The Pros and Cons of Low Carb Diets
Well, here we go again. A few years ago all we heard about was how “evil” carbs are. One bite of bread or pasta and you’d turn into the human equivalent of a beached whale. Now over the last couple of months I’m starting to see all sorts of articles being written about how bad low carb diets are! Will this ever stop!
I’ve learned a few things in my time as a trainer. One of those things is that there is no such thing as an “evil” food you can never ever eat. Except for olives. They are evil.
Today, I’d like to give you some observations I’ve made concerning low carb diets. I’ve been on low carb diets and I’ve had clients on them as well. Suffice to say that I don’t think they are the greatest thing ever or the worst thing ever. There are some aspects to them that are very effective, both for fat loss and long-term health. There are other aspects to them that aren’t so great. I believe the answer is really somewhere in the middle.
First let’s do our best to define what a low carb diet is and what it’s supposed to accomplish. There are, of course, different versions but the common thread running through all of them is that your diet focuses on lean proteins and healthy fats with carbohydrates placing a very distant third. The recommendations of how many carbs you can have each day vary with the specific diet you are on, but I’ve seen as little as 10-25 grams or as much as 75-100. Now, to me 100g for most people is kind of the low-end of a medium carb approach (there are, of course, other factors to consider). The average low carb diet is probably about 50g, and this would certainly qualify as low carb in my book. To give you an idea of what 50g breaks down to, it’s about a slice and half of bread. Not all that much.
What it’s supposed to accomplish is fat loss. The idea is that by not eating any carbohydrates (which is the primary thing our body uses for energy) the body is forced to use our fat stores for energy. This results in fat loss.
OK. Now let’s talk about the pros and cons. We’ll start with the positives.
The Pros of Low Carb Diets
1. It works. There are a few different reasons why, but the bottom line is that these diets work. It’s not uncommon for people to experience a weight loss of 5-10 pounds or sometimes even more over the first week or two. Now that kind of extreme weight loss at the beginning is commonly caused by the depletion of water and glycogen stores (carb intake causes more water retention and glycogen is what carbs break down into for the body to store and use as energy) and not fat loss. After the first week or two much of your glycogen stores are depleted. At that point a weekly weight loss of 1-2 pounds can be common. The important thing to remember here is that these diets are not effective because of the lack of carbs. They’re effective because cutting carbs makes it easy to cut calories. You can cut calories in a variety of ways.
2. It teaches people what they can do without. The most common thing I hear after people go on these diets is that they realize they don’t really need to eat all the carbs they thought they did. It takes a small adjustment period (usually a week or two) but they soon realize they can survive, and often feel better, without much bread or pasta.
3. It teaches people what is important in their diet. Any diet, be it high, medium or low carb should focus on lean protein as it’s most important component. All too often, foods such as bread or pasta comprise the vast majority of people’s calorie intake. I’ve seen low-carb diets completely change people’s expectations about what their diet can and should be and that can make a huge difference.
4. It can force you to eat more whole foods. If you’re doing the low-carb thing right, then your diet will consist mainly of lean protein, healthy fats and vegetables. What’s the common theme here? Unprocessed, healthy food. It’s never a bad idea to base your nutrition around that.
5. It’s simple. You know the old saying: KISS. That stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. You can’t get much simpler than lean protein and veggies cooked in olive oil with a few nuts thrown in. It’s real easy to know what you should eat on a low-carb diet.
6. It’s gluten free!! OK. This is kind of a joke but it’s also true. “Gluten-Free” is one diet trend that I’m sure we’ve all heard of. Here’s the thing, though: Gluten is mainly found in foods you shouldn’t be eating very much in the first place!! Chicken? Gluten free. Apples? Gluten free. Nuts? Gluten free. Broccoli? Gluten free. Cake, cookies and pasta? Full of gluten! Stop going out of your way to eat the same garbage you always eat, except without gluten, and you’ll find some pretty nice success pretty quickly. Gluten free cinnamon buns? STOP IT!!!! OK. Rant over.
The Cons of Low Carb Diets
1. There is a shelf life. As I mentioned in the first section, these diets do work, but they don’t work forever. In my experience they’re effective for somewhere between 3-6 months for most people. The higher your body-fat percentage the longer they usually work, but this isn’t always the case. You should extend this shelf life a little by using regular “re-feed meals” (also known as cheat meals). How you’ll incorporate them is pretty individual but it is a very important aspect to going low-carb and getting the most out of it. Again, the important thing to remember is that these diets are not effective because of the lack of carbs. They’re effective because cutting carbs makes it easy to cut calories. You can cut calories in a variety of ways. There is no magic to going low-carb other than the fact that’s it can easy to cut calories that way.
2. Your energy levels and gym performance might suffer. The more carbs you usually eat heading in to a low-carb diet the worse you’ll usually feel when you start one. People can feel tired and a little foggy. Headaches aren’t uncommon. Your general mood can be pretty bad. The good news here is that this will usually pass in about a week or so and after that you’ll pretty much feel back to normal. The problem is that many people don’t make it through that first week or so. Also, if you’re used to really training hard you might find that your gym performance is just not up to snuff for a while, so you have to be ready for that. This is NOT a performance oriented diet.
3. You still have to practice portion control. For the most part it’s hard to overeat lean protein. It’s pretty filling and very nutrient dense. The problem can occur with the fats, though. It can be pretty easy to overeat certain otherwise healthy fats like nuts or olive oil. The calories still count!
4. You have to have an exit plan. After working like crazy for months it can be pretty frustrating to come off the diet in what feels like a sensible fashion, only to put 5-6 pounds back on in a week or two. The thing to remember here is, just like when you dropped all that weight very quickly at the beginning of the diet, the weight gain is going to be primarily water and glycogen stores. It will settle down soon but you do have to bring the carbs back in a gradual and strategic fashion.
5. It can mess with your mind. While I mentioned before that going low-carb can bring into focus how your nutrition should usually be structured, it can also cause a fear of certain foods that is unnecessary and sometimes flat-out wrong. If you think eating fruit will make you fat, then perhaps this one is for you. Also, if you think you can never ever have ice cream again it’s for you, too.
6. There are other ways. So many times when I’ve talked to people about their nutrition they tell me, without any sort of prompting, that they either know they have to give up bread entirely or that they can’t give up bread at all. Imagine their surprise when I tell them that I’ve clients (and myself) lose weight eating pizza and ice cream every week. The key is that it’s part of an overall plan. You can lose weight going high-carb, medium carb or low carb. The questions, as always, is what is best for you.
I hope that this gives you a good idea of both the benefits and drawbacks to low-carb diets. They undoubtedly work, but as I mentioned they’re far from the only thing that does.
If you need any help putting the right diet for you or if you have any comments about low-carb diets in general, please drop me a line and let me know.
Oh by the way, I tried like heck to think of a way to reference Roger Waters’ fantastic “The Pros and Cons of Hitchiking” in this article but I just couldn’t do it. If you want to hear some of Eric Clapton’s best post-Cream guitar work, I highly suggest you pick it up.
Have a great day!
Mitch Rothbardt, CPT, PN Lean Eating Coach, FMS
2861 Grove Way in Castro Valley
I Help People Discover Their Strength!