After you understand both the benefits and drawbacks of low-carb diet, you can avoid crash dieting altogether and adapt to a long-term low-carb lifestyle. There are no fad diets to be found here!
Let’s begin with the skinny on low-carb eating. In general, grain, wheat and high-carb fruits are cut out. The majority of the carbs we consume today are empty calories like white bread. These turn to sugar in the bloodstream and aren’t processed any differently than a can of sugary soda. This increased level of sugar prompts the body to produce insulin, which regulates the sugar and helps transform those simple carbs to quick energy.
Sugar in the bloodstream, called glucose, partners up with insulin to give us the energy we need to do everything from blinking to exercising (hence why marathon runners load up on carbs before a big race—it’s like filling up the gas tank before a long road trip). If the body has too little glucose, it causes grogginess and sluggishness. If the body has too much glucose, it is stored in the liver, but once the liver and other storage cells are full, that excess glucose is turned into fat.
The idea behind cutting carbs is that your body will use the stored fat cells for fuel instead of the sugar/carbs. It makes sense to talk about sugar and carbohydrates interchangeably here because, once ingested, all carbs are treated essentially the same. Even complex carbs like brown rice, rye and barley—championed as slower-burning fuels—are ultimately broken down into simple sugars in the end.
If fat is the only available fuel, as in a low-carb diet, that state will kick-start your body into burning fat faster. Let’s say your hybrid car was out of gas and running on pure electricity. If carbs are the body’s main source of fuel (like the gas in a hybrid), the stored fat is like pure electricity. Cars aren’t 100% electric because they aren’t as punchy without some gasoline, and the same is true for your body. But, like a hybrid car, you can choose to use almost all fat (electricity) and very little carbs (fuel).
This analogy points to the potential health risks of long-term carb starvation. This is why it’s recommended not to eat this 10-day low-carb regimen for an extended period of time. This could have serious health complications, regardless of if you still have hundreds of pounds of excess fat.
What Role Does Insulin Play?
Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use glucose, its main energy source. But what’s important here is that insulin also prevents the body from using stored fat for energy. So less sugar/carbs means less glucose and less insulin, allowing your body to more easily burn fat as energy.
However, when glucose is proportionally higher than the amount of insulin, diabetes results. “Insulin resistance” is a common term in the low-carb dieting community—this basically means pre-diabetic! If the condition is not corrected, it will become necessary to take insulin injections to help the body manage glucose.
Isn’t it counterintuitive, then, to eat LESS fruit or MORE meat? Remember that our goal today is to avoid fad dieting at all costs so we’ll go over all the key health concerns of the popular low-carb diets soon enough.
This book will teach you about the nutrition of carbs so you can incorporate your knowledge of a low-carb regimen into your lifestyle, not so you can crash and binge. The only way to lose weight safely and keep it off is to make a long-term change to a healthier way of eating and exercising—period!
The Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet
Here is a line by line explanation of the benefits of reducing your sugar/carb intake:
- Reverse the severity of diabetes by better regulating your insulin. If diabetics must stay away from sugary foods—and all carbs are basically sugar—it only follows that a diabetic or pre-diabetic would greatly benefit by reducing overall carb intake.
- The New England Journal of Medicine reports that those who eat low-carb diets show healthier cholesterol and triglyceride levels (meaning bad cholesterol and triglycerides went down, while the good ones went up). In the past it was unclear whether improvements in cholesterol and triglycerides were due to losing weight or due to eating fewer carbs. Recent studies now confirm that a low-carb diet without weight loss does improve cholesterol and triglycerides.
- The Annals of Internal Medicine reported that low-carb diets lead to greater weight loss than low-fat diets. Several controlled studies reported that low-carb diets worked about as well as most weight-loss medications, like Orlistat and Sibutramine.
- Low-carb diets have empirically reported benefits that are not yet confirmed by reliable scientific research: more energy, elimination of compulsive eating, improved concentration, reduction or elimination of sweet tooth, improved gum health, fewer cavities and less extreme emotional highs and lows.
- Glucose and insulin aren’t dumped into your blood in large doses. In other words, you can eliminate the sugar high sensation, which is linked to the ensuing sugar crash and binge eating.
- Glycemic index refers to how quickly the sugar in the food makes its way into your bloodstream. Low GI foods are best when you want to avoid the addictive sugar rush feeling. The Journal of the American Medical Association says that people eating a low-glycemic load diet, which is the type of low-carb regimen used in the South Beach Diet, for example, reported feeling less hungry than those on low-fat diets. Also, on low-glycemic load diets, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure improved along with insulin resistance, creatine protein and triglycerides.
The Drawbacks of a Low-Carb Diet
What will you be replacing all those carbs with? WebMD explains it like this:
“These diets generally recommend dieters receive 30% to 50% of their total calories from protein [amino acids essential to the building, maintenance and repair of tissues in the body]. By comparison, the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program and the American Cancer Society all recommend a diet in which a smaller percentage of calories are derived from protein.”
A high-protein diet has pretty much the same problems as the Standard American Diet: too much meat, too much cheese, too much fat. Depending on which nutritionist you check with, the recommendations vary. Some advocate a daily intake of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight; others say as few as 25 grams per day is best. If you go low-carb and increase your protein intake to compensate, you may be taking in more than 5 times the amount of protein your body needs.
Vegetarians have lower rates of chronic disease and morbidity across the board, and that may be because of the negative effects that too much protein can have on the body. A high-protein diet puts stress on the kidneys, which can in time lead to kidney stones and kidney disease. High cholesterol—associated with strokes, cancer and heart attacks—is also a by-product of a high-protein diet. So if you aren’t careful in balancing your meals, you can cancel out the good cholesterol benefits associated with reducing carbs.
Don’t forget that foods with carbohydrates also contain important antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Meat contains potassium, iron and a few other important nutrients, but you may not realize that vegetables—like peas, for example—are often healthier because they are a good source of lots of other vitamins and minerals. Yes, meat provides a complete protein by itself, but other foods when eaten together will cover all the amino acids too. For example, eating beans and rice any time in a 24-hour period will result in complete protein.
Some doctors also warn of the dangers of ketosis, a metabolic state the body shifts into if you eat fewer than 100 grams of carbs per day, as required by any low-carb diet. Yes, ketosis burns fat. However, because this is not a normal state for the body, it can throw your other systems out of whack. Again, moderation is key.
WebMD also raises these concerns:
“The [low-carb] plans that don’t allow intake of fruits and vegetables are the most problematic. Again, a balanced diet of protein, carbs, and good fats is ideal. The experts say to achieve permanent weight loss you must change your lifestyle. This means following a balanced diet combined with participating in regular physical activity.”
In addition to physical side effects, there can be effects on mood and brain functioning as well. Although Santa Claus isn’t real, there is some truth to overweight people being jollier. Some experts have observed that antidepressants are often less powerful than the effects of low-carb eating. While many low-carbers report fewer mood swings due to reducing sugar crashes, be aware that your unique experience can go one way or the other. Psychology Today reports on what they call “Atkins Attitude,” including irritability, tension, depression and rage. Studies have shown that reducing carb intake reduces serotonin in the brain, which is a likely cause of this mood change.
Of course, keep in mind that being on a diet and missing out on many of your favorite foods can already put you in a bad mood. Adding low serotonin levels to the mix may make it too hard for you to follow the diet—even for just 10 days! Plus, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences reports that human brain function is impaired if we eat fewer than 130 grams of carbs daily. That means low-carb diets can make concentrating more difficult and have a negative impact on productivity.
Dr. Judith Wurtzman, author of Serotonin Power Diet, has found that eating complex carbohydrates can keep serotonin levels optimal. Complex carbs include brown rice, oats, barley and oat bran. Dr. Wurtzman advocates that anyone starting a low-carb regimen include three snacks that are high in complex carbs per day. Serotonin levels will eventually even out with the slow-burning healthy carbs. While simple sugar and carbs provide a fast and furious high, complex carbs provide longer-lasting, even keel, sustained energy.
LiveStrong.com says, “The key is choosing the right carbohydrates, like strawberries instead of strawberry pie, and brown rice instead of fries.” Even doctors who don’t recommend low-carb diets generally still support most of the aspects of these regimens, such as reducing simple sugar intake, eating complex instead of simple carbs, and so on. We’ll explore this fine line further when we get to meal planning. Again, please consult with your doctor before starting any kind of new diet regimen.
All about Ketosis
Ketones are generated when fat is metabolized, whether it comes from something you just ate or your body’s fat stores. When the liver has used up its glycogen (fatty acids), ketones begin to elevate. Ketosis is a state in which the body secretes more ketones than it normally does. In dieting terms, ketosis refers to when the body is metabolizing, or “burning,” more fat than normal – but really it just means the level of ketones in the blood is elevated.
While some sources say that both the heart and kidneys prefer ketones (derived from fat) to glucose (derived from carbs) as their main source of energy, ketosis can become a dangerous state to the body if the level of ketones get too high. Since some brain cells can only use glucose, carbohydrates can never be completed eliminated from a healthy diet. Ketosis is common with Type I Diabetes, traditional low-carb diets, alcoholism and eating disorders like anorexia. However, a safe, controlled level of ketosis can mean less hunger and easier weight loss.
You may ask at what point does ketosis become dangerous? The body is carefully balanced on the pH scale. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 14 being the most alkaline and 0 being the most acidic. Seven is perfectly neutral, and the human body’s normal healthy range is between 6.0 and 7.5. Ketones are made of acid-related compounds like acetone and acetoacetate, and ketosis becomes dangerous when it pushes the body to be too acidic.
When the body is consistently too acidic, a condition known as acidosis develops. When the body’s pH gets too low (acidosis), it leaches needed vitamins and minerals from the bones and organs, like sodium, Vitamin B12, calcium and magnesium. If acidosis persists for months and years on end, it can lead to heart problems, diabetes, yeast infections, premature aging, a weakened immune system, obesity, digestion and hormone problems, kidney stones, osteoporosis, fatigue, cancer and joint/muscle pain.
Some foods that rate low (acidic) on the pH scale include basically all animal products (meat, eggs, all dairy products except natural yogurt), grains (oatmeal, pasta), fats, beans, corn, coffee and alcohol. Some foods that rate high (alkaline) on the pH scale include most fruits (berries, melon, apples, citrus) and vegetables, particularly leafy greens. The only common alkaline sources of protein are tofu and nuts.
Just as you can take urine tests to measure how many ketones your body is producing, you can also check your body’s pH with urine strip tests purchased online or from the store. Also, remember that the body is 70% water; drink more water than you think is necessary while you are dieting or otherwise. Staying hydrated will also keep your body balanced and healthy.
Some sources also say that the body will burn muscle mass in ketosis before it gets around to finally burning fat. To create a safe, fat-burning state, your body must turn away from carbs and towards stores of fat for fuel.
However, if one does not do the proper research in advance and follow the assigned protocols, a low-carb diet can have unwanted consequences. Furthermore, any low carb diet, if maintained for too long, will eventually put strain on the organs and the body will begin to break down. MedicalNewsToday.com states quite plainly:
“Experts cannot agree on whether ketosis caused by a low-carb/high-protein diet is good or bad for humans. Some say it is dangerous. While others point to human evolution: during most of the time that humans have existed, we have been a hunter-gatherer species and have lived primarily in a ketogenic state for extended periods.”
In line with the premise of the Paleo Diet, some studies show that after an adaptation period of 15–30 days, the body can live permanently and safely in a ketogenic state. There are many societies around the world today (and more in the past) that live on ketogenic diets. These same studies report that the body does not require a lot of carbs to replenish low glucose stores for energy usage.