Complex carbohydrates can be, well, complex. Sometimes, they’re a good thing. If you’re planning on running a marathon, for instance, carbs can be useful in training and recovery. On the other hand, if you’re trying to lose weight or manage diabetes, you might kick carbs to the curb and switch to a low-carb diet. Low-carb diets, however, can be tricky to navigate, and, contrary to popular belief, they may not be right for everyone.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce says there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to low-carb diets.
“A person’s first goal when it comes to weight loss may be to take the obvious culprits out of his or her diet, such as sugary beverages or prepackaged snacks, such as snack cakes and crackers,” Pierce said. “Others may decide to go lower than 50 grams per day to induce a faster initial weight loss. The fact is, there are several definitions of what ‘low-carb’ means, so let’s simplify. Low-carb means the diet includes less than 130 grams per day of carbohydrate — or less than 26 percent of your total calories each day. This is a reduction many can live with because it does allow some favorite carbohydrates such as fruits, starchy vegetables and beans. At this level of low-carb, you can adopt a more Mediterranean lifestyle while still achieving weight loss and better blood sugar levels. This carb level also doesn’t usually require adjusting medications since weight loss is gradual.
“A ‘very low-carb diet’ means that the diet is less than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day, minus the fiber. Ketosis, in which fat is used as energy, begins somewhere under this number for most individuals. Many fad diets will start out at 20-30 grams of carbohydrate a day and gradually increase to about 50 grams. Nutritional ketosis is a process that has the benefit of rapid weight loss, reduced inflammation and appetite suppression in many cases.
But, Pierce says, the process can cause shifts in other areas.
“This also causes a rapid shift in electrolytes and fluid loss,” Pierce said, “which can create flulike symptoms. Increasing fluid and some sodium is recommended to get through the first few days of very low-carb adaptation. Increasing fat is needed, as well. Your blood sugar and blood pressure can respond well to this type of diet, too, but medical supervision is needed to help adjust or deprescribe medications, so if you’re taking medications to help control your blood sugar or blood pressure, you definitely should consult your doctor first.
Pierce says a key misconception about low-carb diets involves what you “must” eat.
“Some people think you have to eat a ton of meat and butter if you’re following a low-carb diet,” she said. “Actually, a low-carb diet can be adapted to fit most any lifestyle, including vegetarian. Vegetarian and vegan diets are making a comeback. Sure, many like the thought of piling on the meat, but there are several other options for protein and fat, too. Lacto-ovo options include eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and other cheeses. Some vegan options include nuts and seeds, lupini beans, hemp seeds and soy protein examples such as tofu or edamame. Healthy fats can come from nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil and olives. Of course, non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and mushrooms are encouraged to add fiber for fullness, as
well. A vegetarian low-carb approach may be more practical and easier to follow if you stay on the higher end of carbohydrate intake with around 50-130 grams per day.”