Carbohydrates constitute one of the 3 major macronutrient components of our diet.
Low Carbohydrate diets ( LCD) are a group of dietary interventions where carbohydrate consumption is restricted.
The goal of a LCD is to improve overall health and support weight loss by reducing the amount of carbohydrates a person consumes.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients that your body breaks down into glucose to provide the brain and muscles with energy.
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
Sugar is the most basic form of carbohydrates and can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables or it can be added to foods like candy and soda.
- Starches are complex carbohydrates which are made up of many sugars strung together that your body will break down to make energy. An example of starches would be bread, pasta, potatoes and corn.
- Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate but your body cannot break it down. Eating fiber helps you feel full longer and has many health benefits like preventing constipation and lowering blood sugar. Fiber is found naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains.
Not all carbohydrates are created equally, the sugar form of carbohydrates are “empty calories”, meaning you get little to no nutritional value from them. Unlike fiber that provides health benefits and helps you stay satiated between meals to prevent you from overeating. Carbohydrates found in sugary foods, pasta and breads will increase your blood sugar levels which results in an increase in the fat-storing hormone, insulin. To decrease insulin in your body the pancreas, which produces insulin, must be “reset”. When carbohydrate consumption is limited, less insulin is produced and stored as fat. This is why the low carb diet is known to be very effective for losing weight and reversing certain diseases like type 2 diabetes.
There are different types of LCD based on the carbohydrate (CHO) content:
- Liberal LCD: 100-150 grams of CHO daily
- Moderate LCD: 50-100 grams of CHO daily
- Strict LCD: 40-50 grams of CHO daily
A liberal low carb diet allows 100-150 grams of carbs per day. This kind of LCD is best for people who are in weight maintenance, exercise frequently or sensitive to carb restriction. An example of a liberal low carb diet would be The Atkins 100 and The Zone Diet. The Zone Diet instructs their followers to eat 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat. The main goal of this specific diet is to reduce inflammation which then leads to reduced risk of chronic disease. While this diet is not as rigorous as ones in the moderate and strict categories, you are still advised to stay away from refined and processed foods.
A moderate LCD allows 50-100 grams of carbs per day which helps people lose weight but at a gradual rate to ensure blood glucose levels are controlled. The Atkins 40 is a good example of a moderate LCD because you are eating 40-50 grams of carbs, 3 servings of protein and 8 servings of vegetables each day. This specific diet is designed for people who need to lose 40 pounds or less but still want a wide variety of foods they can eat. The Atkins 40 diet allows people to eat things that sometimes aren’t allowed on low carb diets like starchy vegetables and whole grains, as long as it fits into their carb count for the day. There are other types of Atkins diets like the Atkins 20 and Atkins 100, which allow 20 grams and 100 grams of carbohydrates respectively each day. The goal of the Atkins diet if someone starts at 20 or 40 carbs per day is to slowly increase their carb intake, after they reach their goal weight, to a sustainable level that is livable for their future.
A strict LCD allows 0-50 grams of Carbs per day and is best for people wanting to lose weight quickly or lose weight by entering into ketosis. Atkins 20 and the Ketogenic diet are good examples of a strict low carb diet. During the Keto diet, your body will make the switch from using glucose, which is carbs, to using fat for fuel. The body burns stored fat and the fat you are consuming through food to turn it into energy. Around 70% of the calories you eat when on the Ketogenic diet will come from fat, whereas the calories from carbs will only be around 5-10% of your daily calories. While eating more fat can seem nerve racking for some people, it is actually very helpful when on a low carb diet because it will help you feel full and satiated longer.
There is also the Paleo diet, which does not claim to be a LCD because it doesn’t have any guidelines on the amount of carbs you can have per day. But since it eliminates grains and sugar, it naturally decreases carb intake. The Paleo diet is intended to be a long term lifestyle change, rather than a diet like Atkins 20, Atkins 40 and Keto. By adjusting your eating habits and mimicking what people in the Stone Ages ate, you naturally eliminate most high carb foods. The big difference in the Paleo diet compared to some of the other low carb diets, is that Paleo still allows for starchy vegetables and high-glycemic fruits. While this diet may not help someone lose a large amount of weight, it does improve glucose tolerance and improves appetite management.
BENEFITS OF LCD
The LCD has many desirable benefits like rapid weight loss, disease prevention and treatment, and improved mental clarity, making practically anyone a part of the target population.
Broadly Low CHO diet improves health with prevention of illness, improvement of health and management of chronic metabolic illnesses.
Excess CHO intake is primary driving force behind current epidemic of Metabolic syndrome, affecting more than one third of US adult population
Metabolic syndrome is characterized by High blood pressure, increased waist circumference, high fasting blood glucose, and abnormal lipid profile ( high triglycerides and and/or low HDL level)
These risk factors substantially increase the risk of development of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
Low CHO diet is an effective tool for improving Metabolic syndrome and even reversing some of the long term damage related to this condition.
Persistent high carb intake leads to high glucose levels due to the body’s inability to continue to adapt to such dietary change with increased insulin production. This in conjunction with failure of insulin to act effectively in cellular uptake of glucose lead to High blood glucose levels.
High blood glucose, known as hyperglycemia (Prediabetes and Type 2 diabetics) greatly benefit from being on a low carb diet because it help improve the body’s response to insulin (Insulin sensitization). Over time, this decreases blood sugar and insulin levels, improving metabolic syndrome.
Another disease showing improvement and potentially reversal is what’s commonly referred to as Fatty liver disease, technically known as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease ( NAFLD or NASH). High insulin levels related to hyperglycemia lead to excess deposition of fat in liver cells, which in some patients lead to liver damage and development of liver scarring, commonly known as Cirrhosis. In fact NAFLD/NASH has now become the most common cause for cirrhosis in the adult US population, and reason for liver transplantation.
By reducing CHO intake, low glucose levels lead to decreased circulating insulin, higher insulin sensitivity and reduced fat deposition in liver and other soft organs (visceral fat) thus improving the metabolic syndrome
A strict low carb diet is targeted at people who are obese and need to lose a substantial amount of weight. Liberal and moderate LCDs are very livable for the long term due to not having to count calories and still being able to eat out at a restaurant. This is a great advantage of a long term low carb diet compared to other diets.
Also LCD had shown improvement in patients suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome ( PCOS). Obesity and high glucose levels lead to high insulin levels, which is related to high androgen levels and features of PCOS with infertility and irregular menstrual cycles.
Learning what foods to avoid and which ones you can eat more of creates an easy, satiating meal plan. The limitations on certain foods like starchy vegetables, high-glycemic fruits, sugar and processed foods are a major disadvantage to most people when following this diet. Along with that, there are some side effects you could experience when reducing your carb intake drastically. These side effects should only last a few days up to a week. The common side effects like headache, fatigue and irritability can be minimized by staying hydrated. If you are following a low carb diet and fueling your body with nutritious whole foods, you should feel energized and be losing weight after the first few weeks. When implementing a low carb diet, it is best to research which one is best suited for your needs, including your lifestyle and health concerns. It is also important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the different diets before deciding which one is right for you.
Low CHO diet (LCD) can improve your health if incorporated appropriately, given your unique health needs based on age, race, activity, health and other factors affecting overall well being.
To tailor this powerful dietary tool to your unique needs, contact us if you need further information, guidance and direct health coaching.