Low-carbohydrate diets have recently been the talk of the town, and are quite popular amongst those who are trying to lose a few kilos. Chances are you have come across this type of diet (also called low-carb-high-fat (LCHF) or ketogenic diet) at some stage – either you’ve tried it yourself, someone you know has given it a run, or you’ve seen it mentioned as a sure-fire way celebrities shape up before the Golden Globes.
Just as likely, you may have seen articles in the news, or on social media, warning about the ‘dangers’ of eating this way. Low-carbohydrate diets have been labelled a ‘fad’ and we are (not-so-gently) reminded that we need to eat according to our national, government-approved nutritional guidelines.
So what’s the real story when it comes to low-carbohydrate? Is it a safe and effective way to lose weight and improve health, or is it something you should avoid at all costs? Let’s take a closer look…
To get to understand the real story with a ketogenic diet, we need to revisit basic nutrition principles. We take in five different types of nutrients within the foods that we eat – with the first four being protein, fat, carbohydrate and water. These are called ‘macronutrients’ because they form the bulk of our nutrient intake, and form the fuel our bodies use to keep moving, growing and repairing. We obtain protein from foods like chicken, eggs and nuts, carbohydrates from flour, cereal, pasta, rice (and sugar!), fat from butter and oils, and water from a clean (hopefully well-filtered) source. The 5th type of nutrients are ‘micronutrients’ – such as vitamins and minerals, like zinc and magnesium, that are used in tiny quantities, and help support biochemical processes within the body such as unlocking energy.
We eat a mix of these macronutrients and micronutrients each day, and our bodies break down, digest and distribute the usable parts to wherever they are needed most, with any excess that we don’t require at that point in time being either stored or eliminated from the body.
Where We Just May Have Gone Off-Track
The trouble is that the typical diet of most Australians is one that is disproportionately skewed towards a rather high intake of carbohydrates. We tend to start our day with cereal for breakfast, grab a couple of biscuits with morning tea, eat our sandwich for lunch, much on crackers for afternoon tea, and then tuck into a good Aussie spag bol for dinner.
What’s wrong with this picture, I hear you say? I’m glad you asked…
These types of foods, whilst cheap and certainly convenient, they aren’t doing our bodies any good when we eat them continually all day long. Our bodies do prefer to use carbohydrate as the main fuel source – because they are easily turned into energy, it turns out that carbs are also cheap and convenient at a cellular level. But we just weren’t designed to be processing them in such large quantities, and our systems haven’t evolved to deal with such an overload. Whenever we eat carbohydrates, our body can only process a small amount at a time, and any extra that we can’t deal with at the time is converted to, and stored as, fat.
In a nutshell, when we consciously reduce the quantity of carbohydrates in our food down to a level that is easier for the body to process, this takes a load off the hormone that is responsible for storing excess carbohydrate as fat – which then means the body’s natural fat-burning hormone is able to take centre stage. The body is encouraged to switch from running on carbs for energy, to burning fat (from our own stores). The by-products of this process are known as ketones, and the process itself is called ketogenesis, or ‘making ketones’. It is a perfectly natural state for all humans to enter, and it is a mechanism that has played a vital role in our survival – after all, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of a bakery on every street corner.
Why Go Keto?
Ketogenic diets have actually been around for a long time, and are not new. They were originally shown to be helpful in managing epilepsy and reducing the incidence of seizures, long before any preventative medications were available. Many people still use a low-carbohydrate diet for this purpose, either because they prefer the approach or they haven’t tolerated the medication well.
Low-carbohydrate diets have been researched for their benefits in assisting in switching unhealthy triglycerides (blood fats) to a healthier state, and may be useful for lowering blood pressure as well.
When your body is in a state of ketosis (burning fat for energy), it is actually easier to eat healthier foods, as cravings and hunger are kept at bay. Do you find that when you eat cereal for breakfast you feel hungry not long after? A ketogenic diet helps your body to secrete more of the hormones that keep you feeling fuller for longer, meaning that you tend to naturally eat less food as well as not be driven by overwhelming cravings.
Some studies have shown that low-carbohydrate diets may help increase athletic performance - completely smashing the long-held assumption that we need to carb-load before an athletic event (check out Professor Jeff Volek’s work on this topic if it is something that interests you).
Lastly, a low-carbohydrate diet reduces inflammation (and often pain) in the body, and many people find that their energy levels increase, their mental focus is better, and their sleep quality improves.
The Healthy Vs Not-So Healthy Version Of Low-Carb
There are many different adaptations of low-carb that are out there – but finding the right one can be tricky, particularly if you are following a plan from the internet and can’t be sure you are getting the right information.
It’s important to keep in mind that a healthy low-carbohydrate diet doesn’t mean no carbohydrate. A healthy version of a ketogenic diet includes lean protein (such as chicken, fish and eggs) as well as plenty of fresh vegetables, and healthy fats such as avocado and nuts. You can even eat some types of fruit and stay within the fat-burning zone. These foods provide plenty of slow-burning carbohydrates, that are very good for your body. This type of eating plan also ensures that you are getting plenty of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, as well as supporting your gut health and energy levels.
In contrast, the ‘brie and salami’ diet, or similar eating plans like the old Atkins Diet that are ONLY based on meat, cheese etc with no fresh vegetables or fruit included are not going to do your body any favours in the long run.
Is Low-Carb For Everyone?
Just like there is no one-size-fits-all for clothing, lifestyle or Netflix preferences, a ketogenic diet is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people find they feel amazing when they replace their usual carbohydrates with lower-carb alternatives, others find they do better with a more relaxed approach.
Low-carbohydrate diets should not be followed by anyone suffering Type 1 diabetes, due to the risk of ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that can only occur in diabetics, but it is often confused with ketosis, which is where low-carbohydrate diets can get a bad reputation, which is only due to the mix-up of similar-sounding names.
However, there are plenty of success stories where Type 2 diabetics have been able to reverse their diabetes by following a low-carb approach, under proper supervision. Also, please don’t start a low-carbohydrate diet if you are pregnant, nor is it a diet approach I suggest using long-term for years on end.
Finally – let’s keep in mind that a low-carbohydrate diet is not about demonising carbohydrates, or calling them ‘bad’ foods. They simply aren’t great for us in the quantities that we are taking in, and for most people, reducing them is a simple way to reset the body into healthier state.