why low carb diets work in weight loss

Foods generally contain three major nutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It is an acknowledged fact that it is not the total amount of foods people eat that matters. The amount of the specific nutrient eaten is however more important. This is what causes a lot of the weight gain people experience.

Thus, the key to weight loss would be to reduce the specific nutrients involved. This strategy has however led to the proliferation of a lot of diets claiming to help with weight loss. While some have proven effective to various degrees, others have nothing to offer.

One such macronutrient that has experienced a fair share of vilification is carbohydrate. For the basics, there is a lot of misinformation about carbohydrate and how it affects healthy weight loss.

Low-carbohydrate diets are of particular interest in this article. They have however recently picked up a lot of heat. So, why all the fuss?

What role do carbohydrates actually play in the body? How does a low-carbohydrate diet impact weight loss? Why do experts have so much divergent arguments about this macronutrient?

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are almost exclusively from plants, vegetables, and grains. The only animal-based product that contains a significant amount of carbohydrate is milk.

There are basically two types of carbohydrates. We have simple and complex carbohydrates. This is based on the number of sugar units they contain in their chemical composition.

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Simple carbohydrates usually have one or two sugar molecules. They include the monosaccharides (single sugars) and disaccharides (double sugars). The most important simple sugar is glucose. However, the best known is table sugar (sucrose), a disaccharide.

Simple carbohydrates have smaller particle sizes. This makes it easier for the digestive system to break them down. Thus they are the fastest source of energy.

Complex carbohydrates or polysaccharides comprise of several smaller simple carbohydrates. They are only in foods of plant origin. There are two different groups of complex carbohydrates: starch and fiber.

Starch is the main type of digestible complex carbohydrates. They are the main energy reserve in roots, vegetables, and cereals. Their oxidation to carbon dioxide and water releases energy. Sources include breads, potatoes, plantain, pasta, cereals, and some fruits and vegetables.

Fiber is the rougher material that forms the coat of a seed and other structural components of plants. They are either soluble or insoluble in water. The body cannot absorb them thus they provide no calories. So they are not nutrients.

Fibers however provide some health benefits that include the following:

  • Reducing blood cholesterol levels
  • Normalizing blood sugar levels
  • Supporting bowel regularity

Uses of Carbohydrates

The body needs carbohydrate more than any other nutrient. Muscles cells and more particularly the brain run almost exclusively on carbohydrates. Glucose is the final product of the breakdown of all consumed carbohydrate-containing foods. It is very vital in a lot of body functions. These functions include:

  • Maintenance of tissue protein
  • Metabolism of fat
  • Provision of fuel to the central nervous system

After the digestion of carbohydrates, the resultant glucose goes into the bloodstream. However, the body does not immediately make use of all the glucose. The liver converts some of it into glycogen. Also, the body stores glycogen (also called animal starch) in the liver and muscle tissues.

The pancreas releases insulin when there is too much glucose in the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone responsible for storing glucose as fat in adipose tissues. Insulin’s function is to normalize blood glucose (sugar) levels.

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Over-secretion of insulin due to increased blood sugar levels causes general weight gain. This is where excess carbohydrate consumption becomes a big problem.

Glucose is the body’s primary source of energy most especially for the brain and muscles. However, the body only uses glucose for short-term bouts of activity.

On the other hand, glycogen serves as the body’s secondary energy source. The release and conversion of glycogen into glucose occurs only through the process of glycolysis. And glycolysis takes place only under certain conditions. First is during periods of intense physical activity. Second is when blood glucose levels become too low.

Stored body fat also serves as a backup source of energy. Despite this fact, the body never converts fat back into glucose.

How Low Carbohydrate Diets Work

Examples of low-carbohydrate diets are the Atkins Diet and South Beach Diet. They are based on the hypothesis that it is not fat that makes people to become fat. They allow dieters to consume high-fat foods such as butter, eggs, and steaks among others. However, there were restrictions on starches and refined carbohydrates.

The argument is that Carbohydrates (especially simple carbohydrates) metabolize too quickly. This makes dieters get hungry too fast after meals and tend to overeat.

This theory was first popularized by a cardiologist, Dr. Robert Atkins in the 1970s. A lot of medical expects seriously criticized it. They were of the opinion that diets should be low in fat and high in carbohydrates. They advocated the consumption of plenty grains, fruits, and vegetables. According to them, there should be a limit in the intake of meat and other dairy products.

The medical experts’ opinion became the de facto for dieting in the 1980s. However, the obesity epidemic took on a new negative dimension. Western cultures, including the America populace, started putting on extra weight.

Resurgence of Low Carbohydrate Diets

Low-carbohydrate diets regained popularity once again. People found it difficult to lose weight using low-fat high-carbohydrate diets. The renewed interest in low-carbohydrate diets was due to several small-scale studies. The studies found that low-carbohydrate diet may actually be effective in losing weight.

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Some studies showed that low-carbohydrate diets did not have some of the harmful effects claimed by critics. Other studies noted that most benefits were short-term. However, the negative side effects will take decades to become evident.

In fact, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine carried out a research in 2003. They found that using a low-carbohydrate diet resulted in a significant weight loss. This was a six months comparison to a conventional low-calorie, low-fat diet.

The same medical center carried out another study in 2004. They noted that both low-carbohydrate and conventional diets had similar weight loss results after one year. However, this study also found that a low-carbohydrate diet had improved health benefits.

There were improvements in persons with atherogenic dyslipidemia. This is a cholesterol disorder in which there is an elevated increase in triglycerides. They also noted a decrease in HDL “good” cholesterol levels in the blood.

Effects of Low Carbohydrate Diets

A low-carbohydrate diet results in quick weight loss. This is due to the fact the most of the weight loss comes from the loss of water from the body cells.

This is evident in the fact that carbohydrates (glucose) hold water in the muscles at a ratio of 1:3. So, when there is less carbohydrate, the amount of water equally reduces. This causes weight loss – although coming from water and little fat.

Glycogen depletion caused by a low carbohydrate diet leads to more water loss. The composition of glycogen is glucose and 75% water.

Also, a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet causes the kidney to use more water. This is besides the metabolism of protein that also produces water. This process produces carbon dioxide, water, ATP (the basic unit of energy), urea, and ammonia. The body uses water to also flush off the excess nitrogen produced from the same process.

A low-carbohydrate diet also causes a reduction in the creation level of insulin. This is due to the lowered glucose (sugar) levels in the bloodstream. Insulin removes excess glucose from the bloodstream for storage as fat in adipose tissues.

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Fat loss can thus be maximized if there is a significant reduction in insulin production.

No major studies have been able to prove that low-carbohydrate diets are harmful. This is despite the professional organizations that did not support the use of low-carbohydrate diets. Their arguments are based on the fact that they are not sustainable in the long-term and not about their effectiveness.

However, there are possible side effects of using a low-carbohydrate diet. The idea of it reducing insulin production is fundamentally sound.

There must be a reduction in high-density carbohydrate-containing foods to achieve optimal weight loss. Balance and portion size control should thus be the watchwords.