A low-carb diet has become a very popular term among people who want to lose weight fast. But what is a low-carb diet? Is it good for you? Or is it only a diet fad with hidden side effects? Read on to find all the answers.
What is carbohydrate?
Carbohydrate is a calorie-providing macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. They can be simple or complex. They can also be classified as simple natural (lactose in milk and fructose in fruit), complex natural (whole grains or beans), simple refined (table sugar), and complex refined (white flour). Natural complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly so they have less effect on blood sugar. They also provide bulk and serve several other body functions.
Common sources of natural carbohydrates include grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), and seeds. Foods that contain refined carbohydrates include white bread and pasta, cookies, candy, cake, and sugar-sweetened sodas and drinks.
What do the carbohydrates do?
Carbohydrates are your body’s main fuel source. Your digestive system breaks down complex carbohydrates (starches) into simple sugars. Then they are absorbed into your bloodstream and become blood sugar (glucose). Rising levels of blood sugar make the body to release insulin. This insulin helps glucose in entering your body’s cells. Some of this glucose is used by the body for energy. It fuels all your activities, whether it’s doing weight-lifting or blinking. The leftover extra glucose is usually stored in your liver, muscles, and other cells for later use. Or it is converted to fat.
The low-carb diets aim to burn this fat. The basic idea behind these diet plans is that decrease in carbs lowers insulin levels, which makes the body to burn stored fat for energy. And that leads to weight loss.
What is a low-carb diet?
A low-carb diet restricts carbohydrates and increases the intake of foods high in protein and fat. Several types of low-carb diets exist that have varying restrictions on the amounts and types of carbohydrates you can eat.
A low-carb diet may help you lose weight. Some low-carb diets may also have several health benefits such as reducing risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
A low-carb diet emphasizes proteins, including meat, fish, poultry and eggs, and some non-starchy vegetables. It limits or excludes grains, fruits, legumes, breads, pastas, sweets, and starchy vegetables. The more restrictive low-carb diets also limit the intake of nuts and seeds. Some low-carb diet plans allow limited quantities of some fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
How much carbohydrate does a low-carb diet recommend?
A typical low-carb diet recommends a daily limit of 0.7 to 2 ounces (20 to 60 grams) of carbohydrates. These amounts provide 80 to 240 calories. There are some low-carb diets that strictly restrict carbs in the initial phase of the diet and then gradually increase the amount of allowed carbs.
It is important to note that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calorie intake. This means, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, you need to eat between 900 and 1,300 calories every day from carbohydrates.
Types of Low-Carb Diets:
There are different kinds of low-carb diets being recommended these days. Some of these are considered diet fads, others may encourage healthier eating. Here are some popular low-carb diet plans:
- The New Atkins Diet Revolution: This low-carb diet plan maintains that obese people are insulin sensitive and carbohydrates may make them gain weight.
- The Zone: This diet plan gives a specific proportion of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to be consumed in a day to lose weight. It reduces fats and makes protein the primary source of energy.
- Sugar Busters: This diet plan believes that sugar is your biggest hurdle to weight loss and since carbohydrates are the foods that are processed into sugars — carbohydrates should be restricted.
- The Scarsdale Diet: This is also a low-carb, high protein diet. It offers a 2-week crash dieting plan.
Is a low-carb diet safe?
Experts are still not sure whether a low-carb diet is healthy or not. There are many research papers that support the low carb revolution. However, nobody has tested the effects of this restrictive diet regime in the long term.
Research by Layman et. al., and Saris have found that the low carb and high-protein diets don’t provide much benefit to dieters. Researchers noticed that when protein was moderately increased and carbohydrates were proportionately decreased, the insulin levels stabilized. But there was no significant weight loss. Saris concluded that a low carb, high-fat diet may even increase the likelihood of weight gain.
And cutting down carbs suddenly and drastically may even lead to several temporary health effects, including headache, bad breath, weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, skin rash, constipation or diarrhea. All this may deter you from leading an active life which may, in turn, affect your health.
Too little intake of carbohydrates may also result in vitamin or mineral deficiencies, bone loss, and gastrointestinal disturbances. It may also increase the risks of various chronic diseases. Some health experts believe that eating large amounts of fat and protein from animal sources may increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Severely restricting carbohydrates to less than 0.7 ounces (20 grams) in a day may also lead to ketosis. This happens when you don’t have enough sugar (glucose) for energy so your body breaks down stored fat to get energy. This may help you lose weight. But this process causes ketones to build up in your body. And the side effects of that can include nausea, mental and physical fatigue, headache, and bad breath.
Should you follow the low-carb diet?
Most diet plans, including low-carb diet plans, should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because a diet worked for your friend doesn’t mean it will work for you too. Also, a diet that makes you lose weight fast may not always be healthy. For people with serious weight problems or co-existing issues such as hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), the popular diet plans may not be recommended.
To assess whether a particular diet plan will be beneficial, you can follow the guidelines given below. These are just common sense points which many nutrition professionals would broadly follow:
- Does the diet offer sufficient nutrient balance and a variety of carbohydrates, protein, and fats?
- Does the diet exclude one particular food group and recommends excessive consumption of another?
- Is the diet plan encouraging exercise to complement sensible eating habits?
- Does the diet encourage awareness of portion sizes?
- Is the diet promising unrealistic quick weight loss?
- Is the diet plan backed with medical research data?
If you decide to follow a low-carbohydrate diet that’s higher in fat and protein, choose foods with healthy unsaturated fats and healthy proteins. Avoid foods containing saturated and trans fats, such as meat, high-fat dairy products, and processed crackers and pastries.
Also, remember that low-carb diets are not recommended for preteens and high schoolers. They may not provide the necessary nutrients that children’s growing bodies need. Children must have a wholesome and balanced diet that includes grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Many fitness experts favor the low carb philosophy. On the other hand, there are also many health experts that oppose it. Research published in May 2004, showed that patients who had consumed a low-carb diet had a greater weight loss, decreased triglyceride levels, and increased levels of HDL’s, compared to patients on a low-fat diet. However, mainstream medicine still does not recommend low-carb diets.
The main objection to the low carb, high-protein diets is that they don’t offer nutritional balance and may prove dangerous for people at risk of heart disease. The extremely restricted low-carb diets are particularly frowned upon.
If you want to try a low-carb diet, it might be a good idea to start with a moderate restrictions plan. And always consult your doctor before you make any drastic change in your food intake.