What Is a Low Carb Diet and Why Does it Work?

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Why should you eat a low-carb diet? Who should eat this way? What are the benefits? And what misconceptions have kept you from changing your life with it?

I won’t mince words here. Switching to a low-carb “diet” saved my life. As a Type 1 Diabetic, my diet is the biggest factor in determining how much insulin I use. Nowadays, it’s easier to find low-carb and keto-friendly foods at the grocery store and online, but those who follow this lifestyle sometimes get preachy about it instead of explaining why it works or addressing concerns.

What is a Low-Carb Diet?

There’s no strict definition, but a “low-carb” diet generally means that total carbohydrate intake for a person is less than 100 grams a day. I consider this number still way too high and so my definition is anything under 50 net grams.

On a low-carb diet, you stay away from starches, grains, sugars—anything that converts to glucose in the bloodstream. Some people focus on grams of sugar on the label when they should focus on the total carbohydrate count.

CARBS = SUGAR

All carbohydrates turn into some form of sugar, even the high-fiber ones. Low-carb tortillas still boost my blood sugar above my “high line”.

What is a Keto Diet?

“Keto” is short for “ketosis” which is short again for “nutritional ketosis.” Simply put, nutritional ketosis is when the body uses fat instead of carbohydrates for fuel.

Eating “keto” means that you eat less than 20 grams of carbohydrate a day. There is disagreement over whether that’s total or net carbs (subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs), but the idea is the same.

Less than 20 carbs will put you into a state of ketosis.

Some people can go into ketosis eating between 20 and 50 grams.

I find it difficult to consistently stay below 20 net carbs a day, so I usually tell people that I do “low-carb-slash-keto” instead of straight keto since my goal is to remain below 50 grams a day.

Keto Food Pyramid, courtesy Trey Cox on Reddit

How & Why it Works

If your body runs on carbs, you need to keep eating carbs all the time to feel any energy.

When the body uses fat instead of carbohydrates for energy, it’s drawing from a much more readily available store of fuel. In ketosis, the body is a fat-burning machine. Since most Americans have a lot of excess fat on the body, this means that excess fat comes off more easily on keto than on any other “diet”.

The body treats carbohydrates as a preferred energy source because it’s readily available when you constantly eat carbs. The brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, and yes, needs glucose to function.

In the absence of dietary carbohydrate, the body creates its own glucose from protein (a process called gluconeogenesis). This is how the brain functions on keto.

For more information on the science on how carbohydrates cause all sorts of problems in the body, read Jason Fung’s book, The Obesity Code.

Benefits of Ketosis

By far the most widely recognized benefit of ketosis is rapid, sustainable weight loss. But there are a whole host of other reasons people follow this diet. I started low-carb to gain better control over my blood sugars. I stayed for the weight loss and the other benefits.

Misconceptions

Unfortunately, there are a ton of misconceptions out there about keto and low-carb diets. I want to cover a few of them here in case they’re on your mind.

Ketosis is Not Ketoacidosis

Ketosis is the body using fat for fuel. Ketoacidosis is the presence of so much glucose in the blood that it changes the pH and becomes acidic. It’s deadly.

I’m super familiar with the dangers of ketoacidosis, because as a diabetic, it’s a very real danger from having too high a blood sugar for too long, especially while sick. Diabetic ketoacidosis is no joke, but nutritional ketosis saved my life.

There is no danger of going into ketoacidosis while eating keto.

Keto Will Not Hurt Your Kidneys

The risk of kidney problems comes from high-protein intake, and only when you already have kidney problems. Keto is not high-protein. Keto is low-carb, moderate protein, and high-fat. It means that carbs are a limit, protein is a goal, and fat is only to satiety.

If you have normal kidney function and don’t eat high-protein, you’ll be fine.

Low-Carb Diets are Sustainable

I’ve been eating a low-carb diet for over 3 years now. I started in January of 2016, after a night when my blood sugar spiked over 350 mg/dL and then plummeted to 40 or below… Three times in a row. The last dip took over 300 grams of carb to pull me out, and I felt so sick that I vowed the next day I’d go low-carb. Since then, my blood sugars have never looked better.

Better Blood Sugars

Before: blood sugars on a roller-coaster, 53% of my numbers were high, and my average blood sugar was 189 mg/dL. That’s an A1c of 8.2%, which is considered dangerous. Non-diabetic A1c is around 4.5%.

A six-day-average from the month before I switched to low-carb in 2016

After: blood sugars stable, in-range 85% of the time, averaging 146 mg/dL (6.7% A1c, the lowest it had ever been at that point).

The six days immediately after starting low-carb on January 12th, 2016

At the time I took screenshots of these graphs, my range was 90 mg/dL to 180 mg/dL. Since then, I’ve restricted my range even further: 83 mg/dL to 150 mg/dL.

Sustainable for a Diabetic = Sustainable for Non-Diabetics

So what does this have to do with sustainability?

The only way to live a long life as a type 1 diabetic is to have stable blood sugars that are consistently in-range. Complications occur when the body is constantly exposed to the wild swings in the first chart.

I’ve never felt as good in my body as I do when I avoid eating carbohydrates, so why should I mess up a good thing?

Humans only started eating a sugar-heavy diet in the middle of the 20th century. The idea that eating high-carb is good for you is an extremely recent development. In fact, there are no essential carbohydrates. (1, 2)We have essential fats and essential proteins, but no essential carbohydrates.

I grew up brainwashed that diabetics needed carbohydrates to survive. And, to some extent, that’s a little bit true. I still need to have some kind of sugar when my blood sugar drops too low. But as a regular staple of my diet? Nope! Not required!

If diabetics don’t need carbohydrates as part of their meals, why should non-diabetics need them? After 3 years, I’ve only seen good results, and I expect them to continue for the rest of my life—which I’m betting will be longer than type 1 diabetics who embrace the idea that they can eat anything they want as long as they give insulin for it.

For more information on low-carb misconceptions and controversies, visit the Diet Doctor.

Why should you eat a low-carb diet? Who should eat this way? What are the benefits? And what misconceptions have kept you from changing your life with it?

Who Should Eat a Low-Carb Diet?

I think everyone should eat a low-carb diet unless you have a medical problem that prohibits you from eating fatty foods or a lot of meat, or your religion is picky. It’s possible to do vegetarian keto, but it’s really, really hard and many people find it too difficult to maintain.

However, if you suffer from one of these following conditions, you’d benefit most from eating a low-carb diet. This list is not exhaustive.

  1. Epilepsy
  2. Type 1 Diabetes
  3. Type 2 Diabetes
  4. Overweight or obese
  5. Insulin-resistance
  6. Mood swings or unstable energy levels
  7. Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s (also known as Type 3 Diabetes)
  8. Certain forms of cancer (cancer feeds on sugar)
  9. Insomnia

A version of the keto diet was the original treatment for epileptics and some diabetics. (Diabetics mostly starved).

Is It Right For You?

Believe it or not, your personality has a stake in whether or not a low-carb or keto diet is right for you. Are you the kind of person who is okay with moderation, or do you need to completely abstain from something?

Moderators are satisfied with one square of chocolate a day, but abstainers need to completely refrain or they eat the whole bag.

It’s the same with eating low-carb. Some people can tolerate small amounts of berries and sweets to “balance” the high-fat foods. I’m guessing this makes them feel like they’re not cut off from foods they enjoy eating.

Other people need to cut things out completely in order to maintain the change.

Pair With Intermittent Fasting

The true magic of weight loss and energy management comes when you pair your low-carb diet with intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is just time-restricted feeding. I eat between about 7:30 AM and 12:00 PM. In 4.5 hours, I eat all my food for the day and I’m not hungry until the next morning.

Doing this gives the body time to go utilize autophagy, which is the body’s natural cleaning-out process. Autophagy gets rid of dead cells and debris that, if left there, build up and cause inflammation. For a true “detox”, all you need to do is let the body go through autophagy.

Intermittent fasting by itself is awesome, but paired with a low-carb diet it’s almost like magic.

Learn More

So many low-carb and keto resources exist on the web. Here are my favorites:

Still On the Fence?

I encourage you to do your own research. Keep an objective eye and ask yourself what benefit does either side have by promoting or demonizing keto.

Jillian Michaels is hardly an expert in low-carb, given her methods on The Biggest Loser. So can we really trust her (likely scripted) opinion? Probably not.

But we should also take things like Netflix’s The Magic Pill with a dose of salt. Claiming that keto cures cancer and autism is anecdotal, and one should stick with scientific research.

Are you a low-carb convert like me? Or do you need to ask more questions?

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