Are low-carb diets healthy? Critics say no. But the answer is yes – provided you do it the right way and follow all the guidelines.
Cutting down on the carbs is, of course, the key requirement. But it’s not the only one. Just like people on “standard” diets, you also need to watch your nutritional balance.
Your body needs vitamins, minerals, fibre, and essential fatty acids to function properly. Lack of these key nutrients can make you feel rubbish and derail your diet. Long-term deficiencies may lead to health problems.
Here are some simple tips to make sure your low-carb diet is healthy.
Don’t go zero carb
A low-carb diet is not a no-carb diet.
Even on ketogenic diets, like Atkins Induction and Keto, the recommended intake is 20g net carbs a day. Your body needs this small amount of carbs. It is possible to go without it, but definitely not optimal.
Some people believe that going zero carb will make you lose weight faster. That’s a myth. No-carb strategy does not work, especially over the long term.
Your carb intake needs to be just low enough to induce ketosis. Lowering it even further won’t make your weight loss faster. But it could cause other issues like stronger sugar cravings and digestive problems.
Keep your carbs low, but don’t aim for zero.
Eat lots of fresh low-carb vegetables
Don’t waste your carb allowance on sweeteners and sugar-free packaged “Frankenstein” foods. Instead, spend it on fresh vegetables that are high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
The best choices are green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, collards, Swiss chard), bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and avocados.
Fruit is generally high in carbs, but you can enjoy berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries) and low-sugar citrus fruit (lemons, limes, white grapefruit).
As a simple insurance policy, take a daily multivitamin. Choose one with strong dosages of B and C vitamins, and make sure it is sugar-free.
Choose whole foods over processed foods
Whole foods are better than processed in many ways. They provide more nutrients. They fill you up sooner. They contain no nasty chemicals, colourings or preservatives.
Most importantly, you can ensure there are no hidden carbs. Carbs sneak into almost all processed foods, even where you least expect them (for example, sausages and burgers).
Base your low-carb diet on natural, nutrient-dense foods like grass-fed red meat, oily fish, berries, full-fat dairy, coconut and olive oil, and plenty of fresh vegetables.
Production methods are also important, especially for animal products like meat, eggs and dairy. Organic, free-range and grass-fed options are more expensive than intensively-farmed products. But they are more nutritious and taste much better.
Be careful with “low-carb” products
Packaged foods labelled “low-carb” or “sugar-free” are still processed foods. They are not as good as natural low-carb foods.
Some of these products include polyols as sugar substitutes and write them off as zero-carb. This is misleading – some polyols are quite high in carbs.
Even if the carb content is truly low, they are still full of chemicals and preservatives. They might mess with your digestion and make your cravings for real sugar stronger.
They also add up. Two or three low-carb candy bars can take up a big chunk out of your carb allowance. It would be wiser to spend it on fresh vegetables instead.
If you really must have something sweet, make your own low-carb desserts from scratch. So you can control their carb content and avoid chemical nasties.
Drink plenty of water
Carbs make your body retain water. Fewer carbs mean less stored water, so it’s easier to get dehydrated. Your kidneys also need more water to process all the extra fat and protein.
Drink two litres a day at the very least, plus possibly more. Some low-carb dieters go up to 5-6 litres a day.
This is usually easy to do. Ketosis tends to increase thirst. Drinking more just happens naturally for most people. But thirst can masquerade as hunger or sugar cravings.
Watch your water intake and make sure you are getting enough.
Watch your electrolytes
Drinking lots is great, but it depletes your body’s electrolytes – essential minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium.
Lack of electrolytes leads to headaches, tiredness and muscle cramps. If you get any of these symptoms, take supplements to replenish electrolytes. This point is crucial in the summer or after exercise when you lose even more water through sweating.
Another popular way to replenish electrolytes is to make bone broth.
Get enough fibre
Fibre (also known as roughage) is the indigestible part of plants. Although we don’t digest fibre, it is essential for trouble-free passage of waste through your digestive system.
In the short term, lack of fibre causes constipation. Long periods of shortage can lead to digestive disorders.
Fibre has many other benefits. It helps you feel fuller faster, improves glucose tolerance and insulin response. Sufficient fibre consumption is linked to good cholesterol levels and heart health.
Eat plenty of high-fibre foods such as flaxseeds, avocados, and salad vegetables. If you get constipated, add a daily fibre supplement like psyllium husks.
Include omega oils
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are omega oils 3, 6 and 9. EFAs help to maintain healthy blood pressure and normal cholesterol. Both factors are vital for your heart health.
Omega oils improve insulin sensitivity and reduce metabolic resistance. High metabolic resistance makes weight loss harder. On low-carb diets, it can stall your transition to ketosis. For this reason, Dr Atkins recommended omega oils supplementation for Atkins Diet.
EFAs can only come from food or from supplements – your body doesn’t produce them.
Best food sources of omega oils are oily fish, seeds and seed-based oils. Include these foods to your diet on a regular basis, or take an omega oils supplement.
Did we miss anything?
Do you have any other tips to keep a low-carb diet healthy?
Please share in the comments below.