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Is a Low-Carb Diet Appropriate for Me?
By C. W. Schurman, MS, CSCS
This is the million-dollar question for 2004, the one that has been flooding our Ask Body Results forum each day at Body Results, Inc. The Atkins, Zone, and South Beach diets are among the hottest, best-selling nutrition plans although they vary quite a bit in the amounts of carbohydrates allowed. Each has some particularly valid selling points that all of us might benefit from including in our eating program.
- The South Beach Diet teaches you how to avoid white carbohydrates such as refined breads, instant rice, baked potatoes, pastas, refined sugars and flours, all typically higher glycemic index foods that do not leave us satisfied for long and send us reaching for more; its premise is to substitute “good fats and carbs” for the bad ones that just leave you hungrier and, ultimately, more prone to weight gain — not weight loss. Its lofty promise is that you can lose up to 13 pounds in just 14 days — with belly fat coming off first.
- The Zone Diet teaches that a balanced program of 40% carbs/30% protein/30% fat can be fairly easy to hit and quite realistic for many people who are not very active during the week. It encourages people to 1) follow the 40-30-30 way of eating, 2) use predominantly monounsaturated fats, 3) supplement with Omega-3 fish oils (“good” fats), and 4) exercise regularly.
- The Atkins Diet is the “low-carb” diet and has been enjoying tremendous success by thousands across the country (even though Atkins himself died about a year ago with coronary disease), getting people to limit caloric consumption by gobbling higher amounts of foods rich in proteins and fats such as eggs, bacon, dairy and meat products. Such foods leave people feeling full and satiated more quickly than any similar-sized portion of carbohydrates. In the beginning of the diet, your overall carb intake is severely restricted and weight loss begins quickly. The diet gradually builds up to putting healthy carbs back into your nutrition program.
WHY DO LOW-CARB DIETS WORK?
Reduced Caloric Intake
The number one reason why these diets work for so many people is THEY FORCE US TO LIMIT DAILY CALORIC INTAKE. Any diet that reduces the number of calories a person consumes daily WILL result in weight loss. A calorie is a calorie whether it comes from carbohydrates, fat or protein. However, as supporters of Atkins, Zone and South Beach diets point out, your body behaves differently when it receives carbohydrates, fats or protein. In this country of super-sized meals, fast food restaurants open 24 hours a day, and drive-throughs catering to those of us living in our cars, any diet that helps us to eat less during the day and make better choices about what we will consume will give us desired results of weight loss.
Broken Carb Craving Cycle
Another reason why these diets work is they break the cycle of “carbohydrate craving.” As soon as stores started carrying “reduced fat” goodies, we started seeing an increase in the numbers of American adults approaching obesity (right now we are flirting with an obesity epidemic, with greater than 60% of American adults being overweight and our children following close behind). We took the message of “low fat” to mean “better for us,” and tended to disregard or ignore the recommendations for portion sizes. Heck, if given the choice between a high-fat cookie and one in reduced fat, surely if one low-fat cookie was good, it couldn’t hurt to have three, right? RIGHT? WRONG! Often that meant we were consuming TRIPLE the calories! In some cases it is not the food itself that is bad, but HOW MUCH of something we are eating.
Reduced Glycemic Index
Foods that contain lots of sugars and refined flours (such as bakery goods, cookies, pastas, cereals, breads, rice, potatoes and pastries) usually are high in Glycemic Index (see www.bodyresults.com/e2glycemicindex.asp for more on the GI of foods and www.bodyresults.com/e2carbdance.asp for more about carbohydrates for exercise). Such high-GI foods leave us craving more of them after the initial effects of boosted energy (from the sugar) have worn off. Because foods higher in fat and protein leave us feeling satiated for longer, we tend to eat less frequently and in smaller portions over all – resulting ultimately in weight loss. Many times this may not be specifically from the choice of “higher protein and fat” so much as the fact that we are simply NOT EATING AS MUCH.
ARE THERE PEOPLE WHO SHOULD NOT BE ON A LOW-CARB DIET?
Anyone who has high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular health issues, liver or kidney problems, or other more serious medical conditions should consult with his or her physician or better yet a Registered Dietitian (RD) before embarking on a reduced carbohydrate program that by definition will mean you are consuming more high-fat and high-protein foods including red meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, cheeses and dairy products, foods that in the past the American Heart Association has recommended we limit or avoid for heart health.
Another group of people who may experience significantly reduced energy levels on a low-carbohydrate diet include endurance athletes of any kind, including ultramarathoners, half- and full-marathon runners, triathletes, cyclists, hikers, trekkers, backpackers, scramblers, climbers, cross-country skiers, and rowers. In fact, anyone participating in any sort of outdoor sport or activity requiring sustained energy for longer than 45 minutes at a single stint will likely find that a low-carbohydrate diet simply does not give them the energy needed to perform at optimal levels.
Finally, expectant mothers and breastfeeding moms who are literally eating for two should try to target a diet rich in complex carbohydrates (50-60%) and including protein and “good” fats (i.e. a diet low in saturated and trans-fats, rich in nuts, lean meats, peanut butter, cooked seafood and poultry, and non-fat dairy products). Remember: expecting moms need to consume an extra 300 calories a day in the third trimester compared to pre-pregnancy diet, and breastfeeding moms an extra 500 calories a day above pre-pregnancy values as long as they continue to exclusively breastfeed. If you think about the end results of pregnancy, a marathon “labor” that can take some women the better part of a day or more to complete, a low-carbohydrate diet (UNLESS medically supervised, as in the case of someone who suffers from gestational diabetes) simply will not provide her with enough energy to successfully complete her labor and delivery with optimal energy.
WHO WOULD BENEFIT FROM WHICH DIET?
If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or computer, if you drive more than a few hours each day, if you are basically sedentary for most of the week, or if you find you consume more than about 2000 calories a day on a regular basis (the upper limit for most sedentary Americans who do not exercise) you may be able to successfully follow a low-carbohydrate Atkins-type diet without adverse effects. Because people in this category tend to be inactive, they do not require as many carbohydrates as expectant mothers or endurance athletes do, and will not experience the lag in energy that usually comes when there are not enough carbohydrates in the diet. If you typically work out less than three hours each week, a low-carb diet might be the perfect way to go. Endurance athletes may find that a modified South Beach approach might be the best choice, allowing them to limit the amount of high-GI foods they are eating and selecting instead healthy multi-grain carbohydrates and fruits to fuel endurance exercise. The Zone diet provides a reasonable starting point for anyone who is fairly active during the week (3-5 workouts of 30-45 minutes each) and needs a little more energy than what is provided by Atkins. After all, it is the one diet of the three that promotes and includes regular exercise in the program recommendations.
WHAT IF I CHOOSE A LOW-CARB DIET ANYWAY?
It DOES NOT mean that if you are in the above groups of carbohydrate-needing individuals that you cannot follow some of the principles in the low-carbohydrate diet. Limiting sugary, refined foods is a good tip FOR ANY AND ALL OF US. Being aware of caloric intake and increasing your daily exercise is important for everyone. Choosing foods rich in vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and the “right” kinds of carbohydrates and fats is crucial to our long-term health.
If you are in the endurance exerciser category and are interested in reducing bodyweight so you have less to carry around with you (always a good thing!) then one way to include a reduced-carb diet is to include it on your non-cardio days during the week, but the day and morning before an extended cardiovascular workout (trail run, race, or climb), increase your carbohydrate consumption and take healthy carbs with you on the trail or trip so you will have ready access to the increased glucose and muscle glycogen stores to prevent “bonking” during your workout. As with any new fad or craze, remember to proceed with caution and do your own research and scientific investigation on yourself to determine whether a low-carb diet gives you enough sustained energy to complete your workouts of choice and keep you healthy and sickness-free. All things in moderation, and above all else, KEEP MOVING. For more on charting your caloric intake and macro-nutrient ratios, please see our previous article on nutrition tracking on-line at www.bodyresults.com/e2nutritiontracking.asp.