Over the years, low-carb diets have come and gone in many different forms. Atkins, Paleo, and other ketogenic diets each promise effective weight loss through a simple plan, but few people talk about the other things you may experience by cutting carbs. Carbohydrates are our body’s natural energy source, so naturally, taking them away is going to have some side effects – some good, and some bad.
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If you’re thinking of going low-carb for the first time, here’s what you need to know.
What Is ‘Low-Carb’?
Depending on where you’re getting your diet plan from, everyone has a different definition of low-carb. Generally speaking, low-carb diets tend to range from 0 to 100 grams of carbohydrates per day. One gram is equal to four calories, so you’re working with about 400 calories of carbohydrates or less daily.
To some, that might sound like a reasonable range, but to give you an idea of how many grams of carbs are contained in common foods, here’s a quick cheat sheet (numbers are averaged):
- 1 banana = 30g
- 12 oz. soda = 35g
- 1 mango = 50g
- 1.5 oz. raisins = 34g
- 1 medium bagel = 55g
As you can see, your carbohydrate count can easily get out of hand if you’re not careful, which is why it’s always important to plan your meals so you don’t have too much fluctuation in your diet (more on why this can be an issue in the “drawbacks” section discussing the induction period).
Benefits Of Going Low Carb
The most notable benefit of going low-carb is weight loss – by now, we’ve got that figured out. But how does that work, exactly? And what are the other positive effects?
As noted above, weight loss is the biggest benefit and most popular reason why people choose to start a carbohydrate-restricted diet. Here’s a brief explanation of how it works. Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. When we eat them, they are turned into glucose, which our body uses as fuel. If you have more glucose available then your body can use, the excess is stored as fat. However, if your glucose levels are low, then once it’s done using glucose for energy, it will use fat instead. So, to sum things up: the less carbs you eat, the more your body will use fat for energy, thus reducing weight.
Regulating insulin and blood sugar levels
Carbohydrates are one of the main stimulants in insulin release, so by reducing your carb intake, you’re also helping your body reduce insulin levels. Now, it’s important to note that reduced insulin levels can also be a drawback if they’re too low, but low-carb diets generally don’t put them that far down. They just bring things down to a more reasonable level.
Insulin regulation is beneficial for several reasons. First, it provides a little more aid in weight loss. Insulin is the body’s main fat-storing hormone, so by reducing carb levels, you’re also influencing the body to stop storing fat as much and instead start using it. Second, it also helps manage blood sugar. This can be especially helpful for diabetics; in fact, some people have actually been able to reverse diabetes due to a low-carb diet alone.
Reduced hunger and cravings
Many of us know what it’s like to have a sudden craving for a certain type of food. Whether it’s a bite of ice cream or a slice of pizza, both are bad news for our health. Low-carb diets tend to eliminate these cravings because your body will have lower glucose levels, so for anyone with a keen sweet tooth, expect that to change!
Drawbacks Of A Low Carb Diet
Although many people make carbohydrates out to be this horrible evil that should be avoided at all costs, carbs are our friend, and there are actually several negatives to going low-carb that can make this diet plan undesirable for some.
When you take away your body’s natural source of energy, it needs some time to adjust. During the first week, many people experience flu-like symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and more (often referred to as the induction flu). For most people, these symptoms dissipate after the first week is over as the body learns to adapt to its new state of energy-burning. However, this isn’t the case for everyone.
Some people’s genetics just need carbs, so no matter how hard they try, they’re never really able to fully adapt. With that said, the main reason why one may experience continued symptoms past the first week is due to ketosis fluctuation. Ketosis is the name of the process where your body is primarily using fats as energy instead of carbohydrates. It’s most commonly talked about in the Ketogenic diet (referred to as the ‘Keto flu’), but other low-carb diets inherently influence ketosis as well because your body is no longer used carbs for energy.
Ketosis fluctuates based on several factors, but it mainly has to do with how much of each nutrient you’re eating (carbs, protein, fat). Since everyone has different daily intake requirements, it’s nearly impossible to say, “As long as you’re eating ‘this many’ grams of each nutrient, you’ll be in ketosis.” Instead, you have to measure it. Measuring ketosis is important for most low-carb dieters, not only to make sure your diet is working as intended, but also so you don’t find yourself continually experiencing the pitfalls of the induction period.
Keep in mind: just as some people’s genetics just need carbs, other people just can’t get into ketosis. If you think you may have any trouble with this before starting, talk to your doctor to figure out if this is right for you.
When it comes to morning jogs or workouts in the gym, your body usually relies on the glucose from carbs to provide it with enough energy to endure. If that glucose is in limited supply, your body then turns to fat for more energy. Performance levels affect everyone differently; some report no change in physical ability on a low-carb diet, but others experience fatigue more rapidly and general sluggishness throughout the day. Supplements can be a good answer to the issue if you’re in the latter group.
Cramps, constipation, and bad breath
There are some minor side effects that you may just not be able to escape. Cramps, constipation, gas, and bad breath are all examples of these minor affects as your body is trying to get used to its new nutritional intake. For some people, these are limited or go away over time, but others aren’t as fortunate. As mentioned before, always make sure to check with your doctor if you’re worried about experiencing these issues.
Should you go low carb?
Low-carb diets are not for everyone. While you might see massive success within a few months of carbohydrate restriction, the next person might not. Furthermore, most people can’t adhere to an extremely low-carb diet long-term; it’s simply too restrictive. The important thing to remember here is to listen to your body above all else. Only you can know for sure whether your body is capable of sustaining carbohydrate reduction over time.
Consider the pros and cons discussed above, and keep them in mind when trying a low-carb lifestyle so that you keep yourself in check at all times.
A better compromise for most people is to enjoy the right kinds of carbs in moderation, rather than adhering strictly to a no-carb or low-carb diet, so consider this a good option if low-carb isn’t working for you.