In spite of the scientific evidence supporting these facts, many mainstream medical authorities continue to recommend low-fat diets high in protein for controlling weight.
According to 2009 government statistics, more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. (3) The Centers for Disease Control refer to America’s weight problems as an epidemic (4), highlighting the critical question of selecting efficient weight control methods to address the health crisis.
Being overweight or obese raises the risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. (5) A host of other common health concerns growing at exponential rates have also been linked to diet and food choices, including cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol levels, inflammatory and immune disorders, gastrointestinal diseases, neurological disorders, and allergies.
We’ll take a look here at what constitutes a low-carb diet, why it works for weight control, and the health benefits and risks.
What is a Low-carb Diet?
As much as the term “low-carb” is tossed back and forth, there’s no hard and fast rule about its meaning in regard to just how many carbohydrates are allowed.
For a base reference point, in the 2010 version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the official publication intended to inform Americans about making wise food choices to create better health, daily carbohydrate intake should make up between 45% and 65% of calories consumed. (6)
Making the translation between calories and carbs can be confusing, especially when most low-carb diet plans focus on grams of carbohydrate, rather than calories.
If you’re eating roughly 1800 calories a day and following government recommendations, around half those calories would come from carbohydrates, in the range of 200 – 300 grams daily. (7)
One of the more extreme low-carb plans, the Atkins diet, limits carb intake to 20 grams daily in the initial two-week phase. Other low-carb approaches may allow between 50 to 100 grams of carbs a day.
Keep in mind that the source of these carbs may be even more significant than the amount, and can drastically affect weight loss results.
For example, consuming potato chips, sugar, refined grains, and other highly processed foods is directly correlated with weight gain, while a focus on carbs obtained from whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and nuts is associated with weight loss. (8) Fruits and veggies naturally have fewer carbohydrates in them and are more nutrient-dense. If you fill your plate with half veggies, you’re going to consume a lot fewer calories than if you eat half a plate of cookies.
In other words, not all carbs are bad. A switch to “good” carbs can easily bring down your caloric intake without any extra effort.
Sugar and other sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup usually top of the list of foods to avoid on a low-carb diet, along with refined grains like white flour. These foods are not dense in nutrients but contain an astonishingly high amount of carbohydrates.
A diet keeping carbs in the very low ranges (less than 50 grams daily) can induce a state of ketosis. The body switches to burning fat for fuel instead of using carbohydrates. A safe and normal process, this is completely different from ketoacidosis, which occurs when diabetes is uncontrolled, flooding the blood with ketones and glucose and requiring immediate medical intervention. (9)
We’ll explore the risks and benefits of low-carb diets as we work through 12 reasons you may want to try this strategy to achieve your personal goals.
1. Effective for Weight Loss
Low-carb diets result in more dramatic drops in Body Mass Index (BMI) than a restricted-calorie diet with 30% of calories from fat over a 6-month period. In this randomized trial, the low-carb group lost up to 8 pounds more weight (nearly 5 pounds of which was body fat) than the low-fat group, with no harmful effects on cardiovascular risk factors. (10)
A study done with adolescents also showed considerable BMI reductions over a 13-week period. (11) In this study, a low carbohydrate diet was considered below 30% carbohydrates. The adolescents in this study also did not experience any side effects and had no complaints about the diet. However, it is important to note that only half of the participants finished the study, though this is similar to those that try a more traditional, low-fat diet.
More fat is lost from the abdominal area with low-carb diets; this means the deeply embedded fat associated with higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease is more likely to be targeted by a low-card diet. (12)
2. Improves Glycemic Control
Diabetics may represent the group that can gain the most health benefits from a low-carb diet. Their cells can’t admit glucose, and eating carbs causes glucose levels in the blood to rise. High glucose levels are toxic and can be deadly. This is why those who are diabetic must take insulin.
A study done in the UK showed low-carb diets are equally effective for weight loss with diabetic and non-diabetic patients over a three-month period. Diabetic patients followed either a low-carb plan or the “healthy” diet recommended by UK nutritionists to help control the disease. Those following the low-carb plan lost more weight. Furthermore, 85% of the participants were able to stick with the diet to the end of the study. (13)
Patients being treated with dietary therapy for diabetes can sometimes reduce their insulin medication by half after the first day of eating low-carb. (14) Others are able to discontinue medication after a few weeks or months. (15, 16) All patients who reduced their use of medication had lower chances of hypoglycemia, which can be deadly.
Sounds almost like a cure for an incurable disease, doesn’t it?
3. Drops Triglyceride Levels
While low-fat diets can negatively affect blood triglyceride levels, low-carb diets consistently drop them. (17)
High blood triglyceride measurements are a known risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease (18), and the higher carbohydrate intake levels usually found in low-fat diet plans may well cancel out any benefits achieved for those who manage to lose weight following the reduced-fat recommendations.
4. Bumps up HDL Cholesterol
HDL cholesterol is the good kind, so when this number goes up, you’re headed in the right direction. This sub-type of HDL moves cholesterol from peripheral areas of the body back to the liver, where it can be reused or excreted, cutting the chance of unwanted deposits that lead to problems like plaque build-up in arteries.
Low-carb diets improve the ratio between HDL and triglycerides, which is known as a dependable marker in risk factors for developing coronary heart disease. (19) The better your ratios, the better chance you have of keeping your heart healthy. (20)
5. Alters Patterns of LDL Cholesterol
The single risk factor that doesn’t change much on a low-carb diet is LDL cholesterol. This is known as the bad type, but it’s not quite that simple.
There are actually two types of LDL: one is small and dense, often likened to BB gun ammunition; the other is bigger and fluffy (think cotton balls).
Tiny, dense LDL particles are easily oxidized (not good) and can penetrate artery walls, eventually contributing to the development of heart disease. (21) So you want less of the BB type particles, and more of the fluffy particles. (22, 23)
Low-carb diets change the pattern and ratio of LDL cholesterol in the blood, resulting in fewer small, dense particles and more big, fluffy particles. (24) So even though LDL cholesterol readings don’t drop with low-carb diets, the prevalence of beneficial particles increases, protecting the circulatory system.
6. Calorie Restriction Occurs Naturally
Both protein and fat take longer periods of time to break down, which means you’ll fill fuller for longer. This reduces snacking considerably, which leads to a lower caloric intake overall.
There is no need for regulations of portions on a low-carb diet because the satiation factor is greater. (26)
7. Reduces Intake of Inflammatory Foods
Chronic inflammation is recognized as an enormous burden to the health care system, and ups the risk of developing a long list of disorders including obesity, type 2 diabetes, peptic ulcers, asthma, and sinusitis. (27)
Many of the foods restricted on a low-carb diet are tagged as contributing to the chronic inflammation associated with health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and even heart disease. (28)
Sugar and refined grains, which aren’t included in low-carb diet plans, are among the top 8 inflammatory foods the Arthritis Foundation’s list. (29)
If you check out the recommendations for following an anti-inflammatory diet, you’ll find a focus on the same sort of foods included in a low-carb diet, with the addition of extra fish and nuts rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
8. Protects Neurological Function
For more than 80 years, a ketogenic diet, which restricts carbohydrate intake to almost nothing, has been used to reduce the incidence of seizure activity for patients suffering from epilepsy.
New studies show promise in using a low-carb diet to treat other neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease; the possible protective qualities of an extremely low-carb diet on stroke and brain injury patients is currently being tested. (30)
If cutting back on carbs can be useful in modifying abnormal electrical activity in the brain, a low-carb diet could drop your risk of developing neurological disorders.
Neurologist David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain: the Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killer believes an overabundance of carbohydrates in the diet cause chronic inflammation in our brains, leading to dementia, headaches, anxiety, depression, and even ADHD. (31)
9. Sharpens Focus on Whole Foods
Cutting out carb-rich processed and refined foods shifts focus to a huge selection of whole foods you can choose from according to personal preference.
When it comes to “good carbs” and “bad carbs,” even starchy vegetables can usually be eaten in moderation on a low-carb diet. While it can be tricky to fit in white potatoes with their higher carb count, sweet potatoes and yams are high-fiber options with lower carb counts.
Low-carb vegetables are abundant in variety, flavor and texture, and many low-sugar fruits are acceptable as well, like blueberries and grapefruit. Including more of these foods in your diet to replace the “bad” carbs in refined and processed foods not only follows the guidelines for low-carb diets, but is recommended by nearly every diet classified as “healthy.”
The USDA’s food pyramid representing wise dietary choices was recently converted to an illustrative plate, half of which is filled with fruits and vegetables. (32)
10. Highlights Sensitivities and Foods That Trigger Weight Gain
Short of adopting an elimination diet or submitting to expensive testing, there’s no better way to determine for yourself what foods you may have trouble tolerating than to remove them from your diet and add them back in later.
Low-carb diets often work best when certain foods are cut out of the diet, even if it’s only temporary; wheat and sugar are the most commonly shunned foods. When adding refined foods back into the diet later, it’s hard to miss the impact.
Some may find gluten intolerance an issue, while others become aware of glycemic changes in response to sugars, but personal experience is a powerful motivator for making healthy food choices.
It can be difficult to comprehend the addictive qualities of sugar until it’s been cut out of the diet and reintroduced. One report issued by the National Institutes of Health states sugar and sweet rewards elicit a more compelling biological response than cocaine. (33)
When a problematic food is eliminated from the diet and then reintroduced, reactions can be dramatic and often very uncomfortable. If following a low-carb diet can help you identify foods that aren’t helping you in your quest for normal weight or better health, this information can be priceless.
11. Improves Physical Performance
Athletes are always working toward better physical performance levels, and studies conducted over a 20-year period indicate low-carb diets deliver biological results similar to high-altitude training. (34)
When the body burns fat as fuel, glycogen stores in muscles remain stable, rather than being drawn out and used for energy demands. Eating a low-carb diet allows athletes to access body fat for ongoing needs, which translates to a more desirable body composition for physical endeavors that require stamina and endurance.
Oxygen availability is a key factor for athletic performance, and low-carb diets enhance the body’s ability to access sufficient oxygen for supporting the maximum physical effort. (35)
12. Easier to Follow
Staying with the eating plan you’ve chosen for cultivating better health is the single most important factor contributing to success. People quit dieting for various reasons, but we all know we won’t get the results we’re looking for if we can’t stay with the program. (36)
Low-carb diets aren’t appropriate for everyone, but data gathered from making comparisons of nearly 20 diet plans show that more dieters are able to stick with a low-carb diet over the long haul than a low-fat diet. (37)
1. You May Consume More Bad Fats
Not all fats are good. In general, you want to eat omega-3s, not omega-6s. Omega-3s actually reduce your chance for heart disease, cardiac deaths, and even your overall chance of dying. (38)
If you’re focusing on eating more fat overall, you may accidentally consume too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. Omega-6s are almost exclusively found in high amounts in vegetables, nuts, and seeds. If you’re just eating regular nuts, you probably aren’t consuming that many omega-6s. The issue really seems to pop up when you use processed vegetable oil, which is almost all omega-3s.
Instead, aim to get your fats from animal sources. Coconut oil and olive oil are both okay options as well.
2. Veggies and Fruits may be Lacking
When you’re trying to stick to a very low-carb diet, you may miss out on nutrients found in fruits and veggies. This is especially true if you choose to get your carbohydrates from less-than-stellar sources, like bread or desserts.
To remedy this problem, we recommend avoiding low-quality sources of carbohydrates altogether. These include sugar-filled foods and bread. Instead, aim to get the large majority of your carbs from veggies and fruits. Both of these food groups are very nutrient-dense and do not contain many calories. You can eat a lot of veggies on a low-carb diet; you just have to choose to eat them instead of that cupcake.
3. Eating Too Much Protein
Low-carb dieters should get most of their calories from fat. However, some turn to protein instead.
This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Protein can make you feel fuller for longer and can increase your fat-burning rate better than other macronutrients (39).
However, too much protein can also be a bad thing. When you eat more protein than your body can use, the extra amino acids get turned into glucose. This is the exact same substance that carbohydrates get turned into in your body (40). For those following the keto diet, this can prevent them from going into ketosis, which is the whole point of the diet.
You want a diet high in fat and only moderate in protein. Remember to eat lots of animal products like cheese and milk, as these are full of good fats and contain only moderate amounts of protein.
4. Not Eating Enough Fat
Over the past few decades, there has been a huge push against fats. However, it has become very obvious in the past few years that fat doesn’t actually make you fat – it’s mostly the sugar you eat.
Still, many people are scared of eating too much fat. Some may try to lower their carbohydrate and fat consumption in an attempt to be extra-healthy. But, this just doesn’t work. You have to eat one or the other for energy or your will face malnutrition and even starvation in very serious cases. You cannot live on protein alone.
When you get on a low-carb diet, you want to get the majority of your calories from fat. This means drinking full-fat milk and eating cheese.
5. Not Eating Enough Sodium
One of the reasons low-carb diets work as well as they do is because they lower your insulin levels (41). Insulin plays a number of roles in your body, including telling your liver to hold onto sodium and your cells to retain fat (42).
A low-carb diet greatly lowers your insulin levels, letting your body shed excess sodium and water. Many people will reduce bloating within the first few days (43).
Still, sodium is very important for your body function. Without sodium, your body cannot transport water correctly around your body, which can lead to all sorts of issues.
Because your liver does not hold onto as much sodium when on a low-carb diet, it is essential that you consume enough sodium for your body’s needs. There is no reason to hold off on the salt when on this diet. Alternatively, you could also drink plenty of bone broth.
6. Not Indulging
Low-carb diets are some of the best weight-loss diets around. This is largely because they allow you to eat rich, flavorful foods, which are often a big no-no on other diets.
But, many people do not indulge because they feel like being “on a diet” prevents that. Just because you’re on a low-carb diet does not mean you can’t eat bacon – which is mostly fat and protein! Please, have some fun while you’re on your diet and indulge in those rich, fatty foods that you love. It’ll reduce the chance of you turning to sugar to satisfy your cravings, and many of these fatty foods are a-okay for those on a low-carb diet, anyway.
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While low-carb diets have taken a beating from every angle for decades, as well as being labeled as a “fad” diet, current research does not support these perspectives. The truth is, you can eat well on a low-carb diet with no worries about hunger pains or portion control while improving your health.
There are many low-carb plans you can choose from to help you lose weight, restructure your body composition, protect neurological function, and cut your chances of developing many modern diseases and disorders.