An Overview of a Low-Carb Diet

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People often think about starting a low-carb diet because they've either heard that it's a fast way to lose weight or have fallen prey to the idea that "carbs are bad." In many cases, people may not even know what carbs are and assume them to be synonymous with starchy food.

Low-carb diets have their benefits. They can be a great way to lose weight, and they can also address serious health concerns and help us live healthier, more informed lifestyles.

You might say: But I thought it was bad to cut out a food group. That certainly can be problematic if you're not careful about what you do eat. But a low-carb diet can certainly fulfill all of your nutrient requirements if you choose foods wisely.

Understanding Carbohydrates

In our body conscious society, it is not unusual to hear people refuse bread, pasta, and potatoes because they need to "watch their carbs." This is not just an oversimplification of science; it fails to capture what a low-carb diet is really about.

And while, yes, starchy foods like bread, pasta, and potatoes are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are starch. A quick refresher on human biology and nutrition can explain.

Carbohydrates are a type of nutrient made up of simple sugars (monosaccharides) that bind together to form complex molecules. Depending on how the sugars are combined, they might create disaccharides (double sugars like lactose and sucrose), oligosaccharides (short chain sugars called glycoproteins and glycolipids), and polysaccharides (long chain sugars, like starch and cellulose).

When you eat carbohydrates like starch or sugar, your body will convert them into glucose for fuel. Some carbohydrate-rich foods are broken down quicker than others and, in doing so, cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. We measure these spikes using a system called the glycemic index (GI).

The simple fact is that many of us eat more carbohydrates than our bodies can handle. We can see this with people with diabetes who eat too much of a certain food and lose control of their blood sugar. The aim of a low-carb diet, therefore, is to reduce the consumption of carbohydrates to keep our GI in check, while maintaining good nutrition and achieving sustainable weight loss.

However, that doesn't suggest the total elimination of carbs. Carbohydrates are important to your health without them, you'd be hard pressed to function. A low-carb diet simply infers that you maintain the ideal intake to keep your body operating smoothly with any ups and downs that come with excess.

Are Low-Carb Diets Good for Everyone?

Virtually everyone can benefit from not eating too much sugar. Major health organizations are now telling us to limit the added sugars we eat to several teaspoons per day (learn more about these recommendations, and how quickly added sugars in our diet can add up).
The extent to which people will benefit from greater carbohydrate reduction has to do with how well our individual bodies handle carbohydrate, as sugars and starches in our food all end up as sugars in our bodies. The science is clear that people with a related cluster of issues including insulin resistance, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are more likely to benefit from low-carb diets than from other dietary approaches. (It's worth pointing out that most people with these conditions do not know it.) This also includes people with so-called normal weight obesity.
People who don't have these issues probably have more leeway in their dietary approaches for weight loss and improved health.

If you are taking medication to lower blood glucose or blood pressure, check with your doctor before starting a low-carb way of eating, as the dose you are taking may need to be adjusted.

Low-Carb Plans

There is no one "low-carb diet." The term is a broad one encompassing many popular diet books, as well as eating plans that don't follow a rigid format. The one thing they share in common is the elimination of most sugars and many starches.

Low-carb diets may also be referred to as reduced-carbohydrate or low-glycemic diets.

When you read about low-carbohydrate diets, "low-carb" is defined in many different ways, from slightly less carbohydrate than is generally recommended all the way down to very low amounts of carbohydrate per day.

That said, there are three general approaches to a lower-carb way of eating:

  1. Just Reduce Carbohydrate: You can choose to use a low-carb food pyramid as a guide. This allows you to put together meals based on a balanced diet of low-carb vegetables, low-sugar fruits, healthy fats, and ample proteins (ideally under 35 percent of your daily caloric intake).
  2. Find the Best Amount of Carbohydrate for You: Each of us has a different degree of carbohydrate tolerance (more on this below), and some plans are centered around determining what that is and adjusting your diet accordingly. This includes the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Paleo Diet.
  3. Seek a Ketogenic Diet: One of the more popular plans is a ketogenic diet, a very low-carb diet that causes the body to use fat for energy rather than glucose. This puts the body into a state referred to as keto-adaptation, in which the burning of fat can increase stamina and vitality.

What Would I Eat?

Plan-specifics aside, most low-carb diets include lots of non-starchy vegetables; meats and/or eggs, and other sources of protein; low-sugar fruits (such as berries); dairy foods (such as cheese and yogurt); nuts and seeds; and foods with healthy fats. Note, also, that it is absolutely possible to follow a low-carb vegetarian diet.
There are also some nice "extras" available to complement these foods, such as low-carb tortillas and low-carb condiments. You might be surprised at the wide variety of meals that can be put together with low-carb ingredients, even including baked goods and desserts.

Once you are eating the right amount of carbohydrate for you, your appetite should reset and you won't be as hungry. You should eat when you're hungry and until you are satisfied, dining on foods that are allowed on plan you select. But remember: Just because a food is "allowed" doesn't mean it's a good idea to overeat it. Cheese is a good example.

Getting Started

First, particularly if you are managing a health condition, it's wise to involve your healthcare team in your decision to go low-carb, so they can "sign off" on whether or not a low-carb eating plan is appropriate for you, monitor how your carb intake is affecting your overall health, and provide guidance along the way.

When embarking on a low-carb diet, start by making incremental changes, focusing on the unhealthy carbs you know you shouldn't have. Choose one or two foods at a time. You'd be surprised how much improvement can be achieved by making a few, small tweaks.

Avoid added sugars and other refined carbohydrates. The "no white food" rule, which involves the elimination of sugar, white flour, white rice, and potatoes from the diet, is also a good place to start.

One especially easy fix is passing on all sugary drinks, which have little nutritional value and can trigger weight gain (despite being low on the glycemic index).

Know Your Limits

Each of us has a different degree of carbohydrate tolerance. As we age, that tolerance tends to decline, which can result in "rollercoastering" blood sugar levels, particularly if we keep with the same high-carb diets. In some cases, a person may develop insulin resistance or creep closer to pre-diabetes.

Plans that seek to help you find your optimal carbohydrate level usually advise reducing carbohydrate to a fairly low level and then gradually adding carbohydrate back until some or all of the following occur:

  • Cessation of weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • The return of carb cravings
  • Less ability to control your blood glucose
  • Poor concentration or low energy
  • Blood tests that reveal that your triglycerides have risen
  • High blood pressure

That said, regardless of the plan you are following, always listen to your body and consider adjusting your eating if you are experiencing negative effects; you may also want to consult with your physician and/or a dietitian.

Adjustment Period

Low-carb eating may be entirely new territory for you. It's helpful to be aware of common mistakes people make on a low-carb diet, including avoiding fat and forgetting fiber, so you can avoid them.

It may also be new territory for your body. Many people who embark on a low-carb way of eating speak of a "carb crash" —feeling jittery, lethargic, or just not themselves. Learning more about what you might experience during your first low-carb week can help. Constipation is one potential side effect that surprises some low-carb eaters.

Seek Support

A low-carb diet shouldn't be a trend you embrace. It should be choice aimed at improving your health-one that changes and evolves as you change.

Making lifestyle changes is never easy, particularly if you have people or habits that sway you from reaching the goals you've set for yourself. To prevent this, surround yourself with people who understand your goals and may even join you in making the same changes. This is especially important during the first three months of adopting a low-carb diet (or any lifestyle change, for that matter), after which practices tend to settle in as routine.

If you don't have immediate support, join an online forum or support group in which you can share your challenges and achievement. And, when it comes to achievements, mark them, celebrate them, and share them with friends. These are just some of the ways to gain positive reinforcement as you to take the first step to embracing an informed, low-carb lifestyle.

A Word From Verywell

Once your body adapts to your new way of eating, you may find you get many rewards. Many people find, for example, that heartburn is less or even gone. You may find that you are able to concentrate better and have more energy.

As with any diet approach, knowledge is power. Make this change from a place of education to get the best results and stay well.

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