With so many different variations, low carb high fat diets remain one of the most popular trends. Let’s examine what the research says before you restrict yourself.
BY: COURTNEY FERREIRA, MS, RD, LDN
Most nutrition professionals will emphasize a balanced approach to healthy eating. However, for someone with a medical condition that is largely impacted by diet, it can be very beneficial to look at what and when you are eating with a more critical eye.
Often times, simple swaps or additions can make a large impact on blood biomarkers, energy, and medication dosage. However, in our current diet culture, people tend to go for the extremes when they believe they need to make a major change in their eating habits. One of those approaches include the low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet.
But do studies support LCHF diets’ role in improving health? Before you jump on the LCHF bandwagon, here are a few things to consider when you’re looking at the research:
1. There is no current consensus on what a “low-carb” diet is.
Across different research studies, LCHF diet consists of anywhere from <40 grams (example: 2 slices of bread, <1/2 large apple) to 100 grams (2 slices of bread, 1 large apple, 1/2 c rice, 1/2 c dry cereal) of carbohydrates a day. Some define low carb as percentage of calories, such as < 30% of calories from carbohydrates.
Because of this inconsistency, it is difficult to compare research when the definition of low-carb varies in each study. With so many different studies that exists on low carbohydrate or high fat diets, you will find that there is research to support any angle you want to take. Each study also uses different foods to provide the carbohydrate and fat sources, so LCHF studies are often inconsistent from overall diet composition alone.
2. Comparing apples to oranges?
One common theme you will find in studies – LCHF outcomes are often compared to a low fat, high carb (LFHC) diet. Which brings us to the question: is “low carb” impacting outcomes, or are there confounding factors that are the likely culprits?
Could a moderate decrease in carbohydrates have the same impact, or perhaps it was the increase of healthy fats in the diet that helped?
3. Restriction isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Carbohydrates impact blood sugar levels, so if you decrease carbohydrate intake, you will decrease blood sugar (although conventional medicine has made this concept overly complicated). On the other hand, fat increases satiety, satisfaction, and fullness and does not raise your blood sugar. When fat is eaten with carbohydrates, it slows blood sugar from rising and therefore, you are less likely to have a blood sugar spike and crash. This is why the concept of a balanced diet is sustainable.
However, setting a maximum amount of carbs for the day is a form of restriction, which may cause extreme preoccupation with food, extreme cravings, and ultimately may become too difficult to keep up with. Beyond that, low carb restrictions can lead to elimination of nutrient-dense and satisfying foods such as dairy and fruit (both have natural sugar). Fun fact: did you know that dairy may help prevent risk of chronic disease?
So how do you make LCHF work in real life?
If you’re set on going for a LCHF lifestyle, let’s take some of the concepts shown in research studies and see how they can apply to our usual eating habits:
1. Consider your fat intake.
Are you having a fat source with every meal? Fat is powerful, and adding healthy fats to your meal will balance your plate, keep blood sugars in control, and improve your blood lipid panel over time.
2. Add some ‘good’ carbs.
Include a nutrient-dense carbohydrate source with your meal, not as the entire meal. Most of us lead sedentary lifestyles, but spend the majority of our hours sitting. When there is limited movement throughout the day, the body does not need as much fuel compared to someone who is on their feet.
While some may consider having only 1 serving of a carbohydrate-dense food at each meal a “low carb” approach, this is simply about eating to meet your needs, which isn’t all that high when you’ve been at a desk all day. Remember, vegetables also have carbohydrates but contain plenty of fiber – include as many as you can in each meal!
3. Don’t have a restrictive mindset.
Don’t go into it with a mindset and the need to cut out foods you enjoy. Just work towards creating more balance and eating more greens. Intentionally add something green and a source of protein to your meals. When you do adopt this mindset, there is naturally less room (both on your plate and in your stomach) for carbohydrate-dense foods.
Try starting this approach with breakfast. Most of us eat a carbohydrate heavy breakfast – cereal, bagels, toast. We don’t need to cut the carbs all together, but a healthful diet is full of variety, so mix it up.
Try mashing avocado on one slice of bread and enjoying an egg or two with it. Adding new foods such as eggs (protein and fat), avocado (fat), peanut butter (fat and protein) can improve your energy all day! The combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat allows for a steady, manageable influx of sugar into the blood.
Simple changes that are made to balance out your plate can still make a big difference!
Adapted from the original article.
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Courtney Ferreira, MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian based in Baltimore, MD with a passion for helping individuals reach their health and wellness through flavorful whole foods and freedom from counting calories, fat, and minutes on a treadmill. For more insightful tips on living your healthiest life, visit Courtney at the RealFoodCourt.