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Low carb diets are trending thanks to celebrities and athletes making headlines with regards to how they lost weight and gained muscle. The most popular low carb diet is the ketogenic diet, a diet that relies on the body’s natural ability to burn fat for energy using ketones in place of glucose. However, the ketogenic diet is notoriously difficult to follow and maintain, as the carb cap doesn’t go higher than 50 g per day.
The ketogenic diet is by far the most efficient form of low-carb diet, but because of the rigidity of the type of food you can eat, many don’t even attempt the diet. If you’re after weight loss that is doable and sustainable, even if it’s not the most efficient, then a simple low-carb diet should be good enough.
Low-carb diets, in general, are easier to manage than a ketogenic diet, but it still has its rules. Are you interested in adopting a low-carb diet? If so, read on!
As the name implies, a low-carb diet is a type of diet that reduces carb intake on a daily basis. It primarily aims to reduce carb intake from sugary foods, bread, and pasta. Much like the ketogenic diet, your menu revolves around protein, natural fats, and vegetables. While it may seem low-carb diets have only been recently in use, doctors have been using it to help treat patients, particularly diabetic patients, for decades (1).
Since the ketogenic diet is a type of low-carb diet, they share similarities with regards to your everyday menu. Being on a low-carb diet means you eat fewer carbohydrates and substitute that with a higher proportion of fat and protein. This rule is stemmed from how studies show avoidance of sugar and starches, two of the most common carb sources in our food, improves blood sugar stabilization while also managing the amount of insulin secreted (2).
It should be noted that one of insulin’s primary functions is to store sugar as fat. So, lower insulin levels can translate to lower fat storage.
Unlike the ketogenic diet, with its strict rule on a maximum of 50 g carbs per day lest you step out of ketosis, a low-carb diet allows you to eat as much as 150 g of carbs. It may seem a lot from a ketogenic standpoint, but on a “normal” diet, 150 g is around 30% of what most people eat, consciously or unconsciously (3).
Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of a low-carb diet on weight loss (4). However, it does more than simply help you shed a few pounds.
The thing about going on a diet, regardless if it’s your first or tenth time, is there’s always a point where you just feel hungry. This hunger, mixed with cravings, can wreak havoc on your weight loss efforts. Being on a low-carb diet lets you eat more fat and protein-rich foods, foods that are naturally filling. This means 500 calories of steak will fill you up better and prevent you from getting hungry for longer than 500 calories of bread.
Fat is stored anywhere in the body, but most of it is in our belly. The body stores it according to places nearest to the gut after all. If you want to quickly cut the fat around your waist, low-carb diets have been shown to do just that. Studies show a greater proportion of the fat people lose on low-carb diets seems to come from the abdominal cavity (5).
Excess carbohydrates are converted to blood sugar. If there’s an excess, the rest are turned to fat and stored somewhere for future use. The problem is, people store more fat than they burn them which results to excess blood sugar, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, blood markers heavily associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
When people cut carbs out, their body then manages to actually use stored fat which in return lowers circulating blood sugar, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Lowering these three have been shown to reduce the risk of acquiring cardiovascular diseases as well as diabetes by way of lower insulin secretion (6).
Another benefit related to blood markers is how low-carb diets, when done right, increase HDL cholesterol. This is because the food people on low-carb diets eat are rich in healthy fats, especially fats from nuts and healthy oils. High HDL cholesterol is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other types of illnesses (7).
High blood pressure is often a symptom of obesity and cardiovascular disease. People with high blood pressure or hypertension are predisposed to an increased risk of cardiovascular mortality, especially since high blood pressure can lead to strokes. Studies have found low-carb diets are able to reduce blood pressure significantly and help prolong life (8).
If there’s one thing a long-term low-carb diet can do for you is help you choose healthier food. Low-carb dieters are often extra picky when it comes to what they eat, making sure each food on their plate is computed based on calories and macros. This explains their natural tendency to scrutinize food labels, carefully noting the number of carbs per serving. This behavior rewards long-term low-carb dieters with a mindset of choosing healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. Choosing healthier foods leads to a more sustainable weight loss.
An actual study (9) did a review on the psychological effect of low-carb diets and suggested people developed a healthier food preference and ended up losing more weight in the process.
The thing with low-carb diets is they offer restriction on carbs and not food per se. So technically speaking, you are still allowed to eat your share of cakes, pastries, and candies so long as you don’t go over the 150 g carb per day limit. However, the problem with those types of foods is they’re not filling and not exactly nutritious. You can’t say 150 g of broccoli is just as good as 150 g of cookies.
Below is a food guide on what you can eat on a low-carb diet.
Lower carb intake means higher fat intake. You can’t remove both else your body weakens. However, not all fats are the same just like not all carbs are the same. Your primary fat sources should come from plants and animals.
Olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and fruits like the avocado provide a lot of healthy fat. In fact, many studies have attributed health benefits to weight loss programs that include plant fats in large proportions. Some of the many benefits range from lower risks of heart disease and inflammatory diseases to benefits for the brain.
Alternatively, you may also include oil-based dressings in place of the usual mayo or balsamic vinegar if vinegar isn’t your thing.
Some people say animal fat is really bad for you. Like, will-cause-heart-attacks bad. However, scientists would like to disagree.
A study made use of an astounding 347,747 subjects, 11,006 of which developed coronary heart disease or stroke (10). They concluded that dietary saturated fat isn’t highly correlated to coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.
However, the problem lies in eating too much saturated fat, but the same rule applies for pretty much everything nowadays.
If there were two fats you should get most animal fats from, it would have to be eggs and fish, especially fish as it contains omega-3, an essential fatty acid that provides benefits on cardiovascular disease and most inflammatory diseases (11).
This is the part where it gets kind of boring. Those Starbucks frappes? Yeah, you really can’t be caught drinking them (unless as a reward) because they contain a lot of sugar plus other carbs from the other stuff they sprinkle on them. Water is perfect, coffee and tea (as plain as possible) are also really good. You can add a bit of milk for flavor, but you have to watch out for the sugar in milk.
A glass of wine is okay, but only a glass!
Granted a lot of staple fruits like bananas and apples are out, you still have a good choice of fruits to eat though limited in quantity. For this reason, you should stick to berries like strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. They’re really low on carbs, have good amounts of fiber, and are among the most nutritious fruits on the planet. They also contain a lot of antioxidants which may help with cardiovascular health and even some cancers (12).
Knowing what to eat is good, but not as much as knowing what to avoid. Here are some of the foods you’re not supposed to eat on a low-carb diet.
The most difficult part of doing any diet is to muster the discipline to not eat the foods you used to eat relentlessly on an almost daily basis. Here are some tips to help keep your eyes off the carb stuff.
(1) Sackner-Bernstein J, Kanter D, Kaul S. Dietary Intervention for Overweight and Obese Adults: Comparison of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets. A Meta-Analysis. PLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0139817. Published 2015 Oct 20. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139817
(2) Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ. Effect of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet on blood glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. 2004;53(9):2375-82.
(3) Brouns F. Overweight and diabetes prevention: is a low-carbohydrate-high-fat diet recommendable?. Eur J Nutr. 2018;57(4):1301-1312.
(4) Krebs NF, Gao D, Gralla J, Collins JS, Johnson SL. Efficacy and safety of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for weight loss in severely obese adolescents. J Pediatr. 2010;157(2):252-8.
(5) Gower BA, Goss AM. A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes. J Nutr. 2015;145(1):177S-83S.
(6) Foraker RE, Pennell M, Sprangers P, Vitolins MZ, DeGraffinreid C, Paskett ED. Effect of a low-fat or low-carbohydrate weight-loss diet on markers of cardiovascular risk among premenopausal women: a randomized trial. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2014;23(8):675-80.
(7) Volek JS, Sharman MJ, Gómez AL, Scheett TP, Kraemer WJ. An isoenergetic very low carbohydrate diet improves serum HDL cholesterol and triacylglycerol concentrations, the total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio and postprandial pipemic responses compared with a low fat diet in normal weight, normolipidemic women. J Nutr. 2003;133(9):2756-61.
(8) Bosse JD, Lin HY, Sloan C, et al. A low-carbohydrate/high-fat diet reduces blood pressure in spontaneously hypertensive rats without deleterious changes in insulin resistance. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2013;304(12):H1733-42.
(9) McVay MA, Voils CI, Geiselman PJ, et al. Food preferences and weight change during low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets. Appetite. 2016;103:336-343.
(10) Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(3):535-46.
(11) Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002;21(6):495-505.
(12) Kristo AS, Klimis-Zacas D, Sikalidis AK. Protective Role of Dietary Berries in Cancer. Antioxidants (Basel). 2016;5(4):37. Published 2016 Oct 19. doi:10.3390/antiox5040037