How Low of a Low Carb Diet is Correct for You?

As most of you know, I am a strong proponent of the Paleo lifestyle. My practice is very Paleo focused. Paleo eating leans heavily on veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs and grass fed protein. It strongly suggests a very limited consumption of grains, simple carbs and little dairy. Having said that, there is an important place for carbohydrates in your diet. They play are critical roles in many aspects of our health and metabolism. So the real questions is “What is the correct about of carbs you should be consuming?” This is the first of two news letters that will examine living a truly healthy life in relationship to the role carbs play in our diet.

Chances are, you have, at least once, been solicited to buy into some sort of miracle diet touting low-carb high protein intake as a fast and painless way of losing weight, such as Atkins or Southbeach. Many of you may even have entertained trying out this kind of extreme diet for yourself.  What most people don’t realize is that carb-intake can affect everything from your gut to your brain. Have your been feeling sluggish, anxious, or depressed? Having problems with digestion? These issues and more can all be influenced by carb-intake. When you choose to go low-carb, you are actually inviting a host of risks upon yourself. Let’s explore how to clarify the low-carb myth:

Let’s begin with the basics. For the sake of simplicity, carbohydrates are sugars, fibers, and starches. They can be found in a huge variety of foods including bread, potatoes, beans, milk, vegetables, pasta, and fruits, with the unhealthiest carbs being found in highly processed, refined foods like white bread, pastries and soda. When you eat any carb-containing food your body is provided with glucose, which is converted to energy. Our bodies need this energy to support daily bodily functions and physical activity. However, choosing unhealthy and too easily digested carbs (like white bread and soda) is a proven cause of weight gain, diabetes, and even heart disease (Harvard). In light of this new-age plague of obesity and heart disease that has stricken the country, it is no surprise that low-carb diets have been thrown into the spotlight in the past decade or so.

Low-carb diets are, obviously, based on limiting carbohydrate intake, while also encouraging consumption of foods high in protein and fat, like meat, eggs, and cheese. Most diets will give you a certain percentage of your daily calorie intake that should come from carbs. A diet low in carbohydrates would typically require somewhere around 10-20% of your daily calories to come from carbs (whereas the typical American will consume 45%-65% of calories a day from carbs) (Mayoclinic). These diets can be quite tricky, as avoiding carbs is surprisingly hard to do for most people. Imagine going to the grocery store and having to walk past all the grains, beans, nuts, fruits, pastas and starchy vegetables!

However, ad campaigns and the media will have you believe that managing to attain the sort of excessive discipline a low-carb diet requires can have great pay-offs. Carbs, particularly refined ones, can cause a quick rise in blood sugar and subsequently an increase in insulin, which can then lead to an increase in hunger and naturally, weight gain (UMM). Therefore avoiding carbs supposedly forces the body to burn stored fat for energy due to lower insulin levels, which in turn encourages weight loss (Mayoclinic). Some people have reported shedding up to 15 pounds in two weeks on the Atkins diet. However, it would be a fallacy to judge diets based on only the first few weeks of trials, for a lot can change—and reverse—when held to the test of time (US News). That being said, if a low-carb diet sounds a little too good to be true to you, you’re absolutely right! The following is a carefully researched list of what really takes place when you make the choice to go low-carb:

-As I hinted at before, low-carb diets seem a bit less promising when evaluated over long periods of time. In the short term, much of what’s shed on low-carb diets is actually just water-weight (US news). Most studies find that, after 12-24 months, low-carb diets don’t produce significantly more weight-loss when compared to diets based on mere increases in protein-intake unaccompanied by a carb decrease (Mayoclinic).

-A sudden and drastic decrease in carb-intake can inspire some pretty bad side effects including weakness, fatigue, bad breath, and headache. Severely restricted carb-intake has also been shown to result in vitamin or mineral deficiencies and/or bone loss over time (Mayoclinic). Further, carbohydrates contain valuable probiotics that help keep our guts healthy, so avoiding them could lead to an alteration of gut-flora, which often manifests as diarrhea or constipation. (Kresser).

-If you engage in moderate exercise several times a week, restricting your carb-intake can lead to severely damaging conditions, including but not limited to: decreased thyroid output, decreased testosterone, impaired cognitive function, suppressed immune function, and slowed metabolism. In other words, depriving your body of one of its main sources of energy is likely to make you feel sick and sluggish, and inspire more than just your average bad mood.

-Women are particularly prone to experiencing the negative side effects of carb deficiencies. Unbeknownst to many, low-carb diets can disrupt hormone production, leading to a stopped or irregular menstrual cycle, more body fat, and, more gravely, lowered fertility, hypoglycemia, anxiety, and depression (Precision Nutrition). 

-And finally, while low-carb diets almost always promise you heart-healthy benefits, a report from the American Heart Association concluded that there is not enough evidence to say whether or not diets low in carbohydrates are, in fact, good for the heart (Mayoclinic).

Given the evidence, it is safe to say that low-carb diets are not a good choice for most people, despite all that jazz you may hear about the Paleo diet and carb-free diets being “man’s original way of eating.” 

I would like to stress that, regardless of whether you need to diet or not, every one of you should be aware of the amount of carbs you are in fact ingesting. Many people who experience physical and mental ailments may not consider the possibility that the culprit is their diet; even worse, many are blissfully unaware of how skewed their diet is from the national recommendation, and how profound an effect these small divergences can have on the body. So if you find yourself suffering from any of the aforementioned symptoms (lethargy, indigestion, anxiety, etc.) please stay tuned for part two of this newsletter, which will be out in December and contain a guide on how to find your optimal carb–intake, without having to go to any extremes.