Ask almost anyone what they need to do to lose a few pounds and they’ll probably tell you to ‘cut back on the carbs’. This is an overly simplistic view of the low-carb diet plan. So, what is a low-carb diet plan? What are its side effects? What are the significant benefits of a low-carb, high-protein diet? We’re here to help you understand some simple takeaways of the low-carb diet.

More than a decade and a half of anti-carb messaging in diet books and online have had a significant impact on our attitudes and behaviors with respect to carbohydrates. Most people now assume that carbohydrates are inherently fattening!

In fact, a 2018 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (1) found that 24 percent of respondents were currently on some form of carbohydrate-restricted diet, and an almost equal percentage pointed to carbs as the primary culprit for weight gain.

But is a low-carb diet really healthy?

What is a low-carb diet?

A common question with the low carb diet is ‘how many carbs in a low carb diet?’ Well, since there is no official definition for a low carbohydrate or ‘low carb’ diet, this means that there is no standardization in terms of how much carbohydrate low-carbohydrate diets must have. Usually, diets that restrict or require you to count carbohydrates are usually called low-carb diets. They usually encourage high consumption of protein, fat and healthy vegetables.

Current dietary guidelines (2) suggest that we consume 40 to 60 percent of our total daily calories from carbohydrates. So if you consume 2000 calories per day, you would eat 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrate each day to meet that guideline. Technically then, anything below that could be considered a low-carbohydrate diet.

Generally, a low-carbohydrate diet is one that contains 20-70 grams of carbohydrate per day. Some diets are very low in carbohydrates, like the ketogenic diet. On this diet, you consume most of your calories from fat and the rest from protein and carbs. The ‘keto diet’, as it’s commonly referred to, is sometimes prescribed by physicians to manage seizure disorders, but some dieters find it to be an effective means to lose weight.

Two hands preparing eggs in a pan with cheese and tomatoes

Breakfast food, including eggs and a variety of vegetables, can help you manage carb intake.

Low-carb diet foods

Your diet should be based mostly on foods that have been minimally processed. Acceptable foods on a low carb diet include:

  • Meat: chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, and pork
  • Fish: salmon, trout, haddock and many others
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables: leafy greens like spinach and kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and many others
  • Fruits: apples, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, and pears
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and many others, including nut and seed butter
  • Unsweetened dairy products: plain whole milk and plain Greek yogurt
  • Oils: coconut oil, olive oil, rapeseed oil

Low-carb beverage choices include:

  • Water
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Sugar-free carbonated beverages, such as sparkling water

The difference between low-carb diets: High-protein vs. high-fat

When referring to low-carb diets, people can mean different things, adding to the confusion of what a low-carb diet actually is. For example, which type of low-carb diet is more beneficial, high-protein or high-fat?

Low-carb diets are already good at helping keep hunger away, but so is protein. Upping the protein content of your low-carb diet may be even more helpful in your weight-loss journey if you’re struggling with hunger.

The low-carb, high-fat diet, which is also known as a ketogenic diet, is what most people do when they follow a low-carb diet. They shift their calories from carbs to fat, increasing their intake of higher-fat protein foods, full-fat cheeses and nuts and adding more fat to their food such as butter, oil, and mayonnaise.

When it comes to weight loss, either diet works (3). So, ultimately it may come down to personal preference or taste, especially since both seem to work at not only helping you lose the weight but also keeping hunger at bay.

Do low-carb diets work?

Low-carbohydrate diets may initially produce more rapid weight loss when compared to other diets, but most of the loss, in the beginning, is water weight rather than fat. In the medium term, low-carbohydrate diets also tend to result in faster weight loss than traditional low-fat diets: up to around six months.

Weight loss on low carb diets has been associated with eating less food and overall calories. This has been attributed to the novelty, simplicity, and monotony of the diet supporting tight compliance in the initial phase. There is also evidence that the higher protein content of the diet enhances feelings of fullness.

But are low-carb diet better than other diets over the long haul?

Research says not! Over the long term, any differences between low-carb and other diets tend to even out. (4)

Man sitting at a desk with a laptop and a coffee putting his hand over his eyes as if he's exhausted

Among short-term side effects of not getting enough carbs, one is lack of energy and tiredness.

The problem with not eating carbs

As a strategy to lose weight, cutting carbs can work for some people. If it didn’t, Atkins would have never become popular in the first place.

The thing is, cutting carbs comes at a cost! (5)

Most of us require some level of carbohydrates for our bodies to function optimally over the long term. This is especially true for people who work out.

Short-term side effects of a low carb diet include:

  • Constipation
  • High cholesterol
  • Headaches and brain fog
  • Lack of energy
  • Nausea
  • Bad breath
  • Decreased athletic performance

Longer-term side effects of a low-carb diet may include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Loss of bone density
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Is a low-carb diet right for me?

Some people should not follow a low-carb diet unless instructed to do so by a healthcare practitioner. These groups of people include teenagers, those with kidney disease, people living with diabetes who use insulin, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and individuals recovering from an eating disorder.

If you’re considering any type of diet, whether it be keto, paleo or low-carb, it’s important to consult with a healthcare practitioner to ensure the diet is right for you. Your practitioner can help you plan your diet and ensure that the diet is followed safely and effectively.

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