Since Dr. Robert Atkins published the first issue of The Atkins Diet in 1972, low-carbohydrate diets have been reinvented dozens of times by weight-loss gurus looking to cash in on the lucrative industry. The South Beach Diet, Zone Diet, Medifast, Nutrisystem, Sugar Busters, Paleo, and Keto diets are all versions of the same principle: when you starve your body of carbohydrates, your insulin level drops, triggering your body to burn fat stores for energy.
And low-carb diets do work for quick weight loss, but a low-carb diet is hard to maintain in a world with pasta, potatoes, and bread. Our bodies crave carbohydrates for good reason: they are the muscles’ and brain’s preferred energy source. Headaches, weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, bad breath, constipation, and diarrhea are common side effects of a low-carb diet.
And weight loss is usually temporary – most people gain back the weight they lose and end up in a chronic cycle of trying again and again. When the diet fails, most people blame themselves for not “sticking to it” or “cheating” too often. But maybe it’s not your willpower; maybe it’s so hard to stick to because it’s not the right way to fuel your body.
In 2004, nutrition expert Dr. Michael Greger, New York Times bestselling author of How Not to Die, How Not to Diet, and most recently, How to Survive a Pandemic, and founder of the non-profit site nutritionfacts.org wrote a little book called Carbophobia: The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze in which he presents “a century of medical science” against the low-carb diet movement, debunking the science Dr. Atkins presented in his book, and pointed out that high-fat foods like beef and cheese elevate insulin levels more than pasta.
In a more recent article, How a Low-Carb Diet is Metabolically Like Being Obese, Dr. Greger explains that when your diet is tilted towards fats rather than carbohydrates, fat spills back into the bloodstream, causing inflammation, oxidative stress, and toxic byproducts to clog up insulin receptors, leading to insulin resistance, which is what causes prediabetes and type 2 Diabetes. This can happen within just a couple of hours of eating a fatty meal.
“A skinny person eating a low-carb diet can have the same level of fat in their blood that obese people do,” he writes.
Too much fat in the diet is only one problem with low-carb diets. When you avoid healthy, complex carbohydrates you are missing out on some important nutrients such as fiber, which helps maintain a healthy environment in your gut, stimulates the growth of brain cells, and keeps you full on fewer calories.
Energy levels are also greatly affected when carbohydrates are missing from your diet.
The bottom line is, there is no reason to fear complex carbohydrates, which means whole foods like oats, brown rice, and other grains, whole fruits, and fresh or frozen vegetables, including potatoes, squash, beans, and peas.
The problem comes when healthy foods have been processed or refined, stripping them their fiber and nutrients. Without the fiber, complex carbohydrates are reduced to sugars that increase insulin levels, prompting more calories to be converted to fat.
And without fiber to fill you up, you can consume far more calories eating processed foods. For example, it takes 3 apples to make one cup of juice. The cup of juice has no fiber to fill you up, leaving calorie-dense sugar.
If you eat one apple, however, you consume over 4 grams of fiber which keeps you full longer on fewer calories.
Dr. Dean Ornish, the founder of the non-profit Preventative Medicine Research Institute, wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “People are drawn to (low carb) diets in part because… they produce a higher metabolic rate. But a low-carb diet increases metabolic rate because it’s stressful to your body. Just because something increases your metabolic rate doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Amphetamines will also increase your metabolism and burn calories faster, which is why they are used to help people lose weight, at least temporarily. But they stress your body and may mortgage your health in the process.”
The key to weight loss is neither a low-carb nor a low-fat diet, Dr. Ornish says, “It’s not low-carb or low-fat. An optimal diet is low in unhealthful carbs (both sugar and other refined carbohydrates) and low in fat (especially saturated fats and trans fats) as well as in red meat and processed foods.”
Deb is a health coach and award-winning health and wellness writer covering plant-based nutrition, fitness, sustainable living, mental health and relationships. Deb also writes for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and manages YouOnPlants.com, helping people eat more veggies. She lives near her daughter in St. Petersburg, Florida, and travels often to Southern California to visit her son. Deb enjoys nature parks, restaurants with vegan options, movies, and the end of hurricane season.