A low carb diet meal with a grilled sirloin steak and avocado
Low Carb Dieting - Benefits and Risks

The benefits and risks of low carbohydrate dieting vary with how low you go.  Here’s our list of the main pros and cons, along with guidance to help you decide if low carb is right for you, and at what level.

The Benefits and Risks of a Low Carb Diet

By WLR Staff

It's easy to find a diet plan. The hard bit comes as we try to weigh up the pros and cons of a particular diet.

It's a good idea to ask yourself the following questions while you're looking around:

  • Which one will best help you reach our weight loss goals?
  • What method will be easiest to fit into your lifestyle?
  • Which type of diet could you manage to stick to?
  • What about the health implications?
  • Will it help you to change your eating habits for the long term?

Here we boil down the main pros and cons of low carb dieting.

Benefits of a Low Carb Diet

The number 1 benefit of low carb dieting is weight loss. If you can stick to a low carb plan, you will lose weight.

Low carb diets run from the pretty extreme, such as traditional Atkins, to more moderate versions like diets based on low GI eating.

The best low carb diets focus on eliminating starchy carbohydrates such as:

  • white bread
  • pasta
  • white rice
  • cakes, pastries and biscuits
  • sugary drinks
  • sweets and puddings

These types of foods are either high in simple carbohydrates, or have added sugars.

Following a low carb diet, especially one that replaces bad carbs with good (complex) carbs helps regulate spikes in blood sugar which in turn may lower blood pressure and promote heart and circulatory system health.

For people living with diabetes, cutting back on added sugars and fast digesting simple carbohydrates is an essential element of maintaining good health.

Some studies have shown that eating low carb may also help promote lower cholesterol levels

Having said that, many diets that help you reduce calories will also lead to improved cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels.

A major benefit of going low carb for many people is the simple fact that they don’t feel hungry.

Food is not restricted as such, only foods high in carbohydrates.

This can work in three ways:

  1. The higher intake of protein associated with these diets satisfies hunger for longer periods than diets high in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates and added sugars.
  2. The feeling of being able to eat ‘as much as you want’ can help to prevent feelings of deprivation that are often associated with dieting.
  3. With so many foods restricted or banned, depending on the level of severity of the low carb diet in question, some dieters find low carb easier to follow than calorie counted plans.

Risks of a Low Carb Diet

Ketosis

Most of the very low carb diets work by inducing a state in your body called ketosis, these are sometimes also referred to as ketogenic diets.

Essentially, ketogenic diets cause your body to rely on fat for fuel, because there is little or no fuel available from carbohydrate – normally your body’s ‘favourite’ fuel source.

Possible Side Effects of a Ketogenic Low Carb Diet

Less serious side effects, such as lethargy, bad breath, tiredness and headaches will tend to subside during the first few weeks. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Persistent symptoms may be a sign of blood sugar getting too low, see your doctor, or a qualified dietitian (RD in the UK), if you are concerned.

Persistent heartburn and/or excessive stomach acid would be another reason to check in with your GP.

Hair loss is often associated with extreme dieting methods, not just very low carb. This will most likely be temporary, but it’s a risk to consider when you are choosing your weight loss method.

Longer Term Side Effects of Keeping Your Body in a Ketogenic State

Following these diets for a longer time may increase your risk of high cholesterol, kidney disease or damage, osteoporosis, abnormal heartbeat, and possibly sudden death.

Your age can be important in terms of the health implications of a ketogenic diet, depending on how much protein you eat.

If you are middle-aged, excessive protein can increase your risk of cancer, diabetes and general risk of premature death.

You can mitigate the risk by only doing extreme (20-50g) low carb dieting for short periods – maybe as a kick-start for up to a few weeks.

Missing Out on the Benefits of Fruit

A major risk, from a health point of view, of strict low carb dieting like Atkins is a lack of the beneficial, health promoting goodness of eating a wide range of fruits.

Many hard-core low carb plans recommended starting at a maximum of 20g of carbohydrate a day, and even those that allow up to 50g will prove restrictive in this respect.

When you go under 50 grams per day you’re going to have to eliminate most fruits from your diet, although you can have berries in small amounts.

Study after study has shown that fruits are powerful protectors of health. They are also lower in calories than all other foods used as sweet snacks, and therefore great for weight loss.

Gut Flora

Most people are now aware that the composition and balance of bacteria that lives in your gut can influence health.

Research on the various effects of the bacteria that live within us is in its fairly early stages, but most studies show that it at least plays a part in weight and health. There is evidence to show that very low carb diets change the composition of gut bacteria which could have health implications.

WLR Opinion

Choosing the diet that is going to work for you depends on your personal goals, and your lifestyle – or perhaps the lifestyle you want to have.

Just like any diet, low carbing has good points and bad points.

When it comes to weight loss, just being a lower weight can have a big impact on your long term health. If you think low carb dieting sounds like the best way to help you to achieve that lower weight, then give it a try. Just don’t stay too long at too low carbs.

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