There is a huge trend going around nowadays. Every other diet I see is low carb. Some even aim to eliminate them completely! Popularized by Dr. Atkins with the Atkins diet, folks have been cutting out entire food groups just to drop a few pounds. Now, we see low carb diets like Paleo and Keto everywhere. We’ve seen progress pictures of weight loss and heard of people having crazy success consuming butter and bacon. Say what!?
Let’s take a closer look at what really happens when you eliminate carbs to lose weight.
What does it mean to go low carb?
When someone chooses a low carb diet, they’re avoiding foods that contain carbohydrates. These foods include breads, flours, grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, crackers and pretzels, and a whole lot of others! Instead, they focus on getting their energy from protein and fat sources, like meats, fish, nuts, oils, avocados, and nonstarchy vegetables.
Related Reading: Carbohydrates
Why do people choose a low carb diet?
Carbs are the primary fuel in our bodies. Every single cell can use glucose, a type of carbohydrate. However, protein and fat can offer energy, too.
The primary goal of choosing a low carb diet is to get energy from sources that will do more than just provide energy. Carbs only provide energy, but protein and fat have other responsibilities in the body. Why eat pure calories, when you can have calories AND healing ability AND strong cells AND so much more?
PLUS, if you’re not eating carbohydrates, and if you’re at a calorie deficit, your body has to take energy from its stores in order to get through the day. That means burning your body fat for fuel.
Related Reading: How to Calculate Your Calorie Needs
That all sounds great! We would all love to burn pure body fat for free, wouldn’t we?
But it comes with a price…
What a low carb diet does to your body
If you’re not eating carbohydrates, your body needs to find other sources of energy. It will use its its energy stores first – glycogen, found in the liver and in your muscles. But, those stores run out pretty fast. Your body knows that the dietary fat and protein you’ve just eaten have their own jobs to do, so it tries to spare them. However, after the glycogen stores are depleted, your body doesn’t have much of a choice – it has to get energy from somewhere.
Fat doesn’t convert very well to glucose, but proteins (specifically, the amino acids that make up proteins) can be rearranged and broken down to create a molecule of glucose. Even though your body can pull fat for energy for some cells, it needs to pull proteins to make glucose for the brain, which needs glucose.
Your body is pulling these sources of fat and protein from your body fat and from your lean body mass – muscle.
So, even if you’re eating low carb and losing weight, you’re not just losing fat. You’re losing muscle mass, too. And we know that the lower your muscle mass, the lower your metabolism. Ouch.
There are a few problems with the conversion from fats and proteins to glucose.
First, proteins have their own jobs to do! They shouldn’t have to pick up the slack of carbs! When proteins are being broken down for energy, there are fewer of them to go around and perform the jobs they are meant to do.
Second, and more importantly, when fats are broken down, fragments are left behind which clump together to form ketone bodies. These are what can help fuel our body, but if too many are formed and not enough energy is spent, ketosis, or a high level of ketone bodies in the blood, occurs. Ketones are acidic, and an increased amount of them in the blood disrupts the acid-base balance. If this balance is disturbed, it can lead to kidney stones, kidney failure, and even bone disease.
So, are low carb diets healthy?
Yes and no. (I know you hate that answer…sorry!)
In the short term, cutting back on carbs can help you to burn energy stores like fat and muscle, which will help you lose weight. However, once you reintroduce carbs to your diet, you may need to adjust other parts of your life – like protein intake or the amount of exercise you do – to maintain your weight. Many people gain back extra weight after reintroducing carbs because it’s such a delicate balance between energy taken in and energy spent, and where that energy is coming from.
In the long term, the buildup of ketone bodies in your blood disrupts the happy, neutral environment of your body. This stresses your kidneys and can wear them down, causing stones and kidney disease. Plus, you’re constantly wasting away muscle as well as fat.
Another issue is that you’re cutting out major food groups which contribute a majority of vitamins and minerals. You’d have to take supplements (which your body doesn’t prefer and can’t use as well as real food) just to get these nutrients.
My opinion? Rather than cutting out some food groups, mess with the balance in your body, and burn away your lean body mass…just eat real food and enjoy everything in moderation. Choose a diet that’s sustainable, not one that will give you a “quick fix”.
What are your thoughts on low carb diets? Have you ever tried one? Let me know in the comments!