Last Sunday, on two entirely separate occasions, two people (to whom I must apologise, since I will be drawing their attention to this post) made the same incorrect and misinformed statement: “Atkins has been medically discredited”. It made me realise that there is a huge amount of misunderstanding about low carb diets – what they are, how they work and the benefits that they can bring over conventional “low fat” diets – so I thought a post was in order to set the the record straight.
If the results of this infographic are a big surprise to you, hopefully this post will provide you with a bit of enlightenment.
Whilst I eat a low carb diet, I’m not looking to defend it here – there is no such thing as a fits-all diet, and I strongly believe that the most important factors in choosing how you eat are that it’s a) enjoyable and b) sustainable (the two are linked). I’m just fed up of hearing nonsense from people who, after they’ve read one article in the Daily Mail and heard that Dr Atkin’s had a heart attack, therefore think they’re equipped with the knowledge to throw their hands in the air and go “well, it must be bad for you then!”.
Firstly, let’s start by defining what a low carb diet is. As you might guess, it’s carbohydrate restricted – no pasta, rice or potatoes for you, and sure as hell no sugar either. However, what you may not realise is that in order to still get sufficient calories, you will need to eat more fat – it’s not just about chowing down on half a cow. Whilst, if you want to lose weight, you will want some kind of calorie deficit, you will still have to eat a considerable amount of fat. Much more than you would imagine. It is the fat consumption that is the root of the misunderstanding and controversy that surrounds this diet.
Let’s start by putting this into numbers. We will assume our example person, I’ll call him Bob, is an average guy weighing 70kg who needs to consume 2,000 calories a day in order to maintain his current weight.
UK government guidelines state that Bob should aim to get 1,000 calories of his daily intake from carbohydrate (50%, 250g) and a maximum of 700 calories from fat (35%, 77g). That would leave a mere 300 calories (assuming Bob ate his maximum of 35% of calories from fat), to come from protein – a mere 75g. (Carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram, fat 9).
A low carbohydrate diet would see Bob eating a mere 50g (at least in the early stages of the diet) of carbohydrates a day (200 calories, or 10%). He therefore still needs to consume 1,800 calories. If Bob is relatively active, he’ll want to be eating about twice his weight in kilos as grams of protein, so 140g a day (note – protein intake is very controversial and I’m not even going to go there), which would equate to 560 calories. This leaves 1,240 calories to be got from fat – about 140g, roughly twice the government guidelines.
If you don’t know about the science behind it, it’s easy to dismiss low carb diets or ways of eating as a silly fad, but here’s some of science:
Someone who eats a regular diet gets most of their energy from sugars, and their body primarily burns glucose for fuel. When you restrict carbs, your body starts to burn fat for fuel. This happens as a result of changes in your cellular mitochondria and takes around a week to three weeks for them to fully convert. This is why you get what is referred to as “low carb flu” – if you have no glucose to use as fuel and your cells cannot yet process fat for energy, you will feel low. If people actually bothered to research what they were doing, many would be more likely to stick with their low carb diet, instead of freaking out at the first sign of feeling crap and quitting ;)
One of the by-products of the burning of stored fat for fuel are things called ketones. These supply an alternative energy source for the muscles and organs. It is why low carb diets put you in a state called ketosis. To some extent glucose will still be utilised, in small amounts and for certain things, but you will primarily be using ketones. Ketones can make your breath and urine smell strange (I don’t find it a problem, others do). These compounds are detected by urine dipsticks, which is why you will often hear low carbers talking about Ketostix.
I am giving a very simplified description of the science behind this. If you are interested (or you just don’t believe me – my housemate, when I tried to explain why the science behind low carb diets stacks up, just replied with a very sardonic “maybe”!) then you can read more on Wikipedia and also on this slightly more scientific, but much more in-depth, article.
Atkins is just one type of low carb diet, and not a very good one at that. When designing a diet for a mainstream audience, it has to be palatable. Whereas those of us who lead a low-carb lifestyle will talk about having coconut oil in our coffee, eating fatty cuts of organic grass-fed beef and chomping on piles of nuts, the average person just wants to eat tasty shit. And what better way to make a diet sell then pin it on two of the most delicious food stuffs ever – cheese and bacon! And when you tell people they can still have mayonnaise and cream, that’s it – SOLD!
I don’t want to make light of this issue though – the quality and type of fat you eat on a low carb diet will directly affect whether you have any negative outcomes – inflammatory markers, cholesterol problems, indicators for heart disease and so on – many of the downsides that you’ve probably read about. It is incorrect to assume that all fat is bad – fat is vital – but crappy quality fat from processed meats and dairy products, vegetable oils and, God forbid, man-made fats of the type found in margarine, will do you no good, whatever type of diet you follow. Fat is not as simple as it seems – there are many different types, all with their advantages and disadvantages. This is one of the best guides I’ve read, but googling will lead you to all kinds of articles, ranging from simple to incomprehensible.
By this point you might be saying “yeah yeah, that’s all fine and well, but why do low carb over any other type of diet?”, and for this I have one MAJOR reason – significant reduction in insulin sensitivity.
I’m not going to re-hash what I wrote in a previous post – Sugar Is Evil – so please just nip over there and have a read, although frankly I consider all my wonderful readers to have educated themselves enough to know why insulin is bad. It’s not just about diabetes, but about messing up your metabolism, creating inflammation in the body, increasing blood pressure and is also linked to several other diseases, not least PCOS (polycycstic ovaries) and Alzheimers disease. And of course people with poor insulin sensitivity are usually overweight.
And on the day to day level, it will bring you one massive advantage: those drops in blood sugar levels, often at about 4pm – HobNob time – will be no more. Fat and protein take much longer to digest, so will leave you feeling full. Without blood sugar levels to come crashing down, you will have sustained energy for much longer. If you are an endurance athlete, this can even translate to improved energy levels over long races, as low carb ultra runner Timothy Allen Olson has found out.
Finally, in my opinion it creates a much better framework to eat nutritionally dense foods. 50g of carbs translates to a LOT of non-starchy vegetables – broccoli, kale, cabbage and so on – as well as to berries and other low-sugar fruits. Add to that organic dairy products, quality fish and meat, plus nuts, and you have a diet rich in every thing your body needs to grow, repair, be satiated and for you to feel all-round awesome.
And for those time-rich and so inclined folk, have a look at some of the scientfic studies conducted into low carb diets. As with pretty much anything, you’ll find studies which claim it’s more effective than conventional diets, and others that say it has downsides such as increased cholesterol levels. The choice of whether to follow it or not is yours – just make sure it’s an informed choice.