What’s the Deal with all the Low Carb Diets?

Vicki Shaver continues to figure out “what to eat.”

Everywhere you turn you see another low carb diet claiming to cure all that ails you. “Eat like a caveman or like you live on the Mediterranean,” they say. Is this some kind of trick, like the low fat craze of years gone by that lulled us into a sugar coma while claiming to help us lose weight? Do we really have to give up bread, pasta, and potatoes to lose weight and be healthy?

What is a Carb, anyway?

Scientifically, carbohydrates (carbs) turn into glucose in your body. The quick jolt of energy is good, but too many carbs can throw your system off resulting in insulin resistance, which can lead to liver and heart disease and most commonly, Type 2 Diabetes. Count me among the droves of Americans with that last one. Carbs also seems to lead to belly bloat, or what some refer to as “wheat belly.” I’m not sure what happens scientifically (I think it has to do with yeast?) but any high carb meal leaves me looking like I’m about to give birth! It’s uncomfortable and unattractive.

Benefit Claims of Low Carb Lifestyles

  • Quick weight loss
  • Better physical endurance
  • Mental Acuity
  • Flatter stomach (that’s my claim, anyway!)

I’m not sure about some of the claims, but in a meta-analysis of 23 low carb vs. low fat diet scientific studies between 2003 and 2018, it was revealed that low carb diets lead to more weight loss. Low carb groups lost two to three times more weight than low fat groups!

Some of the most popular low carb diets are grounded in science that supports this way of eating and claims it can result in disease prevention or even cure health issues such as heart disease, Diabetes, Epilepsy, cell inflammation, Alzheimer’s, Migraines, and even Cancer. Below is a list of the most popular low carb diets. The descriptions include a bit of history, along with some diet details.

Atkins– The father of low carb, cardiologist Robert Atkins, discovered the benefits of a restricted carbohydrate diet when he was helping his patients lose weight quickly so they could undergo safer surgical procedures. Carb intake varies from the strict 20 grams of carbs during the first phase to a more liberal 100+ grams per day. The early stages are difficult and may lead to nutrient deficiency and side effects such as constipation. At the later stages it is more balanced and sustainable.

Ketogenic – This diet was invented to treat epilepsy in the 1920s and has been heavily researched. It restricts carbs to 25-50 grams per day and uses fat as fuel (70-80% of calories are from fat!) This is probably the most popular due to the results (health benefits) and extensive research supporting this lifestyle. This one is a little scary to me, as it ideally throws your body into ketosis. If I don’t clearly understand the science, I’m skeptical.

Zone Diet–A 1999 book by a biochemist catapulted this diet into fame, along with endorsements from celebrities like Madonna. It advocates a balance of carbs (40%), protein (30%) and fat (30%) and counting calories for weight loss and increased energy. Health goals include improved good cholesterol and reduced inflammation. No food groups are forbidden, but does allow for more carbs than other low carb diets resulting in less weight loss. Seems to hit the common sense marker!

Paleo– Eat like a caveman and you’ll have fewer health problems? Not so fast. It’s not realistic to eat like cavemen due to impacts and advancements of the modern food system. To make it more attractive, it includes the 85/15 rule. If you eat like a caveman 85% of the time, you can indulge in non-paleo foods, like wine 15% of the time. They recommend unprocessed foods and only real fruit as a sweetener.

Whole30– Created by sports nutritionists in 2009, this is a 30 day elimination diet designed to determine what food groups might be causing health and/or digestive issues. It doesn’t require carb or calorie counting and advises not to get on a scale for 30 days. Definitely not a long term plan, but can provide knowledge on how your body reacts to certain food groups (legumes, diary, grains, sugar and alcohol) once the eliminated items are reintroduced. No sugar of any kind or preservatives (MSG or sulfites) makes it difficult and expensive to maintain. It does make common sense to try, but it’s too new to have scientific data.

My Low Carb Journey

My personal experience with a low carb way of eating began nearly 20 years ago with Atkins. After I overheard a waitress talking about her 80 pound weight loss, I was intrigued. Pushing 40 at the time, I had packed on some unwanted pounds that were stubbornly resistant to my usual exercise routine. I thought I’d give Atkins a try. It felt like a miracle when the weight melted away while I was enjoying previously off-limit foods like butter and bacon!

“This can’t be good for you” I thought.

But despite my reservations, I remained on that low carb train for many years. However, it was restrictive and drastically increased my intake of sugar substitutes like Splenda. (It frightens me to think about how much sucralose I ingested during that 10-year period!) Limiting carbs to 20-80 per day also reduced my intake of fruit and some vegetables, which also seemed counterintuitive.

Once I hit my 50s, my body started giving me signs that this way of eating was no longer working. I’ll spare you the unpleasant details, but suffice it to say, I was not getting enough fiber in my diet. This caused a chain reaction of uncomfortable health issues and a couple of surgical procedures. No more low carb for me!

Fortunately, low carb proponents have recently learned to adjust the restrictions and specify the kinds of carbs to avoid (white bread, white rice, and sugar) and the kinds that you should enjoy in moderation, including whole grains, non-starchy vegetables and low glycemic index fruits. I happily hopped back on the train, but instead of counting carbs, I was counting fiber. It worked!

Dr. David Ludwig, MD, PhD, Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health says it in the most concise way:

“The distinction between sugar and starch is largely meaningless from a biological perspective. The key public health challenge today is to reduce intake of all highly processed carbohydrates in favor of whole carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes and minimally processed grains) and healthful fats (like nuts, avocado and olive oil).”

So, as I pointed out in a previous installment, sugar is really the problem. If you view starch as equal to sugar, you will logically want to reduce your intake of processed and starchy carbs.

Maybe figuring out what to eat might not be as complicated as I thought! You just have to apply a couple of basic rules.

Rule #1:Select quality, whole food items — not processed, no additives, sugar, etc.

Rule #2:Include a balance of food groups in your diet (fat, carbs and protein) from a variety of sources.

And, trust your instincts!

For me, limiting carbs or eating the right kind of carbs along with good fats and some protein, allows me to lose weight (or maintain a healthy weight) and feel better, especially in my tummy!

Coming up next – Is a Plant-based Diet the Answer?

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  1. Dale Gresh says:

    And what’s the deal with all those ridiculous weight loss diets, whether they are low carb or not? I always heard diets don’t work, and that the weight comes back on once the diet is over. I was never on a diet so I don’t know. Why are they so popular?
    I would guess New Years is the most popular time of year to start a diet. Instead of going on a diet, I resolve to eat healthier this year. Like you, I will select more whole foods and less processed foods, less additives and especially less sugar. That’s not a diet, right? Or is it? I don’t think so. I don’t even want to think I’m on a diet because it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I hope no one got a diet book as a Christmas present. Happy New Year!

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