Low carb diets have been popular on and off since the dawn of the Atkins fame but what exactly defines low carb? Does eating this way actually help with weight loss? Are there any other health benefits (or risks) to eating fewer carbs?
What is a carb?
A carb, or carbohydrate, is one of our three main macronutrients. Carbs, along with protein and fat that are needed for optimal health in quantities larger than vitamins and minerals which are micronutrients.
Carbohydrates come in three main types:
Sugars are the smallest (molecule) carb. There are many different kinds of sugars, beyond the well-known table sugar (sucrose) or fruit sugar (fructose).
Starches are longer chains of many sugars bound together. Starches are broken down by our digestive enzymes into sugars. These sugars are then absorbed and metabolized in much the same way as if we ate sugar itself.
Fiber, on the other hand, is also a long chain of sugars, but these are not broken down by our digestive enzymes. Fiber passes through our system, feeds our friendly gut bacteria, and then takes food waste out the other end.
Because fiber isn’t digested like sugars and starches, it’s often excluded from the carb calculation.
How we metabolize carbs
When we eat carbs, our body absorbs the broken down sugar into our blood, thus raising our blood sugar. Depending on how high and fast our blood sugar rises, our body may release insulin to tell our cells to absorb that sugar out of our blood and use it as energy now or store it for later.
This is part of the theory as to why eating low carb diets may help with weight loss – by preventing the release of insulin, thus preventing the storage of excess calories.
Low carb for weight loss?
Basically, a low-carb diet means that you eat fewer carbohydrates and add more fat. This is also called a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF) or a keto diet.
For the last few decades we’ve been told that fat is bad for our health. We now know that that was the wrong message! Fat does not make you fat, sugar does! When you avoid sugar and starches, blood sugar levels stabilize and the amount of the fat-storing hormone insulin drops.
Studies show that a low-carb diet can make it easier to lose weight and to control your blood sugar, among other benefits.
Although counting calories has become a controversial topic, in the end, the number of calories people eat is still considered a huge factor when it comes to weight loss success – more than whether the calories are from carbs or fat.
How many carbs is low carb?
The average American eats about 300 g of carbs per day. Some people consider eating under 250 g of carbs per day to be the first threshold of a low carb diet. That’s really not that low in carbs, it’s lower carb, rather than low carb. Plus, if you’re new to cutting carbs, this level is easy to maintain and a good start (if you want to cut your carbs).
Taking that a step further, eating less than 150 g per day of carbs is considered a typical low carb diet.
On the other side of the spectrum, eating 50 g of carbs or less per day is considered to be very low carb – it falls under the ketogenic diet range. Eating so few carbs can actually change your metabolism into a ketogenic state. Eating this way may be difficult for some people to maintain, but once you have achieved metabolic flexibility (the capacity to switch between burning carbs and burning fat), it becomes much easier to burn fat for fuel.
In other words: you eat more fat – the body will burn more fat! You eat more carbs – the body will favor carbs for fuel!
Other health benefits of low carb diets
- Reduces appetite
- Faster weight loss than low fat diets
- Preserves muscle mass during weight loss.
- Improves heart health biomarkers like cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Reduces systemic inflammation
- Reduces harmful visceral (abdominal) fat which tends to lodge around organs.
- Effective in treating Metabolic Syndrome
- Balances hormones
- Beneficial for a variety of neurological disorders
Eating a low carb diet can be healthy, as long as it contains enough of all the essential nutrients. Some people may lose weight eating fewer carbs, and others won’t.
Low carb diets can help to improve how the body manages blood lipids and blood sugar, so it can be a healthy choice for some people.
As with most things in nutrition, there isn’t a one size fits all rule. Low carb diets can be a good choice for many people, but it’s not the magic bullet that some people claim. There are many other aspects in someone’s life that need to be considered: sleep patterns, stress levels, environmental toxins and genes.
What about you – have you tried (or do you currently) eat low carb? How many carbs do you eat per day? Have you had any great (or not so great) health effects from it?
Recipe (Low carb): Baked “Breaded” Chicken
2 pounds chicken drumsticks
½ cup almond flour
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp rosemary or thyme
½ tsp garlic powder
Preheat oven to 450F.
Cover a large baking dish with parchment paper.
In large food storage bag, combine all ingredients except chicken.
Place a couple of pieces of chicken in the bag and shake until coated.
Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
Place chicken on a lined dish and bake uncovered for 20 minutes.
Turn over and bake 15 minutes longer.
Ensure internal temperature of chicken reaches 165F.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: You can roast veggies in another pan at the same time. Just chop, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. They might not need to cook as long as the chicken, so check them periodically.