Should you go low-carb and, if so, how low should you go?
Before answering this question, let’s first cover the basics.
What is a carbohydrate?
A carbohydrate is a type of calorie-providing macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. They can further be classified as simple refined (table sugar), simple natural (lactose in milk and fructose in fruit), complex refined (white flour) and complex natural (whole grains or beans). Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, seeds and legumes (beans, lentils, peas).
Food manufacturers also add refined carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of sugar or white flour. Examples of foods that contain refined carbohydrates are white breads and pasta, cookies, cake, candy, and sugar-sweetened sodas and drinks.
What is a low-carb diet?
Very simply, a low-carb diet involves eating fewer carbohydrates and more healthy fats and protein than the current nutritional recommendations in the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A low-carb diet limits carbohydrate — such as those found in grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — and emphasizes foods high in protein and fat. There are many types of low-carb diets such as Keto, Paleo, and Atkins and each has varying restrictions on the types and amounts of carbohydrates you can eat.
There are three levels of low-carb diets
- VLCK (very low-carbohydrate ketogenic) diets recommend 30g or less of dietary carbohydrate per day (Hallberg et al., 2018).
- LCK (low-carbohydrate ketogenic) diets recommend 30-50g of dietary carbohydrate per day (Saslow et al., 2017).
- RC (reduced-carbohydrate) diets recommend 50-130g of dietary carbohydrate per day, a level that is higher than levels listed above and lower than the S. DRI for carbohydrate.
Is reducing carbohydrate intake safe and healthful?
Carbohydrates are not actually an essential nutrient for human survival – only proteins and fats are essential nutrients. Our ancestors lived for thousands of years with very little carbohydrates in the diet, simply because of a lack of availability of produce and grains.
However, the body can use carbohydrates as a fuel source. Here’s how it works: complex carbohydrates (starches) are broken down into simple sugars during digestion. They’re then absorbed into your bloodstream, where they’re known as blood sugar (glucose). In general, natural complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and they have less effect on blood sugar. Natural complex carbohydrates can also provide dietary fiber, and vitamins as well in the form of vegetables.
Rising levels of blood sugar trigger the body to release insulin. Insulin helps glucose enter your body’s cells. Some glucose is used by your body for energy, whether it’s going for a jog or simply breathing. Extra glucose is usually stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for later use or is converted to fat. Decreasing carbs lowers insulin levels, which causes the body to burn stored fat for energy and ultimately leads to weight loss. Low-carb diets may help prevent or improve serious health conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Carbohydrate restriction is generally safe, however, if you suddenly and drastically cut carbs without taking in adequate fluids and vitamins, you may experience a variety of temporary symptoms, including headache, bad breath, weakness, muscle cramps, fatigue, skin rash and constipation or diarrhea. In addition, severe carbohydrate restriction in the long term can result in vitamin or mineral deficiencies, bone loss and gastrointestinal disturbance. It’s not clear what kind of possible long-term health risks a low-carb diet may pose because most research studies have lasted less than a year. But given that data is showing improvement or even resolution of chronic health conditions like diabetes that shorten life, it’s believed that low-carb diets may be the best option for management of abnormal blood sugar, fatty liver, and metabolic syndrome.
OK, now that you have the background information, should you go low-carb?
We recommend adopting a reduced-carb diet with a daily carbohydrate target of 100 grams as a key component of the LOVIDIA Way lifestyle. A reduced-carb diet has many of the health benefits of low-carb (VLCK & LCK) eating without the extreme carbohydrate restriction. A reduced-carb diet is a healthy, smart-eating approach. It’s sustainable for life…and you don’t necessarily have to give up pizza!
A greater or lesser degree of carbohydrate restriction may be most appropriate for you as an individual since there is no “one size fits all” approach. Check with your doctor before starting any lifestyle change program, especially if you have any health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Hallberg, S. J., McKenzie, A. L., Williams, P. T., Bhanpuri, N. H., Peters, A. L., Campbell, W. W., Volek, J. S. (2018). Effectiveness and Safety of a Novel Care Model for the Management of Type 2 Diabetes at 1 Year: An Open- Label, Non-Randomized, Controlled Study. Diabetes Therapy: Research, Treatment and Education of Diabetes and Related Disorders, 9(2), 583–612. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13300-018-0373-9
Saslow, L. R., Daubenmier, J. J., Moskowitz, J. T., Kim, S., Murphy, E. J., Phinney, S. D., … Hecht, F. M. (2017). Twelve- month outcomes of a randomized trial of a moderate-carbohydrate versus very low-carbohydrate diet in overweight adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus or prediabetes. Nutrition & Diabetes, 7(12), 304. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41387-017-0006-9