Spend any time in the supermarket and you’re bound to see “low carb” or “no carb” messages on everything from bread and chips to juice and yogurt. Carbohydrate restriction has enjoyed popularity in weight loss circles for several years now. And yet, to the common person, the particulars of low or carb free diets care still a mystery.
First brought into the mainstream media spotlight by the Atkins diet, the idea behind limiting or eliminating carbohydrates is based in the way the body metabolizes energy. Everything we eat is part of the body’s fuel operation. It either gets used quickly after consumption, or it gets stored as fat to be used as fuel at another time. Carbohydrates are rich in energy-producing sugars that the body easily converts into what it needs to perform various bodily functions. Unfortunately, many carbohydrates are so rich in these sugars that they are converted to fat. As well, many of the carbs we all love most (bread, baked potatoes, rice, pasta) have been refined down to little else but their various sugars. We end up over-eating these items because it takes a while for the body to recognize fullness. Carb free diets advocate taking these items out of the daily diet and swapping in either protein-dense foods like meats and cheeses or fruits and vegetables low in naturally occurring sugars (most berries and sweet fruits are cautioned against while leafy veggies are encouraged). In doing so, the hope is that the body will start burning stored fat as energy is needed since protein and low-sugar vegetables provide little in the way of energy. As fat is burned, the body slims down. Sounds simple right? It’s a large part of why so many people like the diet. They get to eat many of the foods they enjoy such as bacon, ham, steak, cheese, milk and more while still losing weight. But like any diet, there’s always a downside.
Some of the most common complaints about carb free diets are a general lack of energy, exhaustion, grumpiness, irregular sleep, and various types of digestive upset. In some cases, dieters even develop other health risks such as high cholesterol or high uric acid content which leads to gout. Meats and cheeses are tasty for a reason – they’re high in fat content. Fat makes foods palatable and pleasing in texture. However, when that fat is saturated, it has negative effects on levels of lipids in the blood. The excess fat in the digestive system can lead to constipation or diarrhea or kidney problems. That’s not to say that every person that considers a low or carb free diet is doomed to these side effects. It just means that in addition to the already-narrow food choices on the restricted diet, a person must also be diligent about finding alternative protein sources such as soybeans, tofu and fish. It is often this extreme limitation that leads people to find the diet difficult to follow. At the same time, severely carb-restricted diets are not intended to be lifestyle changes. They are meant to be a short-term approach to jump start weight loss, or precursors towards a more carb “conscious” lifestyle where refined simple carbs are eaten in moderation or are replaced by more dense carbohydrates that provide additional nutritional benefits such as fiber or vitamin and mineral content.