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The Low-Carb Diet: History, Myths, and Truths

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

As a member of today’s society, you likely know how impossible it is to outrun the information the media serves us about the latest fad diet. Recently, the “low-carb diet” has made its way to the headlines as the most popular diet in America, featured in articles claiming “extraordinary weight loss” without mentioning the damage this diet can do to our health and bodies. When consumers see labels like “keto” and “low-carb” on a food item, they might assume it’s an innovative product created in the name of health. But what if everything you’ve been hearing about restricting carbohydrates isn’t new information? What if it’s decades-old information that’s been recycled and rephrased in an attempt to keep the diet’s long-term health risks hidden beneath the surface?

First, here’s a little history on the “low-carb diet.” A low carbohydrate eating plan was first developed in the 1960s by cardiologist Robert C. Atkins. He developed this “weight-loss method” as an alternative to prescribing his patients appetite suppressants. This became known as the “Atkins Diet.” Another version of a low-carb diet was released in 2003, the “South Beach Diet.” Many versions have been introduced ever since, the most popular and current one being the “Keto Diet” (read more about it below). A couple of principles varied in each diet, but they all promoted the “low-carb lifestyle” in one way or another. So, although each new version has been marketed as being a groundbreaking way to pursue health and weight loss, in reality, dieters have been taught the same rules for sixty years. Wild, right?

The Ketogenic Diet was initially created for children with epilepsy. It’s been used to reduce seizures since the 1920s. The low-sugar/high-fat dietary pattern alters the excitability of the brain, which basically means that there’s a lower tendency to generate seizures. So how did the media get ahold of a diet prescribed by physicians to treat a serious medical condition in children? Essentially, people learned about the physiological results and wanted them for themselves. The diet claims to reset the way our bodies use food, teaching the body to burn fat for energy instead of glucose, which some may call “tricking the system.” However, this system was never meant to be tricked for those who medically do not need it to be! Our bodies and metabolisms were never intended for this manipulation.

Now that you’ve learned a bit of background on the low-carb diet and its various forms, it’s time to go beyond what the headlines are saying about the benefits of restricting carbohydrates. Here’s the truth that’s been hidden beneath the surface all these years:

1. Low-carb means low vitamins and minerals, and impaired immune function.

Contrary to popular belief, fruits and vegetables are sources of carbohydrates, along with the foods we commonly think of when we hear the word “carb” (like bread, pasta, and rice). Restricting carbohydrate intake therefore eliminates foods that are high in antioxidants (which boost immunity), micronutrients, and phytochemicals. Fruits and vegetables are an incredible part of a well-balanced diet; however, all sources of carbs provide essential nutrients, not just fruits and vegetables. Bread contains iron, riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin, and pasta contains magnesium, iron, and zinc!

2. Low-carb means low fiber.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. It helps keep the digestive system healthy, cleaning out harmful bacteria and buildup in the intestines. Fiber impacts our gut health positively, keeps bowel movements regular to prevent bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, and keeps us feeling full longer. Nutrient-rich carbohydrates like whole grains, beans, raspberries, bran cereal, broccoli, and apples are key sources of fiber.

3. Low-carb means low energy, athletic performance, and endurance.

The primary function of carbs is to provide the body with energy. If we don’t have carbohydrates available to continuously fuel our bodies’ systems, we end up feeling fatigued and sluggish. In addition, if we don’t eat adequate amounts of carbs, our bodies start to break down muscle for fuel…which leads me to my next point.

4. Low-carb means muscle loss.

I’m sure you’ve heard that protein is the building block of muscles. But have you heard that the brain can only run on carbs? The truth is, if we don’t consume enough carbs, our bodies eventually compensate by breaking down muscle protein and converting it to glucose molecules (sugars) that can fuel our brains. This process occurs as part of the body’s “starvation response” when it lacks adequate carbohydrates, and results in reduced muscle mass. Lack of carbs also means lack of a hormone called insulin, which helps build our muscles by absorbing amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

5. Low-carb means increased cortisol (stress).

Cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”) keeps blood sugars stable by helping to raise levels when they drop too low. Consuming carbohydrates elevates blood sugar levels, which then results in reduced cortisol production. In other words, when blood sugar is up, cortisol is down. This balance is a good thing, until we mess with it by restricting carb intake. The increased cortisol levels that result from a low-carb diet can hinder cognitive performance, lower immune function, disrupt sleep, increase anxiety, and cause blood sugar imbalances.

6. Low-carb can disrupt hormone production and menstrual cycles.

In response to the perceived starvation state and stress associated with a low-carb diet, hormone signaling via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is disrupted. As a result, women can experience stopped or irregular menstrual cycles, reduced fertility, mental health issues, chronic fatigue, and disrupted sleep.

7. Low-carb over a long-term period can increase the risk of health complications and chronic disease.

According to research based on 26 years of follow-up studies, consuming a low-carb diet for an extended period of time is associated with an increased risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, early death, stroke, and heart failure. Research shows that individuals who limited their carb intake had a 32% higher risk of death from any cause compared to people who ate high-carb diets. Increased risk of these chronic diseases is thought to be associated with the lack of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and micronutrients, and increased intake of animal protein and cholesterol, that are characteristic of a low-carb diet.

I’m sure by now you’re asking yourself: if all this is true, why do people still limit carbs? It all comes back to the reasons why people choose to do any diet. We hop on the bandwagon, always chasing the next quick fix, without paying attention to the long-term consequences. They’re hidden from the light, and unless you go searching, the truth will stay pretty dim. As you near the end of this post, I want you to reflect on three health-related values that are important to you. Maybe it’s your energy levels, maybe it’s the dream of having a family one day, or maybe it’s the goal of living a long and (mostly) stress-free, beautiful life. Regardless of the values you prioritize, I want you to remember that your long-term health should always outweigh your short-term gratification, even if society tells us differently. And for most of us, eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates promotes the long-term health we desire!

Written by Kayla Burson, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy

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