Low carb dieting is arguably the most popular diet trend right now and it has been for a very long time.
But why? Well, it’s definitely effective for a lot of people and a high protein, low carb diet plan can aid you in dropping the pounds quickly.
Now, there’s a difference between low carb and keto because the intended purpose for a ketogenic diet is very specific. You use up fat for energy rather than carbs but the latter is consumed in very small amounts (Like 20 grams a day or less). This creates ketosis in your body and now you’re an efficient fat-burning machine since carbs are out of the picture. (1, 2)
A lot of people will just lower their carb intake to an ideal amount for them, although not low enough to really encourage ketosis.
But, low carb dieting has its place and there are many factors to consider as making any dietary changes will cause side effects.
Stephen Sondike, MD, who is the director of the Nutrition, Exercise, and Weight Management Program at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin; explained… “Any time you make a fundamental change in your diet your body is going to react, and when it does you are bound to experience certain symptoms or problems”. (3)
So, take caution to approach a low carb diet with a good strategy and you’ll reap the benefits while keeping your health and mind in check…
What Is a Low Carb Diet?
It’s pretty simple… you consume fewer carbohydrates while keeping your protein and fat intake higher.
But, what’s a carb? A ‘carbohydrate’ is a caloric macronutrient and its role is to supply the body with energy. And a carb breaks down faster than any other macronutrient to provide fuel to sustain your high energy efforts. (4)
Your digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose and utilizes it as a source of energy for essentially all bodily functions.
But, there are two common types of carbohydrates which are very important to know about…
Simple carbs are sugars found in foods like fruits, foods with refined sugar, certain vegetables, and milk. But these carbs are a source of quick energy, meaning they break down very fast for energy. (5)
Complex carbs are strung together in a complex chain of sugars and these carbs come in the form of whole grains, beans, pasta, starchy vegetables, etc. (6)
But complex carbs are slower digesting and they provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber while having less effect on blood sugar levels. Simple carbs elevate blood glucose levels quickly in the bloodstream since they are broken down quickly. These simple sugars spike insulin (Helps sugars into the bloodstream) levels, and if elevated for too long, it can result in insulin resistance. (7, 8)
This is when your cells no longer respond to insulin’s role in the body which increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes. But, heart disease and obesity are common as well.
So, complex carbs should make up the majority of your intake to prevent these rapid and sustained elevated blood sugar levels.
But, you can make it a little easier on yourself when choosing certain carbs by looking at where they are on the Glycemic Index (GI) Scale. Foods high on the scale raise blood sugar the fastest, while the lower GI foods have less impact. (9)
Foods rated 55 or less are low GI foods and a rating of 70-100 is high…
Low carb diet benefits
A low carb diet obviously has some benefits otherwise it wouldn’t be such a widely implemented dietary method. (10)
These mainly include:
- Weight loss
- Healthier blood sugar levels
- Decreased risk of certain chronic diseases
Studies have shown a keto diet to shed water weight at first, followed by body fat. So, it is effective for weight loss but again, it may not be the best method. (11)
And there are actually studies which show it’s lack of effectiveness after a certain period of time following the keto diet.
The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes also decreases with a keto diet, and the benefits for heart health are still under review.
What to Eat On a Low Carb Diet
Determining the ideal foods to consume on a low carb diet does not have to be complicated but you’ll have to do a little homework.
But, generally, the foods which are lowest in carbs include…
- Green leafy vegetables (Kale, lettuce, spinach)
- Non-starchy vegetables (Artichokes, broccoli, mushrooms)
- Fish, seafood
- Protein shakes
These food items are sufficient sources of protein and fat, while also supplying vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plus, they’re all lower GI foods.
But, it’s important to set a target number for the ideal amount of carbs you should be consuming per day and make sure to read each label for the serving sizes. This will give you the approximate percentages and you can keep track to ensure you reach the desired carb intake amounts.
How Many Carbs Should I Eat On a Low Carb Diet?
So, this is tricky and there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula to determine the ideal carbohydrate intake amount for everyone. It really depends on your goals, health status, and preferences.
However… there is a general and widely accepted set of recommendations for implementing a low carb diet for the benefit of losing weight, getting more shredded or promoting ketosis.
Here’s a list of general carb intake categories: (12)
- Very low – less than 10% or 20-50 gm/day
- Low – less than 26% or 130 gm/day
- Moderate – 26-44%
- High – 45% or greater
Now, these percentages are based on the number of carbs you’ll consume in a day aside from the other two macronutrients which are protein and fat. And you should adjust these numbers to fit your goals.
But, it might be best to start with the lower end of moderate carb intake, and slowly work your way down to low carbs before finally doing very low carb (Keto) diet plan.
There are side effects to be aware as there are with any diet modifications. As mentioned above, any diet will cause changes to occur in your body. Some will be desirable and others not so much. So, it’s always important to gradually incorporate a diet plan as drastic changes will make the transition very unpleasant.
- Brain fog
- Renal (Kidney) dysfunction
- Nutritional deficiencies
A low carb, high protein diet has not shown to have a negative effect on healthy kidneys but for not so healthy kidneys, it’s recommended to consume a low to moderate amount of protein. (12)
Constipation is also a side effect of lowering carb intake since fiber is essential for digestive health. But, nutritional deficiencies are also a risk factor since whole grains, fruits and vegetables supply essential nutrients. (13)
We know calcium is crucial for bone growth and heartbeat regulation. While selenium helps to regulate the metabolism, and magnesium plays a big role in muscle and nerve function as well as blood glucose control. (17, 18, 19)
These nutrients are essential and a diet which lacks them would likely have adverse effects for the developing individual.
Who Should Not Do a Low Carb Diet?
A Low carb diet is definitely not for everyone.
Since carbs supply many essential nutrients for the body, a growing individual (Children, and teens) should hold off on a low carb diet plan. (20)
The vitamins and minerals in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are crucial for optimal growth and development, especially since we’ve evolved from eating these foods sources. In fact, a study from the University of Sydney determined that starchy carbs were essential for the evolution of modern big-brained humans. (21)
So, carbs may play a bigger role in adolescent development than they do for adulthood.
A really low carb diet is usually not the best method when training to put on a lot of muscle mass and strength. You see, when you weight train, the glycogen in your muscles are utilized for energy. (22)
So, to sustain long hours at high intensity, glycogen is crucial to keep you performing at a high level. And since carbs are the only macro to break down fast enough for fuel, a low carb diet would be counterintuitive.
And this is a situation where simple carbs are important for fast muscle glycogen replenishment which prevents protein from being used as an energy source.
The Ketogenic Diet
The keto or Atkins diet is an extremely popular trend that involves using stored fat for energy (Like mentioned earlier)
So, instead of using carbs for fuel, your body will use the stored fat cells which would turn to ketones in the bloodstream rather than glucose. (23)
But, a keto diet may not be as beneficial long term… “The keto diet is primarily used to help reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in children. While it also has been tried for weight loss, only short-term results have been studied, and the results have been mixed. We don’t know if it works in the long term, nor whether it’s safe,” said Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (24)
A ketogenic has also been associated with an increase in LDL cholesterol levels which is not great for heart health. This is another factor to consider when doing keto. But, this is due to higher saturated fat intake. So, keep the saturated fats to 7% or less of your total daily fat intake. (24)
Now for carb intake on a keto diet, 20-50 grams is usually the limit. And it’s really easy to go over, which is why keeping a food log is important. But as far as the process is concerned, it takes a few days to reach a state of ketosis.
Many people see good results with a ketogenic diet but it must be studied further for conclusive evidence of its effectiveness.
If a low carb diet plan works for you then have at it!
But, it’s important to realize that it’s not good for everyone, however; there are definite weight loss benefits along with blood sugar management. And the results will vary for each individual so it’s important to remember changes take a little time with any diet plan.
And if you’re attempting to put on a lot of muscle size, or are extremely active, a moderate carb intake may be better to sustain your efforts. But, otherwise, if you’re more sedentary, a low carb diet plan would work.
So, use this information to make good decisions regarding your diet and remember to take it slow when implementing any new diet plan.