What You Should Know Before Trying a Low-Carb Diet

Low-carb diets have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They are a common trend in the health industry, often promising weight loss and health benefits. There are many low-carb diet options available, all having similar foundations with their unique differences.

Key takeaways:
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    Benefits of low-carb diets include weight loss, improved cholesterol, and prevention of type 2 diabetes.
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    Low-carb diets focus on limiting all types of carbohydrates, especially highly processed carbs like sugar, bread, pasta, and soft drinks.
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    Not all carbs are created equal. Research shows that restricting healthy carbs, like fruits and vegetables, can lead to deficiencies in important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
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    Low-carb diets offer both short-term benefits and potential long-term risks.
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    When making significant diet changes, check with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s safe for your unique health picture.

As with any restrictive diet, low-carb diets come with both benefits and risks. In this article, we review some important things you’ll want to know before you start a low-carb lifestyle.

Low-carb diets have long been used to promote weight loss and improve health. Guidelines for different low-carb diets vary depending on their carb allowance; however, the idea is the same across the board: limit carb-rich foods and increase protein- and fat-rich foods.

Most low-carb diets aim to cut out processed carbohydrates like sugar, bread, pasta, and fried food. These are the types of carbohydrate-rich foods that can lead to conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Carbohydrates are also found in healthy foods like whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables. When you cut out these carb-containing foods, you’re also removing essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which support health and prevent disease.

You can see why long-term low-carb dieting has potential side effects. Not all carbs are created equal, which is why low-carb dieting can be a great short-term jump-start to a healthy lifestyle, but may not be beneficial long term.

The average American usually consumes anywhere between 45%–65% of their daily calories in the form of carbohydrates. The Mayo Clinic calculates that to be anywhere between 225–325 grams of carbs per day in a typical 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.

Low-carb diets are technically considered any diet where the consumption of carbohydrates falls under the recommended daily allowance, which is right around 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. The National Library of Medicine breaks down low-carb diets even further into specific subclasses:

Very low-carbohydrate diets

  • <10% of daily calories from carbs.
  • Between 20–50 grams of carbohydrates per day.
  • Keto diet, Atkins, and Zero carb diets.

Low-carbohydrate diets

  • 10–26% of daily calories from carbs.
  • Between 50–130 grams of carbohydrates per day.
  • Low-carb, high-fat (LCHF), and Basic low-carb (BLC) diets.

Moderate-carbohydrate diets

  • 26–44% of daily calories from carbs.
  • 130 grams is the recommended daily allowance.
  • Research suggests this is the ideal carbohydrate intake range. This range produces sufficient energy for the central nervous system, supports a healthy weight, and prevents long-term nutrient deficiencies often seen in very low-carb diets.

High-carbohydrate diets

  • >45% of daily calories from carbs.
  • 225–325 grams of carbs per day.
  • Standard American Diet= about 250 grams per day.

If you are eating within the high-carb diet range (Standard American Diet) and struggle with issues like obesity, high cholesterol, uncontrolled diabetes, or inflammatory conditions (like achy joints, brain fog, or fatigue), then you may want to consider a low-carb diet to kick start some positive health changes.

Let’s review some documented benefits of eating a low-carb diet.

Benefits of low-carb diets

  • Helps manage and even prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Balances blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity.
  • Aids in weight loss.
  • Improves cholesterol levels.
  • Lowers risk of heart disease.
  • Lowers inflammation (experienced as less joint pain, lower occurrence of headache, and more energy).
  • Improves focus, attention, and mental capacity.
  • Improvement in Metabolic Syndrome.

These benefits are most often seen when removing or significantly limiting highly processed carbohydrates like bread, sugar, pasta, fried food, candy, soda, and juice.

Side effects of going low carb

Initially, when you make significant changes to your carbohydrate intake, especially if you previously ate high amounts of processed carbs, you can experience some detox-like symptoms. You may experience some of the following issues when going low-carb:

  • Mood changes: feeling easily agitated, restless, or moody.
  • Headaches.
  • Brain fog.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sleep changes: sleeping more or not being able to fall asleep as easily.
  • GI changes - nausea, flatulence, and indigestion.

Potential long-term risks and how you can prevent them

If you notice these side effects getting worse or lasting longer than a few weeks, you may be experiencing long-term risks associated with a low-carb diet. Here are some common long-term risks researchers have found with low-carb diets and tips on how you can prevent them from happening.

GI Issues: diarrhea or constipation. This is often due to a lack of fiber. You can prevent these issues by increasing fiber-rich carbohydrates in your diet (like leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables).

Muscle cramps, restless legs, headaches, heart palpitations, fatigue. These can be attributed to nutrient deficiencies and can be prevented by adding colorful fruits and vegetables back into your diet.

Lower endurance and strength during exercise. This can be due to deficient glucose, the type of sugar your nervous system and muscles need for exercise. You can prevent this by having 15–30 grams of carbohydrates before your workout.

These risks are often associated with removing nutrient-dense carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and grains. These foods contain important vitamins and minerals essential to proper energy production and biochemistry function. They also contain fiber, which is important for effective gastrointestinal function.

More serious complications to consider

A study performed at the School of Health Sciences at Deakin University in Burwood, Australia found more serious, complications linked to long-term low-carb diets, such as “heart arrhythmias, cardiac contractile function impairment, sudden death, osteoporosis, kidney damage, increased cancer risk, impairment of physical activity and lipid abnormalities.”

To help prevent the potentially serious effects of a low-carb diet, it’s important to consider the following:

Research suggests low-carb diets are great for short-term benefits only! For improved long-term health outcomes, low-carb diets should be cycled with more sustainable ways of eating (like the Mediterranean diet).

Always discuss major dietary changes with your healthcare provider to ensure your safety. Low-carb diets can affect medication dosages and exacerbate existing health conditions. Check with your doctor to make sure you are cleared to try low-carb eating.

Not all low-carb diets will affect you the same way. Your biology is unique, and your diet should match. If one low-carb diet doesn’t work, feel free to experiment with different levels of carbohydrate intake to find what works best. Being too strict can create complications, so listen to your body to find the right balance for you.

If you’re interested in trying a low-carb diet, be sure to choose a plan that fits your lifestyle and personal health goals. The best diet is one you can maintain, reaping both short-term benefits and preventing long-term health complications. What works for some, may not work for you, and that’s okay!

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