Low carbohydrate diets are back in vogue. With the rise of The Bulletproof Diet (Asprey), Good Calories, Bad Calories (Taubes) and The Big Fat Surprise (Teicholz), it is clear that there is a large following. Everyone seems to be going ‘sugar free’, and even carbohydrate foods once heralded as healthy (such as grains) are being thrown out and replaced by cups of coffee full of butter.
No milk please, I’m low carb. Trying to watch my weight.
I’m not against low carbohydrate diets per-se; I think they can be a suitable way for many to control appetite and stay the right side of the energy balance equation. However, I follow a lot of low-carb communities, and some of the things I see in those groups can be classified as, quite frankly, a little bit nuts.
While often shunning the idea of counting calories as pure madness, it seems perfectly reasonable to count carbs religiously.
I understand that counting the nutritional content of foods is not for everyone. However, if you were to count something, why not count calories? After all, they are the biggest determinant of fat loss (notice I said fat loss, and not weight loss). I have seen so many people obsess over whether or not they can have X food because it is a few grams more carbohydrate than what fits into their allowance – as if there is some kind of magical cut off number where fat loss can no longer occur.
And besides, even if you were counting every gram of carbohydrate, it is still possible to weight-stall, or even start to see your weight creep up. You only have to crawl the low carb forums briefly to see people who are desperately stuck at the same weight while completely eliminating carbs. While this phenomenon is not exclusively a ‘low-carber’ problem, where do you go after you have eliminated all the carbs from your diet? What is next?
Not the protein
I have seen advice from well-meaning low carb advocates offering help to these ‘stuck folk’ with the next logical step – cut protein. Of course, protein is able to be converted into blood sugars, so let’s get rid of that source of carbohydrates too. Never mind the 3000 calories of butter we put into our coffee each day.
Of course, cutting protein may often then create an immediate jump in weight loss – simply because, without protein and carbohydrates, your body now no longer has any reason to keep hold of its lean body mass. It will start to catabolize it in order to maintain a normal blood sugar level.
Not to mention, by cutting two macronutrients out of your diet, there isn’t really a lot left to eat (nicely reducing calories), unless you like chugging olive oil.
How low can you go?
I have even seen ridiculous conversations along the lines of this;
I’m low carb but I’m not losing weight.
What are you eating each day?
Well, I wolf down 2000 calories of bacon per day, and I of course have my bulletproof coffee in the morning with 1000 calories of butter in – grass fed (of course). I try to stay healthy so I have 20 grams of broccoli carbs per day too.
Ok, well there is your problem. Cut out the broccoli
Yes, that’s right. I have witnessed above advice given, as if those 80 calories of broccoli per day is the thing that is holding them back. Have these same folk never looked at people who have lost weight on a vegetarian diet and thought, “Hmmm, I wonder how they lose weight on so many carbs”?
Let’s look at the facts; when calories are controlled (and protein is matched), it makes no difference whether you go low carb, or zero carb. Don’t just take my word for it – Johnston et al. (2006) studied just that. They controlled for calories and protein and placed people either on a low carb (40% energy as carbs), or a ketogenic (less than 5% calories as carbs). They found no significant differences in weight loss between the two diets. However, they did say
The Ketogenic diet was associated with several adverse metabolic and emotional effects. The use of ketogenic diets for weight loss is not warranted
Their words, not mine.
With all this carbohydrate, I’m not looking forward to stepping on the scales tomorrow
Throw the baby out with the bathwater
Another disturbing trend I have seen amongst the most radical low-carbers is cutting out fruit and vegetables.
Yes, in an attempt to get to the holy grail of ‘zero carb’ and truly be the king of ketosis, I often see recommendations to “not eat this fruit” or, “Cut out that veg” or “screw veg completely, all carbs are evil”. The idea that the sugars in fruit and veg will sabotage your fat loss (due to the old, bunk “insulin theory”) often leads to some pretty unnecessarily nutrient devoid diets.
Never mind the fact that in 2009, Porrata et al. found that by INCREASING carbohydrates in the form of fruit, veg and grains (while controlling calories), they were able to not only induce significant weight loss, but the majority of people came off their diabetes meds. That’s right – they made them eat more carbohydrates than they were originally eating, yet (because calories were controlled), they lost weight.
love the Low Carb
So, with that said, why do people find success on a low carb diet?
Put simply, it can be an effective way of managing and winning the energy game. Low carb diets tend to decrease energy in via
- Increased satiety through increased protein and fat
- Cutting out a macronutrient, which often accounts for 60-80% of people’s caloric intake
- Controlling wild insulin swings which may (or may not, there is a valid counter-argument) control appetite
while, at the same time, increasing energy out via thermic effect of food (protein has a higher value). When you add this to a low-carbohydrate diet’s ability to;
- Dramatically drop water weight via glycogen depletion
- Tendency to reduce gut and intestinal bulk
We can see why lots of people enjoy the benefit of low carb dieting. It can certainly be encouraging to see that initial 8-10lb water weight drop in the first week – although, it can be equally as displeasing when you gain that same amount of weight back after your next uncontrollable carb-binge.
This is not an attack on low carb as much as it is a wake up call. Many low carb zealots will despise this article, but the educated ones, the ones versed in the science and the ones who see low carb for what it is may actually breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, there are quite a number of what I call ‘non dogmatic low carbers’ who see the diet for what it is.
Low carb dieting can be a perfectly fine way to lose weight in a manageable way. But when you
- Start obsessing over the minutiae of a gram here or there
- Cutting out fruits and veg
- Fearing carbohydrates
- Believing that there is a magic threshold to stay below
- Cutting protein instead of the 3000 calories of fat you are taking
- Drinking 3000 calories of butter in your coffee each day because you believe fat doesn’t make you fat
That’s when it’s Low Carb Madness!
If you want to find out more about flexible approaches to dieting, including ways of being low-carb without the dogma, why not pick up a copy of The Flexible Diet (click the image below). It’s available on amazon (softcover), or on Kindle and iBooks worldwide.
Johnston CS, Sherrie L Tjonn, Pamela D Swan, Andrea White, Heather Hutchins, and Barry Sears. (2006). Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nutr;83:1055–61.
Porrata Carmen, MD, PhD, Julio Sánchez, MD, Violeta Correa, MD, Alfredo Abuín, MD, Manuel Hernández-Triana, MD, PhD, Raúl Vilá Dacosta-Calheiros, MD, María Elena Díaz, PhD, Mayelín Mirabal, MS, Eduardo Cabrera, PhD, Concepción Campa, MS, Mario Pianesi. (2009). Ma-Pi 2 Macrobiotic Diet Intervention in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus MEDICC Review » Fall 2009, Vol 11, No 4