Although it’s a never-ending battle for many people all over the world, the benefits of maintaining a healthy body weight have been widely known for many years.
The idea behind any weight loss program is simple: use more energy than you consume. In practice, however, most of us know it’s easier said than done.
Limiting carbohydrates has become a popular way to get rid of those excess pounds. It reduces the amount of calories in your diet almost automatically and can also help to reduce appetite.
Some find that an eating plan which is low in carbohydrates can limit the need for the laborious task of counting calories.
Another feature of low carb diets is that they reduce the need for portion control, allowing a more free approach to your eating plan. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to eat until you feel satisfied, avoiding those hunger pangs which test your willpower to the limit.
What Is a Low Carb Diet?
A low carb eating plan is a diet which restricts the consumption of sugary and starchy carbohydrate-filled food sources like potatoes, bread and pasta.
Instead, protein and fat are the main food groups consumed.
Why Follow a Low Carb Eating Plan?
Until recently, experts have advocated the use of weight loss plans that limit the intake of fat and restrict the number of calories consumed. In general, this kind of eating plan is hard to maintain and yields limited results.
In contrast, research has shown that low carb eating plans are generally much more effective, helping to decrease appetite and thus reduce calorie consumption.
Research suggests a low carb diet is much easier to follow and produces better results than a low fat diet. It follows that a low carb diet can have significant positive effects on health.
In studies where low fat and low carb diets are compared, the low carb diets consistently produce better weight loss results. (source)
In addition to the health benefits that go hand in hand with weight loss, low carb eating plans also have a number of other advantages in terms of good health.
Low Carbs Reduce Blood Pressure
One positive effect of a low carb diet is that it significantly reduces blood pressure – more so than any other type of weight loss program. (source)
Low Carbs Lowers Blood Glucose Levels
Glucose in the blood and elsewhere in the body originates from carbohydrates.
One main features of low carb diets is that the body does not receive raw carbohydrate material, so the amount of glucose in the body is automatically reduced. (source)
Low Carbs Improve Cholesterol Profile
Although most of us think of cholesterol as bad, in reality this is not the whole picture.
Cholesterol is an essential part of our diet – we need cholesterol to make a variety of hormones and other vital substances.
The health risks associated with cholesterol are now thought to be linked to molecules in the body which transport the cholesterol. The particular type that is now thought to cause problems is the high density, small type of lipoproteins (LDL).
A second type of carrier for cholesterol is high density lipoprotein (HDL). The purpose of HDL is to transport cholesterol out of the blood stream to the liver, where it can be either recycled or removed as a waste product. This is what we commonly refer to as “good cholesterol”.
Research studies have shown that low carb diets increase the amount of HDL (good cholesterol) in the body and improve the profile of LDL cholesterol. (source)
How Low is Low Carb?
Firstly, there is no one answer to fit everybody. We are all different, and one individual’s carbohydrate requirement is different from the next.
In addition, our carbohydrate requirements differ according to gender, age, how active you are and your metabolic health.
Carbohydrates and Physical Activity
For many types of exercise, especially high intensity exercise, carbohydrates are the primary source of energy used by the muscles.
If you follow a regular exercise program, the body becomes more efficient at using and processing the carbs you consume.
Larger muscle mass means that there are more muscle fibers available during exercise. This means that more carbohydrates can be metabolized and used by the body.
People who do not have an active lifestyle have a smaller carbohydrate requirement.
So, for example, the amount of carbs consumed in a low-carb diet for a construction worker who exercises five times a week at a high intensity would be much higher than for an office worker who does not engage in exercise regularly. (source)
Low Carb Diets and Metabolic Health
Metabolic health refers to the whole range of biochemical processes that are performed by the body to maintain a good working system. Metabolic health is therefore an important consideration.
The healthier you are, the better able your body is to tolerate and process the foods we consume.
So, for example, people who develop diabetes or obesity generally have poor metabolic health. Those affected are not able to process raw materials, including carbohydrates, through metabolic pathways as efficiently as people with good metabolic health. (source)
Good Low Carb Versus Bad Low Carb
As with everything, not all food sources are created as equal. One aim of a low carb eating plan is to improve your overall health, so it’s important to include plenty of healthy sources of food.
These are generally the unprocessed kind.
To benefit from improved health on a low carb diet, it’s important to consume plenty of foods such as unprocessed meat, fish, chicken and fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables. Healthy fats and dairy products are also important.
Fiber is also an extremely important component of any eating plan. It aids digestion, decreases the effect of sugar and starchy food on blood glucose levels and is thought to decrease the risk of heart disease, type II diabetes and diverticular disease.
Good sources of fiber on a low carb eating plan are green vegetables like spinach and chard, flax, avocado and high fiber cereals.
One of the key features of a low carb diet is that it limits the body’s usual primary source of energy. This forces us to use the next best energy source, which is fat. However, this is a big change for the body, and it takes time to adjust.
In the first stages of a low carb diet, many people report a feeling of lethargy. However, after the body becomes accustomed to the new energy source, many people experience much more consistent energy levels throughout the day.
Initially, the low amount of carbohydrates available and the associated reduction in blood glucose reduces the amount of insulin the body needs. One of the roles of insulin is to instruct the body to store fat, so lower insulin levels have the effect of reducing the amount of fat which is put into storage.
Insulin also tells the kidneys to store sodium which encourages the body to retain water. One of the first noticeable changes of a low carb diet is a dramatic weight loss within the first week. This is because the body is getting rid of the excess water which was previously retained.
After the initial weight drop, the amount of weight lost each week will decrease, but the weight lost will be coming directly from the fat in the body’s stores.
Research has shown that low carb plans not only reduce the amount of total body fat, they are especially effective in reducing upper body fat, which is associated with many serious conditions such as insulin resistance, diabetes, dyslipidemias and atherosclerosis. (source)
What Should We Eat?
The first step on a low carb diet is to simply reduce the sources of carbohydrate, particularly processed carbs, in your diet.
The amount and type of carbs we can eat depends on many different factors:
A moderate level of carbohydrate intake of around 125g per day would be made up of a large amount of vegetables, several portions of fruit and a small amount of carbs like rice, oats and sweet potatoes.
A lower carbohydrate intake of around 75g per day, which has been suggested as a good range for a slower but more sustainable weight loss program would again include a large quantity of vegetables, a little fruit and very small amounts of starch-based carbs, like rice.
It would likely be made up of lots of low carb vegetables, a very small amount of fruit and a tiny amount of carbs from natural, high fiber, unprocessed sources such as nuts, seeds and avocado.
Of course, it is important for everyone to figure out what specifically works for them, and it’s worth experimenting with changes to your diet to help you decide.
As with any major lifestyle changes, seeking medical advice is always recommended. In particular, if you have an ongoing health condition, it’s more important to have the supervision of a professional when going low carb.
Whatever your choice of eating plan, it’s clear that there are many health benefits of following a low carb eating program.
A low carb diet has the potential to positively influence blood pressure and heart health, control our blood glucose levels and lower the risks associated with diabetes.
It can help to reduce the risk of developing many serious health conditions as well as making our energy levels more consistent throughout the day.