The lowdown on low carb diets

We eat far too many carbohydrate-rich foods throughout the day

Low carb diets are now so fixed in our dieting consciousness, it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t fear carbohydrate-rich foods like bread and pasta. The truth is that as a nation, we eat far too many carbohydrate-rich foods throughout the day, with cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, then pasta, more bread or rice for dinner, plus constant snacking on cereal bars, chocolate, crisps and biscuits in-between.

We are faced with an abundance of cheap, processed cereal and sugar-based foods, plus a shift towards constant grazing and snacking rather than eating three decent, balanced meals each day. This has made it easy to eat well in excess of the carbohydrates we really need to fuel our daily activities, which naturally steers towards weight gain, energy crashes and sluggishness. Pulling back to a more modest carbohydrate intake seems to be a good option for our weight and health, but is a ‘low carb diet’ the best choice?

The truth is that as a nation, we eat far too many carbohydrate-rich foods throughout the day

First let’s look at how they work. There are various theories and mechanisms involved in the effectiveness of low carbohydrate diets. The first is that carbohydrates raise blood sugar and insulin levels, and when consumed in quantities over and above what the body uses for energy, are stored as fat. Restricting carbohydrates prevents these blood sugar and insulin spikes, minimizing fat storage and even forcing the body to use its own fat stores as a supply of energy.

Another theory states that low carb diets are naturally high in protein, which can increase muscle mass, raise metabolism, and also suppress appetite, leading to a reduced intake of calories. And in the first few weeks of low carb dieting, much of the dramatic weight loss often seen can be in the form of water, due to reduced insulin and glycogen levels.

Is low carb dieting right for everyone?

A low carbohydrate diet, like any diet, is unlikely to suit everybody. We are all unique with different biochemical needs, and so while one person may thrive on a low carbohydrate diet, another may find it leaves them tired and they may even gain weight. And it’s fair to say that low carbohydrate diets can vary dramatically, with some plans featuring nutrient-dense ‘real’ foods, while others focus more on high-fat, processed and packaged food.

Structured low carbohydrate dietary approaches, such as ketogenic diets, can be beneficial for those dealing with health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, and may bring about a rapid improvement in symptoms. And research has also found that low carbohydrate diets in general have a favourable effect on blood pressure, cholesterol and blood fats.

Should I try it?

If you want to lose a more modest amount of weight, or just want to get off the sugar rollercoaster, then low carbohydrate dieting in some form could work for you

That depends. If you have a lot of weight to lose, have metabolic syndrome and are finding yourself addicted to sugar, or have been diagnosed with a health condition such as Type 2 diabetes, then a low carbohydrate diet may be beneficial.

It is always wise to check in with your GP and seek help from nutrition professional when planning any dietary change. If you want to lose a more modest amount of weight, or just want to get off the sugar rollercoaster, then low carbohydrate dieting in some form could work for you, but you might want to consider the following pointers first.

Low carb diet pointers
If you’re pregnant, getting enough wholesome carbohydrates is essential to promote fetal brain development.
If you exercise regularly and intensively, you may find you need adequate carbohydrates to fuel your workouts otherwise performance and even weight loss attempts may suffer. While some find they can sustain low carb diets alongside high levels of activity, others need to switch back to a more moderate intake of carbohydrates.
Women and men may respond differently to low carbohydrate diets. Some believe that a woman’s hormone balance, including their menstrual cycle and fertility, may be unbalanced by low carb dietary approaches.
If you’re stressed out, a low carbohydrate diet can make things worse because it has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. This can even lead to weight gain, especially around the middle. It’s best to address elevated stress levels before going too low carb.
Low carb diets can impact on energy levels and thyroid function. Your body needs insulin, the hormone secreted in response to carbohydrate intake, to convert the inactive thyroid hormone, T4, into the active thyroid hormone, T3. If you suddenly start experiencing fatigue, brain fog, and a worsening of any thyroid-related symptoms after cutting carbs, it’s a sign that you need to increase intake again.
Long-term low carb diets can unbalance the digestive system, or more specifically, the bacteria that reside there.  This is because the prebiotics found in carbohydrate-rich fruits and vegetables help to feed and maintain the diverse ecosystem within our guts, which in turn keeps inflammation in check, helps us absorb goodness from our foods, and keeps us regular.
Be prepared to experiment and go with what suits you, not your friend. Low carb dieters can be quite dogmatic, but the reality is there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on your age, stage in life, activity levels, health conditions and goals, you can and should vary your carbohydrate intake to suit you and only you.
Keep it simple. You don’t necessarily need to follow a ‘diet’ to experience the health benefits associated with cutting down on carbs. You may find success just from reducing processed carbohydrates, eating more protein and healthy fats with your meals, avoiding snacks, or cutting out sugar.
Focus on nutrients rather than carbs to maximise health by choosing colourful starchy veggies like sweet potatoes or squash with your main meals instead of white or cereal-based foods and see how you feel.
Try exploring some healthy lower carb diets such as paleo and primal, avoiding the very low carb versions of those approaches. There are some great cookbooks available too, such as those written by Hemsley and Hemsley, or Amelia Freer – plus there’s a wealth of information online.

About Author

Emma is a natural health practitioner, writer, blogger and recipe creator with a love of good food and a passion for spreading the wellness word. Trained in nutritional medicine, kinesiology, energy medicine and aromatherapy, Emma offers a truly holistic, gentle and effective approach to wellbeing, offering a tailor-made blend of therapies designed to match your health needs.