Have you heard of, or maybe considered, low-carb eating? There’s a lot of online buzz about this lately.
Some say they are amazing for weight loss. Others warn that they can increase your risk of heart disease. And there’s even more buzz about it in the athlete world.
So, what is it?
Low-carb eating may help some people lose weight and/or manage their blood sugar levels. And they may do these (slightly) better than low-fat diets.
But, how do you know if a low-carb eating is for you?
Let me help you figure out what exactly a low-carb eating is and whether it’s something you should consider… or not.
No, carbs aren’t inherently bad (more on this below).
Carb is short for carbohydrate. Carbs are one of the three main macronutrients in the diet. Macro, as in large, means they’re large components of your diet. Just like protein and fat, carbs give us the energy we need for optimal health. Most foods contain two if not all three of these essential macronutrients.
Carbs can definitely be part of a healthy diet. They’re found in many foods that are full of other nutrients like essential vitamins and minerals. Just like fats and proteins, carbs can also be found in nutrient-poor low-quality foods. Medline Plus says, “It is best to get most of your carbohydrates from whole grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables instead rather than refined grains. In addition to calories, whole foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”
Similarly to other macronutrients, carbs have calories or energy. For athletes, carbs are and should be our BFF. Carbs are the bodies preferred energy source and can provide energy with or without oxygen – an important factor to consider!
Carbs come in three different shapes and sizes:
- Sugars (found in juices, dairy, sodas, desserts, etc.) are the smallest and are the main type of “fuel” used by your body for energy
- Starches (found in potatoes, grains, legumes, etc.) are broken down into sugars which then go on to be used for energy
- Fiber (found in legumes, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, etc.) provides bulk that helps us feel full and feeds our friendly gut microbes
Different types of carbs have slightly different effects on your body. When you ingest sugars they’re absorbed quickly and can cause a “spike” in your blood sugar level. When your body lowers your blood sugar levels a short time later, you may become hungry again. Sugar also tends to be found in highly processed and less nutritious foods. People who tend to eat more sugars have a higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and dental cavities.
If you eat carbs as starches it takes a bit more time for them to be broken down into sugars so their effect on your blood sugar level is slower and lasts longer. I encourage my athletes to have starches at meal times to maintain long-lasting energy.
Fibers, on the other hand, aren’t digested by us, but rather help us feel full and contribute to a healthy gut by feeding our friendly gut bacteria. People who eat a lot of fiber tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and digestive issues. For athletes, all forms of carbs are necessary and needed in the diet.
Possible benefits of low-carb eating
Low-carb diets may have a slight advantage for weight loss when compared to low-fat diets. However, studies find that after 12 months, the benefits are not that large.
Low-carb diets may help some people better manage their diabetes, high blood sugar, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. They may also help improve cholesterol and blood lipids, too.
These may occur not specifically from eating fewer carbs, but rather because of the quality of food choices when eating a low-carb diet as well as from losing some weight.
What is low-carb eating?
Low-carb eating emphasize eating more of the other two macronutrients: protein and fat. This means more meat, poultry, fish and eggs. It also includes non-starchy vegetables.
The amount of carb-rich foods would be reduced, although not eliminated. These means eating less sweets, grains (e.g., bread, pasta), fruits, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
How low the carbs go isn’t set in stone. A typical low-carb diet would recommend no more than 50-150 grams of carbs per day (that’s 200-600 calories per day). This is in contrast with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans which recommends about 225 grams (900 calories) each day from carbs.
Should I consider going low-carb?
Studies show the overall quality of a food or diet is more important than focusing on just one nutrient, like carbs.
There are a few things to consider.
First, know that if you’re trying to lose weight, low-carb is one of many eating patterns that might can help you—at least for a short time. It may take experimentation to find the right one for your genes, metabolism, and lifestyle. It’s very difficult to stick to a diet for the long-term, so finding one that works for you is key. We can work through if this is appropriate together, when you reach out for a discovery call.
Be careful when you restrict any major food group, like carbs, for example. This is because you may be restricting key vitamins or minerals. This can lead to deficiencies and long-term concerns like bone loss, gut problems, and chronic diseases.
Because low-carb diets are restrictive and may not provide all necessary nutrients, this diet isn’t recommended for adolescents or pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Most of the research on low-carb diets is short-term, so we don’t know all the possible health effects for eating like this over the course of many months or years. It’s possible that by eating too much animal food you may increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
At the end of the day, for most athletes, most of the time I’m not going to recommend a low-carb eating pattern. There might be specific training sessions we use a lower-carb approach to drive training adaptations, but that is done on a case by case basis.
Nutrition tips for low-carb eating
Remember, low-carb foods fall on a spectrum. Some are more processed than others. When replacing carbs with proteins and fats, be sure to choose ones that have quality proteins and fats and a lot of essential vitamins and minerals.
As for proteins, it’s best to get them from poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts and beans, and less from red meats like pork and beef.
When it comes to fats, focus on foods rich in omega-3s and unsaturated fats and choose fewer fats that are saturated and hydrogenated.
If you make drastic changes to your diet you may experience headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, skin rashes, and digestive upsets. Keep an eye out for these and consult an expert if you experience them. Reach out for help here.
If you restrict carbs too much you can change your body’s metabolism and put it into ketosis. This is because your body uses sugar as its main energy source, so when you don’t get a minimum amount of carbs, your body’s metabolism changes to start using fat as its energy source.
If you end up craving carbs, experiencing gut issues or other bothersome symptoms, or simply don’t enjoy eating anymore, a low-carb diet may not be the best one for you.
For best results, always always always choose carbs before and after intense training sessions. Providing necessary energy before key training sessions is always a good idea! Plus, we can prevent low energy availability, added stress, fatigue, and other pesky symptoms related to a lack of energy.
Bottom line on low-carb eating
According to Harvard Health, “The best diet is the one we can maintain for life and is only one piece of a healthy lifestyle. People should aim to eat high-quality, nutritious whole foods, mostly plants (fruits and veggies), and avoid flours, sugars, trans fats, and processed foods (anything in a box).”
Changing the way you eat to enhance performance and longevity is something I specialize in. If you’re considering starting a low-carb eating pattern, book an appointment with me to see if my services can help you.
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Harvard Health. (2018, April 9). Which diet is best for long-term weight loss? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/weight-loss-for-life-the-dietfits-study-2018040913595
Harvard Health. (2018, November). Both high-carb and low-carb diets may be harmful to health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/both-high-carb-and-low-carb-diets-may-be-harmful-to-health
Harvard Health. (n.d.). Low fat, low carb, or Mediterranean: which diet is right for you? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/low-fat-low-carb-or-mediterranean-which-diet-is-right-for-you
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Mayo Clinic. (2017, August 29). Weight Loss. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/low-carb-diet/art-20045831?p=1
Medline Plus. (2018, January). Carbohydrates. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002469.htm
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