What You Need To Know About Low Carbohydrate Diets
Low carbohydrate diets - you would have heard about them. They are often in the media being promoted, dissected and debated by everyone from industry professionals and gurus to celebrities and social media influencers, all with a differing opinion based on their experience, knowledge and self-interest.
Despite the fact that both sides present strong opinions in opposing directions, the application for most people is somewhere in the middle (as per usual). A low carbohydrate intake is not superior to other dietary strategies – provided energy and protein intakes are controlled – and you won’t be nutritionally deficient with a few months of lower-carbohydrate intake. In fact, the health improvements from improved body composition may outweigh short-term lowered intakes of some nutrients.
Low-carbohydrate dieting is a tool. When applied correctly, it can be used to optimise performance and body composition.
You don’t need to understand the mechanics of nutrition, metabolism and body composition to compare low carbohydrate intakes with other diets. We simply want to cover three common questions about low carbohydrate intakes and clear up any misconceptions.
- How do low carbohydrate diets work?
- Does insulin make you fat?
- Adherence - better or worse?
Once understood, you can make a more informed decision about low carbohydrate dieting.
The Tool Analogy
I often refer to the tool analogy, but explain it poorly which leads to people being confused as to its application to training and nutrition. They end up thinking of it as ‘what is the best tool for a job?’ and wondering what the is best way forward. When thinking like this, is it easy to ask ‘I need a hammer – what is the best available? - and eliminate everything else.’
Instead, we want to think about 'the job' as that of building a house. There are a number of tools that are required to do this job. Whist a hammer is best for hitting nails - which is an important component - that does not mean it is more-important than a screwdriver in terms of building a house.
In the case of low carbohydrate intake for weight loss, it is just another tool we have at our disposal to help achieve our overall goal of a certain body composition. It doesn't have to be used, but in some circumstances it might suit an individual better than another method, just like a hammer is more useful than a screwdriver for hitting nails.
One: Restriction of Food Intake = Restriction of Energy Intake (usually)
An energy deficit is necessary for fat loss to occur. Expending more energy than consumed during a time period (day/week/month) will lead to the utilisation of stored fuel and subsequent alteration of body composition.
When intake of carbohydrates is lowered and lower glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate sources are prioritised, overall energy intake often decreases. Refined sugars are omitted, as are carbohydrate-heavy foods such as pasta, bread and cereals.
Remember: the goal of most diets is to decrease energy intake.
Increasing nutrient density and eating whole foods, in combination with exercise is the best way to do this. Whether you call it ‘clean-eating’ ‘flexible dieting, ‘high-carb’ ‘low-carb’ or anything else, the desired outcome is the result of an energy deficit, which is made easier by consuming nutrient-dense foods that promote satiety.
People often eat a higher volume of food, but the energy intake is less. That’s why you often hear ‘eat more to eat less’. While there is validity to this statement, it should really say ‘eat more nutrient dense foods to eat less calories overall’ but that isn’t as catchy.
Whilst a low carbohydrate intake is not required to decrease energy intake, it often has that effect.
Two: Leave Insulin Alone!
Insulin gets a bad rap. The role of insulin is to carry fuel from the bloodstream into cells for use as fuel or storage for later use. Insulin is secreted from the pancreas when blood glucose is elevated.
Insulin is often blamed for causing fat gain, because it takes nutrients into the cell where they can be stored (as fat) if not used. However, insulin does not cause you to gain fat, it simply stores the fuel. A surplus of energy - relative to the individual's needs - is responsible for fat gain.
A reason for insulin-hating may be that it does impair the mobilisation of fatty acids, which is the first step in allowing the body to burn fat as a fuel source. However, this inhibition makes perfect sense, because if you are trying to store fuel that is in the bloodstream (by putting it into cells), you don’t want to be adding more fuel from the cells into the bloodstream.
Once this fuel has been put into cells then insulin will decrease, and now fat mobilisation is no longer impaired. Aside from cases of dysfunction, insulin could only impair fatty acid release long-term if it was continually elevated. Dysfunction aside, the only time insulin could possibly be blamed is if it was continually elevated by food intake, but this would mean that food is continually being consumed. in this case, fat gain will occur from the excessive food intake, not insulin.
High insulin is a problematic and a sign of dysfunction - potentially insulin resistance or diabetes. Diagnoses of either conditioning cannot be done without medical assessment. Do not assume weight gain is due to either and if you are concerned, get checked!
Improved body composition (via training and nutrition) can improve insulin sensitivity, but this is seen as a secondary benefits. We are training to improve body composition, not blood glucose disposal.
Every successful strategy for weight loss requires an energy deficit. Creating this deficit can involve more physical activity or less intake through diet, or both.
What every diet doesn’t have is adherence. If people cannot stick to the diet, it won’t work.
Reasons for adherence vary greatly between between individuals. More often than not, it cannot be predicted prior to starting a program and must determined - and refined - throughout. With low carbohydrate diets in mind, two people might respond very differently.
In my experience with body recomposition clients, I have found low-carbohydrate to be well-adhered to. However, it should be noted that I often use low-carbohydrate with clients who have demonstrated adherence to other systems and have a good foundation. They have also hired a coach, so it would make sense to follow the recommendations. This creates somewhat of a bias, but the information is relevant nonetheless.
Low-carbohydrate diets are often adhereable for several reasons. Firstly, they are simple – eat less carbohydrates. Secondly, protein and fat also increase satiety between meals for many people, which can make an energy deficit easier to adhere to, as there is less time spent ‘feeling hungry.’ Finally, they are popular. People like to do what others – particularly celebrities – are doing.
Hunger is OK
If you are dieting, there will be times when you feel hungry. Mild hunger for 30-90mins is fine and nothing to worry about. Temptations to break from any diet will be increased, but this is where the willpower must come into play. Being hungry for 30 mins twice per day really isn’t that bad, if you improve your body composition and achieve a goal.
Low carbohydrate intakes are not superior to any other form of diet, provided energy intake and protein intake are controlled. In the short term, they are also not bad and can have successful outcomes for body recomposition goals.
Whilst I am not a huge proponent of low carbohydrate diets, I can see the benefits and have used them with clients and myself, with favourable outcomes. Typically with duration between 4-6 weeks and in clients with demonstrated ability to adhere to a program to get results.