Diet Myths: Low Carb Doesn’t Have to Be About Weight Loss

a plate of pasta

A plate of pasta | iStock

Say the words “low carb diet” to someone today and ask them what comes to mind. “Atkins” will probably be a fairly common response, along with a line about not eating bread. However, changing your lifestyle to include fewer carbohydrates does not have to be for the goal of losing weight. Diabetics, for example, count carbohydrates in order to regulate blood glucose levels. Examining the source and how many carbohydrates you eat could also be done in order to reverse recent trends.

Studies have shown that as a diet, it is an effective way to lose weight within the first few months of the program. In 2003, researchers tested a low-carb, high protein, high-fat diet against a low-calorie, high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. Initial results for the low-carbohydrate group were strong, but after a year, the weight loss differential was not statistically significant. Although each group did see high rates of people abandon the diets, it was also noted that the low-carbohydrate group saw greater improvement in lessening certain risk factors of coronary heart disease. Authority Nutrition has cited similar findings about going low carb for weight loss, and other health reasons. Futher, Health Ambition goes into the details as to why getting rid of excess body fat may be important, and even has suggestions for foods that can help.

That said, it is not unusual for health experts to warn against the diet. For three years in a row, a low-carb, high-protein diet — the Dukan Diet — was named the top diet to avoid by the British Dietetic Association. It was only knocked off the top spot in 2014, falling to fifth. Of the regime, the British Dietetic Association pointed out that its own founder has said “issues with the diet such as lack of energy, constipation (due to lack of fibre/cutting out food groups), the need for a vitamin and mineral supplement (due to lack of variety/cutting out food groups), and bad breath.”

As an extreme diet, restricting carbohydrate intake to under 20 grams a day for a sustained period of time could lead to negative health implications and, like the study from 2003 found, boredom with repetitive meals. However, not everyone may be turning to the information in a low-carb diet for weight loss. Instead, they could be focused on other potential health benefits, like diabetes management. They could also be looking to lower their carbohydrate intake without reducing it to dangerously low levels.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control linked an increase in carbohydrate consumption to an increase in daily calories — particularly in women. Between 1971 and 2000, the number of calories the average woman ate grew from 1,542 to 1,877, a 22 percent increase. Men were eating more calories too, but the increase was a more modest 7 percent. During this period, protein consumption remained largely the same, instead the reason was carbohydrates. By 2000, carbohydrates consisted of 49 percent of men’s diets, and 51.6 percent of women’s daily intake — each an increase over 1971 levels. Many people who warn against going low-carb prefer reducing calories, but if more carbohydrates are the main reason calories are increasing, reducing the number of carbohydrates to some extent may make sense as a weight loss strategy. This can partially come from raising awareness about the sources of carbohydrates in our diets.

Consider that the Institute of Medicine encourages all women to consume a minimum 130 grams of carbohydrates each day. Then, say a woman consumes a medium Dunkin Donuts Frozen Caramel Coffee Coolatta, made with skim milk, and orders a banana while she is there. The drink alone has 110 grams of carbohydrates, and the banana has 27 grams. One simple stop has almost fulfilled her baseline level of carbohydrates for the day. Had she eaten two Thomas’ 100 percent Whole Wheat bagels (49 grams per bagel), she would have consumed 12 grams fewer of carbohydrates than the drink alone.

If that same woman follows another Institute of Medicine guideline, that 45 to 65 percent of her daily caloric intake be comprised of carbohydrates, she could easily be within few than 100 grams of carbohydrates for the rest of the day, and still shy of her daily caloric intake, not to mention other vital nutrients. She would also be beyond the per meal recommendations the American Diabetes Association says to start with when a diabetic is beginning to manage glucose levels. The association realizes that everyone has different needs, but 45 to 60 grams per meal can help a person gauge how many they need. Other dietitians and doctors say even fewer than that is necessary, but like the Diabetes Association, everyone needs to determine their particular needs.

Fortunately, there are many recipes that are low in carbohydrates, no matter what your taste preferences. For only 5.5 grams of carbohydrates per serving, you can make this garlic chicken, or you can have pork packed with flavor for 1.5 carbohydrates in these Pork Chops Stuffed with Smoked Gouda and Bacon.

When sorting out sides for a meal, if you want to stay low carb, it is important to realize it isn’t only pasta that is high in carbohydrates, but foods like potatoes and some vegetables are too. One baked potato without any toppings has 30 grams of carbohydrates, and so does half a cup of frozen baby lima beans. Instead, you may want to try Pan-Fried Asparagus (5.5 grams), Okra and Tomatoes (11.5 grams), or Yellow Squash Casserole (10.3 grams).

If you want a snack, there is a little less than 1 net carb per Cheesy Spinach Puff. Compared to regular cheesecake, which can have 32 grams of carbohydrates, this “Low Carb New York Ricotta Cheesecake” has only 7 grams of carbohydrates per serving.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: