Do Low-Carb Diets Work? How Not to Screw Yourself + Best PracticesJan 15, 2021
This is a common question that people all over the globe enter into search engines. But, before we can answer this, there are several issues within the question that require unpacking.
For instance: What is meant by "low carb"? What about "diet"? And how do we measure what "works"?
Types of Low-Carb Diets
There are 2 ways to eat low-carb. One is to eat high protein with relatively low fat, and carbs (complex carbs... think veggies) make up the rest. The other way to eat low-carb is high fat, moderate protein, and low carbs; this is the ketogenic protocol.
What's a Diet?
It sounds basic, but some people don't respond well to this term. A diet is a way of eating and nothing more.
Diets can be healthy as part of a stable approach to food, or they can be "quick-fix" deprivation-based disasters that don't actually fix anything. The latter can lead to yo-yo'ing and weight gain over time. One client I had explained that she learned from a young age by watching her mother that "the quickest way to gain weight is through dieting."
In this blog post, I'm simply referring to a style of eating when using the term "diet."
How Do Low-Carb Diets Work?
The high-protein version of a low-carb diet can leave people hungry because, contrary to popular belief, protein doesn't really help with fullness except for the fact that it takes up some space. Protein doesn't stick with you for long unless it's paired with other macros (carbs and/or fat). Moreover, it's not satisfying on its own, so people can either overeat or be miserable on a high-protein diet.
Conversely, the ketogenic, high-fat option can help with both fullness and satisfaction. A keto diet consists of anywhere from 70% - 85% of calories as fat, and after getting into ketosis (which takes 2 or 3 days), your body produces ketones to burn fat as its primary fuel source as opposed to glucose. This may sound like a great way to burn fat, but there are many, many ways that keto diets can be done unhealthfully, so it's important to read on.
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Why Can Low-Carb Diets Be Harmful to Your Body?
The high-protein version can be harmful for 2 reasons:
- Too much protein is hard on your digestive system and kidneys. We need far less protein than what we've been told in the mainstream media.
- If you're psychologically unsatisfied on a high-protein protocol, then this can lead to overeating and weight gain.
The high-fat, ketogenic version can also be harmful for 2 reasons, but they are different from the above.
- It's definitely possible to gain weight on a ketogenic diet. This can happen by overeating, which may result from the fact that 1 gram of fat equates to 9 calories as opposed to 1 gram of protein or carbs equaling about 4 calories. Fats are more than double the calories for the same amount of weight.
- Even if you lose weight on a ketogenic diet, if you're not eating enough fiber via non-starchy veggies, then it can clog up your system long-term and potentially lead to a variety of cancers.
Are Low-Carb Diets Healthy... or Can They Be?
Low-carb diets can be healthy if they're done right. They can lead to losing excess body fat, which can be good for overall health. Low-carb diets can also reduce sugar cravings, which can also be healthful.
How Do Low-Carb Diets Cause Weight Loss?
To be very, very honest, in the first week, you're losing mostly water weight. This is because your body is using up and shedding glucose, which binds to water. For every gram of glucose, there are 3 grams of water bound up with it. So, when you expend your glucose, your water goes along with it.
Water weighs a lot. So, when you see ads and social media posts "promising" that you can "lose 10 pounds in the first week" of going low carb... be sure that this--water weight--is what's really going on in the background.
Can you lose fat? Yes, but that doesn't really start to happen on a ketogenic diet until after you're in ketosis, which can take up to 72 hours after you stop eating carbs. And it only happens if you expend more energy than the fat that you're consuming.
As far as a high-protein, low carb diet is concerned, you're not really losing more fat than you would be on a calorie-in, calorie-out basis. Fact is: if you're not in ketosis, then you're always burning a mix of both glucose and fat throughout the day.
What Are the Best Low-Carb Diets?
The best low-carb diets include the least amount of processed foods possible and incorporate a lot of non-starchy vegetables.
The non-starchy veggies are very calorically dilute. They take up a decent amount of space in your stomach for very few calories. They help the fat that you're eating along with it stretch farther due to the fiber-rich nature of these foods.
Also, the best low-carb diets include natural fats that also contain fiber, such as avocados, raw nuts, and olives.
Bonus points come from *not* heating up the fats, which can create free radicals and lead to cancer. If you want a hot meal, then heat up your veggies first and add the fats afterward.
For sweets, berries are great options, especially blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. These are low in sugar, high in antioxidants, and also contain fiber, micronutrients, and phytochemicals, which are all amazing for the body. (Note: if you're trying to stay in ketosis, don't go over 4 ounces of berries per day.)
This is the best way, but the idea isn't to be perfect; it's to be consistently improving over time.
What Not to Eat on Low-Carb Diets
It may seem obvious to say that you should avoid sugar, flour, grains, and starchy veggies. These spike insulin, which will lead to fat storage.
Avoid processed food. So, when foods come in a package or in plastic wrap, that's already a bad sign. Even if the item is labeled as "keto-friendly," "low carb," or even "paleo-friendly" (which is pretty much an oxymoron for a packaged good), processed foods should be avoided.
A lot of processed "low carb" foods contain sucralose, which spikes your insulin more than sugar. As a reminder, insulin is your fat-storage hormone, so we definitely don't want to spike this. When you're in ketosis, this is even more dangerous because there's more fat to store since you're consuming higher percentages of fat throughout the day.
Also, piling on the dairy can be problematic because (1) dairy can cause cancer and (2) dairy contains lactose, which is a type of sugar.
And lots of people won't like this, but avoid alcohol. Alcohol is sometimes considered the fourth macronutrient, and your body halts the processing of anything else once alcohol enters your system. This is due to the fact that your body sees alcohol as a poison, so it stops metabolizing everything else, which can lead to more fat storage as well as inflammation.
Finally, I don't typically recommend oils, but if you can't be dissuaded and want to use oil, then cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is the way to go. It has the fewest problems, but, as mentioned above, try to add it after cooking rather than cooking with it. This way, you avoid creating and consuming free radicals.
Low-Carb Diets When You Hate Meat
People often assume that low-carb diets aren't available to vegans, but this isn't accurate.
It can be challenging to maintain, but it's even possible to eat a whole-food, plant-based low-carb diet. The key: lots and lots of non-starchy veggies (zucchini, cucumber, artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions, cauliflower, tomatoes, etc.) along with whole, fibrous fats (raw nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives).
There are really so many more options than what we may realize.
Why Do Low-Carb Diets Cause Insomnia?
A few things could be happening here.
You could be eating too late. This can lead to overall discomfort and sometimes even heartburn, which definitely makes it difficult to sleep.
If you're having alcohol, this could also keep you up. Even though research (and experience) shows that you can "knock out" with alcohol, this only lasts for the first few hours. After that, your sleep is negatively affected for the rest of the night.
Let's not forget our gadgets. Completely apart from food, you might simply need to disconnect earlier in the day and to engage in other good sleep-hygiene habits. This could be a whole separate blog post.
But don't fret. If you're having trouble sleeping, try this: eat pistachios. Pistachios contain more natural melatonin than any other food on the planet. Just 2 pistachios contain the same amount of melatonin that you'd find in a supplement.
Why Do Low-Carb Diets Stop Working?
Low-carb diets can stop "working" (meaning that they stop resulting in fat loss) when your energy output is less than your energy consumption. In other words, if you're not burning more calories than you're eating, you can gain weight.
If this happens, DON'T WORRY. Plateaus are part of the process. It can still be important to remain low-carb if, for instance, it has helped you kick cravings to the curb.
If you've hit a plateau, simply look at some of the above options and add more non-starchy veggies with fats. People often don't want to hear this, but it's the truth. See if you can find a way to make the non-starchy vegetables more interesting to cook and devour.
Low-carb diets can work for fat loss, but they should be undertaken healthfully with maximum amounts of non-starchy veggies, lots of natural fats, and minimum processed foods/alcohol.
A STEP-BY-STEP SOLUTION
So, those are your best practices for using a low-carb diet to lose excess body fat. Of course, in order to do all of those things, you need to know how to implement these tips in a way that actually works with your life. And you need an easy way to follow a done-for-you plan so that you can start to reach your goals right away!
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Jessie Zaylía is the creator of Health Boss Blueprint, the only personality-driven, scientifically backed weight-loss system for busy professionals. To learn more about how to lose excess weight in a way that pairs the best science with your specific food personality, click the button below.
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