By Georgia Cadoret
There is a lot of skepticism around the low-carbohydrate diets that have been gaining popularity over recent years - Keto cauliflower pizza ring any bells? For anyone looking to start a diet which cuts out a main food group, it is important to do the research and know the facts before committing fully.
I spoke to professional nutritionist and WLT panel member, Amanda Allan, about the risks of going low-carb, how to do it, and what it's actually all about.
Is it necessarily true that cutting carbs out of our diet is the best way to lose weight, and is it safe?
It really depends on the individual. Cutting carbs is a popular method for weight loss, as a lot of people follow a diet that is high in refined carbs, therefore reducing calorie intake here is easier. It can be a very effective method of reducing excess fat and one of the main benefits is stable blood glucose levels and controlling insulin. If done properly, it is safe - include high fibre, nutrient dense & low starch vegetables, low sugar fruits and seeds and nuts in your diet.
How do low-carb diets work?
Low-carb diets work by controlling insulin and keeping blood glucose levels stable. In some methods (like Keto) the objective is to burn fat in the form of ketones for energy production, rather than using glucose. Intermittent fasting is often used as part of low-carb diets and this has been shown to promote weight loss too.
Are low-carb diets considered to be healthier than a well-rounded diet? If so, why?
One of the main health benefits is that unhealthy, low nutrient, refined carb & sugar foods are largely eliminated. However, it depends on exactly what is included in a well-rounded diet and, again, on the individual. For instance, some people can eat whole-grain brown bread every day and benefit from the B vitamins, chromium and fibre, whereas others may experience bloating and cravings for more carbohydrates.
Who might benefit from a low-carb diet?
For anyone who has a health concern linked to insulin levels, including diabetes, insulin resistance and PCOS; or has a digestive condition, like SIBO or candida, then a low carb diet can be very beneficial. They are very popular because, for a lot of people, they don’t feel hungry because their blood glucose levels are stable and they are eating more fat that helps satiety. Low-carb diets have been shown to get rid of the visceral fat stored in the abdomen around the organs, which is linked to insulin resistance. Using the Keto diet - where ketosis is reached - may be beneficial for slowing or preventing conditions that involve brain inflammation, like Alzeimer’s and Dementia.
However it is really important that it is not a diet high in dairy and processed meats, which contain arachidonic acid. This can cause inflammation, and is devoid of healthy anti-inflammatory omega 3 and 9 unsaturated fats. It's also vital to eat vegetables and low sugar fruits to supply fibre, antioxidants and alkalising minerals.
Are healthy carbs (for example, whole grains) integral for overall bodily functions?
They do have health benefits - whole grains and starchy vegetables have a high fibre content that our microbiome (beneficial gut bacteria) rely on to produce B Vitamins, neurotransmitters like serotonin, and butyric acid that keeps the colon healthy. They also contain essential nutrients like chromium, beta carotene, folic acid and other B vitamins.
We know that eating enough fibre is important for our health; by cutting out carbs, do we necessarily omit fibre all together?
We don't, but this is why including the low starch vegetables, low sugar fruit, seeds and nuts is so important, because of the fibre they supply. An avocado for example is very high in fibre but still a high fat, low carb food. Fibre is absolutely essential for efficient digestive function and eliminating waste products and toxins that that have gone through the liver’s detoxification pathways, and for a heathy microbiome - especially as 70% of the immune system is in the gut.
What advice would you give to anyone considering a low-carb diet?
The main thing is knowledge of exactly what is involved in having a healthy low-carb diet and which foods are healthy and nutrient dense. A low-carb diet that is not balanced and is deficient in essential nutrients and fibre, as well as consisting of only potentially pro-inflammatory fats, can be detrimental to health. Whereas a healthy low carb diet has been shown to be beneficial especially for weight loss.
Is it sustainable?
This really depends on the individual. I think it is probably more difficult to sustain if you primarily follow a plant-based diet, or if you love high-carb foods and would struggle to cut them out long-term. It may be beneficial to follow a healthy low-carb diet for a couple of months at a time - healthy eating should just be part of your way of life, so occasionally include foods just because you enjoy them!
Amanda Allan is a Well Life Tribe panel member, and has a degree in Clinical Psychology and works as a nutritional consultant.