Carbohydrates: the oh-so controversial topic flooding the internet these days. Actually, this topic has been debated relentlessly for years, gaining most of its traction when the low-carb Atkins Diet came alive. Since the 1970s there has been a sort of ebb and flow in opinions about carbs. When Dr. Atkins proposed that carbs were a major contributor to disease, we all feared carbs like it was the plague. We then transitioned into a phase of “eat carbs or die” and started seeing things like quinoa and whole grains become mainstream. In 2016 we saw a rise in the Ketogenic and Paleo diets, which are other forms of a low-carb diet. In my opinion, the optimal diet should meet somewhere in the middle of these polarizing opinions, but it is highly individual. To help you decide for yourself, let’s discuss the differences between each of these diets.
Each of these diets are considered “low-carb” but they are not equal. They are all based on similar principles, but when you get into the nitty-gritty, there are differences to be aware of.
The Paleo Diet is based on the idea that we should eat like cavemen, sticking only to meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some fruit. This diet isn’t strictly labeled as high- or low-carb, and some paleo eaters choose to incorporate potatoes in their diet, which would increase the carb content. The premise is based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would eat—only foods coming from the earth—claiming that genetically it is the way we were meant to eat. Loren Cordain, PhD, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University, says "By following these nutritional guidelines, we put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genetics, which in turn positively influences health and well-being". He claims that it is the healthiest way to eat because it increases the consumption of vitamins and minerals and incorporates a healthy balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates.
The Atkins Diet was created in 1972 by Dr. Robert Atkins as a way to lose weight and keep it off by restricting carb intake. Atkins claims that eating too many carbs causes fluctuations in blood sugar, causing excess sugar to be stored as fat during the “highs” and followed by intense hunger and cravings during the “lows”. The main idea is that by restricting carbohydrates your blood-sugar levels will be stable leading to weight loss, increased energy, improved blood pressure, and reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, without having to count calories. Atkins dismisses the “low-fat” diet and encourages the consumption of fattier cuts of meat, as fat does not have the same effect on blood sugar. Some negative side effects that you may experience are fatigue, brain fog, and lethargy during the beginning, but after a week or two your body will adjust.
The Ketogenic Diet is quite similar to the Atkins Diet, but gets even more specific. This diet is low-carb, high-fat, and moderate protein with the goal to get into Ketosis, which I will explain in a minute. In more than 20 studies this diet has been shown to improve health and help you lose weight. Medicinally, it is used to treat epilepsy, and there is even evidence that it can fight against cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s Disease. The premise of a ketogenic diet follows that of the Atkins diet in that it significantly reduces blood sugar and insulin levels. Although the Atkins Diet is also very low carb, the distinguishing factor is that the Ketogenic Diet is defined by being in a state of Ketosis, which typically occurs in the range of 20-50 grams of carbs per day.
Ketosis is a metabolic state in which the body produces ketone bodies out of fat, which can be used as an energy source. Typically, glycolysis is the preferred energetic pathway for the body, in which glucose (aka sugar or carbohydrate) is broken down to ultimately produce ATP, the energy source of cells. So, what happens when you run out of carbohydrates? Well, we always want to spare protein, as it is vital for maintaining muscle, bones, hair, skin, and basically everything. If we’re sparing protein, and there aren’t any carbs available, your body must depend on using fat as a fuel source. Where does this fat come from? Your body stores. This puts your body into a fat-burning mode, allowing people to either lose weight or maintain a level of leanness without losing muscle mass. Since this is such an extreme condition to be in, many people will experience headaches and flu-like symptoms until their body adjusts, but it is only temporary.
As mentioned above, glycolysis is the preferred energetic pathway for the body, utilizing carbohydrates as energy. So many people are firm believers that carbs are absolutely necessary in a healthy diet, specifically those that are whole grain. Up until this point we have only discussed low- to moderate-carb diets and there seem to be some pretty obvious health benefits. However, we can’t make a conclusion until we hear both sides of the story, as there are definitely some healthy and lean people who eat a lot of carbs. For example, the Asian culture eats a lot of rice and they are one of the healthiest populations with low rates of obesity. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is also a high-carb diet, but there is a stark contrast in the health of these two cultures. Recently, carbohydrates have been labeled as the culprit for disease in humans in the U.S. based on medical literature, but we must realize that the high-carb diet in Asian countries versus the SAD are very different. In China and Japan, they rarely eat processed carbohydrate sources, tending to stick to things like rice, potatoes, and vegetables. On the other hand, the SAD relies heavily on things like bagels, pretzels, dinner rolls, and pasta which have very little nutritional value. This is the key difference that defines how carbohydrates affect your health. Lastly, I would like to touch on whole grains and explain how these differ from refined grains in the way they affect your body. Basically, whole grains contain the germ and the bran, which are the fibrous outer layers of the grain. This is where most of the nutrients are and is also what contributes to the fiber content. Refined grains have been refined in a process that removes the germ and bran. Whole grains are more complex so they take longer to digest, meaning they don’t cause such a dramatic spike in blood-sugar. This being said, a high-carb diet could be healthy and less deleterious if more whole-grains are included.
I have never really put a label on my diet that determined by macronutrient profile, but I was using all sorts of calculators on the internet that would tell me how many calories I needed to eat and what proportion of the should be carbs. Due to the fact that I am almost 5’10” and am moderately active, I require quite a lot of food, but I should have immediately known better, since each of the calculators gave me a significantly different number. Basically, I was told I needed anywhere from 200-350 grams of carbs per day. If you’ve never counted macros before and have no reference of what that means, just know that it’s a lot. So, in order to hit this computer-generated number, I was unnecessarily filling my meals with oatmeal, pasta, english muffins, bread, etc. only to be left feeling lethargic, bloated, and not attaining the body that I had hoped for. I was always told myself that “my body handles carbs really well because I have a fast metabolism and I never gain weight by eating carbs”….but I was a dumb college student, thinking I was invincible and that I still had the metabolism of my 14-year old self. When I would eat high-carb meals I had all sorts of symptoms that even my doctors couldn’t explain. So finally, after years of feeling bloated and not seeing any changes in my body, I finally came to my senses and decided to ditch the computer-generated number and just eat what my body felt like eating. I will admit that for a while I still craved carbs because after all, sugar is more addictive than cocaine, but over time I naturally started to eat less carbs (I estimate around 100-150g per day). I still ate enough total calories, I just supplemented with increased protein, fat, and veggies. To my surprise, I started feeling better than ever. I didn’t feel like a stuffed-sausage anymore and I had natural energy that lasted throughout the day. I had spent years feeling awful, only because the internet gods told me that eating 300g of carbs would make me fit. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that I never eat carbs anymore, because seriously, who doesn’t love carbs?? I just listen to my body. For example, I know that I need about 50g of carbs in the morning before I feel fully awake and ready to tackle the day, but after that I tend to crave things like protein, veggies, and fats, and I have sustainable energy. If for some reason I really want pizza or ice cream one day, I don’t restrict it, I just eat until I am satisfied (which is usually only 2 slices of pizza, rather than 7 like before).
Moral of the story is that each person is different, and I encourage you to play around with your diet a bit to see what works best for you. Just because someone you know or watch on YouTube eats 7 slices of bread, oatmeal, and 4 rice cakes each day doesn’t mean that you have to or that by doing so you will look just like them. On the other end of the spectrum, don’t go assuming that because your friend or family member lost weight by cutting out carbs means that you have to as well. There seems to be evidence to support each of the aforementioned diets, so choose a diet that fits your lifestyle, and don’t feel like you have to label it either. Maybe some days you eat high-carb and others you eat low-carb. Maybe you eat a primarily Paleo diet but also enjoy ice cream and pizza every once in a while. It’s highly individual, so do what works best for you.