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Low Carb Diet: Optimize Your Health Benefits from the Low Carb Diet

By Edited Feb 16, 2016 0 0

 Fried Chicken
Credit: John T. Edge’s Fried Chicken

The low carbohydrate (low carb) diet is one of the leading diets for body fat reduction. People are becoming increasingly aware that this diet has numerous other significant health benefits.  These benefits include the prevention and reversal of numerous debilitating diseases.  The excitement over these benefits is beginning to overshadow the fears and concerns that have stigmatized this unbalanced diet for the past few decades.  You can optimize your health benefits from the low carb diet by knowing its strengths and weaknesses, and the reasons for the concerns by some healthcare professionals.

 Profile of the Low Carbohydrate Diet

The low carb nutritional protocol profiles markedly reduced levels of carbohydrate in your diet.   These diminished levels of carbohydrate activate numerous metabolic and physiological mechanisms in your body that turn your body into a “fat-burning inferno”. Many healthcare professionals, however, were concerned that the metabolic and physiological stresses from this body fat-reducing strategy were severe and they may be harmful.   Reports of numerous health benefits from this diet are now making the body fat-reducing objective of the diet look like a minor side effect.  Although enthusiasm is now surging for this diet, it must be noted that there are merits to some of the concerns that were raised by some healthcare professionals. Therefore, this body fat-reducing strategy must be applied carefully and judiciously to optimize the health benefits and minimize the potential risks.  

An Unbalanced Healthy Diet   

The low levels of carbohydrate in this dietary plan make the low carbohydrate diet unbalanced, but it remains healthy.  Reducing the carbohydrate content in your diet is a good nutritional strategy for reducing body fat because carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient for the human body.   Essential nutrients are nutrients that your body cannot manufacture.  These nutrients must be obtained from outside sources.   Carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient because your body can produce it to meet your metabolic needs.  It should be noted that carbohydrate-rich foods contain essential nutrients. These essential nutrients, however, are found in greater abundance in other foods, such as meats, nuts and vegetables. These essential nutrients include:

  • magnesium

  • potassium

  • zinc

  • selenium

  • calcium

  • chromium

  • iron

 

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Advantages of the Low Carb Diet

The low carb diet has numerous advantages over most nutrition-based plans for body fat reduction.  One advantage is that the low carb plan is more effective for reducing body fat compared to most plans.  The most important advantage, however, is that you do not have to count calories to implement the diet plan.  To optimize your health benefits from this diet, it is important to make sure that you have the essential nutrients in your diet. 

Appetite Suppression

The low carb plan has an appetite suppressant quality.  This appetite-curbing property is beneficial if your excess body fat is due to an insatiable appetite, because this diet curbs your appetite and prevents you from over-eating.  Many diet plans will work if they have an appetite-curbing quality.  

Energy and Mental Alertness

An interesting quality of this diet is that it keeps you mentally alert and physically energetic.  This energy, however, only enables you to engage in moderate and low intensity activities.  This attribute is partially due to the stable blood sugar (blood glucose) that occurs with this diet.  The stable blood sugar and mental alertness are qualities that make this diet a preferred dietary protocol for people with hypoglycemia.

Avoid Problems with Gluten Sensitivity

Another advantage of this carbohydrate-deficient diet is that it enables you to avoid food allergies and numerous health problems that are associated with some carbohydrate-rich foods.   Carbohydrates are notorious for promoting allergies compared to other major food groups, fats and proteins.  Consequently, a carbohydrate-deficient diet is a welcomed diet for people with gluten sensitivity.

No Energy for High Intensity Exercises

Things You Could Not Do on a Low Carb Diet

Sailors_participates_in_a_bench_press_competition
Credit: U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons

Weaknesses of the Low Carb Diet

The low carbohydrate strategy has weaknesses and disadvantages. These disadvantages often discourage some people from using it for body fat reduction and health improvement.  The most important weakness is that you cannot engage in high intensity exercises when you are on this diet. This quality makes a carbohydrate-deficient diet unacceptable to people who take pride in their physical strength and power.  Therefore, a low carb plan is unsuitable for competitive athletes.

High Intensity Exercises

You cannot engage in high intensity exercises because a low carb diet does not provide you adequate metabolic fuel to power your activity.  An example of a high intensity exercise is running a 100-yard dash at your maximum speed.   Another example is power training.  When you engage in power training, you lift a heavy weight very quickly and you quickly repeat this lifting process several times.  Power trading enables you to become powerful.  A powerful person has a combination of strength and speed for performing physical activities. A low carb diet will prevent you from becoming a powerful athlete, but you can still engage in athletic activities, except that your activities will be limited to exercises like jogging and running (at moderate speeds).  These are activities that do not require “out-bursts of energy”.

 When you engage in a high intensity exercise, your muscles typically obtain their metabolic fuel from a carbohydrate called glycogen (a chain of glucose) that is stored in the muscle cells.  Because glycogen is stored in the cells, your muscle can readily access it for metabolic fuel, glucose.  This glucose-based metabolic activity can occur in the presence or absence of oxygen.  The amount of energy that can be generated from glucose in the absence of oxygen, however, is very small.

In conditions where carbohydrate is low, glycogen becomes depleted and your muscles rely on fats for metabolic energy.  Your muscle can use fat as the source of energy only in the presence of oxygen.  Additionally, metabolic fuel from fat is not readily available to the active muscles.   For high intensity activities your muscle needs a metabolic fuel that is readily available and that can be utilized in the absence of oxygen because your muscles quickly become oxygen-deficient during high intensity activity.

Bad Breath

A second disadvantage of the carbohydrate-deprived diet is that it promotes bad breath (halitosis).  This bad breath is also called “ketobreath” because it is believed by some people that the odor arises from increased use of ketones for energy metabolism.  Ketones are break-down products of fat that your body uses for energy metabolism in the absence of carbohydrates. The cause of “ketobreath” is contentious, however.  The current thinking is that “ketobreath” is caused by increased utilization of protein for energy metabolism in the absence of carbohydrates.

Problems during the Induction Phase

The third weakness is a set of transient problems that may occur during the induction phase of the low carb dietary program.  The induction phase occurs in the initial phase of some low carb diet plans, such as the Atkin’s Diet and the South Beach Diet.  The induction phase is a transition phase that enables your body to change its primary fuel of energy metabolism from carbohydrate to fat.  The concentrations and activities of many hormones and enzymes in your body are markedly changed to achieve this transition.   These short-lived adverse effects are caused largely by dehydration and loss of salts (minerals) during the induction phase.  You can avoid these adverse effects by making sure that you are properly hydrated during the induction phase.  The common adverse effects are:

  • headache

  • leg cramps

  • confusion (brain fog)

  • lethargy

  • dizziness

  • tiredness

  • irritability

 Health Benefits of the Low Carbohydrate Diet 

Numerous health benefits have been reported for the low carb diet.  These benefits range from improvement in mental alertness to elimination of gluten-associated problems, and from weight loss to improvement in the control of hypoglycemia.  Most of the remarkable benefits are in cardiovascular health.  Some of the health benefits are shown below:

  • Decrease in blood pressure to healthy levels

  • Improvement in cholesterol profile

  • Reduction in insulin levels

  • Stabilization of blood glucose (blood sugar) at healthy levels

  • Prevention of type 2 diabetes

  • Reversal of type 2 diabetes

  •  Reversal of diabetic nephropathy (diabetic kidney failure)

  • Prevention and reversal of coronary heart disease

  • Control of metabolic syndrome

  • Loss of excess body fat, including belly fat

  • Improvement in the management of  hypoglycemia

 

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Curb Your Appetite with Leafy Vegetables

Leafy Vegetables

Risks Associated with the Low Carb Diet

No significant health problems have been reported for the low carb diet.  Since this body fat-reducing plan places significant stress on the body, it is premature to conclude definitively that this diet has no significant risks.  This diet has a great potential for improving health, therefore, it is important to continue studying it to sustain its merits and define its limitations.  One area to look for health problems is to assess the effects of this diet on people with compromised renal (kidney) function.   A good animal model is necessary for this study because the result may be fatal.

It is likely that people with serious kidney diseases cannot tolerate this diet because the body may not be able to control the metabolic acidosis that accompanies the low carb diet.   To maintain a stable and safe level of acid-base balance in condition of metabolic acidosis, the kidney must be able to excrete adequate amounts of acid (hydrogen ions) and reclaim (reabsorb)  metabolites such as the bicarbonate ions so that acid-base balance would be maintained at a safe level.   

A study similar to the above description was performed using the mouse as the animal model by a team at Sinai School of Medicine.  They fed a ketogenic diet (a low carb and high fat diet) to diabetic mice and found that a low carb diet reversed the diabetic kidney failure and the mice tolerated the diet.  The results from this study are very encouraging, but they did not adequately address the potential problems with kidney failure and the low carb diet.  For example, the study does not give you any indication on what would have happened to the mice if the kidneys were severely damaged and renal function was not restored, or what result you will get if the kidneys were damaged from other causes.

This study is very important, however, because it raised numerous questions regarding the low carb diet and kidney failure.  More studies are needed to address these questions and define a clearer protocol for using the low carb diet by patients with kidney failure.  Meanwhile, people with kidney failure should consult their healthcare providers before going on a low carb diet.  

Manage Your Diet to Optimize Health Benefits 

You can manage your carbohydrate-deprived diet to optimize your health benefits by making sure that you have adequate nutritional structure to support good health. The approach taken here is to marginalize calorie-counting and emphasize the importance of nutrients that support good health.  The scenario below shows you how to structure your diet to promote good health and lose body fat quickly.

Carbohydrate

Adjust the carbohydrate content in your diet to adequate levels using the good carbohydrates (carbohydrates with low glycemic indexes).  In a balanced diet carbohydrate typically comprises 45 to 65 percent of the daily caloric intake.  For a person on a 2000 calorie per day diet, the carbohydrate consumption is 225 to 235 grams per day.  A low carb diet for this typical diet has a carbohydrate value of 150 grams per day or lower.   The typical range for the low carb diet is 20 to 130 grams per day. The extreme low level of 20 grams is applied during the induction phase, whereas, the highest level is used during the maintenance phase.  The carbohydrate in the diet contributes to the blood glucose which is still used for energy by some parts of the brain and the red blood cells.

Fat

The Fat content of your dietshould be adjusted to optimize your health benefits.  Adjustment of the fat content can be confusing for many dieters and healthcare professionals.  Some people even question why you would add fat to your diet when you are on a plan to get rid of excess body fat.  The question is legitimate, but you need some fats in your diet.  If you are trying to lose weight and maintain good health, then you should add to your carbohydrate-deficient diet the same amount of fat that you would add to a normal healthy balanced diet.  The caveat is that you should avoid trans fats (partially hydrogenated oil) in your diet. 

Add healthy fats (unsaturated fats) to your diet.  A few examples of healthy fats are alpha omega 3 fats, oil from avocado, and olive oil.  You need unsaturated fats in your diet to supply your body the essential fats that it needs for repairing structures like the cell membrane so that you can maintain good health.  Your body can not produce essential fats. Your body produces saturated fats, the type of fat you are trying to lose.  Your body does not need to get saturated fats from outside sources when it needs to use them.

The caloric value of your diet will be significantly lower than that of the normal diet because of the carbohydrate that has been removed from your diet.  You should not try to bring the caloric value of your diet to normal values by adding too much fat to your diet.  Remember that your body can supply any additional calories you need for energy until the excess body fat is gone.  One key advantage of the low carb diet is that it makes the energy from body fat readily available when your body needs it.  Remember also that a person with excess body fat has enough stored calories to supply the body’s energy needs for several weeks to several months.  One result of adding too much fat to your diet is that you may stop your diet program from working and you would not lose weight.

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Protein

 The protein in your diet should also be adjusted to normal levels. The primary benefit of protein in your diet is to protect your muscles from being degraded.   In the absence of adequate amounts of carbohydrate your body will break down your muscles to obtain amino acids which it uses to produce glucose (sugar) by a process called gluconeogenesis. This glucose is used by a few parts of your body that use only glucose for energy at all times, the red blood cells and some parts of the brain.  Your muscles and other parts of your body will switch their energy usage from glucose (carbohydrate) to fat. This is one of the changes that occur during the induction phase of the low carb diet.

  The protein in your diet will be used for gluconeogenesis and for repairing damaged tissues. Meat is the best source of protein because it contains quality protein (protein with all of the essential amino acids).  In addition, meat is a rich source of minerals and trace minerals.  Minerals and proteins are important in your diet because they are essential for human life.

   Minerals and Trace Minerals

  Adequate levels of minerals and trace minerals should be maintained in the diet. Minerals and trace minerals are an important component of a healthy diet, and they must be maintained at reasonable levels to assure that this unbalanced diet can support good health.  As mentioned above, meats are an important source of minerals. Nuts and mushrooms are also good source of minerals and trace minerals.  In addition, nuts are an important source of healthy oils and dietary.

  Vitamins and Phytonutrients

 Make sure that you have vitamins and phytonutrients in your nutritional program. Vitamins and phytonutrients are important nutrients that are often overlooked in various diets.  Phytonutrients are plant nutrients that improve the quality of life. Phytonutrients fight cancer; improve vision; improve wound healing; strengthen the immune system, prevent heart disease and numerous other diseases.  Some of the most well-known phytonutrients include:

 •          Lycopene – a cancer fighter

 •          Resveratrol – supports cardiovascular health

 •          Sulforaphane – a cancer fighter

 •          Zeaxanthin – for vision improvement 

 •          Beta-carotene – for vision improvement

 •          Thiocyanate – anti-inflammatory effects

 

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Vitamins and phytonutrients are found in fruits and vegetables.  Most fruits have significant amounts of sugar, so they may be consumed in moderation with the low carb diet.   On the other hand, vegetables, particularly leafy vegetables, have very little sugar.  You can eat as much leafy vegetables as you want.    

Besides vitamins and phytonutrients, vegetables also contain dietary fibers. Dietary fibers are important for food digestion and good health.  Support of digestion is pivotal for the beneficial effects of dietary fiber.  Another important attribute of leafy vegetables that some dieters overlook is that leafy vegetables curb your appetite.  When consumed in large quantities, leafy vegetables will fill your stomach and leave no room for more food.  This will keep you from being hungry.

A point that should be emphasized here is that some low carbohydrate programs want you to increase you fat intake to avoid hunger or maintain “adequate daily caloric intake”. Consuming too much fat is a bad idea if your objective is to lose excess body fat.  If you feel hungry with your diet plan then, the healthiest way to resolve this problem is to eat more leafy vegetables.  Those who eat more fat instead of vegetables tend to become constipated because they may not have enough dietary fibers in their diets.  Another advantage of including more fiber in your diet is that you will lose the body fat faster.  

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Beyond Obesity    

The views and opinions of the low carb diet are changing as more information is becoming available for this dietary program. The diet was once perceived as a fad.  It is now seen as a nutritional plan that gets rid of many serious health problems.  Its numerous health benefits are moving the importance of this dietary plan beyond the primary objectives of fighting obesity and losing weight.  The huge potential for more health benefits from this diet is now keeping us alert for the next chapter in the story of the low carb diet.

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Bibliography

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  5. M. E. Daly1,*, R. Paisey2, R. Paisey2, B. A. Millward3,4, C. Eccles3, K. Williams2, S. Hammersley1, K. M. MacLeod1,4 andT. J. Gale1,4. "Short-Term Effects of Severe Dietary CarbohydrateRrestriction Advice in Type 2 Diabetes—a Randomized Controlled Trial. ." Diabetic Medicine. 23 (2006): 15–20.
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