Low-carb diets have been lauded as effective weight loss diets for years, but this year we have seen a huge surge in popularity for diets that restrict carbohydrates. We've all heard of the Whole30 and ketogenic diet. According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, consumers rank sugar and carbs as the top reasons for weight gain—the highest ranking since 2011. So why then are stories emerging that low-carbohydrate diets are unsafe and should be avoided?
Research by professor Maciej Banac of the Medical University of Lodz, Poland, found that "people who consumed a low carbohydrate diet were at greater risk of premature death" with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer. More research from a separate study found in Reader's Digest revealed that "low-carb dieters—people who got less than 40% of their daily calories from carbs—had a higher mortality risk during the study than did moderate carb consumers (whose diets are 50 to 55 percent carbs) and people who went carb crazy (more than 70 percent)."
So what actually happens to your body when you stop eating carbs? Keep reading to find out.
Juliana Shalek, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of The Nutrition Suite told MyDomaine that while following a low-carb diet tends to promote weight loss at a faster rate, cutting carbohydrates reduces blood glucose and insulin levels, which in turn minimizes fat storage in the body. And Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, told Tonic that cutting carbs out altogether may result in fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headaches, irritability, and nausea that can last a few days or even weeks, also known as the "low-carb flu" as a result of depleting your body of this main energy source.
If you cut out carbs completely, your body will eventually go into a state of ketosis where "small fragments of carbon called ketones are released into the blood because the body is burning fat instead of carbohydrates." This might sound appealing at first, but fat is a slower source of fuel than glucose, which means it takes longer for your body to access it so it will be harder for your body to get going during exercise or activity.
Not unlike most low-carb diets, you'll also lose water weight first, which can be misleading, then non-water weight will follow after that. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition that compared low-carb ketogenic diets with traditional low-fat diets did find that low-carb diets could be effective in reducing obesity rates. But when you consider the dire long-term health concerns we mentioned earlier, cutting them out altogether doesn't sound like a healthy long-term option either.
The good news is, not all carbs were created equal, and there are plenty of delicious high-fiber low-carb foods you can eat that will keep you in shape and feeling good. In fact, fiber is the missing ingredient in all of this. Since fiber is neither digested nor absorbed, it actually takes up space in your intestine, giving you a feeling of fullness (and making it easier to minimize snacking and overeating). Registered dietician nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, of Maya Feller Nutrition, says that the daily fiber recommendation for women is 25 grams (although women over 50 should aim for 21 grams instead). "Most Americans are not meeting their daily fiber needs," the expert told us. "Low-fiber diets can have a negative impact on both gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health."
Celebrity nutritionist Kelly Leveque told Chalkboard magazine that we should also be looking at the "carbohydrate density" of our food rather than cutting them out altogether. Put simply, carb density means the percent of the food mass that is carbohydrate minus the fiber component. As LeVeque explains, most high-net carb food will end up as sugar in your body. Whole foods in nature don't have a carb density over 30%; even carb-heavy vegetables will have a density well below that. It's processed foods that go well above that and as we all know, should be avoided.
So in conclusion, do your research and eat healthy carbs that haven't been put through a refining process. Registered dietitian Nichola Whitehead defines these as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats—you can eat these 15 low-carb foods on a vegetarian diet too. She tells us this excludes refined carbohydrates, red meat, and highly processed food that often comes with excessive amounts of added sugar.
Shop some of our favorite kitchen essentials to start making your own healthy carbohydrate-fueled meals: