There are many variations of the low-carb diet. The most recent one that has gained popularity in interest is the Paleo(lithic) Diet. It attempts to put a modern twist on mimicking what the traditional caveman used to eat. The Paleo Diet allows for fruits, vegetables, grass-fed animals, and fish but does not allow the participant to eat grains, legumes, refined/processed sugar, alcohol, processed foods, and dairy. The general idea stems from eating more from nature’s bounty and eliminating processed foods (which can be high in calories, preservatives, additives, and fat, and sodium). This diet can be modified and there are many versions of it (some more restrictive, some more lenient), but primarily, most participants note the difficulty of cutting out the grains/complex carbohydrates.
So, what is a carbohydrate? Many of us will jump to pastas, rices, and breads which in fact do contain carbs but what are they? Basically defined, a carbohydrate is a sugar. “Simple” carbohydrates refer to the sugars that are found in foods like fruits and vegetables. “Complex” carbohydrates refer to the sugars that are found in grains, pastas, breads, and the like. Many diets place restrictions on carbs such as low-carb diets in the form of the Atkins Diet and the Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet.
It begs the question…how does this diet work? Here are some of the general beliefs of Low-Carb Diets, which I will evaluate from a scientific perspective of human metabolism/nutrition.
Reason #1: Let’s use fat as an energy source rather than carbohydrates.
Metabolic Analysis. Biologically, our human bodies run on carbohydrates/sugar in the form of glucose as the primary source of energy. The natural thought process is that if we cut out carbs, then our bodies will break down fat instead for energy. Normally, we are recommended to have our daily calories broken down between proteins (10-30%), fat (20-35%), and carbohydrates (45-65%). In low-carb diets, carbohydrate intake is drastically decreased so that fat and protein consumption must increase to compensate. Therefore, other names for low-carb diets are high-fat, high-protein diets
There are many reasons why this actually works: (1) by cutting out carbohydrates, we decrease the number of calories that we consume. Less caloric intake can lead to potential weight loss. (2) when carbs/glucose are not available to our bodies to breakdown for energy, our bodies will begin breaking down the amino acids in our muscles to make more glucose/energy to use (via the metabolic pathway, gluconeogenesis). But our bodies are smart! It wants to preserve it’s lean body mass (muscle), so then it resorts to the only available source of potential energy: fat. At this point, our bodies oxidize fat and undergo ketogenesis to form ketones/ketone bodies to use as energy. Looking at this, it seems like we can trick our bodies into using proteins and fats as sources of energy rather than carbs, right? Sure. But guess what this process mimics? Starvation. This biological process is seen in a few other human scenario: in diabetes and in those who are starving. When we starve, we don’t have enough glucose in our body to breakdown for energy so we then resort to our protein and ultimately our fat to provide ketone bodies for our brain to function. The known danger of ketone build up is that it can cause ketoacidosis (making our body’s pH more negative than within the normal safe range of 7.35-7.45).
Personal Perspective: The truth is that evolutionarily and biologically, our bodies’ primary source of energy comes from glucose (carbs) as we oxidize glucose most readily than fat or protein for energy. I honestly acknowledge that our bodies vary to an extent but not to the full extent that we can run on fats primarily (at least without harm done). Eating a balanced meal with exercise will give you many benefits and help you reach your fitness goals. Also, I think that the Paleo diet has great focuses such as it’s emphasis on fruits/vegetables, fish etc. I’m not a fan of the severe exclusion of foods such as legume and grain which offer so many health benefits like fiber, vitamins, let alone glucose for energy. In a sustainability point of view, I think the Paleo diet falters. It ain’t easy! With all the modern advances in foods since the days of the caveman, it’s hard to truth eat like a caveman.
Reason #2: Our blood sugar levels need to be maintained.
Metabolic Analysis. We often hear about our blood sugar levels spiking up into astronomical levels. High levels of blood sugar levels are dangerous and can be indicative of diabetes and lead to being overweight. Some also believe that insulin activity can be harmful to our bodies, perhaps leading to inflammation and other negative conditions like cancer.
When we eat, our foods will be broken down into their absorbable macro/micronutrients. From our carbohydrate foods, we break them down into glucose (sugar), which we absorb into our blood. Hence, the name, “blood sugar.” Our wonderful pancreas, the master of all digestion, releases insulin to regulate our glucose and bring glucose to our muscles/liver to use/store as energy. Our body is in constant flux: it constantly runs to maintain our homeostasis. This means that unless we are diabetic or obese, our bodies function well and automatically to handle those “spikes.”
Personal Perspective: The spike can perpetuate the fear of carbohydrates. So, another way of viewing carbs would be balance! Portion control is hard but it helps to stabilize the amount of carbohydrates we eat at each meal. See My-Plate guidelines as set by the USDA (https://themoreyoungo.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/the-food-pyramid-is-out-my-plate-is-in/)
I’m not questioning the efficacy of low-carb diets. But I think that it can paint carbs as evil, which they’re not. The primary focus should be shifted towards our intake habits. Let’s take responsibility for our poor diet choices and lack of fitness activities. That’s right, take your finger, and point it at yourself. I know that’s mean, but it’s true. It’s like the saying “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Therefore, carbs don’t make us fat or unhealthy, we make ourselves that way. Practicing balanced eating with moderation helps us sustain our healthy eating habits without making severe eliminations. You can do it!
also check out this link about the many diets out there that you may want to consider: http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-overall-diets