Nowadays, there is endless information from various sources on the “right” way to approach dieting and weight loss, and for overall health. Is the low-fat, no-fat diet model the way to go? Or perhaps Paleo? Should you count calories? Is saturated fat the enemy, or are carbs? It can be quite overwhelming and confusing.
Of all the topics that commonly cause confusion in the realm of nutrition, carbohydrates top the list. Certain diet models proclaim that carbs are the definitive cause of fat-gain (the Atkins diet, for example), while the low-fat model claims exactly the opposite. The truth is, while carbohydrates are not the enemy, research does show that a diet high in refined carbohydrates is largely responsible for weight gain and many other common conditions in modern day society. But, not all carbs are created equal.
The human body needs carbohydrates, just as it also needs fat and protein. Unfortunately, the SAD (Standard American Diet) is often very high in carbohydrates, and emphasizes all of the wrong type of carbs. Instead of prioritizing whole grains and starchy vegetables for the bulk of our carb intake, it focuses on processed, refined and packaged versions.
Ideally, the bulk of your carbohydrate intake should consist of fresh vegetables and fruits (organic and local whenever possible), and this will automatically mean you are eating a fairly low-carbohydrate diet model. Processed carbs such as breads, pastas and baked goods should largely be eliminated, and replaced with a moderate amount of whole grains (unless you are following a Paleo diet), and starchy veggies such as sweet potatoes, yams and winter squashes.
What are the Benefits of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet?
Plain and simple, scientific studies have proven time and again that low carb diets are the most effective eating method for not only weight loss, but for treating and preventing many common and serious health conditions (diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and more). Fortunately, these same studies are slowly but surely debunking the myth of the conventional low-fat/no-fat diet model, and proving the vast benefits of the low-carb model (1).
The truth is, a low carb diet is in a category of its own, and really shouldn’t be compared to other fad diets or popular weight loss plans.
A low carb diet is simply a way of eating that eliminates processed, packaged and refined foods, and focuses on real, whole, nutrient dense foods that support health. It’s actually that simple.
Eliminating Processed Carbohydrates
Again, the beauty of a low carbohydrate diet is that you will naturally eliminate many unhealthy foods from your diet and narrow in on nutrient dense, whole foods, instead. With making the bulk of your carbohydrate intake the foods mentioned above, you will cut out most refined sugar and carbohydrates, as these are the foods heavily linked with multiple chronic health problems. Particularly including a plethora of non-starchy vegetables such as dark leafy greens (kale, chard, collard greens, arugula, spinach, etc) is a major dietary improvement in and of itself.
Multiple studies show that people lose weight much faster and more effectively on a low-carb diet than on a low-fat diet, without the same amount of calorie restriction (aka, you can eat more calories on a low-carb diet and still lose weight than on a low calorie, low fat diet).
Research shows that dieters following the low-carb model actually lose 2-3 times the amount of weight as compared to low-fat dieters. And, they experience far less hunger (2).
In the first 1-2 weeks, studies have found that many people experience rapid weight loss due to the fact that the kidneys shed excess sodium due to lowered insulin levels, leading to a loss of water weight (3).
Visceral fat is fat that accumulates around the organs, giving us excess mid-section fat (AKA, the “muffin top” look). This sort of fat has been shown to put us at greater risk for diabetes, inflammation and heart disease, and a low-carbohydrate diet has been especially helpful in reducing visceral fat accumulation (4).
Nobody sticks to a diet that leaves them hungry, plain and simple. The low carb diet model is the best way of eating to both lose weight and experience a naturally decreased appetite and cravings. Both fat and protein are slower to digest than carbohydrates and work to regulate blood sugar levels and keep us feeling much more satiated than carbohydrates. Once your body adjusts to a low-carb diet, calorie counting will probably become unnecessary.
Improved Cholesterol Levels
HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol, and LDL as “bad.” This is a slight misnomer, as HDL and LDL actually refer to the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the body, and all cholesterol molecules are the same. HDL lipoproteins carry cholesterol molecules from the body to the liver, where is can be excreted or reused, while LDL carries it from the liver to the rest of the body.
High HDL levels are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, while raised LDL levels are associated with increased risk. Eating plenty of good fat sources (more on what these are, later) is the best way to increase your HDL levels, and the low-carb diet is rich in healthy fats.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
Typically, under 150 grams of carbohydrates per day is considered “low-carb.” Under 30 grams per day (or 50, according to some health experts) is referred to as the ketogenic diet, which puts your body in a state of ketogenesis.
This refers to a diet high in fat, moderate in protein and very low in carbohydrates. The body begins the process of turning fat into ketone molecules that supply energy to your brain. Depending on the individual, the process of relying on fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
As your body works through this change you will probably feel a bit fatigued and experience carb and sugar cravings. Studies show that once your body reaches a state of ketogenesis, you will likely feel a naturally decreased appetite and far fewer cravings (5). This diet has also been used therapeutically to treat epilepsy in children (6) and other neurological disorders, and is certainly not appropriate for everyone. You should speak with your doctor or trusted healthcare professional before embarking on this extreme version of the low carb diet.
Low-Carbohydrate Meal Ideas
Here are several breakfast, lunch and dinner options for eating a low-carbohydrate diet.
- Eggs scrambled with your favorite, non-starchy veggies such as kale, onion, garlic and tomato.
- Plain greek yogurt with berries
- Pasture raised bacon or turkey bacon with poached eggs
- Chopped fruits with nuts/seeds, sprinkled with cinnamon
- Omelette with goat cheese
- Lettuce wrap with grass-fed beef burger (substitute ground turkey, chicken or lamb if you prefer)
- Grilled chicken salad with toasted walnuts and olive oil and vinegar dressing
- Wild canned salmon or tuna over a bed of greens, add chopped veggies of your choice
- Egg salad with guacamole and salsa
- Ground meat of your choice sautéed with veggies, salad on the side
- Grilled chicken and roasted yams with a green salad
- Shrimp and asparagus
- Beef and broccoli stir fry
- Pork tenderloin roasted with veggies
- Wild salmon with green beans and sweet potato
These are just several ideas, but you can certainly get creative and incorporate a plethora of foods on your low carbohydrate diet. Snacks could include hard boiled eggs, nuts and seeds, fresh fruit, avocado and chopped veggies, apples with almond butter or grass-fed beef or salmon jerky.
Remember that adopting a low-carb diet is meant to be an eating style that can last a lifetime, and it might take some experimentation to see exactly what works for you. You can absolutely feel confident and motivated by the fact that you are making a decision to center your diet around nourishing foods that support your present and future health.