With so many diets in existence, it can be challenging to distinguish between the effective and the ineffective. While diets may be used for a variety of different reasons and outcomes, the most common reason for commencing a diet is weight loss. It must be emphasized that adopting a specific diet is not absolutely necessary if weight loss is the goal. Majority of weight loss diets work by restricting the number of calories that are consumed each day in order to cause the breakdown of fat. This article will look at a commonly used weight loss diet – the low carb diet. It will provide detail on the diet itself, the types of foods to prioritize, and the benefits and disadvantages of the diet.
What is a Low Carb Diet?
First we will review the macro-nutrient – carbohydrates. We will consider the role it plays in the body and also explain why restricting the consumption of it can often lead to weight loss.
Macro-nutrients are types of food that the body requires in large quantities in order to maintain health and function. There are three macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel and there are two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex. The names simply refer to the time taken for digestion to occur with simple carbs digesting quickly and complex carbs taking a longer time to break down.
Simple carbs vs Complex carbs
Simple carbs provide the body with a quick burst of energy but are of little nutritional gain whereas complex carbs release energy more slowly and are often loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. Some examples of simple carbohydrate foods include table sugars, baked goods, white bread, white pasta, and confectionery. Complex carb foods include whole grains, oats, brown bread, brown pasta, brown rice, and fruit & vegetables.
As you may be able to conclude from the above list, carbohydrate-dense foods make up much of our daily food intake and the recommendation from many health authorities is that carbs should make up 45 – 60% of our daily calorie intake. By following this recommendation, the majority of calories you consume every day will come from carbohydrates sources.
Therefore, the idea behind the low carb diet is that by restricting carb intake, calories will be significantly reduced. While low carb diets are primarily used for bringing about weight loss, they are often prescribed to individuals with specific medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. However, this should only ever be implemented under the guidance of a medical professional.
Foods included in the Low Carb Diet
As mentioned, the purpose of the diet is to restrict total carbohydrate intake on a daily basis. Therefore, any foods that are high in carbohydrates should be restricted while foods that are low in carbohydrates should be prioritized.
Although it is important that carbs are substantially restricted, it is essential that they are not removed entirely from the diet. Remember that it is a “low” carb diet, not a “zero” carb diet.
As carbs play a key role in fueling the body and also nourish the body with an array of key vitamins and minerals, small amounts of carbohydrates should still be consumed.
One final consideration to be made is the quantities of both proteins and fats that are consumed in place of the carbohydrates.
Ways to Replace Carbohydrates
How to replace carbohydrates with fats
Replacing carbohydrates with fats is a very common method used for weight loss which is referred to as the ketogenic diet. The goal of the diet is to promote a process known as ketosis which is where the body uses fat as its primary fuel source rather than carbs.
While there is research that suggests the ketogenic diet is effective for weight loss, be aware that fat contains 9 calories per gram which – the highest of all three macronutrients. So, it is important to check on calorie intake when on diet.
High-fat, low carb foods include – seafood, avocados, low-carb dairy products, eggs, oils (coconut, olive), nuts and seeds.
How to replace carbohydrates with proteins
High protein diets may also be advantageous and have similarly been found to encourage weight loss and maintenance. One of the most practical benefits of consuming primarily proteins is in terms of satiety.
Protein appears to be more satiating than both carbs and fats and therefore will leave you feeling fuller for longer. Thus, reducing the temptation to overeat or snack. Furthermore, protein is lower than fat in terms of calories as it contains 4 calories per gram. High protein, low carb foods include lean meats (poultry, beef, pork, fish), eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.
While both have their unique benefits, choosing to prioritize fats over proteins or vice-versa is of secondary importance. If you are going to fully experience the benefits of the low-carb diet, the focus must first and foremost be on appropriately restricting carbohydrate intake.
Benefits of the Low Carb Diet
There have been a number of studies completed over the years that have investigated the benefits and uses of the low-carb diet. Literature is clear that low carb diets can serve as an effective method for weight loss.
1. Reduces hunger pangs
The benefit of the low-carb diet is that hunger tends to be less of a factor and some studies have indicated that they may help to reduce your appetite. This makes it much easier to manage hunger thus increasing consistency in nutrition and encouraging weight loss.
2. Management of certain medical conditions
As touched on earlier, low carb diets can help in the management of certain medical conditions. For the diabetic, low carb diets may allow the individual to manage their glucose and insulin levels much more effectively. Restricting carb intake will reduce the amount of glucose in the body and have a consequent impact on required insulin dosages.
3. May improve heart health
The impact of the low carb diet on heart health has revealed mixed results. Some studies have indicated a positive impact on cardiovascular health, blood pressure and healthy cholesterol levels. However, more research needs to be conducted to confirm these findings.
Disadvantages of the Low Carb Diet
When considering the role that carbohydrates play in the body, restricting carbohydrates may have a negative impact on energy levels and consequent muscular and cognitive performance. It may also lead to dizziness, nausea, weakness, and chronic fatigue.
1. Reduced energy levels
Exercise levels may be affected as a result of the absence of carbohydrates in the diet. Because energy levels are lowered, it may be challenging to maintain a steady level of exercise for a prolonged time period. Therefore, if you are an athlete or a highly active individual, the low carb diet may not be the best choice.
2. May negatively impact digestion and excretion
The body requires an array of micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) in order to function optimally. While a number of fat and protein-dense foods contain some micro-nutrients, you may either miss some or fail to consume enough of certain micro-nutrients by cutting out carbohydrates.
For example, fruits and vegetables are highly beneficial for health as they contain a vast number of micro-nutrients while whole grain products contain a high amount of folic acid which help to promote heart health.
Furthermore, carbohydrates provide the body with fiber which is a non-digestible substance that is essential for digestion. Therefore, removing carbs from your diet may negatively impact digestion and excretion as well. As a result, those with digestion-related problems should avoid the low carb diet.
Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss
If your goal is to cause a reduction in weight, utilizing the low carb diet may be of benefit as research clearly indicates that it can significantly impact changes in body composition. However, it is important to recognize that the diet is by no means the only weight loss method. Ultimately, it is a calorie deficit that is responsible for bringing about these changes and all effective weight-loss diets will place the individual in a calorie deficit in order to cause weight reduction.
A calorie deficit is simply created when an individual consumes fewer calories per day than their body requires. As a result of this deficit, the body cannot use calories from food as energy and therefore, must find energy from another source. In the absence of calories, the body resorts to using stored body fat as fuel.
Body fat is broken down and the energy that is released through this process is then used to maintain function. Providing that if a calorie deficit is maintained for a prolonged time period, body fat will be used up as energy thus causing total body fat percentage to significantly decrease.
It is important to remember that there is nothing particularly ground-breaking with dieting and weight loss, results can be achieved without the use of a diet. Exercising calorie control is the key to bringing about substantial changes in body composition.
The low-carb diet can effectively be implemented in order to facilitate weight loss and serve as an effective option for those with specific medical conditions such as diabetes. However, it is also important to recognize that there are a number of potential disadvantages associated with the diet including increased fatigue and interference with digestion.
Whether the low carb diet is something that you wish to implement or not, comes down entirely to personal preference. However, it should be acknowledged that diets are not essential for weight loss and calorie control will ultimately determine compositional changes.