What is a Low Carb Diet?
A low carb diet is a diet in which carbohydrate consumption is restricted. Some plans restrict carbohydrates severely, while others allow a moderate level of carb consumption.
In all of these low carbohydrate plans, the goal is to lower your blood insulin levels and blood glucose levels by getting most of your caloric intake from either protein or fat.
There are many books which discuss the benefits of eating low carb foods. The most famous is the Atkins diet, developed by the late Robert Atkins, M.D.
Other books include The Protein Power Lifeplan by Michael and Mary Dan Eades, The Rosedale Diet by Ron Rosedale, M.D. and The Schwarzbein Principle: The Truth About Losing Weight, Being Healthy, and Feeling Younger by Diana Schwarbein, M.D.
Still other authors writing on the efficacy of low carb diets include Gary Taubes, who just released his new book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (Borzoi Books). Other low carb authors include Christian Allan, PhD., Wolfgang Lutz, M.D., Barry Groves, PhD, Melissa Diane Smith and Adam Kosloff, who has a great website on the science of why low carb diets work.
Low Carbohydrate Means Real Foods
There is one thing I want to make clear about low carb diets and low carb foods. Low carb diets are not fad diets and the foods you eat are not "special foods". You don’t need to buy any off the wall, unusual foods (although the soy industry and the low carb snack food manufacturers do their best to get you to buy it).
A low carb diet is really just a traditional, real food diet:
In fact, it is the LOW FAT diet which includes heavily processed, "special" foods.
In order to make real foods non-fat or low-fat, the food manufacturers have to alter the natural food to take out the fat. But this processing takes out all the flavor and nutrition, so they have to add lots of sugar, chemical flavorings and other agents to put the taste back in.
Pressure from Big Food and Agribusiness may be part of the reason that low fat diets are still pushed by the medical associations and the US government. The food manufacturers can't make any money from real, whole foods, because no processing is needed, and there's no way to hide corn and soybeans in real food.
The smarter and healthier choice is to eat real, clean, full fat foods and avoid the processed low fat junk foods full of cheap corn, soybeans, chemicals and sugar.
Research and My Own Experiment
There are volumes of research results which support the efficacy of low carb diets, and show that they do not raise the risk of coronary disease. Here's an example.
The general consensus of these studies is that a low carbohydrate diet has the result of stabilizing and normalizing blood sugar and insulin levels, reducing triglycerides, improving the HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio, and making weight loss easier.
I can say from experience this is exactly what happens. Several years ago, I decided to give a low carb diet a try. Before I started, I had my blood work done so I could see if the diet had any effect.
For three months, I ate huge amounts of saturated fat – steaks, butter, cream cheese, hard cheese, all kinds of meat and chicken, eggs and whole milk diary. I restricted all forms of sugar and starch and tried to keep my carbs below 30 grams per day. I ate no fruit, no starchy vegetables or grains of any kind.
I would estimate that I was eating about 2800 calories per day. I am 5'3", my work is not physically demanding and I'm female, so my total caloric requirements would work out to about 2300 calories a day.
After 3 months, I had my blood work done again and compared the two. The table below shows the results.
As you can see, every health factor improved significantly. I also lost 25 pounds, even though I didn’t exercise at all during this time. This experiment convinced me that the low carb diet was the healthiest way to eat.
Low Carb Diets and Weight Loss
There are multiple studies and many anecdotal stories which point to the efficacy of the low carb diet for weight loss. You may have seen the show "The Biggest Loser" on television. The contestants who lose the most weight are the ones who choose to eat a low carb diet.
High fat, low carb diets promote weight loss because they are extremely effective at lowering and stabilizing blood sugar (glucose) and blood insulin levels.
Why do we want to lower dietary sugar and blood insulin?
Because high blood glucose levels from dietary carbohydrates cause the body to secrete high levels of insulin to force the glucose out of the blood and into the cells.
When insulin levels and glucose are high, your body is forced to store extra energy as fat, and as long as insulin levels are above normal, the body is forced to keep that fat stored even when energy is needed by the body activities. This condition is known as insulin resistance.
In the words of Dr. Mary C. Vernon:
The presence of high insulin levels in the blood forces the body to use muscle for energy instead of fat, because abnormally high insulin levels keep stored fat locked in your fat cells.
Fat cannot be burned in the presence of insulin.
Gary Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories writes about this extensively and presents a hypothesis which supports Dr. Vernon's statement. His explanation makes a lot of sense to me. You can read more about how insulin effects fat storage on my research on obesity page.
Health Effects of a Low Carb Diet
As I said above, a low carbohydrate diet is essentially a whole foods, traditional diet. Eating clean, organic meat, whole fat milk cream and butter, coconut oil, some low starch organic vegetables and low sugar fruits constitutes a diet plan you can love and eat for the rest of your life. Here's a more specific list of low carbohydrate foods.
Eating a lower carb, higher saturated fat diet will have some seriously positive health effects:
Informed physicians have used low carbohydrate diets to cure chronic digestive diseases such as diverticulitis, gastritis, Crohns and IBS, to improve the negative health impacts of a diabetes diagnosis, to reverse heart disease, to reduce high blood pressure and slow the progression of cancer.
One Note of Caution:
If you are going to start a low carb diet, find a physician who can help you monitor your progress. This is especially true if you take medications to lower cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar.
Low carb diets have a very powerful effect on blood sugar levels, blood pressure and on blood lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides, and you may find after several months of eating lower carb foods, you no longer need your medications.
You may also experience transient reactive hypoglycemia while transitioning to a low carb diet, so it's a good idea to have a support system.
Jimmy Moore has put together a list of physicians friendly to the low carb philosophy here.
It's mind boggling to me that doctors, dietitians and other nutrition experts use the argument that low carb diets have not been "tested" enough to make a positive determination about their health effects and safety.
How ironic - the low FAT diet was NEVER tested in any controlled, scientific study before it was sold as gospel to the whole of the US citizenry, yet somehow to these "experts" the lack of testing isn't a problem because as they have been brainwashed to believe, the low fat diet is safe and healthy.
This refusal to look at the benefits of a low carb diet, especially for the exploding number of patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes is shameful, and particularly so in light of the research which shows the low fat, high carb diet promoted by the American Dietetics Association and the American Heart Association destroys blood sugar control and makes diabetics sicker.
Diana Schwarzbein, M.D. writes about this in her book The Schwarzbein Principle.