What is a "low carb" diet?

Like most diets when it comes to fitness and nutrition as a whole, there are many schools of thought and definitions of what a low-carb diet actually is. This is mainly due to the principles of the diet being hijacked by my many big names – such as Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Sugar Busters and the Dukan Diet – so much so that it is easy to associate a low-carb diet as being a system and being its own entity; when really it’s just a basic set of principles.

Each of the diet products that have the idea of low-carbohydrate intake at their core have a different definition of what low-carb actually is; sometimes it’s based on setting a target percentage of the daily nutritional intake and sometimes it’s defined as only allowing a set weight of carbohydrates per day.

Whether we’re looking at commercial diets or whether we’re looking at more scientific research into the ideas of blood sugar control such for diseases such as diabetes, the definition of what consists of a low-carb diet is rather varied. However, the general idea is a diet that has a main goal of limiting the consumption that are high in carbohydrates or that are known to increase the blood sugar levels dramatically.

How Low is Low-Carb?

Technically, the U.S Dietary Guidelines and their peers often suggest that the daily consumption of carbohydrates should be around 50-60% of your daily intake. The other factors of your diet will be constituents such as protein, fats and fiber. Theoretically then, if that’s the average, then anything that is less than this would be considered to be “low-carb.”

However, if you’re looking to lose weight, then it’s often said that your carbohydrate intake should be significantly lower than 50-60% of your daily nutritional intake. Many often find that when they stick to 50-60% limits they have no or very little success at weight loss. While this is also due to other factors such as lifestyle and exercise, it makes sense that, when you’re trying to burn off more energy that you are storing, then those limits are more for maintaining your current weight, then helping you lose it.

Of the various diets out there on the market, and even the advice given for those that have diseases such as diabetes, there have been various recommendations that suggest your dietary intake of carbohydrates if should be as low as 5-45%.

This all depends on what you aim to achieve for a low-carbohydrate diet – you may not necessarily be looking to lose weight, and you may be following a low-carb diet in order to control blood sugar levels for diabetes, pre-diabetes and many other ailments.

The amount of carbohydrates that you intake per day is largely going to be dependent on your overall goals.

Of all of the medically-recommended and commercial diet plans out there, there are three basic ways of determining and measuring what a low-carb diet actually is.

A General Reduction in Carbohydrates

Some meal plants don’t really aim to specify how much carbohydrate that you should be eating in a day and the general idea is to simply reduce your intake. You may have come to learn that carbohydrates are high in energy and, if you’re not burning off and using up that energy, then it’s going to get stored as fat. It makes sense that, if you’re intake of carbohydrates is more than you are able to utilize, you need to cut down.

For many people this general idea of reducing carbohydrates can be enough and, if you’re not looking for a tangible percentage or amount to aim for, then it can help you to think more about the foods that you are eating in a day.

Some diets simply state that you should just heavily cut back on “White Foods” and they suggest that you should eliminate a lot of the white rice, potatoes, wheat and sugar from your diet.

These types of diets don’t go into much detail about what measuring or heavily monitoring what you should be eating, by they do suggest that all that is required is a broad reduction on these types of “White Foods” as they’re high in carbohydrates.

This suggestion isn’t at all a tangible idea of what constitutes a low-carb diet but many people find the general idea of really deducing their carbohydrate intake is enough for them to get results. The main problem with this suggestion is that people have differing ideas of what “reducing” their carbohydrate intake actually is. What one person may call a sharp reduction in their intake of carbohydrates maybe a relatively mild reduction for someone else.

Finding Your Personal Suitable Amount of Carbohydrate Intake

It’s obvious that everyone is going to have a different level of tolerance for carbohydrates – depending on our previous intake of carbohydrate, what we’re used to keeping our blood sugar levels at, and how active we are in using up that energy from carbohydrates. Therefore, many diet plans and nutritionists advise that you should find the best amount of carbohydrate that is suitable for us personally.

How we respond to carbohydrates can be affected by a whole host of attributes – from sex, age, weight, muscle mass, previous diet and existing diseases and ailments. Therefore, the reasons why determining what would be a “low-carb” diet should be specific for each individual are relatively obvious.

Everyone has their own “normal range” of blood sugar level and, when that blood sugar level drops we begin to feel hungry in order to increase it. If everyone has a different range of what is a suitable level of blood sugar then the sustainability for a low-carb diet is going to be different for everyone. A level target level of carbohydrate intake to aim for that helps one person lose weight may not have any effect on another.

Age is a large contributing factor to our individual carbohydrate tolerance levels. As we age, our ability to tolerate carbohydrates decreases even if the blood sugar level is a level that would be considered normal. The relationship between the blood sugar level and the hunger pang is reduced and so it becomes easier to store fat and the chances of diabetes are increased. Therefore, any diet plan that suggests that carbohydrate levels should be determined taking the individual into consideration should make an allowance for age as a large determining factor of the outcome.

In this sense, a “low-carb” diet is one that is specifically worked out to be one that causes your intake of carbohydrates to be moderately less than you were personally previously used to so that your weight decreases. However, if weight loss is not your main aim, then you can increase your intake gradually until your weight remains constant.

It’s about finding what level is “low-carb” for you personally - not just in general. An example of this type of idea, commercially, is in the later stages of the Atkins diet where you find your “lifetime maintenance” that will be between 1 ½ ounces and 3 ½ ounces for most people. It’s not just based on the idea of staying low; it’s based on the idea of finding what’s right for you.

Ketogenic Diets

When people talk about low carbohydrate diets the word “ketogenesis” is often not too far away. When we want to work out what a low-carb diet is, the other way that we can do that is to look at it in terms of ketogenesis.

Ketogenesis is the process where the body starts to use fat for energy instead of glucose. Glucose is carbohydrate broken down into small molecules. This is sometimes also called “keto-adaptation”. The system is innate within the body in order to allow the body to keep going for longer, even in periods where there is little carbohydrate available.

Taking your body into ketogenesis where fat begins to be used for fuel is often a good definition of following a low-carb diet. While some consider this to be extreme, it is the basis for many diets out there on the market and is even sometimes advised by nutritionists.

Going into ketogenesis is often the hallmark of a low-carb diet and so it can often be the measure of whether a low-carb diet has been followed or not. For most people, a state of ketogenesis can be reached on less than 2 ounces of carbohydrates within a day.

As you will see, there is not one way to determine what a low-carb diet actually is. Yes, you can read about the ways in which you should aim to reduce your carbohydrate intake to a certain amount and so it can be classed as a low-carb diet – however, it may not actually be enough for you personally to lose weight or reduce your blood sugar levels sufficiently.

Therefore, a low-carb diet, while it is technically classed as 50-60% of your daily intake as carbohydrates by the U.S Dietary Guidelines, this doesn’t give you any indication of the amount that you should aim for in order to achieve the results you want personally. For example, it’s possible to have 50% of your daily intake as carbohydrates and yet you can be eating way too much to have any weight loss results.

So, in a general sense, a low-carb diet is all about reducing the amount of carbohydrates that you have in your diet – yet the actual specific ways in which you choose to do that is going to be up to you as an individual. There are many different factors and ways of measuring what could be a low-carb diet and you can have a “low-carb diet” or a “low-carb diet that gets the results you want.”




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