decided to give it up. Charles Washington, the founder of Zeroing in on Health strongly recommends the Zero Carb newbies refrain from drinking coffee until they have a clear baseline. Please read my page Beverages which discusses this subject in more depth.
Dr. H. L. Newbold, author of The Type A/TypeB Weight Loss Diet (now out of print) was also a proponent of a Zero Carb diet – though he never called it that. It was his belief that some people’s genetic inheritance was less well equipped to metabolize the “newer foods” that came first with animal husbandry and then with the agricultural revolution. With few exceptions, he found that most of his patients felt best on beef, specifically dry-aged ribeye steaks. Incidentally, dry-aging produced fewer histamines than wet-aging and cryovacing, but he was not aware of this at the time. He just observed that both he and his patients felt better with dry-aged beef.
Dr. Newbold helped many people suffering from morbid obesity and eating disorders (especially binge eaters) recover their health and natural weight by recommending a diet of fatty, bone-in, ribeye steaks. He did allow his patients to eat 1/2 cup of vegetables per day if the could tolerate it, but it was not a mandatory part of his diet. He did prescribe basic nutritional supplements like vitamin C, B-complex, as well as calcium and magnesium. He was a pioneer and did not want to take the chance of his patients becoming deficient in some essential nutrient.
However, many of the folks I have met through the Facebook group Zeroing in on Health have told me that they do not taken supplements of any kind and have remained perfectly healthy. Some of these Zero Carb-er have been eating this way for 2, 5, 10, or 18 years. Not only have they not developed any deficiency diseases, but they have all experienced dramatic improvement in both their body composition and their overall general health. One person actually recovered from a very severe case of Lyme’s Disease by adopting this way of eating. While many Zero Carb-ers say they prefer beef, they do eat other meats, and the when they do eat beef they don’t all cook it rare. Interestingly, several of individuals have stated that they eat ground beef almost exclusively because it is inexpensive and it leaves them feel great. Kelly Williams Hogan is one such person. You can read more about her experiences on her blog My Zero Carb Life.
If you think you might be interested in trying a Zero Carb diet, the long term veterans I have come to know all recommend starting with a 30-day trial of just meat and water. This provides the clearest picture of what it feels like to eliminate all plant foods from your diet without the confounding variable of dairy products. For more information on how to do this, please read Amber Wilcox-O’Hearn’s blog post Eat meat. Not too little. Mostly fat. A minimum of four weeks is recommended because it can take this long for the body to switch from being a sugar burner to being a fat burner, i.e. enter a state of nutritional ketosis or become keto-adapted. This process is explained in Jimmy Moore‘s book Keto Clarity and in Dr. Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek’s book The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living. None of these authors are Zero Carb proponents or practitioners, but the science they explain regarding a ketogenic diet is still highly relevant.