Low carb, or keto as it’s often called, is very popular right now. But what exactly is low carb? This article shows you how to follow a low carb diet.
Many people have turned to this way of eating, lost weight and improved their health. Some people even reversed type 2 diabetes and stopped taking medication as a result. This is despite eating more fat, which we’ve always been told is bad for us.
Low Carb or Keto?
The main difference between low carb and keto – or ketogenic – is in the number of carbs you’re limited to every day. Low carb is generally divided into three categories; low, moderate and liberal carbs.
- Low carb – 20g – 30g of carbs per day
- Moderate low carb – 30g – 50g of carbs per day
- Liberal low carb – 50g – 100g of carbs per day
Liberal is perhaps the easiest to follow as it allows more carbs per day than the other levels. Keto is very strict low carb, less than 20g of carbs per day is considered the maximum allowed. Most people tend to follow the moderate plan (30g – 50g per day) as it is low carb without being too restrictive.
The Origins of Low Carb
Low carb was made popular by the Atkins Diet, first introduced in 1972. Dr Robert C. Atkins was an American cardiologist who claimed that cutting out foods such as bread, pasta and potatoes and eating more meat, butter and eggs would not only help patients to lose large amounts of weight in a short space of time but also to improve and even cure their various medical conditions, such as heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
The diet was so popular at the time that one in eleven Americans were on the Atkins Diet. Sales of bread and pasta dropped to an all-time low and everyone was eating meals made up of protein, fat and very small amounts of carbohydrates. Dieters feasted on steaks in creamy sauces and pounds of butter and cheese.
And the astonishing thing was that the diet worked!
Not only did Dr Atkins’ patients lose considerable amounts of weight on his diet, but they also improved their cholesterol levels, blood sugar, blood pressure readings and other diseases like type 2 diabetes. And they reported enjoying their food more than ever and never feeling hungry. This was a huge benefit; not being so hungry meant that people could stick to the diet.
As you can imagine, the Atkins Diet created huge controversy; doctors, other health experts, dieticians and families of the Atkins devotees were all extremely vocal in their disapproval of this way of eating. But the results spoke for themselves.
Today, the Atkins Diet is still practised worldwide, but it’s less restrictive than when it first came out. Other low carb eating plans are popping up all the time but Atkins remains one of the most-followed diets in the developed world.
But are there any downsides to a low carb diet?
Pros and Cons of Low Carb Diets
Speaking from personal experience, I found the diet easy to stick to at first. It was great to be able to eat steak in creamy sauces, unlimited cream and cheese, lots of eggs – and butter with everything. I lost weight and felt more energetic and alert. My sugar cravings disappeared within a couple of days and I was never hungry. My blood sugar also normalised. Good, right?
But after a while, I started to really miss bread, pasta and desserts. The more I told myself I couldn’t have them, the more I wanted them. Until I gave in and ate something ‘forbidden’ and then I felt bad for not sticking to my diet. This might sound familiar to all you dieters out there.
But when I searched online, I found lots of alternatives for these favourite foods. I also discovered that it was possible to bake cakes and make desserts by using alternatives to wheat flour and sugar. Suddenly, low carb food was exciting again!
There are now many alternatives to sugar and flour available, in shops and online, such as almond and coconut flour, xylitol and stevia sugar substitutes and many more. This makes it much easier to adapt to a low carb or keto diet and to stick with it for longer.
Low Carb for Beginners
If you’re just starting out on the low carb way of eating then you will need some pointers to make sure you’re on the right track.
Low carb foods include all meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs, cheese, vegetables that grow above ground (like peppers, broccoli and courgettes) berries (strawberries, blueberries etc.) cream, full fat yoghurt, real butter, salad leaves, nuts, nut butter and oils such as olive oil and coconut oil.
Foods to avoid – pasta, rice, potatoes, root vegetables, sugar, honey, bread (all kinds) low fat dairy, most fruits except berries, couscous, breakfast cereals, cow’s or goat’s milk, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, beans, desserts, fruit juice, fizzy drinks and alcohol.
A low carb diet is based on protein and fat with carbs kept to a minimum. It’s very satisfying and you shouldn’t suffer from any hunger pangs. The main reason for this is that protein and fat don’t trigger the release of insulin by your pancreas so you don’t get the sudden blood sugar highs and lows that you get on a low fat, low calorie diet.
Insulin has been called the fat storage hormone as insulin encourages glucose to be stored as fat, in your liver and also in those pesky fat cells. which just keep getting bigger and bigger.
Any foods containing sugar are best avoided; it’s probably obvious to you that a sugary snack like the doughnuts in the picture below are out of bounds, as are chocolate, sweets and desserts.
But what about all the hidden sugar in our food?
It’s been estimated that 85% of the food in our supermarkets contains high quantities of sugar. Sugar is added to pasta sauces, salad dressings, low fat yoghurt, tinned fruit, coleslaw, ketchup, granola bars, ready meals and even so-called healthy cereals like muesli.
Bread contains sugar, pure fruit juices and smoothies have as much sugar as a can of fizzy drink and dried fruit is just concentrated sugar. I discovered recently that sugar is even added to things like stock cubes. Why?
Why Is There So Much Sugar in Our Food?
There are several reasons for this. Sugar is cheap and can act as a natural preservative. Food manufacturers have known for a long time that sugar is addictive – or at least something we crave regularly – so adding it to food ensures that consumers will keep buying their products. This is good news for Big Food (as it’s known) but bad news for us, the consumers.
The problem with sugar is that the more of it we eat, the more we want it. MRI scans taken while people are being shown images of sweet foods during the scan have shown that sugar lights up the same areas in the brain that respond to drugs like cocaine.
And these people were only looking at pictures of cakes and chocolate, not actually eating them. This adds more fuel to the debate on whether or not sugar is addictive.
But switching to a low carb or keto diet can turn off these cravings for sugar. When I was following a low carb diet I found that I could walk past displays of cakes and pastries without wanting to buy some. This is mainly due to the release of insulin being more controlled so cravings are not triggered.
Sudden spurts of insulin being released into the bloodstream can give us a ‘sugar high’ but this inevitably leads to a sudden drop a short time later, leaving us hungry again and craving more sweet foods. It’s a vicious circle.
How to Avoid Excess Sugar
A simple rule to observe if you want to cut down drastically on the amount of sugar in your diet is to shop only in the outer aisles of your supermarket. In other words, browse the aisles with fresh vegetables, meat and fish and avoid the aisles running down the centre which are usually sweets, crisps, chocolate, ready meals, bakery items and soft drinks. Your health will improve, your waistline will shrink and you might even save yourself some money.
But Is It Really Healthy?
As previously mentioned, a low carb high fat diet – known as LCHF – has been shown to improve things like bad cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes amongst other things. It seems impossible doesn’t it?
For so many years now, since the 1970s in fact, we’ve been urged to cut down on fat and choose low fat, low calorie options. Saturated fat in particular got a very bad press; doctors warned that eating red meat, for example, could cause heart attacks, cancer and strokes. Eggs were only allowed once or twice a week, if at all, since they could make us ill. (You might remember the salmonella incident in the late 1980s?)
We’ve followed this advice for decades, hoping to see improvements in our overall health and get a slim, fit and healthy body.
But it hasn’t worked. We’ve just got bigger and bigger and our health is worse than ever. Young children and even babies are now being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, previously considered to be an adult-onset disease.
So what have we been doing wrong?
Simply put, we have been following outdated advice.
I won’t go into all the details here – this is a site primarily devoted to cooking rather than nutrition – but there is plenty of information out there if you care to look it up.
Scientists and dieticians have finally started to admit that low fat is not necessarily good for us. After all, if you remove the fat from the food you take away most of the flavour. You then have to replace the fat with sugar otherwise the food will not taste good.
So What Can I Eat?
A low carb diet consists mainly of natural foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, nuts and berries. It also includes full fat dairy such as yoghurt, cream and butter. These additions make food more satisfying, both in the taste and in its ability to keep us fuller for longer.
You don’t need to eat as much of these foods to feel satiated; to give you an example, imagine you have 2 plates in front of you. One has 2 large juicy steaks on it, the other has a cake. Which do you think you could eat more of? (Feel free to do an experiment of your own here.)
Most people would tuck into the first steak with enthusiasm. But by the time they got to the second steak, they would be slowing down a bit. It’s unlikely that they could eat the second steak as well, even if they were very hungry.
But choose to eat the cake and the first slice would disappear quickly. The second and maybe third slices would be enjoyed just as much and it could be a fourth slice or more before you felt like you had eaten enough. And realised that you felt sick after all that cloying sweetness.
One reason for this is that protein – like steak – needs to be thoroughly chewed before it can be swallowed, which slows down our eating speed. It doesn’t trigger a sudden rush of insulin so we stay full for longer. It also takes longer to digest than something high in sugar so we don’t feel hungry again an hour later.
But the cake is made of simple carbohydrates – sugar – and is much easier to eat. We might feel full for a short time but before long we’re looking for something else to eat. Meanwhile, the sugar from the cake is stored away in our liver and our fat cells, comfortably padding them out and causing us to get heavier. And hungrier.
So low carb food is perhaps a more sensible choice. I have enjoyed this way of eating and have benefited from it. You can too.
But where do you start? What can you have for breakfast, lunch and dinner? And what can you drink?
A really great resource is dietdoctor.com. They have some mouth-watering recipes for you to get started on the low carb way of eating and there’s also lots of information on the health aspects and benefits of LCHF.
My next article includes some delicious recipes for low carb healthy meals
I hope that you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.
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