The low-carb diet is a concept that has been widely used in the weight loss industry for a long time now. It is quite successful in producing weight loss in individuals who have difficulty doing so. It also typically allows for increased caloric intake and greater satiety in the process. This makes it a very attractive option and reduces much of the hassle associated with highly structured diets.
It has recently become trendy to suggest that the low-carb diet is the more appropriate diet for humans, and that it’s great for all types of health concerns: heart disease, autoimmune conditions, thyroid health, diabetes, the list goes on. But before following through with a low-carbohydrate diet, it’s important to understand the whole picture. What level of carb intake is considered “beneficial”? And how does the reduction in carb intake affect your body’s system and function? Are there downsides to eating a low-carb diet?
How Does the Low-Carb Diet Affect Your Physiology?
When carbohydrate intake is low enough to engage a “fat dominant” metabolism, the system has shifted to liberating and using free fatty acids as a primary source of fuel. This is not done to replace glucose, but to spare the little glucose there is in order to feed the brain, immune system, and blood cells. Much of the protein consumed at this point will be turned into glucose in order to feed the glucose-dependent cells as well as maintain some minimal liver glycogen stores for use between meals. The body makes this shift in global metabolism by the influence of two primary hormones: cortisol and glucagon. Both of these hormones primarily increase the blood sugar. In a process called gluconeogenesis, they liberate free fatty acids and glycogen from the liver and break down dietary and tissue proteins for conversion to glucose.
Unfortunately, there are some serious downsides to this shift in metabolism. The free fatty acids have a diabetic influence, reducing your cells’ ability to use glucose. Cortisol also has an inhibitory effect on many important cells in the body, placing them at risk for stress-induced degeneration. Cortisol is known to be an underlying driver of cognitive decline, type 2 diabetes, abdominal weight gain, obesity, and heart disease.1-5 Glucagon has been shown to be the primary cause of insulin-resistant hyperglycemia.6
The Low-Carb Dilemma
So, with the low-carb diet, it seems the same mechanisms that cause you to lose weight are potentially putting you at risk for the very diseases you were hoping to avoid. Although cutting down on carbs is an attractive way to lose weight quickly, that weight loss comes at a big cost. It’s important to realize that carbohydrates play an important nutritional role in the body. The low-carb diet essentially messes up your metabolism and eventually leads to various health problems, as described above. It can also lead to hypothyroidism—an interesting condition that will be explored in depth in my next blog post.
So How Many Carbs Do You Need to Consume?
Well the answer is very difficult to quantify. But, at minimum, it will be at or above 40% of your total calories and above 100 grams. This means for some individuals with highly compromised metabolisms that are glucose and/or fructose intolerant, the carbohydrate intake will not need to be high, but it will need to raise gradually as the system begins to unwind the metabolic derangement.
Here are a few quick nutrition tips to help get your metabolism back on track:
- Eat fruit with every meal.
- Cook with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil.
- Consume healthy dairy products.
- Limit the amount of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and starches in your diet.
- Eat well-cooked veggies instead of grains, legumes, breads, and pastas until your system has had time to sufficiently heal.
For more insights on the latest topics in health and nutrition, sign up for my newsletter. Want to try a new workout method that’s great for spine health, strength and stability, and flexibility? Join us for ELDOA group classes right here in St. Louis!
- Csernansky JG, Dong H, Fagan AM, et al. Plasma cortisol and progression of dementia in subjects with Alzheimer-type dementia. Am J Psychiatry 163, No. 12 (Dec 2006): 2164-2169. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17151169
- Siddiqui A, Madhu SV, Sharma SB, Desai NG. Endocrine stress responses and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Stress 13 (Aug 2015): 1-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26270888
- Wallerius S, Rosmond R, Ljung T, et al. Rise in morning saliva cortisol is associated with abdominal obesity in men: a preliminary report. J Endocrinol Invest 26, No. 7 (Jul 2003): 616-619. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14594110
- Westerbacka J, Yki-Järvinen H, Vehkavaara S, et al. Body fat distribution and cortisol metabolism in healthy men: enhanced 5beta-reductase and lower cortisol/cortisone metabolite ratios in men with fatty liver. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 88, No. 10 (Oct 2003): 4924-4931. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14557475
- Whitworth JA, Williamson PM, Mangos G, Kelly JJ. Cardiovascular consequences of cortisol excess. Vasc Health Risk Manag 1, No. 4 (Dec 2005): 291-299. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1993964/
- Lee Y, Berglund ED, Yu X, et al. Hyperglycemia in rodent models of type 2 diabetes requires insulin-resistant alpha cells. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111, No. 36 (Sep 2014): 13217-13222. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25157166