Low-Carb Nutrition Explained Once And For All

Have you ever heard of low-carb eating?

Silly question, right? Of course you have. After all, it’s one of the biggest trends around. And I’m willing to bet that one way or the other you’ve got a fairly definite opinion on the matter. Because whether or not you’ve given low-carb eating a go, and regardless of how fully you understand the science of it all, it’s a controversial topic. In fact, I’d put the low-carb debate up there with oh, vegetarianism vs meat-eating, God vs the big bang or evolution, and the question of whether it’s really the man or the woman’s job to take the trash out.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe that low-carb eating is a trend, a fad, or a fly-by-night approach to nutrition. In fact, I believe that (when approached correctly) low-carb eating is actually an ideal way to eat for not just weight management, but for optimal health. To sum up, I think that the premise of a high-fat and protein diet being bad for you and a high-carbohydrate diet – even ‘healthy’ carbs – is completely wrong. Let me explain.

the diet heart hypothesis

Many moons ago when I was a young and bright-eyed Personal Trainer I was an avid believer in the diet-heart hypothesis and all it stood for.

What’s the diet-heart hypothesis? Well, it’s the way you most likely eat, or at least the way you’ve been told to eat. It’s what your doctor and the vast majority of health practitioners teach as gospel. It’s the premise that fat and protein are risky as part of a healthy diet, and it’s based on one very important study. This study, which was finished in the 1950’s and conducted by a Mr Ancel Keys, has been quite definitely the greatest single influence on the eating trends of the Western world.  And –in my opinion – is therefore the greatest culprit to point at for continuously rising obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The diet-heart hypothesis can be summed up by the following points.

  • Saturated fat is bad for you and causes heart disease, increased triglycerides and cholesterol
  • Protein – especially meat – should be viewed with some element of caution due to its natural fat content
  • Foods that contain cholesterol (such as egg) should be treated with the utmost suspicion
  • A healthy diet is one rich in plants such as vegetables and fruits, plenty of whole grains, and a moderate amount of lean protein and non-saturated fat

The diet-heart hypothesis has taught us that the answer to weight management and longevity is a controlled high-carbohydrate and low-calorie diet.

If only we’d been given the full picture.

Low-carb as a concept has its origins in a document from early last century titled ‘A Letter On Corpulance’ by a Mr William Banting. Banting was severely overweight, to the point of not being able to tie his own shoelaces. After being sternly admonished by his doctor, Banting put himself on a diet of unlimited meats and fats, with only one piece of bread each day, and some fruit for sugars. He ate green vegetables but not root vegetables. Within a matter of months Banting had declared himself in sounder health than he could recall and had lost a notable amount of weight. His letter on corpulence became famous worldwide.

And so the controversy began. Because despite the fact that the typical pre 1920s Western diet was basically opposite to today, being 90% protein and fat based, and despite the fact that this went hand in hand with diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes being virtually unknown, every low-carb advocate from Banting forwards has been vilified for their beliefs.

I believe this is in great part because the basic concept of low-carb is seriously misunderstood. The key area of contention being the incorrect assumption that low-carb dieting is all about sacrifice, or the removal of certain foods, and another common mistake being the failure to highlight adequate nutrient intake.

Making low-carb work for you: what you put in

In order to successfully undertake a low-carb eating plan and improve not only your waistline but your energy, your mental acuity, your cholesterol ratios and indeed your overall blood work and general well-being, it is important to first focus on what goes in. Of course I’ve touched on this in previous posts, but I’d like to really get down to the nitty gritty of it now.

First Eat This

In my opinion, a healthy low-carb plan should include adequate quantities of the following nutrients.

  1. Protein – all forms of animal protein, along with nuts and seeds, legumes, and super-foods such as chia seeds and bee pollen.
  2. Smart fats – avocado, full-fat (ideally raw) dairy, the fat from organic meats, omega-3 fatty acids, other quality oils such as coconut oil, flaxseed oil and olive oil.
  3. Seasonal green vegetables (raw or steamed, in plentiful amounts)
  4. Some fruits (berries are my first choice due to their high antioxidant value; stone fruits are also great)
  5. Fiber (both from vegetable and also in supplement form such as psyllium husks or ground flaxseeds). Fiber is essential to healthy metabolism and detoxification.

Avoid Or Minimise This

I hesitate to say never eat a given food (the exception being trans fats, which are not a food). There’s no reason why any sensible eating plan can’t include treats and indulgences in whatever form you choose, particularly if well structured. The following are the ‘foods’ I feel should be treated with caution if health is your goal.

  1. Sugars of any kind. Common offenders are low-fat foods high in added sugar, and heavily processed white grains. If you’re not sure if something contains sugar, look on the label for any ingredients ending in ‘ose’. That’s sugar.
  2. Excessive grain intake. Personally I do not believe grains are healthy, and every client who takes a 2 week elimination test has this ‘proven’ to them in terms of their digestion and the way they feel. If you do choose to eat grains, home-sprouted is a healthier choice, as even ‘wholegrains’ are only legally required to contain 51% actual wholegrains.
  3. Inadequate amounts of food. I’m a fan of occasional fasting when overall food intake is of sound quality, but I definitely don’t advocate calorie restriction on a day-to-day basis. Cutting calories too severely not only makes you feel awful but it can actually lead to weight gain through the release of the hormone cortisol.
  4. Too much lean protein and not enough fat. By its very nature a low-carb diet will probably be high in protein. Regardless of how often you eat protein, bear in mind that in nature fat always accompanies protein. There’s a reason for this. I recently read a study in which a high-protein low-fat diet not only restricted weight loss but led to a host of health complaints, whereas the same diet with fat added resulted in sound health and steady fat loss.
  5. Processed or well-marketed fad foods. Most well-marketed shakes, bars and balls (especially those with the words ‘energy’ on them!) are absolute rubbish in my opinion. I’d rather go hungry. Real food is where it’s at.

It’s taken me a good 13 or 14 years of education, research and – most importantly – trial and error to come to the point where I now absolutely advocate low-carb eating for the majority of people. I’m quite certain that as the years passed I’ll continue to trial new approaches to eating. My recent research on fasting being a prime example, although something I’m still not 100% sure about. But I can absolutely guarantee you this – there’s never going to come a time when I’d seriously re-consider the idea of processed and farmed foods being intrinsically healthier than foods chosen for their natural existence and seasonal goodness. Wouldn’t you agree?

I hope today’s article has given you some useful food for thought in continuing your own exploration of health, and would love to hear your comments and questions on the matter. Have you tried low-carb? Know someone who has? Keen to give it a go now that you understand how best to tackle it? Get involved below!

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16 responses to “Low-Carb Nutrition Explained Once And For All”

  1. Nora says:

    Hey Kat!

    I have recently started going low carb and I am not sure how much fat I need to eat. How many grams of fat per day (on average) would you say is a good amount?

  2. Denise says:

    Hi Kat,

    Found your link over at A-List Bloggers, and immediately subscribed. I have a brand-new blog about holistic living, and there’s quite a bit of overlap with nutrition and fitness. I’ve been low-carb for about a year and have never felt better in my life. Great article! Looking forward to reading more. 🙂

    • Kat says:

      @ Denise – thanks for subscribing, and nice to meet you! I’m going to check out your blog now!

      @ Nora – Sue is correct, it’s tough to give an average, and the more you repeatedly choose the right foods the easier it will be to know how much your body needs. Having said that, I’d suggest no less than 40 for a small-medium adult. I have 70 approximately, and weigh 60kg. I’m extremely active though?

  3. Sue says:

    I don’t really think you can give an average. You just need to eat what you normally would on low carb and take a note of the grams of protein, fat and carb. See how you feel on those amounts, if your goal is weight loss – is the amounts you are eating getting you to that goal? Are you sedentary or very athletic – that would determine amounts you should be eating, etc. After the initial week or so of your body getting used to low carb, take a note how you feel – lack of energy – you may need more fat.

  4. Aster says:

    When I changed over to taking out grains, I had a massive surge of energy. For anyone that’s considering it, try it and see how you feel (listening to what your body tells you).

  5. Aileen says:

    I love this article!
    Two things woke me up about the endless low carb diet question (1) Good Calories Bad Calories and (2) the documentary Fat Head. I had loved grains, but I feel much better keeping them to a minimum


    • Kat says:

      @ Aileen – thanks! I love that book as well; it’s one of the foundation books of my library. Haven’t seen Fat Head; I might have to check that out!

  6. Deb says:

    Great article Kat. So nice to see Ansel Keys exposed. So much of formal nutrition education is based on these misconceptions that were developed mainly to support big food and big Pharma. We need to keep spreading the truth and challenging deceptions like the whole grain foods (only has to contain 51%) and saturated fats being bad for us (also not true). It’s no wonder we’ve got an obesity epidemic and increasing incidences of degenerative diseases.

  7. Carla says:

    Kat, thank you for this well written article on low-carb diet. I’m passing this along to anyone who is interested in it or curious to how I eat.

    Question for you: Do you track your carb intake, or do you just wing it? I used at one time, but fell of the wagon thinking I had it down. Do you find yourself needing to track every now and then?

    • Kat says:

      Hi Carla. I don’t really track it, no. I just keep starch to a minimum except post-workout, or on cheat day.

  8. low fat foods are very necessary for our well being, our bodies just hate fats .

    • Kat says:

      That is the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever seen. Please do some research on requirements of cell metabolism, hormone function, and (although this explains your comment in part) what your brain needs to function and be healthy!