The low down on Low Carb diets - which one is right for you?

In case you haven't heard, Low Carb diets are all the rage these days.  For many years conventional wisdom led us to believe that the largest portion of our diet on the food pyramid should come from 3-5 servings of starchy grains.  Fast forward to 2018 and have the largest obesity epidemic IN THE WORLD.  While it's unlikely that starchy carbohydrates are 100% at fault (refined flours, sugars, trans fats, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles share some blame as well) many recent weight loss programs are reshaping the way we think about them as a dietary necessity.  While it's true that our bodies use carbohydrates as a fuel source, when we continually "overfill" our tank with excessive amounts that can't be utilized by the muscles or liver, insulin levels will rise. Over time this causes insulin resistance, which increases the storage of fat in fat cells, raises blood sugar levels, and hampers your bodies ability to use glucose (carbohydrates) as fuel.  With elevated insulin levels your fat cells won't be able to release fat for fuel.  Taken to the extreme, your pancreas stops secreting insulin altogether and type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed.

The science behind the effectiveness of Low Carb diets is based on the concept that decreasing carbohydrate consumption results in lowered insulin levels and decreased appetite.  Once insulin levels are properly regulated fat cells can release stored fatty acids for energy, often resulting in significant weight loss.  The overwhelming majority of adherents also show improved health markers in cholesterol and blood pressure.  While you're restricted from most foods containing sugar and starches (potatoes, rice, breads, fruits, juices, alcohol), these diets can work magic for anyone who's been struggling with fat loss. 

Low Carb diets come in many forms so I'd like to share some information on the more popular ones.  Keep in mind that diets are all about consistency. In order to see the results you want you need to find the one that best suits your lifestyle.  While all these diets share a common theme, some are more restrictive than others but all are known for their effectiveness when it comes to weight loss.  If you're new to Low Carb diets, I'd recommend experimenting with a few of these for up to 4 weeks to see which might be the right fit for you. 




Ketogenic - this is a low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet that operates on the principle of ketosis - a metabolic state in which the liver produces ketones that become a primary source for energy.  Ketosis occurs when your body is "starved" of carbohydrates, allowing insulin levels to drop and fat cells to be released to the liver. Restricted foods on the diet include all grains, sugar, fruit, potatoes, and legumes (beans, peanut butter, etc). Permitted foods include meats, leafy greens, above ground vegetables, nuts and seeds, avocados, berries, low carb/no calorie sweeteners, and heart healthy oils.  While this diet is probably the most restrictive of the bunch, it can do wonders for individuals who are pre-diabetic, have food allergies, high blood sugar, and/or insulin resistance.   




Atkins - This diet was originally promoted in 1972 by Dr Atkins and has gained popularity ever since.  You may have even seen some "Atkins" label food in the grocery store.  In summary, Atkins is a 4 phase nutrition plan that starts off for two weeks in extreme carb restriction (under 20 grams daily) and over the next several weeks gradually allows you to incorporate carbs once you've hit your goal weight.  Foods to avoid include sugar, grains, vegetable oils, trans fats, high-carb vegetables, high-carb fruits, starches, and legumes.  The bulk of this diet, similar to ketogenic, are based around meats, fish/seafood, eggs, low-carb vegetables, full fat dairy, healthy fats, and seeds/nuts.  The key difference between Atkins and Ketogenic is that once your goal weight is met (something that can be accelerated through exercising regularly), you can slowly add healthier high-carb vegetables, grains, fruits, and legumes in moderation.




Paleo - aka "the caveman diet", this nutrition program is in the short run less restrictive than Atkins and Ketogenic in terms of carb restriction but does lay out more guidelines in terms of foods to be avoided such as grains, dairy, potatoes, legumes, processed foods, refined sugar, and refined vegetable oils.  If you're asking yourself what that leaves room for it's fairly like a caveman would have.  Approved foods include grass-fed meats, fish/seafood, fruits, vegetables, eggs, healthy oils, and nut/seeds.  Another guiding principle of this diet...the 85:15 rule... allows for some flexibility with non-approved foods, where 85% percent of your diet comes from Paleo approved foods and 15% can be non-Paleo.  This roughly equates to 3 non-Paleo meals per week.  




Slow Carb Diet - this diet was introduced by Tim Ferris in his best-selling book "The 4-Hour Body".  The key premise is that you follow the rules of a low-carb diet for six consecutive days, followed by a "cheat day" where all bets are off.  It allows for some flexibility on dairy products such as cottage cheese, low glycemic carbohydrates like lentils/black beans, and last but not least up to two glasses of red wine daily.  The one cheat day per week allows you to eat as many non-approved foods as you'd like.  This diet is based on 5 rules...

1. Avoid white carbohydrates - breads, pastas, cereals, oats, etc

2. Eat the same meals repeatedly - mix and match proteins, legumes, vegetables, healthy fats, and spices

3. Don't drink calories - only water and calorie free beverages

4. Don't eat fruit - as fructose can delay the weight loss process

5. Have a cheat day - eat any foods that you enjoy after 6 days of consecutive low carb days




Vegan - since most low carb diets only require a moderate protein intake, it's still possible to reap the benefits of nutritional ketosis even if you're averse to eating meat.  Low carb tofu, meat substitutes, protein powders, nuts/seeds, nut based vegan cheese and yogurts, and hemp hearts are all adequate plant centered protein sources that are lower in carbohydrates.  While you may have to adjust your ratio of protein/carbs to allow for a slightly higher carbohydrate intake (especially for legumes), you'll still be getting the bulk of your calories from healthy fats such as oils, avocados, and nuts.  Because vitamins and minerals in a traditional vegan diet typically come from high carb sources it's recommended to take a multivitamin and omega-3 supplement to get enough necessary micronutrients.



Dave Kunes