Fad Diet Myth BustingNutrition Education

Atkins, South Beach, and other Low-Carb Diets

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Carbohydrates are found in foods like breads and grains, starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, and sugary foods like candy.  Fruits also contain carbohydrate in the form of fructose. Dairy products contain carbohydrate in the form of lactose. (*Ahem* You can find quite a few delicious and nutritious carbohydrates in my “Hearty” Whole Grain Pancakes, too!) 😉 God blessed our Earth with many wonderful plants and animals which provide essential carbohydrates for our health, and He wants us to eat them. However, in the last 10 years or so, there has been a wave of diets promising weight loss through limiting carbohydrates. Society has started to view the consumption of carbohydrate as a sinful indulgence. Why all the fuss about carbohydrates?

Hearty Whole Wheat Pancakes

The basis behind a low-carbohydrate diet is this:

When we burn energy throughout the day and during exercise, it is done in a specific order. First, the bulk of carbohydrates or sugars in our cells are used for energy. Once depleted, the body depends on fat stores to supply energy. Only in extreme cases such as very long periods of exercise or starvation does the body start burning into protein stores. Protein is largely stored in muscle tissues, so when broken down for energy, it causes atrophy (wasting) of the muscles. Bye, Bye biceps… When there is little to no carbohydrate in the cells to be burned, the body goes straight to the fat-burning phase. The low-carb diet limits carbohydrates yet provides TONS of protein in the form of meat and animal products in order to ensure no carbohydrate or protein is used for energy. Sounds like a quick way to burn lots of body fat, right? Well, sort of. Initially.


Image from Krause’s Food, Nutrition. & Diet Therapy, 2004

But what happens over time with a low-carb diet?

The most efficient and preferred source of energy for our bodies is glucose. Glucose comes from Carbohydrate. The only source of energy which can fuel the brain happens to be glucose, and the majority of the 200 grams of carbohydrate required to properly fuel our bodies is used by the brain. The body has an amazing mechanism which recognizes when there is not enough glucose to feed our brain and muscles. It triggers the “starvation mode” and starts to break down glycogen stores from the liver and pump glucose into our cells. Our metabolism then begins to slow down. The body adjusts to having less glucose available for energy, so it slows down the energy-making factory! That’s when the weight loss begins to taper and plateau.

Below is a diagram of the what the “energy-making factory” looks like in our bodies. It’s not important to understand all the chemical jibberish. Just focus on the words in red and notice that protein, fat, AND carbohydrate are all necessary and crucial components to creating and sustaining energy in our bodies… that’s all.

Pathways of energy production

Image from Krause’s Food, Nutrition. & Diet Therapy, 2004

Have you ever met someone who is on a low-carb diet? Have you been on one yourself? Did you notice the decline in energy? Or, worse yet, did you notice how cranky they were?! Now you know why! No carbs=no energy.

Now, the aggravated dieter decides to stop the no-carb diet since it seems to have stopped working. That, or they finally succumb to the overwhelming cravings and eat a day’s worth of carbs in one sitting. Upon returning to eating carbohydrates again, guess what happens? The energy-making factory which has been slowed down continues to slowly use the influx of carbohydrates now fed into the system. It uses very little and then stores the rest for future use in the case of “starvation mode” hitting again. After more and more carbohydrate is eaten, the stores turn into fat and the poor dieter has now gained all, if not more, of the weight back that was lost on the low-carb diet.

So, ask yourself: Is this a diet I can stick to for the rest of my life? If not, what is your motivation for starting it? Knowing you will most likely gain the weight back (and then some) does it really seem feasible to deprive yourself, only to have no lasting success?

Here’s my advice in a nutshell: don’t diet. Evaluate how much processed food you are eating, and make adjustments if necessary. Enjoy a wide variety of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and dairy products.

Keep reading, and I will teach you how.