All types of different diets are trending nowadays, from gluten-free organic turned lifestyles to Paleo diets based on eating foods based in the Paleolithic (or “stone-age” era). But one overriding theme amongst everyone counting calories or watching their waistlines seems to be in counting or tracking carbohydrates, irrespective of calories.
Often at the extreme we see dieters focusing on carbs alone, without any mention of calories (in terms of expenditure or intake). So what’s the deal with low-carb diets and is it worth it to count carbs, or is tracking calorie content enough to help maintain or shed unwanted weight?
While low-carb diets can be a great way to lose weight, mainly by forcing the body into a state of ketosis (where the body burns fat stores for energy rather than glucose), it’s also not a food group that should be feared or eliminated all together, as carbs can provide valuable and needed energy.
Which is why we hear about marathon runners carb-loading on gnocchi the night before the big run. They definitely give you that added spring to your step.
With that in mind, before starting a low-carb diet, which can be quite beneficial if you’re looking to lose weight (along with tracking other metrics like calories and a consistent exercise routine), it’s important to have some background on the subject, which starts with a simple refresh course on science and nutrition.
So what are carbs, what are low-carb diets all about, and is one right for you?
Low Carb Diets: What are Carbohydrates?
Carbs from a scientific and nutrient perspective, although we’ve come to associate them with a lot of negative connotations, are types of sugars (monosaccharides) that bind to form complex molecules. Depending on different factors on how these sugars bind together, they can also create double sugars like lactose, long chain sugars like starch or cellulose, and short chain sugars.
When we eat carbs, especially those very dense in starch, the body then converts them into glucose for energy. It’s like putting oil into your car engine, we need them for fuel.
But carbs are different in type, and some are broken down faster than others, which can cause sudden blood sugar elevations. These elevations or spikes can be measured on a standard GI (glycemic index), and are particularly relevant to anyone with diabetes (who can lose control of blood sugar levels).
With that in mind, most of us eat diets that are very rich in carbs and can be hard for our bodies to break down, so reducing the overall daily intake can often help our digestive systems in processing food easier, lead to less feelings of bloating or fatigue, and lead to weight loss.
This is not to suggest an entire elimination of carbs, which as we noted, are needed for body fuel and function. But a reduction in daily intake along with tracking calories (if desired), and maintaining a balanced healthy diet along with regular workouts can certainly benefit digestive health and help shed unwanted pounds.
Low Carb Diets: Marketing Hype?
A lot of misconceptions have been thrown around about carbs because of marketing, and if you do spot a company that suggests you completely eliminate an entire food group, it’s best to eliminate that diet option or company from your list.
We’ve come to believe that “carbs” are somehow “bad,” and marketing efforts have been directed for years towards dieters and those seeking weight loss options, sometimes with a heavier emphasis on carb counting than on calories themselves.
While the truth is, with all other factors being equal (not considering factors like thyroid function, BMR, and your own individual genetics), weight loss comes down to calories in and calories out. And simply reducing carbs without any emphasis on exercise plans or
With that said, a diet that reduces any carbs that are not needed or taken in heavily on a daily basis can only help your weight loss goals and digestive system, and is not simply all “marketing hype.”
There is definitely something to be said for eliminating a lot of heavy starches and sugars, and doing so can be helpful to both weight loss and improvements in daily energy levels.
Low Carb Diets: Different Types of Plans
There definitely is not a “one size fits all,” for lack of better phrasing, that really encompasses the low-carb umbrella. There are different types of plans and diets that all fit into the low-carb lifestyle. Here are a few options to consider:
- Ketogenic Diets: At the top of the low-carb dieting list, Keto plans are based in forcing the body to burn stored fat for energy rather than glucose. This generally involves a greater reduction in daily carbohydrate intake than other plans, and some even use Keto at home testing strips to gauge levels (i.e. if your body has reached ketosis). This is ideal for those seeking weight loss rather than maintenance, and involves a very low-carb daily intake of about 20 grams or less per day. Ideally, a state of keto-adaptation occurs where restored energy and feelings of improved mood are achieved as well.
- Low-Carb Food Pyramids: By simply reducing your overall daily carb intakes in comparison to the rest of the standard food pyramid, you can follow a healthy and balanced diet that’s right for you, and this typically involves under 35% of your total daily food intake.
- Specific Plans: Plans such as the Atkins diet, Paleo plans, and the South Beach Diet are all under the low-carb umbrella, and you may wish to follow one of these plans if it makes it easier to stick to a low-carb diet in general.
- Low-carb Vegetarian Plans: If you are following a plant-based diet and do not eat meats, it is still possible to follow a low-carb diet, so those with concerns about a diet based heavily in meats should not be afraid of lowering carb intake if you’d like to start one out (with that in mind it’s also important to remain mindful of daily vitamin intake and overall nutritional content, particularly for vegans).
Low Carb Diets: Are They Right For Me?
Low-carb diets can be an excellent way to either help you maintain or lose weight and help decrease feelings of fatigue, bloating, and improve energy. While there isn’t one specific low-carb diet that best benefits everyone, eating a diet that’s balanced and heavy in fresh produce and well sourced meats (if you are a meat eater), while decreasing levels of glucose and starch heavy foods can certainly improve the odds of both weight loss and overall health for most of us.
So what types of foods are still filling and delicious but light on carbs?
The thing we generally fear the most when starting a low-carb diet is eliminating breads, pasta, and all of foods we enjoy on a day to day basis. It’s important to remember that unless you’re starting a very low carb or Keto based plan, you can still enjoy these types of foods in moderation while on a low-carb diet, and it’s simply about cutting back on unnecessary intake.
Foods that are low on carbs but are still delicious and healthy include avocado (with 5 net carbs), eggs (served whichever way you’d like them, we’d even recommend sprinkling your favorite seasoning or sea salt to top and adding them with a nutrient dense and well sourced meat option if desired), greek yogurt, olives, fresh fruits (such as raspberries), salmon (you can drizzle on some fresh lemon to top or season as desired), shellfish, sunflower seeds, and fresh vegetables.
There are also plenty of low carb recipes you can find that make it simple to buy, prepare, and make all of your meals at home and still stay on a low-carb plan.
If you’re looking for a Keto specific plan or finding it difficult to stay on a low-carb plan on your own, you can also opt for a meal kit plan (which we’ve tested and reviewed), to make it easier to follow the a low-carb diet of your choice without having to check every label or review every purchase- with added convenience factors.