Low Carbohydrate, or Low Carb Diet Plans are something that I’m sure you’ve already heard a lot about. I’m also pretty certain that a lot of what you’ve heard about them is false – or at least misleading.
This family of diet plans, like so many others, have had their moment of glory being promoted as “the next big thing” in weight loss. In fact, they’ve easily enjoyed more popularity than any other type of diet in recent times. There are a few reasons for this:
- There was the huge marketing success of the most famous of all low carb diet plans – the Atkins Diet, created by the late Robert Atkins, MD. in the early 70s.
- These diets can sometimes produce amazing results. In some cases users can even lose weight within just days.
- They can seem to offer health benefits like lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduced triglycerides (these are blood fats that have been linked to heart attacks).
- They’re very effective for certain individuals who are particularly sensitive to carbohydrates.
Now I know all that sounds very impressive, but once you strip away all the hype behind Low Carb Diet Plans, the truth is that in most cases, they really aren’t the answer to your weight loss problems.
Their main problem is that for the majority of people, they only produce short-term weight loss, and you almost always end up putting the weight back on. Also, the health benefits they offer are generally only temporary.
There are a variety of reasons for these drawbacks, as you’ll soon learn.
What is a Low Carb Diet Plan, Anyhow?
Nutritionists say that somewhere around 45-65% of the calories we consume each day should come from carbohydrates. The table below shows the amount of carbohydrates you should be consuming to comply with this recommendation, based upon your daily calorie intake:
Low Carb Diet Plans on the other hand, lower your intake significantly below this level. So naturally that means that proteins and fats then have to make up a larger percentage of your intake.
There’s no official cutoff that defines a diet as being Low Carb. However,
I personally consider any diet with 40% or less of your calorie intake coming from carbohydrates to be Low Carb.
It’s also important to note that the more extreme Low Carb Diet Plans include what they call an induction phase, where your carbohydrate intake is slashed to almost non-existent levels – even as little as 100 calories a day (that’s about a slice and a half of white sandwich bread, believe it or not!).
This phase can vary in length from two weeks to a year or more. I guess you could call this the “kick start” portion of the diet plan, where you can achieve up to half of your weight loss, and sometimes more.
How Low Carb Diet Plans Are Supposed to Work
Before you can understand why it is that Low Carb Diet Plans aren’t good for you in the long-term, we need to look at how carbohydrates affect your body and what part they play in your energy system.
The main principle behind the supposed benefits of Low Carb Diet Plans is based on how eating carbohydrate foods affects your blood sugar (also known as blood glucose). Most of the carbohydrates you eat cause your blood sugar level to rise. I say most because there are some carbohydrates, such as dietary fiber for example, that don’t affect your blood sugar at all. But we don’t need to worry about those for now.
Now, your pancreas is an organ in your body that has the job of controlling your blood sugar level. It produces 2 hormones to be able to do this:
- insulin – which lowers your blood sugar level, and
- glucagon – which raises your blood sugar level.
The blood sugar levels in your body need to be kept within fairly narrow limits to maintain good health. So when you have a meal and consume carbohydrates, and your blood sugar level rises, your pancreas secretes insulin so that your blood sugar level will be brought back down to where it was.
The blood sugar is transported out of your blood by the insulin and it’s stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. Glycogen is basically the form in which your body stores carbohydrate energy. Your body holds about 500g or so of glycogen in total, and once your stores are full, any additional energy from your blood sugar is stored as body fat.
So far, pretty simple, right?
Great! So, your body then has two fuel sources for energy – glycogen and body fat.
Now, whenever you need energy for any kind of physical activity, your body’s first choice is to use it’s carbohydrate energy – that’s right, glycogen. Think of glycogen as your body’s premium and preferred fuel source, especially for short, high-intensity activities. It’s also your brain’s only energy source (under normal circumstances).
What Low Carb Diet Plans do then, is to cause your glycogen stores to run low, forcing your body to use its other energy source instead – body fat.
When your body is in this state, where it’s burning fat for fuel, it’s said to be in a ketogenic state. That’s why a Low Carb Diet Plan is also known as a Ketogenic Diet Plan. The reason it’s called a ketogenic state is because as your body burns fat, it produces by-products called ketones, which are then expelled from your body in your urine.
Now, so far, this is all sounding pretty good, right? By restricting your carb intake you’re basically forcing your body to burn body fat – that’s exactly what you want, isn’t it?
Well, not so fast! As they say, things are not always as they seem.
But before we examine why making your body burn fat won’t actually help you to lose any more weight, let’s keep going here and take a look at what supporters of Low Carb Diet Plans claim their benefits to be.
Claimed Benefits of Low Carb Diet Plans
According to supporters of Low Carb Diet Plans, they provide a range of positives for weight loss. Some of the benefits they’re claimed to offer are:
- They increase fat burning and therefore fat loss
- They allow you to achieve quite substantial amounts of weight loss very quickly
- They provide health benefits such as lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduced blood triglycerides
- They keep your blood sugar levels very stable
- They help diabetics control their blood sugar levels by keeping them low and stable
- They help you to maintain consistent energy levels
- They drastically reduce your cravings for high carbohydrate foods
- They encourage you to consume less calories each day
- They keep you satisfied longer, since protein (which will make up a greater percentage of your intake) suppresses hunger better than carbs and fats do
- They reduce emotional eating
- They allow you to enjoy tasty high-fat foods such as bacon, eggs, sausages, steak, cheese, butter, etc.
- They increase your mental clarity during the day
- They encourage a better quality of sleep
A fairly impressive list, I’m sure you’ll agree. But what about the other side of the coin?
The Facts About Low Carb Diet Plans
OK then, so now we understand what Low Carb Diet Plans are, how they work, and what they’re supposed to do for you.
In reality, there are a significant number of serious downsides that come with these diets however. Most of these, their supporters never mention, and some of them they’re probably not even aware of. And as you’ll also see, some of the claimed benefits of Low Carb Diet Plans aren’t exactly factual.
So let’s take a look at why Low Carb Diet Plans aren’t, in fact, the solution to your weight loss problems:
1. Low Carb Diet Plans cause your body to lose muscle – something you MUST avoid for successful and sustainable weight loss.
Muscle loss causes your metabolism to slow down, which means your body burns fewer calories each day. This leads to your weight loss progressively slowing down, and in the medium- to long-term, stalling altogether. An effective weight loss program focuses on shedding fat only, and as little muscle as possible – preferably none.
This loss of muscle, also known as muscle atrophy, happens for 4 main reasons:
- When your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates (glycogen) for fuel, it initially uses protein from your muscle tissue and fat instead to power muscle contraction. The initial phase of muscle loss is quite fast because your muscle protein is very easily accessed for energy.
- Low Carb Diet Plans cause your blood sugar level to be consistently low, meaning that little insulin is normally needed to regulate it. When your insulin levels are chronically too low your body becomes more catabolic, which means that it becomes more active in breaking down muscle protein, and protein synthesis (the rebuilding of protein) stops.
- Muscle glycogen is the preferred fuel for your muscles during movement. And when it’s low or not immediately available, the muscle fibers that contract during movement, or even at rest to maintain muscle tone, contract less. This leads to muscle atrophy.
- Low muscle glycogen causes you to exercise and move less than you normally would, which leads to muscle loss and makes it hard to maintain good muscle tone.
2. The seemingly-impressive initial weight loss achieved by Low Carb Diet Plans is very deceptive, since only a small fraction is sometimes from actual fat loss.
The primary goal of an effective weight loss program is to lose fat. Muscle loss is highly undesirable, as I explained in the previous point, and water loss is only temporary, since you can’t stay dehydrated forever. So it’s only fat loss that really counts.
When your body stores glycogen, it actually stores a significant amount of water as well – about 3 grams for each gram of glycogen, in fact. So when you first start out on a Low Carb Diet Plan, not only do you lose weight by depleting your body’s glycogen stores, you lose water as well.
So while you might be happy about what you see on the scales over the first week or two, the truth is that a significant part of your initial weight loss on a Low Carb Diet Plan will be undesirable (muscle – which causes your metabolism to slow down; and glycogen, which is an important fuel source), and another significant part will be only temporary (water).
3. The fact that Low Carb Diet Plans cause your body to burn body fat instead of carbohydrates for energy does NOT mean that you’ll lose more fat.
This is a misconception that goes back many years, and has even misled people in the past about what type of exercise is best for fat loss.
On a Low Carb Diet Plan, the necessary calories to fuel physical activity is taken directly from your body fat. But when you next eat a meal, the lack of carbohydrates means that the calories you take in wouldn’t go into replenishing stores of glycogen, so the majority would be stored as body fat instead.
On a conventional diet, even if your body were to draw the majority of the calories needed to fuel some physical activity from carbohydrate, and little or none at all from your body fat, when you next ate a meal a large part of the calories you take in would go into replenishing your glycogen stores, and only then if there was an excess of calories would they contribute to your body fat.
What this means is that regardless of where your body draws its fuel from, the net outcome is the same. The amount of body fat you gain or lose depends only on the difference between the calories you consume and the calories you burn. Nothing else. So there’s really no benefit to forcing your body to burn body fat.
4. Even though it’s very common for people who lose weight to end up putting it back on, this is especially prevalent with Low Carb Diet Plans.
There are several major reasons for this happening:
- They cause you to lose muscle and therefore slow down your metabolism, as I explained in the first point. This is a cardinal sin of weight loss.
- You ultimately re-gain the weight of the healthy fluid you lost (glycogen) as well as the water, since this is temporary and therefore doesn’t qualify as real weight loss.
- Low Carb Diet Plans are notoriously difficult to stick to in the long-term because of boredom with the diet.
5. Low Carb Diet Plans encourage dieters to rely solely on their diet to control their weight, and not exercise.
By reducing their glycogen energy levels, Low Carb dieters are less likely to feel like exercising and will therefore tend to exclude it from their weight loss program. In doing this they miss out on the health benefits that exercise provides.
Exercise is also vital in a weight loss program because it maintains a fast metabolism and is it’s a major key to preventing muscle loss. And as you know, muscle loss and a slowing metabolism make weight loss a lot more difficult and make it a lot more likely that you’ll re-gain any lost weight.
6. Low Carb Diet Plans artificially cause your body to become ketogenic, which is an unhealthy state to be in.
When your body burns fat as a source of energy, and it does so without sufficient carbohydrate being present, it produces excessive ketones. This state is called Ketosis, is undesirable for several reasons:
- It can lead to a variety of health problems and at an extreme level, can be very serious.
- Your kidneys need to work overtime to get rid of the ketones, which raises your risk of developing kidney stones.
- It can lead to an increase of uric acid, which raises your risk of getting gout and depletes your body’s mineral reserves.
- Ketones can make you light-headed, tired, headachy and nauseated.
- It causes you to have bad breath – often called “keto breath” or “acetone breath”. This is caused by production of acetones in a state of ketosis.
- Excessive ketosis can result in crankiness and irritability.
7. The long-term restriction of carbohydrates can lead to serious health complications.
These issues include osteoporosis, kidney damage, high cholesterol, cancer, heart rhythm disturbances and sudden death.
Many of the claimed health benefits of Low Carb Diet Plans, such as lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduced blood triglycerides, are actually associated with the initial weight loss that occurs, not with the reduction of carbohydrates in your diet.
Even so, if you’re obese and suffer from insulin resistance (a condition where the insulin in your body becomes less effective at doing its job), then these benefits will naturally be a good thing for you.
The problem however, is that since these health benefits are actually products of the weight loss on a Low Carb Diet Plan, they disappear when you re-gain the lost weight once again.
8. Drastically reducing your carbohydrate intake isn’t a healthy way to control your blood sugar level, nor is it even necessary.
It’s true that Low Carb Diet Plans maintain your blood sugar at a lower level. And that can be very beneficial to diabetics, who find it hard to keep their blood sugar down. Their medical practitioner will usually advise them to keep an eye on what carbohydrates they consume, and maybe even ask them to cut back if necessary.
However, the majority of people who have trouble with unhealthily high blood sugar levels and the health issues that come with it, do so because they eat the wrong type of carbohydrates, and too much of them, in unbalanced meals.
Just how much a carbohydrate food affects your blood sugar level is measured by its Glycemic Index, or GI. I’m sure you’ve heard of that before. There’s a lot of fuss about eating low GI foods, and while it is a good thing, its importance is pretty much exaggerated.
This is because the total glycemic effect of foods depends on the amount of that food that you eat at a sitting. Smaller meals naturally have a lower glycemic effect. Also, we usually eat several types of food at the same time (or at least, we should!), which reduces the average glycemic index of the entire meal. Proteins, fats, and dietary fiber, when eaten together with carbohydrate foods, all help reduce their glycemic effect.
So the real key to blood sugar control is eating healthy carbohydrates as a part of small, balanced meals that provide appropriate amounts of all the nutrients. Simple as that! There’s really no need to deprive your body of a valuable energy source (the best, in fact) like carbohydrates to achieve something that can be achieved in a healthy way instead.
9. Low Carb Diet Plans may help promote with insulin resistance.
Studies have shown that a certain amount of carbohydrate in your diet seems to be essential for your pancreas, which produces the insulin that keeps your blood sugar level in check, to work well.
10. Low Carb Diet Plans don’t provide you with enough of many important nutrients.
The many nutrients, phytonutrients and antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are very necessary for health and helping to prevent cancer, heart disease and other long-term health problems. In fact, you need these nutrients even more so when you’re consuming too much fat, as is often the case on Low Carb Diet Plans.
11. Low Carb Diet Plans may not provide you with enough dietary fiber.
Dietary fiber has many important benefits, especially for weight loss. It keeps your digestive system and bowels working smoothly, it adds bulk to your food to make you feel fuller while providing little to no calories, it reduces the GI of any carbohydrates you consume at the same time, and it reduces your cholesterol – just to name a few.
Not having enough fiber in your diet increases your risk of getting cancer of the digestive track, because the time it takes your food to move through it during digestion increases. It also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, because of fiber’s effect on fat and cholesterol.
12. Depleting your muscle glycogen stores causes you to fatigue easily, and makes exercise and physical movement more difficult.
Research shows that muscle fatigue increases in almost direct proportion to the rate of depletion of muscle glycogen. That means that when your body’s glycogen level drops, you don’t feel energetic and you exercise and move less, often without even being aware of it. This naturally isn’t good for burning calories and maintaining a fast metabolism.
These findings are of course quite contrary to claims made by people who support Low Carb Diet Plans – that they help you to maintain consistent energy levels.
13. Unlike your muscles, your brain normally only uses carbohydrates for fuel exclusively, given a choice. It doesn’t function optimally using fat as a fuel.
Converting fat is a very inefficient, complicated way to produce fuel for your brain. And using fat as a fuel, your mental judgment can become impaired. With virtually no carbohydrates in your system, you may even have trouble concentrating.
According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the human brain needs a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrate a day to function optimally.
Again, these points disagree with claims that Low Carb Diet Plans actually increase your mental clarity.
14. It’s hard to maintain good muscle and skin tone on a Low Carb Diet Plan.
This is because the glycogen stores in your muscles become depleted, causing your physique to have a more sagging and lifeless appearance. The glycogen and water stored in your muscles actually give your body a more firm, toned appearance.
Low Carb Diet Plans in a Nutshell
As you can see then, with all these factors working against them, Low Carb Diet Plans certainly aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. These days there are a variety of Low Carb Diet Plans available however, that range from the extreme (like the Atkins Diet) to the far more conservative. A number of them manage to successfully avoid many of the above drawbacks by taking a more sensible approach.
The one thing they all have in common however, is that they all aim to produce a state of ketosis in your body, it’s just the degree that differs from one to the other. All in all though there are a few key points to take away from this that apply to all Low Carb Diet Plans in general:
- They cause your body to lose muscle, and therefore slow down your metabolism. This point alone is a deal-breaker if weight loss is your goal.
- Their reputation for fast weight loss in the early stages is totally unfounded since the majority of this is due to the loss of muscle and fluids, not fat.
- Past history has shown that Low Carb Diet Plan users are highly likely to re-gain the weight they’ve lost.
- They’re very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to stick to in the long-term.
- They can be of benefit to diabetics, under medical supervision, and to individuals who are particularly sensitive to carbohydrates.
It’s important to remember however that having difficulty in losing weight doesn’t automatically mean you’re carbohydrate sensitive. Many people tend to point the finger at carbs for their problems and assume than cutting them down is the answer to their problems.
If your carbohydrate intake is excessive then of course it should be cut back to recommended levels.
But you should only limit your carbohydrate intake to below these levels when you’re sure it’s absolutely necessary.