Low-Carb Diets: The Good, the Bad and the Unhealthy

What diet, when followed, will result in weight loss? What diet is safe, healthy and can help you maintain your weight for many years after the diet? Americans are looking for ways to lose weight. They want it quick. They want the weight to stay off. There are many fad diets that will take the weight off. Sadly, most will not keep the weight off for long.

The popular diets now are the lowcarb diets. These diets limit the amount of carbohydrates to less than 30 grams a day. Protein and high fat foods take the place of carbohydrates in these diets. Most high protein/low carb diets have different “ phases” or steps to the diet plan. The first phase is usually the most difficult. That is because it severely restricts the types of foods you can eat, usually carbohydrate foods. In addition, the number of calories is also restricted to between 1200 and 1500 calories. Vitamins and mineral supplements have to be added to the diet to make up for those missing from the diet. They will also tell you “exercise is essential.”

There is a lot of debate over how safe these types of diets are. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are nutrients that give our bodies energy in the form of glucose. Our bodies work better on glucose from carbohydrates. Thirty grams of carbohydrates is not enough. When we don’t get enough from them, our bodies will get the glucose by breaking down protein from the lean tissue in our bodies. The fats we eat need carbohydrates to be metabolized properly. Without carbohydrates, fats are converted into ketones. This results in a condition called ketosis. Ketosis can be dangerous to some people with certain medical conditions.

At minimum, we should be getting 130 grams of carbohydrates everyday. We get carbohydrates by eating foods such as bread and cereals, fruit, vegetables, and milk and three milk products. One slice of bread can give our bodies as much as 15 grams of carbohydrates. A serving of fruit or a cup of milk, can also give us about 15 grams. By limiting our intake to 30 grams, we are not getting the variety of foods we should be getting everyday.

The fact is, all low-calorie diets that include exercise will result in weight loss. It doesn’t matter how much protein, carbohydrate, or fat is in the diet. They tend to be hard to follow, and they are boring and hard to maintain over a lifetime. There is no “magic pill” or “magic diet.” The number of calories going in versus the number of calories going out determines weight loss or gain.

The best kind of diet is one that you can start and stay with for the rest of your life. It should be nutritionally adequate. It should contain a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. It will allow you to eat any type of healthy food, as long as you do not over eat. It will provide almost all the nutrients you need for good health without adding vitamin or mineral supplements. It will require exercise or other types of physical activity. Replacing “bad” carbohydrates such as potato chips, cookies, cakes and pies with healthier ones is a better way to control weight and be healthy.

Written by Lynnette Mensah, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension

Edited by: Katherine Reuter, Extension Educator, Consumer and Family Economics, University of Illinois Extension, Countryside Extension Center.

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