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Benefits and Risks of a Low-Carb Diet: How Low is Too Low?
Certain low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have been shown to not only be very effective for weight loss, but also for improving other health markers such as blood sugar levels, as well as neurological health, hormonal balance and more.
Made famous by the Atkins Diet and other similar weight-loss plans, low-carb diets are most well-known for shedding pounds fast. And despite what might initially come to mind when you think about low-carb diet plans — for example, eating loads of meat, cheese, oil and butter — research suggests that a balanced low-carb diet poses few health risks if done right.
In fact, certain low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have been shown to not only be very effective for weight loss, but also for improving other health markers such as blood sugar levels, as well as neurological health, hormonal balance and more.
What Is a Low-Carb Diet?
A low-carb diet is a diet that limits carbohydrate foods — such as foods with added sugar, grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — and emphasizes foods high in protein and fat.
Low-carb diets are nothing new and have been used in the medical community for a variety of purposes for more than a century. Based on decades of research, low-carb diets have been linked to benefits including:
- fast weight loss
- reduced hunger
- better control over insulin and blood sugar
- enhanced cognitive performance
- lower risk for heart disease factors
- reduced risk for certain types of cancer
The benefits of low-carb diets are mostly due to a reduction, or in some cases almost an entire elimination, of glucose. Glucose, or other molecules that can turn into glucose once eaten, are found in all carbohydrate foods — whether grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, fruits and sweeteners of all kinds. To a lesser degree even nuts, seeds and vegetables contain glucose.
How do low-carb diets work? They’re effective because they cause glucose to quickly run out, and when your supply becomes low enough, your body turns to fat for fuel as a backup source — whether it’s fat coming from your diet, or your own stored body fat.
Our bodies normally run on glucose or sugar for energy, but we cannot make glucose ourselves and only store about 24 hours worth within our muscles and liver. Once glucose from carbohydrates is no longer available for energy due to following a low-carb diet, we begin to burn stored fat for fuel instead. This is why low-carb diets often lead to fast weight loss and other metabolic improvements within a relatively short period of time.
The Difference Between Low-Carb Diets: High-Fat vs. High-Protein
People can mean different things when referring to low-carb diets, which creates some confusion about what a low-carb diet might actually look like. For example, which type of low-carb diet is more common and more beneficial, high-fat or high-protein?
High-Fat, Low-Carb Diets (aka the Ketogenic Diet):
A ketogenic diet — one form of a very low-carb diet — is a high-fat diet that strictly eliminates almost all sources of glucose in order to put the body into “fat-burning mode,” also called nutritional ketosis. The ketogenic diet goes by several different names, including the “no-carb diet” or “very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet” (LCKD or VLCKD for short).
Ketogenic diets have been used by doctors to treat patients with ep
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