Low Carb Diets: The Risks & Benefits

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Low-carb diets are diet plans that restrict carbohydrate consumption for weight loss. Foods high in carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta are restricted and replaced with protein rich foods (e.g. meat) and foods low in carbohydrates (e.g. green leafy vegetables).

There is significant controversy regarding low-carb diets and little consensus within scientific community on the impact of low-carb diets on health. Few studies have shown that low-carb diets may adversely affect health, while other research suggests that it may positively influence diseases such as diabetes, cancer and autism.

There is a common misconception that to lose weight you have to cut out carbs completely because carbohydrates cause fat storage. Examples of such diets include the Keto Diet, the Paleo Diet to some degree, and the classic Atkins Diet.

The basic principle of low carb diets is that carbohydrates lead to weight gain. This is a little misleading. The fact is, you gain weight if you consume too many calories. Also, simple carbs (e.g. cakes and white bread) lead to an undesirable insulin response, which can make weight loss difficult, especially for individuals with an endomorphic body type who tend to be carbohydrate sensitive.

ADVANTAGE OF LOW CARB DIETS

It is true that protein is more satiating than carbs or fat. That is, if you ate 200 calories worth of protein, carbohydrate or fat, you would feel most satisfied after eating the protein. Therefore, if your diet is protein based, you will eat less – much less. This is the entire premise of diets such as the Atkins Diet.

Low carb diets do not restrict calorie intake, because it is unnecessary. You are eating so much protein that you could not possibly overeat. Therefore, low carb diets essentially boil down to  calories in versus calories out. You lose weight because you are in calorie deficit. Also, restricting your body’s access to carbohydrates will make your body look elsewhere for fuel – stored fat.

Another advantage to low carb diets is that it cuts out the large amounts of starches and sugars that have crept into our diets and now make up most of what we eat. It isn’t normal or natural for humans to be consuming the large quantities of refined carbohydrates that we indulge in today.

To the body carbohydrates, particularly simple/ refined carbs, are essentially sugar. After eating a high carb meal blood sugar levels rise, triggering the release of insulin, a hormone which acts to bring blood sugar levels back to normal.

These higher levels of blood sugar, repeated spikes in blood sugar following high carb meals and greater levels of insulin are thought to cause the body to function sub-optimally, promoting diseases such as type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis (fatty blood vessels), coronary heart disease and possibly even cancer. Compelling research also suggests that these types of carbohydrates are associated with weight gain and obesity.

DISADVANTAGES OF LOW CARB DIETS

  • It’s true that in the short term, most people lose weight very quickly on low carb diets. The catch is that the much of the weight lost in the first couple of weeks is due to loss of water and even muscle tissue – not fat.  When carbs are in short supply, your body doesn’t just turn to fats for energy but also protein (muscle), breaking it down and turning it into glucose. When a normal diet is resumed, some of the lost muscle tissue is rebuilt, water is restored and weight quickly returns, but mostly as fat. What you are left with is a decrease in muscle tissue, which will lead to a decrease in the number of calories you need every day to maintain your weight, thus making it significantly harder to keep your weight under control when you stop following the low carb diet.
  • The other problem with eliminating or drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake is that your body adapts to the low levels of carbohydrates it is receiving, becoming more efficient at burning fat. So, your body catches on to the low carbohydrate intake and when you reintroduce normal amounts of carbohydrate into your diet you pile the weight back on.
  • Furthermore, after low carb dieting people are at high risk of binging on carbs.
  • Very low carbohydrate diets tend to be high in saturated fat. This may increase risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, diets high in protein and fats are associated with abdominal obesity, as well as obesity-related disorders such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
  • Low carb diets lack essential nutrients.
  • If carbs have been severely restricted, your body is also forced to produce ketone bodies to supply energy to parts of the body that cannot use fat as an energy source. This especially includes the brain and red blood cells. At this point a person is in a state of ketosis and is noticeable characterized by smelly breath (acetone like smell equivalent to nail varnish) and side-effects such as fatigue and nausea. Many side-effects of very low carbohydrate dieting include: nausea, dizziness, lethargy, dehydration, bad breath, constipation, loss of appetite, ‘brain fog’, irritable and grouchy.

LOW CARB DIETS WITHOUT THE DISADVANTAGES

If you don’t want to go the low-carb route, there are two methods that can help achieve the weight loss of a low carb diet without the side-effects:

1. Moderate Carbohydrate Reduction

The body uses a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat to get energy. The foods people eat day-to-day tend to be high in carbohydrates making it impossible for the body to burn all the carbohydrates eaten, let alone protein and fat. Result? The leftover carbohydrates are converted to fat and get stored around your hips, thighs and other trouble spots. Furthermore, research suggests that high carb diets may be damaging to health and that some restriction of carb intake will reduce the risk of disease and aid weight loss and weight control.

Instead of severely restricting carbs or cutting them out completely, a moderate reduction will suffice. Meals comprising of  around 50% carbohydrates (mainly complex carbs) of total calories is a good place to start. However, everyone is unique and some may do better with more, others with less. Endomorphs especially tend to be sensitive to carbohydrates and may have to reduce this percentage further.

2. Carbohydrate Cycling

For those you are very carbohydrate sensitive and have had problems losing the fat or those who have reached a fat loss plateau this may be an approach to try. This method involves dramatically decreasing carbohydrate intake for three days to a level that would be difficult to maintain for long periods of time, whilst increasing protein intake, followed by an raise of carbohydrates for one day. You then repeat this cycle. With each cycle you should experience weight loss without loss of energy or muscle mass.

By following this 3 days/ 1 day cycle you avoid the unpleasant side-effects that kick in when your carbohydrate stores (glycogen) are depleted (depletion occurs after ~ 3days). This method also prevents your body from switching into starvation mode and avoids your body from adapting to the low quantities of carbohydrates that it is receiving by slowing your metabolism, decreasing thyroid hormone output etc. Carb cycling is great because it follows the two fundamental principles of permanent weight loss – keep your body guess (don’t let your body adapt) and keep your metabolic rate up.

Low carbohydrate/ high protein diets can be great for losing weight. The “high day” will get you through the difficult and restrictive low days. It give you a goal – something to look forward to. Of course everyone is different and you can play around with the numbers a little. However, do not stay on low carbohydrate days for more than 3 consecutive days. You may increase the duration of the “high days” to two or three if you prefer.

Having high and low carbohydrate days avoids the “side-effects” of a low carbohydrate diet and avoids your body from adapting to the low carbohydrate intake.

Example,

High carbohydrate day:50% carbohydrates
Low carbohydrate days:30% carbohydrates

Also, if your weight loss is progressing there is no need to reduce carbs or try carb cycling. Stick with what is working for you and should you hit a weight loss plateau, then try other avenues.

If you do follow a low carb diet, try to include as much vegetables as you can. A list of low-carbohydrate vegetable is below:

  • Sprouts (e.g. alfalfa, bean)
  • Greens (e.g. lettuce, spinach, chard,collard greens, mustard greens, kale, endive)
  • Herbs (e.g. parsley, basil, cilantro, rosemary, thyme)
  • Celery
  • Bok Choy
  • Radishes
  • Sea Vegetables
  • Cabbage/ sauerkraut
  • Mushrooms
  • Jicama
  • Avocado
  • Cucumbers/ pickles (no added sugars)
  • Asparagus
  • Green Beans and Wax Beans

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