If you’ve kept your eye on diet trends for the past several years, you’ve probably seen numerous low carb diets pass through. From the Atkins Diet to the Ketogenic Diet, the Paleo diet (not technically low carb, but lower carb than the way most people eat), and more – claims are being thrown left and right about how cutting back on carbs can turn your health around. I’m not a huge fan of diets or claims that fail to recognize that not all carbs are created equal, but is there any evidence behind the case that a low carb diet is the healthiest diet?
image source: Markus Spiering via Flickr
What Ever Happened to Low-Fat Diets?
In the 80’s and 90’s low fat diets were everywhere. Eating fat should in turn make you fat, right? It made sense to lots of people, and even national dietary guidelines adhered to low-fat recommendations. However, here’s what ended up happening: people started replacing fat with sugar. Low fat cookies? They must be healthy, because they’re low fat, right?!
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News flash: replacing fat with the wrong kind of carbs is all kinds of wrong. It makes you hungrier, making weight loss even more difficult. As I’ve written about before, carbs that are released quickly into your bloodstream (think white bread, pasta, and rice, candy, and sugary drinks) spike your blood sugar, causing a rush of insulin that immediately lowers your blood sugar. That’s the “sugar crash” that leaves you tired and drained, craving quick energy from carbs – and so the cycle begins again.
On the other hand, eating high quality carbs, what I like to call “Slow Carbs,” results in a slow release of carbohydrate, keeping you fuller longer and bypassing the sugar crash cycle. As we take a look at low carb diets, keep in mind whether we’re talking about cutting back all carbs, including slow carbs, or just the quick-release sugary ones.
image source: pexels
Will Low Carb Diets Help You Lose Weight?
One of my big hang-ups with low carb diets in general is that there’s little to no research out there looking at low carb diets as a long term solution for weight loss.
Several studies have found low carb diets to be beneficial for weight loss in the short term. One study found that obese patients lost more weight in a six-month period on a low carb diet than on a low fat, low calorie diet. These patients also had greater decreases in triglyceride levels and improved glycemic control.
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This bodes well for low carb diets, but the researchers also warn of a need to extend this study to look at the long term cardiovascular and weight loss effects, as well as the maintenance of a low carb diet over a longer period of time. More studies reinforce this finding, but also question long term efficacy. One study that aimed to fill this void of long-term research on the low carb diet found that the Atkins Diet, a low carb, high fat and protein diet, produced greater weight loss at six months than a high carb, low fat diet – but that difference did not persist at one year.
The Paleo diet, while not deliberately “low carb,” cuts out all grains and legumes – which are both sources of the slow carbs we talked about earlier. Check out my full review on the Paleo diet for details, but here’s the nitty gritty: there’s some evidence that the Paleo diet can be useful for weight loss, but the Paleo diet hasn’t been studied extensively against more carb-inclusive diets and takes an all-or-nothing approach that can be very difficult to follow. Because of that, we’re still not sure if Paleo is more effective for weight loss than research backed diets like the Mediterranean Diet, but it sure does seem less sustainable.
image source: Pexels
Are Low Carb Diets Safe?
On the strictest of low carb diets, your body starts using other energy sources to produce the glucose it needs. On the ketogenic diet, you’re getting only 5-10% of calories from carbs, which works out to about 50 grams per day. With at least 70% of your calories coming from fat, the ketogenic diet pushes your body into ketosis – meaning your body breaks down fat and protein to use as energy, rather than looking to dietary carbohydrates.
Not under the circumstances of a ketogenic diet, ketosis usually means breaking down muscle when in starvation mode – which is no good. While the ketogenic diet has been shown effective for weight loss, there’s still some evidence of muscle breakdown while following it, and measures of safety like kidney and liver function tests aren’t included in all studies regarding the diet.
The low fiber intake resulting from this diet (and any diet that doesn’t focus on high quality, fiber-rich carbohydrates) leads to constipation and a higher risk for colorectal cancer. So while the strict carb cutting might result in weight loss, I’d say it’s likely not worth the strict carb exclusions.
More moderate low carb diets seem to be safe and effective – but again, research is really only out regarding short term effects. Interestingly enough, diets higher in carbohydrates may be safer for your mental health.
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One study showed that a higher carbohydrate diet, lower fat was associated with improved mental health measures in depression and anxiety, while strict low carbohydrate diets presented no such improvement. While the mechanism for this effect isn’t entirely known, it may have something to do with following a non-restrictive diet that doesn’t induce guilt.
Do Low Carb Diets Taste Good?
Taking out, or at least reducing, bread and cookies doesn’t sound tasty, does it? Well – with some creativity, following a low-carb diet can absolutely taste good. Recipes like my Kung Pao Cauliflower Chicken, Low Carb Turkey Cabbage Rolls, and Pad Thai with Zoodles are all delicious low carb takes on comfort food classics.
The Bottom Line:
Any low carb diet that cuts out healthy “slow” carbs like whole grains and legumes should be more of a temporary plan than something to follow for a lifetime. It’s far too broad to point a finger at carbs and blame them for weight gain and modern diet-related diseases. I’m a fan of cutting out the processed, sugary carbs that give you a crash and contribute to numerous health problems – but that doesn’t mean the healthy carbs need to go with them. It’s all about keeping your portion sizes in check and making sure you’re getting enough fiber to control your weight and prevent chronic diseases.
Low carb diets may help you lose weight, but it’s unclear if they’re effective or totally safe in the long term. I’d stick with a balanced diet that doesn’t cut too far back on any one nutrient. Eating healthy foods 80 percent of the time, and allowing yourself to enjoy not-so-healthy foods 20 percent of the time, whether they’re carbs or not, is my recipe for a balance that keeps both your physical and mental health in check.
Have you tried a low carb diet? Did it work for you? Share your story in the comments below.