By: Dr. Keith Kantor
After last week’s topics of the ever so popular ketogenic diet and its health benefits, it seems appropriate to dive deeper into the topic of low carbohydrate diets and why the success of them is so high.
A low carbohydrate diet reduces your carbohydrate intake resulting in lower insulin levels. Since insulin keeps fat locked into adipose tissue, lowering insulin can increase the amount of stored fat that is released and utilized for energy.
For the portion of the population that is overweight with insulin resistance and chronically elevated insulin levels this is a fairly accurate description of why following a low carbohydrate diet works so well. Some people are so insulin-resistant that even no sugar containing carbohydrates like a sweet potato can spike their levels and inhibit them from burning fat for long periods of time. If these starchy carbohydrate foods are eliminated the body is forced to start utilizing fat as a primary fuel source.
Additional Benefits of Low Carbohydrate Eating:
Increased all-natural protein.
Increasing all-natural protein intake has many beneficial effects on health, particularly if you’re attempting to lose weight and struggle with overeating. Of all the macronutrients, protein naturally decreases the appetite the most. Filling your plate up with more protein and less carbohydrates will allow your body to no longer fight your own body’s physiological desire for more food. You just don’t want anymore.
More protein also helps you retain, or even gain, lean mass during weight loss. Why does this matter? Because nobody’s trying to lose muscle, bone, or connective tissue when they lose weight. They want to lose body fat and keep or add muscle. Studies show that more protein in the diet consistently leads to greater retention of lean mass and more preferential burning of body fat during weight loss. For instance in weightlifters, a low-carb low caloric diet with 2x the RDA from protein resulted in greater nitrogen balance than a high-carb low caloric diet with RDA protein. In women, a low-calorie, high-protein diet was better than a conventional high-carb, low-fat diet at promoting lean mass retention, even in the absence of exercise. This increased lean mass also contributes to improved resting energy expenditure (the amount of calories your body burns naturally through daily function and metabolism).
Protein also has the highest thermogenic effect of all the macronutrients, meaning it takes the most calories to digest (compared to fat and carbohydrates) and further increases your energy expenditure.
Fat consumed within a meal slows gastric emptying, especially when fewer carbohydrates are eaten. When your food takes longer to pass through your gut, you remain full. When you’re full, you’re not interested in eating. When you’re not interested in eating, your calorie intake spontaneously drops. When you calorie intake spontaneously drops, you tend to lose weight.
Low or no sugar
Sugar is one of the hardest things to give up initially; most people are physically addicted to the neurological response to sugar. Sugar is just pure energy absent any real vitamins and minerals, and as long as you’re highly active and regularly clearing space in your glycogen stores for incoming glucose and fructose, a moderate amount is mostly harmless. The problem is most people are not highly active and excess sugar becomes dangerous to your health. If the liver is full of glycogen, any fructose arriving there is converted to fat and contributes toward fatty liver or elevated harmful cholesterol. If fatty liver progresses unknowingly, the consequences are terrible for a person’s metabolic health, insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and waistline.
Because sugar is the most obvious to remove from one’s diet, on a low-carb diet, it reduces the risk for the above metabolic issues.
They deplete glycogen.
Glycogen is how we store sugar in the body, and our capacity is limited. Larger muscles can store more glycogen, but the average person can count on being able to store about 400 grams of carbs between skeletal muscle and liver glycogen. Walking around with your glycogen stores perpetually topped off means there’s nowhere for excess carbohydrate to go. You either burn it immediately or convert it into fat for storage in the liver.
Carb reduction drastically reduces glycogen. That’s part of the reason we initially lose so much water weight on low-carb diets; water always accompanies glycogen. Glycogen depletion is the “switch” for the brain and body to begin utilizing fat for energy. Given access to fast and easy glycogen, it’ll choose to burn that first. Take it away through glycogen depletion (via training, low-carb dieting, or some combo of the two) and your body has no choice but to use it’s own stored fat for energy.
They’re easy to understand and follow.
Most people understand what “carbs” are- including potatoes, pasta, bread, soda, and sweets, that sort of thing. It’s not hard to figure out. It is easy to avoid the high carb foods and still enjoy the savory protein from steak, fish, poultry, eggs, etc. accompanied by flavorful vegetables that are seasoned with oils, butter and herbs. This way of eating does not make one feel deprived unlike other programs that promote weight loss.
They deliver results quickly.
Severely overweight people that are dropping carbohydrates and increasing fat/proteins, can quickly loses ten pounds in the first week. It’s a common occurrence. I’ve seen it happen, and it almost always turns the weight-loss recipient into a believer who adheres to the diet for the long haul. It doesn’t hurt that much of the early low-carb fat loss comes off the belly (the most common place for fat to accumulate).
They increase nutrient density foods like vegetables and reduce caloric density foods like pastries or baked goods.
When you go low-carb, you ask for salad instead of the dinner roll. You load up on sautéed spinach instead of French fries. You eat kale chips instead of potato chips. These subtle alterations don’t just reduce the amount of carbs and calories you eat, they increase the density of micronutrients and phytochemicals you consume, many of which have favorable metabolic effects. There’s also evidence that increasing the micronutrient density of your diet can improve weight loss.
They eliminate the most fattening foods- those foods that contain both fat and sugar (or carbs).
The most self-perpetuating macronutrient combo, the one you can’t stop eating, is fat plus carbs. Cheesecake? Cookies? French Fries? Tons of fat and tons of sugar. Reducing carbs takes this combo out of the equation entirely. It’s much harder to overeat fat without carbs. This dangerous macronutrient combination is the obesity epidemic’s main problem; the foods listed above are highly available and are not going anywhere.
Modify your lifestyle by first eliminating sugar loaded foods like soft drinks, sweet teas, candy or chips and then slowly reduce carbohydrate intake and make sure you are getting in high amount of healthy fats and quality all natural proteins.