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The Truth About Low Carb Diets

Do Carbs Make You Fat?

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Updated May 15, 2014

Updated May 15, 2014

Low carb diets have been around for years, touting the benefits of cutting out carbs while increasing fat and protein to lose weight. But, are low carb diets good for you? Do carbs really make you fat? Get the facts about low carb diets.

What Are Carbs Anyway?

If you're confused about carbohydrates, you're not alone. Carbs are one of the six nutrients used by the body for energy and 1 gram=4 calories. Carbs are important because they:

  • Are the main main source of fuel for the body
  • Are quickly and easily used by the body for energy
  • Can be stored in the muscles for exercise
  • Provide lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber
  • Help your body function properly without fatigue

The confusing part is that there are different types of carbs, some that can contribute to weight loss and some that make it harder. Carbs aren't inherently bad - Eating too much of anything can cause weight gain. However, learning to choose carbs that offer more fiber, vitamins and minerals will make losing weight easier.

Simple Carbs

Simple carbs such as candy, sodas and juice are quickly digested and can be used immediately for energy. However, they also spike blood glucose levels, which inevitably leads to a crash when your blood sugar drops. Simple carbs (such as honey) can be an ideal choice just before an intense cardio workout like sprints, but they're not a great choice for snacks or meals since they can leave you hungry and tired.

Complex Carbs

Complex carbs take longer to digest and come from things like whole grain products, vegetables, and fruits. They are slowly released into the body, unlike simple carbs, so you don't get that sugar rush followed by the painful sugar crash.

Regardless of the type of carbs you eat, all are treated the same way in your body--they are all broken down into sugars during digestion. But, complex carbs are almost always the best choice because they are naturally low in fat, high in fiber and provide tons of vitamins and minerals.

The Thinking Behind Low-Carb

Every low-carb diet is different and requires varying amounts of carbs, protein and fat. However, the common theme is this: eating high-carb causes an overproduction of insulin which leads to overeating, obesity and insulin resistance.

Here's how carbs work:

  1. High-carb foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar
  2. This blood sugar causes the body to produce insulin which carries nutrients to cells
  3. Our cells use this sugar for energy
  4. If there's too much sugar, it is stored as fat

Proponents of low-carb diets believe that when you eat too many carbs, insulin becomes less effective at carrying sugar to the cells which results in more sugar being stored as fat.

Scientists aren't sure if this is true and some researchers believe that this insulin insensitivity is only true for people who eat too many calories in the first place. So, who's right? We don't know. There's no proof that a high-carb diet causes overweight and there's an ongoing debate on the value and science behind low-carb diets.

So what is 'low-carb'?

  • The National Academy of Sciences recommends no less than 120 grams of carbs per day
  • The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 300 grams of carbs per 2000 calories (about 60% of total calories)
  • Atkins initially recommends 20 grams per day (less than 5%)
  • Protein Power recommends about 12-15% of calories should be carbs
  • The Zone advises keeping carbs at 40% of total calories

While we don't know which, if any, recommendation is right, recent studies in the New England Journal of Medicine report that participants who successfully followed low-carb plans for six months lost more weight than those who ate low-fat. Those on the Atkins diet raised their levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol.

Note: Almost half the participants dropped out of their programs and, after a year, the Atkin's followers regained up to a third of the pounds they lost.

There's no question that people lose weight on low-carb diets, but are they safe? Is it possible to stick to them?

Next: The Problem With High Protein Diets
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