A low-carb diet involves a restricted intake of all forms of carbohydrates including starchy foods found in pasta, and bread. The diet is high in proteins, healthy vegetables, and fat. There are several types of low-carb diets that can provide a multitude of health benefits including a better control over diabetes and a faster weight loss.
What constitutes a low-carb diet?
A low-carb diet need not be overly restrictive. It can be incorporated into your lifestyle easily without the need to reduce your intake of fibers and vegetables. In most cases, the reduced focus on the intake of carbohydrate actually leads to a higher vegetable intake thus ensuring your body is supplied with all the essential nutrients.
What counts as low-carb?
Disagreements do exist about what should be a minimum, yet a healthy amount of carbohydrate intake per day. The Charity Diabetes UK has provided brackets for the daily carbohydrate intake as given below.
- Moderate carbohydrate intake: 130-225g of carbs
- Low carbohydrate intake: less than 130g of carbs
- Very low carbohydrate intake: less than 30g of carbs
The recommended carbohydrate intake can also vary from person to person based on the following factors:
- The level of physical activities you undertake every day
- The medications you are taking
- How easy you find it to lower your carbohydrate intake
- The sensitiveness of your blood sugar levels to carbohydrate
Patients with diabetes who are taking insulin injections or oral anti-diabetic tablets should reduce their carbohydrate intake gradually to prevent the risk of severe hypoglycemia.
What is the effect of carbohydrates on the body?
Carbohydrates, just like fats and proteins, provide energy to fuel different functions of the body. Carbohydrates also have a fundamental influence on the blood sugar levels.
The sugary and starchy foods consumed are broken down into simple carbs like glucose resulting in an increase in the blood sugar levels. The glucose is then transported to all the tissues and organs of the body where it is used as a source of energy. The excess glucose is converted into fats, which is stored in the body for future use.
However, when a person consumes a high-carb diet on a regular basis, the body prefers to use the readily consumed carbs for its energy requirements and continues to store the excess glucose as fats.
This deprives the body of a chance to burn the stored fats and use it as energy. Over a period, as the accumulation of fats continues, the person gains several pounds and becomes more prone to the obesity-linked disorders like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and stroke.
Hence, the best way to control the blood sugar levels and prevent these disorders is to reduce your carbohydrate intake.
What are the side effects of a low-carb diet?
- Constipation or loose stools
- Brain fog
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Severe hypoglycemia
How will a low-carb diet affect my weight?
A low-carb diet can help a person to lose weight by depriving the body of the ready source of energy and prompting the use of stored fats.
Additionally, the production of insulin by the pancreas depends on the blood sugar levels. A rise in the blood sugar level signals the pancreas to secrete more insulin to metabolize the carbs. Eating a low-carb diet leads to a lower secretion of insulin. As insulin promotes the storage of fat, a less amount of insulin in the blood can help to reduce, prevent, or reverse the weight gain.
Also, a large percentage of the calories consumed by us come from the carbs. So, when a person eats a low-carb diet, it automatically restricts the number of calories he is consuming, which leads to weight loss.
Why is a low-carb diet better than a low-fat diet?
Some studies have proved a low-carb diet to be more effective than a low-fat diet at reducing weight. The people who eat a low-carb diet lose more weight, in a shorter period, than those on a low-fat diet even when the low-fat dieters restrict their calorie consumption considerably.
One of the reasons for this is a low-carb diet lowers the production of insulin by the pancreas. As a result, the kidneys start excreting more sodium. Since sodium is hygroscopic in nature, it pulls with itself water resulting in a higher excretion of water from the body. This leads to a rapid weight loss in the first one or two weeks of starting a low-carb diet.
What should a low-carb diet contain?
A healthy low-carb diet should consist of the following food types:
- An increased intake of vegetables
- Modest increase in the consumption of fats from natural sources
- Low intake of processed food, grains, and sugar
- Moderate protein intake
When you are reducing your carbohydrate intake significantly, you will have to make up for the reduced calories by replacing carbs with proteins or fats.
You should make sure that the fat content of your diet is obtained from the natural sources such as:
- Fish: Trout, salmon, and haddock. Wild-caught fish is the best.
- Meat: Lamb, beef, chicken, and pork. Grass-fed meat is the best.
- Eggs: Pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs
- Fruits: Apples, pears, oranges, strawberries, and blueberries
- Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and carrots
- High-Fat Dairy: Butter, cheese, yogurt, and heavy cream
- Nuts and Seeds: Walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds
- Fats and Oils: Butter, coconut oil, olive oil, lard, and cod fish liver oil.
If you want to lose weight faster, be careful with the nuts and cheese as they’re easy to overeat on. Also, avoid eating more than one piece of fruit a day.
These natural sources of fat will provide a good balance of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats. You should avoid ready-to-eat or packaged foods as the fats in these are usually processed or man-made.
Apart from these, you can also consume the following foods in moderate amounts:
- Non-gluten grains: Oats, rice, and quinoa
- Tubers: Sweet potatoes, and potatoes
- Legumes: Black beans, lentils, and pinto beans
- Wine: Choose dry wines without any added sugar
- Dark Chocolate: Choose organic brands that have at least 70% of cocoa
You can eat these foods if you’re physically active and do not need to lose weight. Below is the list of foods you must avoid when on a low-carb diet.
- Sugar: Fruit juices, soft drinks, agave, ice cream, and candy
- Trans Fats: “Partially hydrogenated” and “Hydrogenated” oils
- Gluten Grains: Spelt, barley, rye, and wheat
- Artificial Sweeteners: Saccharin, Aspartame, Sucralose, and Cyclamates. Use Stevia instead.
- Vegetable and High Omega-6 Seed-Oils: Soybean, cottonseed, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola oils
- “Low-Fat” Products: Diet colas, dairy products, crackers, and cereals
Make sure you read the ingredients lists even if the product is labeled as “healthy food” as most of the so-called diet foods contain hidden calories. You should base your diet on the real, unprocessed foods.
While choosing proteins, you can opt for unprocessed cuts of meat as processed meats are consistently linked with a higher incidence of heart diseases and insulin resistance.
These are the basic points that you must follow when on a low-carb diet. The different health benefits you can achieve by following this diet are discussed below.
1. Controls diabetes
The carbohydrates consumed by a person are broken down into simple sugars like glucose in the digestive tract. Later, they enter the bloodstream causing a rise in the blood sugar levels.
Since high blood sugars can have toxic effects on the nerves, brain, blood vessels, heart, and the other tissues, the body responds to it by increasing the production of insulin, which stimulates the burning or storing of glucose.
In normal individuals, this quick insulin response helps prevent a spike in the blood sugar level. However, in diabetic patients, the sugar levels continue to remain high as their pancreas is unable to produce sufficient amounts of insulin, or the body cells are not able to respond to insulin due to a condition called insulin resistance.
As a result, they tend to have a consistently high level of blood sugar leading to serious complications over a period such as peripheral vascular disease, diabetic nephropathy, diabetic neuropathy, and stroke.
A low-carb diet, which involves a reduced intake of carbohydrates, can help in controlling blood sugar levels and prevent these complications of diabetes.
2. Controls your appetite
Hunger and uncontrollable cravings are the worst side effects of dieting. Most people who want to lose weight are not able to continue with their diet plan just because of their inability to control their hunger and cravings. They go back to their regular diet and often end up eating more than what they used to within a few days of beginning a low-calorie diet with a lot of enthusiasm.
A low-carb diet offers a very good alternative that can help a person stick to the diet and lose weight. A low intake of carbohydrates automatically reduces the appetite.
Several studies have consistently shown that when people cut down their carbohydrate intake and eat more fats and proteins, they end up consuming much fewer calories, which helps them to lose weight.
3. A flat belly
Not all fats in the body are the same. The effect of the stored fats on the health of a person and the level of risk he faces for certain diseases depends on the place where these fats are stored.
The fats stored under the skin are called subcutaneous fats and the fats stored in the abdominal cavity are called the visceral fats. The visceral fat tends to lodge around the organs. An increased accumulation of visceral fat in the abdominal area can drive insulin resistance and inflammation both of which are believed to be the leading causes of metabolic dysfunctions.
A low-carb diet can help in preventing metabolic disorders by reducing the harmful abdominal fats. It forces the body to be dependent on the stored fats for their energy needs resulting in a considerable fat loss. This fat loss is much faster than the fat loss achieved through a low-fat diet as in this diet the person is still consuming carbohydrates, which are preferred over the stored fats as a source of energy.
Also, a greater proportion of the fat loss achieved through a low-carb diet comes from the abdominal cavity thus ensuring the loss of belly fat and a flat tummy.
4. Regulates cholesterol levels
It is known that cholesterol is of 2 types. The Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and the High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol.
However, it is actually wrong to call these as “cholesterol” as HDL and LDL are the lipoproteins, which carry cholesterol through the bloodstream.
LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the other parts of the body, whereas HDL carries it from all the organs and tissues to the liver where it is either excreted or reused.
So, when you have a high level of LDL cholesterol, you are actually carrying more cholesterol to the body’s vital organs like the heart and the brain, and when you have a high HDL cholesterol, you are carrying the harmful cholesterol molecules to the liver. Hence, the higher levels of HDL can lower your risk of heart diseases.
The fats that raise the LDL levels are trans-fats and saturated fats, and the fats that raise the HDL levels are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, also termed the “healthy” fats.
A low-carb diet offers an effective way to increase your HDL levels by ensuring your diet contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Additionally, it also reduces the level of harmful LDL in your blood by decreasing your intake of unhealthy fats.
5. Lowers Triglycerides levels
Triglycerides are fat molecules. A high level of these molecules is a very strong risk factor for heart diseases. A high carbohydrate consumption, especially the simple sugars from candies and colas, is the main driver of increased triglyceride levels.
So, cutting down your carbohydrate consumption can help reduce the blood triglyceride levels and also, your risk of heart diseases.
Other Health Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces the risk of kidney failure and metabolic syndrome
- Reduces the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
- Prevents atherosclerosis
A low-carbohydrate diet is primarily meant to improve the blood sugar levels in the diabetic patients. However, just like the other diet plans, it also aids in weight loss and improves the heart health besides providing several other benefits. Hence, even non-diabetic people and those without any apparent illness can follow it to improve their general health, and reduce their risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks.