By: Emily Shiffer
Carbs are under attack. Low carb eating styles have gained massive popularity in recent years. The keto diet and Atkins diet are both low-carb, high-fat options. And while they’re not specifically marketed as low carb, the Whole 30 and Paleo diets are lean toward being lower in carbohydrates.
So it sticking to a low-carb diet healthy? We asked two dietitians for their thoughts.
What does it mean to eat “low-carb”?
The definition of a low-carb diet depends on what type of eating plan you’re adhering to.
“The AMDR or Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for carbohydrates is
45-65% of calories, and the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is about 130 grams of carbohydrate,” says Amber Pankonin MS, RD, LMNT, registered dietitian and owner of Stirlist. “Anything below that could be considered ‘low carb’, but it depends on what type of plan you want to follow.”
And some eating plans are extremely low carb.
“Extreme low carb diets, like the keto diet, require you to limit your total carb intake to well under 50 grams per day,” says Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CPT, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Shaped by Charlotte.
What are the benefits of eating low carb?
Going low carb can have a ton of benefits on your health. Some of the benefits of eating low carb include weight loss and reduced blood sugar and insulin levels.
“Those who go on a low-carb diet tend to see the number on the scale drop quickly in the beginning, says Pankonin. “However, this number tends to even out over the long-term when compared to higher-carb diets.”
It can also help if you are pre-diabetic.
“Lowering carb intake is a surefire way to get blood sugar levels, and therefore insulin levels down,” says Pankonin. “This is why individuals with type 2 diabetes or who are pre-diabetic may benefit from lowering carb intake.”
It also is great for heart health.
“Those who cut carbs tend to see a drop-in triglyceride levels (aka fat molecules) and blood pressure, and an increase in HDL-cholesterol levels (aka “good” cholesterol),” says Pankonin.
And if you’re a sugar addict, it’s a great way to cut down.
“Reducing carbohydrates does mean you will probably cut a lot of added sugars from your diet. Sources of added sugar can be sugar sweetened beverages, baked goods and sweetened cereals,” says Martin. “Added sugar in the diet has been linked with heart disease, so being more mindful in reducing added sugars can be beneficial.”
What are the negatives of eating low carb?
Going on a low carb diet, your body will first feel the initial effects.
“When you decrease the amount of carbohydrates in your diet, it forces the body to metabolize
nutrients differently,” says Martin. “For some individuals, this might cause some sluggishness, brain fog, dehydration and constipation.”
Many low-carb diets may also eliminate healthy elements of a balanced diet.
“Those on low-carb diets tend to eliminate fiber-rich sources from the diet, like fruit, whole grains, starchy veggies, and legumes,” says Pankonin. “Low fiber intake can lead to digestive issues like constipation and irregular bowel movements.”
And if you’re on a low-carb, high-fat diet, your heart may also be at risk.
“However, if you replace carbs with high intake of fats, especially saturated fats, you may cancel out some of these heart health benefits,” says Pankonin.
Ultimately, many on a low-carb diet will find it unsustainable.
“The trouble with low carb dieting is that it’s usually not sustainable long-term,” says Pankonin. “As such, many revert back to old eating habits and the weight typically creeps back on.”
Are there certain people that shouldn’t eat low carb?
Low-carb diets are not for everyone.
“Children, teens, and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t follow a low-carb diet,” says Pankonin.
While a low-carb diet may help with diabetes, those with it should discuss with a doctor as it may impact insulin.
“Individuals with diabetes need to be very cautious and make sure they have discussed this with
their doctor and dietitian before attempting to decrease the amount of carbohydrate because these are diet changes that will impact insulin dosage,” says Martin.
If you have kidney issues and choose to go on a low-carb diet that requires you to up your protein intake, this could do more harm than good.
“Also, individuals with kidney problems may want to steer clear of low carb diets, especially if it involves increasing protein intake,” says Martin. “Eating too much protein puts added strain on the kidneys and could worsen kidney function.”
And if you work out a lot or consider yourself an athlete, a low-carb diet may not be for you.
“I would also encourage athletes who rely on carbohydrates to fuel their training and activity to
think twice before going all in on a low carbohydrate diet,” says Martin. “It would be wise to meet with a sports dietitian before making any dramatic diet changes that could impact training and performance.”
The bottom line: are low-carb diets are healthy?
“If done properly and without any contraindications, lowering carb intake could potentially help you lose weight and improve blood sugar levels,” says Pankonin. “However, in my experience, I’ve never had a client who’s been able to sustain a low-carb or very low-carb diet for the long-term without feeling seriously deprived or without numerous periods of carb bingeing. The average American does eat too many carbs, which is why I typically recommend limiting carb intake to moderate, rather than low, amounts (i.e. around 100 – 150 grams per day). That way, you can still reap some of the benefits of lowering carb intake without feeling deprived of your favorite foods.”
And Martin agrees.
“I am in favor of reducing carbohydrates from added sugar, but I would be really cautious about
eating extremely low carb especially if you are an active person who needs to maintain energy
levels throughout the day,” says Martin. “In general, I would say there are healthy ways to reduce carbohydrate intake, but unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of people go from one extreme to the next. Our bodies understand and know how to digest carbohydrates. If you choose to go all in on low carb, make sure you understand how it will impact your training and performance.”
If you’re looking to try a low-carb diet, consider the type of carbs you plan to limit, rather than all carbs.
“Instead of focusing on carb quantity, it’s best to focus on carb quality. For example, limiting intake of refined and processed carb and sugar-rich foods, and replacing them with fiber-rich whole food carb sources like fruits, starchy and non-starchy veggies, and legumes,” says Pankonin. “When you focus on quality, you typically end up reducing total carb intake as a byproduct (no tracking necessary), and feel good, too!”