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"Low Carb" Living: What Can It Do for You? 

When you read the term “low-carb,” what comes to mind? 

Do you automatically flash to the Atkins Diet – the most popular, virtually no-carb “fad” diet that’s been around for nearly fifty years? Does it bring you back to those first dreadful weeks of your South Beach Diet foray?

Perhaps “low-carb” makes you think of portion control or boring meals of blandly baked chicken with a sad little iceberg salad topped with low-fat dressing.

If so, you might ask yourself - is this as good as low-carb gets? (Spoiler alert: the answer is no.) 

Let’s face it, we’re a high-carb society. The USDA’s dietary guidelines - first promoted with the verbiage to “increase carbohydrate consumption to account for 55 to 60 percent of energy (caloric) intake” - is widely recognized as a high carbohydrate approach. Since the inception of this nutrition policy, many experts have been skeptical of this high-carb “one size fits all” advice - probably for very good reason. 

How did we land on the current 45-65% carb recommendation in the first place? For more on that debacle, check out my 5 Facts Behind the Low Fat Fallacy. For now, here’s a quick rundown of how the current higher carb policy maintains its standing. 

The Food & Nutrition Board (an Institute of Medicine committee that formulates recommendations for health and nutrition policy) states the “acceptable” amount of carbohydrates is 45-65% of total calorie intake or at bare minimum 130 grams per day for most adults – regardless of individual circumstances. 

A separate Dietary Guidelines Committee uses the F&NB info to write recommendations for the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS and USDA then publish and promote various resources through various agencies to help the American public make healthier choices.

When you add it up, there are over twenty separate Federal Agency resource groups involved in the dietary guidelines promoted for Americans, all of which rally around that 45% or higher carbohydrate benchmark. Any guesses what it would take to radically alter the message of over twenty federal agencies? Maybe a diet-driven epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease? 

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it shouldn’t surprise you that health experts (researchers and medical practitioners alike) can’t even agree on a concrete definition of “low-carb.” 

An excerpt from the Nutrition Therapy Recommendations for the Management of Adults with Diabetes offers the following statement:

“There is no consistent definition of 'low' carbohydrate. In research studies, definitions have ranged from very low-carbohydrate diet (21–70 g/day of carbohydrates) to moderately low-carbohydrate diet (30 to 40% of calories from carbohydrates).”

What’s considered “low-carb” living?

Low-carb living is often assumed to be “no-carb” living. Don’t be confused! Technically speaking, any dietary pattern below the recommended 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates is considered “low-carb” based on current dietary guidelines.  

The span between no-carb and 45% carb is a considerably wide range. Many experts who research and practice dietary treatments have proposed a clearer way to define which type of low-carb approach is being referenced. 

Low-carb researchers have been consistently using the term “moderately low-carb” to describe diets containing 26-44% of their calories from carbohydrates. 

Interestingly, the average American diet in the early 1970s was estimated to contain 42-45% calories from carbohydrates, much like the example diet discussed in a previous post. Today, estimates suggest the average American gets at least 49% of their calories from carbs.

Obviously, when carbohydrate amounts are expressed as a percentage of total calories, you’ll see a huge variance in the actual amounts (grams) of dietary carbs from one diet to the next. The American Diabetes Association defines low-carb as any diet that supplies less than the recommended 130 grams of dietary carbohydrates per day. 

Likewise, “very low-carbohydrate” or ketogenic protocols are generally understood to mean carbohydrates are restricted to fewer than 20 to 50 grams per day, which often forces the body to rely on fat-derived ketone bodies for an alternative energy source.

Going “low-carb” is treated by many health professionals as nothing more than a fad, but still others firmly believe that dietary carbohydrate restriction should be the first approach in diabetes management, obesity management and possibly other health concerns.

What can lower-carb living do for you?

Perhaps most importantly, dialing back on your cereal, bread, rice, potatoes or pasta will probably create plenty of opportunity to eat more colorful veggies, clean proteins and healthy fats. It will force you to scrutinize (if not abandon) many of the processed convenience foods that the average American diet revolves around.

Beyond changing your actual food choices, there seem to be some astounding benefits of moderately restricting carbohydrates – many of which appear without Atkins-esque weight loss pursuits. 

You see, the more moderate (controlled, personalized, precise – as opposed to eliminated altogether) your carbohydrate intake is for your activity level and tolerance, the less likely you are to feel significant energy and appetite fluctuations. You may be liberated from many of the dreaded sensations traditionally associated with “dieting.” 

Lower-carb approaches likewise appear to be the best strategy for weight loss, especially if the person would rather not consciously monitor or restrict calories. Low-carb diet parameters often manage hunger and satisfaction so well through focus on fibrous veggies, ample protein, and ad-lib use of dietary fat that technical measurements aren’t necessary. 

Typically, lower-carb approaches also maintain a moderate protein intake (15-30% of calories from protein), which is associated with better lean tissue maintenance during weight loss efforts where caloric deficits are used.

Aside from the very low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets, most moderately low-carbohydrate programs are relatively easy to follow and show good adherence rates compared to other diets. In other words, lower-carb living can be more easily maintained as a long-term lifestyle.

From a health perspective, the lower-carb model (as opposed to lower-fat approaches we’ve been trying since the late 1970s) show up well in nearly every meaningful risk category related to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (and perhaps even many cancers). Related to these findings, dietary fat intake (including saturated fat) no longer appears to be as closely correlated with cholesterol “problems” as are dietary carbohydrates.

That’s right: it appears overconsumption of carbohydrates (especially added sugar) drive blood lipid problems more than dietary fat intake habits. 

As you can see, re-thinking your approach to carbohydrates – even moderate adjustment – may be well worth it for your health and waistline. With a little transition, you can also find it much more gratifying for your palate. The incorporation of additional vegetables and healthy fats can offer more satisfaction than empty grains (which often have little flavor on their own). Check out these past posts for delicious lower carb substitutes, meal plans and cooking tips

Would you like more information or support around switching to a lower-carb diet? Talk with one of our dietitians today. Thanks for reading.

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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