Low-carb diets are nothing new. One of the most famous low-carb diet plans, the Atkins diet, dates back to the early ’70s. In fact, the ketogenic diet, a strict low-carb, high-fat diet was invented in the 1920s, although not for weight loss but for treatment of epilepsy in children.
So why all the fuss?
Recently it’s been hard to switch on the TV or pick up a newspaper without seeing somebody arguing the virtues of a low-carb diet. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston are all known to be fans of diets low in carbs. Low-carb diets are an increasingly popular way of losing significant amounts of weight in a relatively short period.
Ketogenic diets have enjoyed success in the field of medicine where they’re used to treat diabetic and epileptic patients. But is a low-carb diet plan for weight loss really the most efficient way of losing weight? Or is it just a fad, a very long lasting fad?
Do Low-Carb, High-Fat Diets Work?
That’s the million dollar question! The answer for many will decide whether they continue reading on. What’s the point in reading an article about a diet plan that doesn’t work?
Few things have been debated more than the carbohydrates vs fat diet question. In the 1980s the U.S. Department of Agriculture published nutritional guidelines that condemned fats and promoted a heavy consumption of carbs. A steady rise in obesity in the 1990s suggested something wasn’t working.
Here’s the good news!
Recent research has found that fats aren’t bad for you but a low-fat, high-carb diet can be. In several studies that involved patients eating a low-carb diet bodyweight was reduced in a range of 1.5 to 14.3 kilograms. One study which compared low-carb diets with Mediterranean and low-fat diets found the highest weight loss in the low-carb group. You may not want to take your nutritional advice from Kim Kardashian, but it’s hard to argue with the increasing scientific evidence of low-carb diet’s efficiency.
How Does a Low-Carb Diet Plan for Weight Loss Work?
There are many types of low-carb diet plans. At the height of the Atkins craze in the early 2000s, a Gallup poll found that 27 percent of Americans claimed to be avoiding carbohydrates. Although Atkins still has it followers, there are many other low-carb diet plans for weight loss getting more attention including:
- Bulletproof Diet.
- Keto Diet.
- Dukan Diet.
- Paleo Diet.
- South Beach Diet.
- Scandinavian Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF).
- Zone Diet.
- Eco-Atkins Diet.
We’ll look in more detail at a few of these later on, but they all have one thing in common:
Their goal is to substitute glucose with fatty acids as the main fuel source for your body.
Carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body which your cells use for energy. The high-fat part of the diet encourages your body to burn fat for its primary fuel source. And the best part is, your body doesn’t just burn the fat you consume, but stores body fats as well.
Low-carb diets will either concentrate on high fat (like a ketogenic diet) or high protein (like the South Beach diet) and may vary in the amount of carbs allowed. When carbs are significantly reduced, your body may enter a stage of ketosis. Ketones are a metabolic byproduct of breaking down fat in the liver and can be used as fuel—basically you’re jumpstarting the fat burning in your body!
The Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet Plan for Weight Loss
Low-carb diets can increase the amount of fat your body burns for energy and decrease the amount of stored body fat. This will have many improvements for cardiovascular markers including a reduction in total cholesterol, a reduction in LDL (the bad cholesterol) and triglycerides. High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are often caused by carbs pushing your liver to overproduce fat.
A reduction of glucose in your bloodstream from fewer carbs and more protein may help to reign in your blood sugar levels, which for most means less hunger and cravings. As your blood sugar stabilizes the level of the fat-storing hormone, insulin, also drops. This again increases fat burning and makes you feel more satiated, reducing your food intake and causing weight loss.
And finally when talking about weight loss, fat has more calories than carbs. It may seem crazy to recommend more calories when trying to lose weight. But a low-carb diet will make you feel full faster and for longer without the need to count calories. Less frequent meals and reduced snacking throughout the day will reduce your total daily calorie consumption.
Sounds too good to be true?
The Downside of Low-Carb Diets
Before we look at what a low-carb diet plan for weight loss involves, we have to mention a few negatives. If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it. Although many low-carb diets have shown significant benefits in the short term, long-term safety is still being researched. You should always consult a doctor before starting any new diet plan.
Until your body adapts to using fat as fuel you’ll feel fatigued because your traditional fuel source, glucose, is depleted. Avoid exercise for the first week as your body gets used to burning fat for fuel, but once your body adapts exercise performance can be improved. A review found that athletes on a low-carb diet perform better and burn more fat without depleting glycogen (stored glucose) which is needed for muscle health and growth.
Nutritional deficiency is a risk with some low-carb diets cutting out groups like dairy, fruits, legumes and grains. You’ll be deficient in some key vitamins and minerals unless you take a high-quality micronutrient supplement like a greens powder. Nutrients you may need to supplement include fiber, selenium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B7, vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine and molybdenum.
Is a Low-Carb Diet Plan for Weight Loss for Everybody?
Although most people can start any kind of low-carb diet, in certain situations you may need some preparation or to seek the advice of your healthcare provider.
People on medication for diabetes, including insulin, can suffer too low blood sugars on a low-carb diet plan. People with high blood pressure may find the extra protein puts them more at risk of kidney disease. And breastfeeding mothers should seek advice first, with some diets like the Atkins 40 allowing higher levels of carbs and specifically recommended for pregnant women.
Let’s jump in!
What Can You Eat on a Low-Carb Diet Plan?
Although each low-carb diet plan has different rules, the basics remain the same. Put simply you can eat meat, fish, eggs, vegetables that grow above the ground and natural fats like butter. You should avoid sugar and starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice, beans and potatoes.
There are some clear rules of what you can eat on most low-carb diet plans although stricter plans like Paleo (the caveman diet) or Whole30 will be more restrictive.
Foods you can eat regularly will include fatty cuts of red meat to ensure you consume adequate dietary fat.
- Bacon (the best news so far!).
You can also eat most seafood including:
- Shrimp and shellfish.
Dairy and cage-free eggs can be eaten although the Paleo, Slow Carb diet, Whole30 and part of the Bulletproof diet don’t allow for dairy. Fatty cheeses without milk sugar content, real butter, milk, heavy cream and ghee are all acceptable forms of dairy for other low-carb diets.
Vegetables high in fiber with a low-carbohydrate content can be eaten freely. This includes:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower and cabbage.
- Leafy greens including spinach/arugula/chard/mustard cress.
Small amounts of low-glycemic fruit like berries, lemons and kiwi are considered suitable for a low-carb diet too. Even alcohol is allowed on some low-carb diets—the odd glass of red wine, result! Tea, coffee, and low-sugar soft drinks are also allowed.
The following YouTube video shows 136 of the best low and zero-carb foods and features some useful tips about the diet.
Foods to Avoid on a Low-Carb Diet Plan
This is where it gets tricky. Some low-carb diet plans like the Paleo or Keto diet are far more restrictive than others. The Paleo diet is often called the caveman diet as it only allows foods which were available to prehistoric man and doesn’t allow for dairy or eggs.
Generally, you can rule out any processed foods including heavily processed and cured meats like hot dogs and sausages. Processed takeaway foods including pizza, French fries, corn chips and ice cream aren’t recommended when following a low-carb diet. Cookies, cereals, baked treats, high fructose corn syrup and sugary soft drinks aren’t allowed either.
It’s not just about the processed foods with many natural ingredients like whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables known to be high in carbohydrates. Most diets ban high-glycemic fruit although these were available to cavemen so are allowed by the Paleo.
Fruits you should avoid on most low-carb diet plans include:
- Dried Fruit.
- Fruit concentrates.
Natural sweeteners including cane sugar, coconut sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup and honey are also not recommended when on a low-carb diet plan for weight loss.
If in doubt about a food, basically type “carbs” into Google or use one of the many carb counting pocket books available too. This YouTube video shows 10 of the worst foods you should avoid when following a low carb plan—you may be surprised by a couple of them.
Which Is the Best Low-Carb Diet Plan for Weight Loss?
When deciding to follow a low-carb diet plan you may need a little extra guidance. Just cutting carbs from your diet may not be the most efficient way of losing weight and can be unsafe too. There are many different low-carb diet plans available and we’ve looked at four of the most well known below.
Without doubt the most well-known low-carb diet, it seemed you couldn’t switch the TV on 10 years ago without hearing about the Atkins diet. The favorite diet of Kim Kardashian, this strict low-carb diet was first proposed by cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins in 1972. The original Atkins diet is now divided into two categories, the Atkins 20 which limits more carbs and the more liberal Atkins 40. There’s even a spin-off diet which uses vegetarian protein sources called the Eco-Atkins for those who complained the diet was too meat orientated.
All plans allow for three meals and two snacks per a day but the stricter Atkins 20 only allows for 20 to 100 grams of carbs with the Atkins 40 allowing for 40 to 150 grams of carbs. Gentle phases alter the amount of carbs you can eat over weeks adding more carbohydrates like nuts, veggies and fruits after the initial phase of ketosis.
The Atkins diet has shown significant weight loss results and is more sustainable than other plans with all food groups included in the final stages. Atkins 40 is also safe for breastfeeding and pregnant women. But the strict low carb stages put you at risk of a nutrient deficiency unless you supplement and a forced state of ketosis can cause fatigue, irritability and bad breath.
The Ketogenic Diet
As the name suggest this strict low carb, high-fat diet uses a state of ketosis to burn fat and promote weight loss. First developed to treat children with epilepsy this largely researched diet has shown many positive effects in metabolic markers including fast and effective weight loss, improved body composition and lowered insulin resistance.
The diet aims to aid weight loss, increase mental focus and boost energy levels by using fat (ketones) as fuel in place of glucose. There are no phases in this diet which makes it easier to stick to. A standard keto diet keeps you within 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day but keto diets for improved athletic performance can alternate between low and high carb periods.
If you enjoy endurance sports or resistance training, this is the low-carb diet plan for you. One study found cyclists following a keto diet burned more fat while showing reductions in body mass and fat mass with an increased oxygen uptake for more energy.
A more recent low-carb diet plan is this 30-day program created by sports nutritionists Dallas and Melissa Hartwig in 2009. A 30-day reset of your nutrition system focused on low carb whole foods, Whole30 aims to promote a healthy weight loss, increase energy, improve your digestion and support overall body and skin health.
This is basically a modified Paleo diet, which emphasises healthy eating habits like prioritizing whole foods and reading food labels. By retraining your eating habits it focuses on both weight loss and long-lasting health benefits. Whole30 promotes more whole foods with a low GI and completely bans food groups considered harmful including:
- Artificial ingredients and junk food.
With foods similar to many low-carb diet plans, there are no official macros for this diet. All you have to do is commit to eating whole low carb foods that aren’t in any of the forbidden groups—sounds pretty simple, yes? But unfortunately, completely cutting legumes, grains and dairy may cause nutritional deficiencies and there are no clear plans for after 30 days.
South Beach Diet
From one of the most restrictive low-carb diet plans to a high-protein weight loss plan that allows for snacking. Set meal and snack times include the elimination of refined carbohydrates and replaces them with protein, healthy fats, vegetables and eventually whole grains and fruits.
A reduced carb consumption in the strict first phase leads to weight loss. Later phases don’t eliminate any major food groups and promotes snacking and a varied meal plan. This can be easier to stick to and healthier for long-term weight loss and maintenance.
Which Low-Carb Diet Plan for Weight Loss Is Best for You?
We’ve only scratched the surface of the many low-carb diet plans that aim to help you lose weight. It depends on how quickly you want to lose weight and how long you want it to stay off. Quick fixes don’t normally work for most things in life, including weight loss.
Choosing a low-carb diet that’s over complicated, makes you jump through hoops and lasts only a few weeks is less likely to keep the weight off. Diets like the Paleo (caveman) diet or Whole30 with restrictive natures can make them difficult to stick to. My favourite is the South Beach diet which promotes a varied and snacking meal plan once you’re past the initial phase.
Is Low Carb Worth the Bother?
Adopting a healthier low-carb lifestyle can help you get leaner, have more energy, shed the pounds and increase your workout performance. Although many of the diets aren’t backed up with scientific research, or not enough yet.
Both the Ketogenic and Atkins 20 diet have solid research, but the Atkins 20 can be more complicated to follow. The Paleo, Bulletproof, Slow Carb and Whole30 diets lack enough research to confirm their safety and benefits. And some diets like the Dukan or South Beach diet place too much emphasis on protein which can be harmful to your liver and increase your blood glucose.
Whichever low-carb diet plan for weight loss you choose to follow, make sure it’s a diet you can stick to and doesn’t make you too miserable. The best way to lose weight is to find a plan you enjoy, can easily follow and something you’ll keep doing for the future.