While many fitness professionals may disagree on what type of workouts are most effective, from HIIT to cross training to traditional bodybuilding, one thing they do agree on is that if the nutrition aspect of the plan is not dialed in, you will not have the success you are searching for. Unfortunately, that may be the only thing that fitness professionals agree on when it come to nutrition. Because when it comes to the type of eating they find most effective, they again vary drastically. One very popular method of dieting is to restrict carbohydrate intake. There are different names for this kind of eating –Low Carb, Atkins, Keto and others- and all of them vary in one way or another, but the one thing they have in common is a severe restriction of carbohydrates. So why would someone eat like this and is it effective?
The theory behind a low carb diet is that when the body is not fed its main source of energy, carbs, this reduces the amount of insulin the body produces. As we eat carbs our liver produces insulin, which in turn helps regulate the use of glucose (made from carbs) for energy as well as the storage of additional glucose as fat. Insulin stimulates what is known as lipogenesis, or production of fat, and prevents lypolisis, which is the burning of fat for fuel. That kind of stinks doesn’t it? So the theory is that if we reduce carb intake the body reduces insulin, which leads to the body being able to access stored fat for energy to make up for the lack of available glucose.
Most people tend to have immediate results when starting out on a low carb diet, but it needs to be noted that this is not due to fat loss. Rather the initial weeks of a low carb diet see the individual lose water weight. When insulin levels drop, the kidneys begin to flush the sodium out of the body. This causes less water retention and has an added benefit of lower blood pressure. Additionally because of the reduced glucose levels (which are stored in the form of glycogen) the body does not retain as much water in the muscles and liver. This immediate weight loss often excites individuals into staying on track with this type of diet.
The hope is that after the initial water weight phase that the body will continue to pull from fat stores to fuel the body, leading to a decrease in body fat and a decrease in overall weight. While most agree that in the short term this is the case, it has been shown in studies that the effectiveness of this type of dieting wears off over time and after 1-2 years the results fall right in line with other less restrictive diets. So is a diet like this, one that is so restrictive, even worth trying? Lets look at the pros and cons (we really haven’t mentioned these yet):
- Immediate loss of water weight.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Utilization of fat stores for energy.
- Lower appetite with increased protein intake.
- Restrictive. Can be lacking in some nutrients.
- Drop in energy levels due to low glucose levels.
- Stress and depression from feeling deprives can affect your hormone levels-especially cortisol which is linked to belly fat.
- Not sustainable.
Let’s focus on that last bullet point for a second. Diet’s that restrict carbs are not sustainable in the long run. Now there are certainly people out there who could eat a low carb style diet for many many years and be perfectly content, but for the masses this is simply not feasible. There is very little variety, and they are nearly impossible to maintain unless you meticulously meal prep for each day or week, and they make social interactions difficult. Try being on a low carb diet and going to a holiday party with chips & dip, cookies, and other goodies lacing every table. How long could you hold out before you caved?
But more than the sustainability of the diet itself, lets talk about the results. It’s a fair assumption that if water weight falls off quickly when you start to restrict carbs, that the inverse must then be true. This means as soon as carbs are introduced again into the body, the body will begin to retain water weight almost immediately. Could you imagine seeing the scale jump 5 to 10 lbs in a week or two? Imagine the detrimental effects on your motivation and mental focus. For many this shift would be enough to throw them off their routine and lead to additional weight gain. This isn’t also considering the fact that after months, or years, of denying yourself your favorite cheat foods, that there is a higher probability of binging on all the things you’ve been craving. This is why it is not uncommon to see people who have lost weight on low carb diets gain all, if not more, of it back.
The bottom line is that low carb diets in the long run are no more or less effective than some of their less restrictive counterparts. Our philosophy remains that moderation and focusing on expending more calories than you take in is not only the most sensible way to approach weight loss, but is also much more sustainable in the long run. So rather than marking all carbs as the devil, instead make the effort to make sure your carbs are from the proper sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole (non-processed) foods. Your body will thank you, your energy level will thank you, and your loved ones will thank you too-if you don’t believe it, spend some time around a person on a low carb diet……they can be a little snippy!