Things you should know before starting a low-carb diet

low carb diet
Photo: Flotsam, Bigstock

As you probably know already, the low-carb trend has been around for a while in various weight loss plans and it’s proving to be popular this year as well.

However, most of us are getting lost in the sea of nutritional advice and quick weight loss tips, especially considering that there’s a debate among experts regarding whether these eating plans are smart and sustainable.

Where to start, what to eat, and what does low-carb actually mean? Let’s break down some key points of low-carb dieting and examine what would be the right way to do it.

The idea behind cutting carbs

1. Burning fat

Insulin is the main fat storage hormone in the body and carbohydrates are the main stimulants of its secretion. As you cut down on carbs in your meals, insulin levels drop, which results in your body burning fat instead of carbs.

2. Reducing cravings

Another key point to low-carb diets is reducing cravings for unhealthy, high-carb comfort foods and snacks. How? Our typical diets are high in sugars and starches.

Eating foods that are high in carbohydrate content makes our blood sugar levels fluctuate and vary throughout the day, making the body crave carbs every time the blood sugar level drops, which can obviously lead to overeating and gaining weight.

Cutting on sugars and starches stabilises your blood sugar levels so that your body becomes less dependent on carbs, and these cravings for unhealthy foods are crushed.

Initially, you’re losing water

Lowered insulin also leads to the kidneys shedding excess sodium and water out of the body, so you’re less bloated and getting rid of all the extra water weight.

You can see from this that the initial weight you lose is mainly water weight. Besides, there are other healthy ways to lose water weight. Low-carb diets, when done properly, can indeed be effective, but they’re promoted as an extremely fast way to lose fat.

That’s why people are surprised and disappointed once their bodies cease to continue shedding weight rapidly, which is inevitable – the water weight is lost quickly during the initial period, and after that, things have to slow down, because fat burns slowly.

You need carbohydrates for intense physical activity

You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, because it’s true – there is no weight loss without physical activity. Somebody living a sedentary lifestyle or doing only low-intensity workouts (such as yoga) can benefit from eating only 50 grams of carbs per day, as their body slowly uses fat as fuel.

But, somebody who’s doing high-intensity interval training and weight training requires energy from glucose that is stored in the muscle and comes from carbohydrates.

When you deplete liver and muscle glycogen stores, you’re left with no energy for physical activity and workouts begin to break down muscle. That is the last thing you want. Many people on a low-carb diet just stop exercising, because it becomes a complete struggle, or rather impossible and unproductive.

A low-carb diet paired with exercising

That being said, if you plan to exercise (hopefully), you need to approach this diet differently:

  • Try consuming daily doses of premium BCAA, which are branched chain amino acid supplements that are used for fuelling workouts and to help recover afterwards. This can help but is not mandatory, and does not replace the extra carbohydrate intake you will most certainly need.
  • Get at least 500-600 calories of carbohydrates daily. Timing is important here: consume carbs before, during, and immediately after exercise. This way, your blood sugar levels will remain stabilised.
  • If you exercise a lot, you can introduce a “carb loading day” once per week. This can be very handy for women especially, in order to keep thyroid hormones regulated. Introducing this “cheat day” can be helpful, but it is important to eat only healthy carbs, such as sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, oats, and fruits.

This approach is most likely to get you the best results. The problem with most low-carb meal plans (such as the Atkins diet) is that they’re simply too restrictive and hard to maintain for a longer period of time, which can very easily lead to the yo-yo dieting effect.

If you plan to lose weight, it’s best to view it as a change of lifestyle, rather than a strict dieting plan. Healthy eating is about balance, not deprivation.

Lower your carb intake by cutting out refined sugar and processed carbs (candy and snacks) and maintain your blood sugar levels, but you don’t have to cut out fruit and legumes or any high-carb veggies.

Fill your plate up with all kinds of vegetables, protein and healthy fats, and just try to eat healthier than before with each new day. Start out slowly and see how it goes from there, experiment a little and embrace a healthy relationship with food. In turn, your body will shed weight slowly, steadily and in a healthy way.