Low carb diets have been coming in and out of the dieting fad world for decades and there does not appear to be any sign of this trend slowing down. Although we may have learned little pearls along the way about what eating patterns sort of work and sort of do not work, social media of all types would prove we are still super dumb in the world of eating. The worst part is that the people with the loudest voices cheering for what does work are those with the least knowledge and education: The MLM’ers. That is, the multilevel marketers. Do what they do to look like they look. Buy what they are selling because it is going out the door like hot cakes. Sigh.
So here I am, simply a person with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition, a year long internship alongside amazing dietitians, a Masters of Applied Human Nutrition, and 5 years of working in the nutrition trenches (#humblebrag) giving my two cents on whether or not low carb is the way to go. (PS if you aren’t sure what the eff a carb is, you can read my article on it here)
Defining low carb
So this is the most misunderstood component of a low carb diet I am sure, backed by nothing other than my personal opinion. To one person low carb may mean that they no longer eat bread and potatoes and to another it may mean they are in complete ketosis at all times. So, for the purposes of this article, I will create some definition:
Ultra Low Carb (Ketosis): Carb intake generally less than 50g/day
Low Carb: Carb intake generally between 50-100g/d
Moderate Carb: 100-150g/d
Why would people want to eliminate carbs?
Great question. There is great merit in lowering carbohydrate intake as a strategy to lower weight, triglycerides, and insulin resistance. After all, if you consider that a person trying to lower their carbs also would significantly reduce their intake of all sweets, chips, cookies, granola bars, cereals, sugary beverages like juice and pop, french fries, and battered everything. So yeah, lowering carbsis definitely a bonus in that respect. But is their value is also tossing out all your fruit, milk, yogurt, starchy vegetables, grains, beans, and lentils?
That is where I get stuck, mostly because I love all of those foods but also because that is a lot of food and a lot of nutrients to eliminate. A ketogentic (or keto) diet would in fact remove all of those foods. The low -moderate carb would definitely create more variety but it is difficult to say if the weight loss results would be as dramatic in the short term if you are not in a relatively permanent state of ketosis.
What is ketosis you may ask…
Okay so here is a quick lesson digging back into the physiology books. Anytime you eat carbs they are broken down into glucose and stored as glycogen. These are considered your fuel tanks. When those fuel tanks are empty you would naturally shift to using fat as your main source of fuel. This shift essentially will produce ketones to do the job that glucose would have once done. Your body is very quick at using glucose as fuel and not so quick at using ketones, so there is an adaptive phase that needs to take place that will often take at least a few weeks.
Is it safe to lower carb intake?
All levels of carb intake -ultra low, low, and moderate- appear to actually be quite safe. Various studies have been done to check out if would negatively effect the kidneys or any markers related to heart health and it appears as though low carbs get the all clear. Some studies have shown that the ultra low carb diets can raise your LDL (or bad cholesterol) as one of the more negative outcomes. As with any new diet, check with a professional before starting it to make sure there will be no negative outcomes based on the medications you are currently taking and health conditions you currently have.
Is it effective long term?
Well, research is a bit unclear on this one. Several studies look at the comparison between people following ultra low carb diets compared to people who eat regularly but are consuming 500-1000 calories less than they used to (ie. the attempts to lose 1-2lbs/wk). Where the low carb diets tend to win is with the 4-6 month studies which mostly showed better outcomes. However, several studies actually had very similar weight loss outcomes after the 1-2 year mark which gives more of the idea that it is not super sustainable. Which really is not surprising, hence the question, can I give up carbs for life? I struggle to believe the answer is yes for the majority of the population. Fewer studies focused on the low to medium carb group and how they faired out after 1-2 years which is actually the population I am most interested in!
Low carb diets sound hard. Is there a pill I can just take instead?
Well, for every one person trying to lose weight the healthy way there are at least 10 people looking for the pill form of that hard work (that statistic is mostly made up. Okay entirely.) We all know that person who does the cleanses and takes all the vitamins and supplements in hopes that healthy eating and exercise will someday be a thing of the past.
So we have established that ultra low carb diets are well studied in the weight loss world, but giving up carbs is the absolute worst! What if you could somehow be in ketosis and use fat for fuel without actually giving up carbs? In comes Pruvit Keto/OS. An overly priced garbage drink that is supposed to put you in ketosis without doing the work of actually cutting out your carbs! Here is a great review of this product . So apparently you can have your cake and eat it too, literally. But, before you jump on this bandwagon please know that this too shall pass, and this supplement will be another one for the ‘that was a gross waste of money’ books.
Eat carbs, or don’t eat carbs. But eat healthy. And ideally do some sort of physical activity reguar
ly. Low carb diets are not meant to be interpreted as an unlimited bacon (that originally said sausage but I changed it cause, you know) party and moderate or even high carb diets are not meant to consist of doughnuts and pastries. The key to either methods of healthy eating is to do them forever because that will be the only way to make the weight loss sustainable.