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To Carb or Not To Carb? (Part I)

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

To carb or not to carb -- that is the question!

A friend of mine recently asked about a low-carb or no-carb diet. She said, "I'm trying to lose weight and have more energy on a daily basis. Carbs make me sleepy and feel bloated; should I do the ketone diet or a no-carb diet?"

I love this question! I love it because it's so unbelievably complicated. The ketone diet is really gaining momentum in our culture and many people swear by it -- swear by its potential health benefits; its ability to help monitor type II diabetes; its cancer-preventing, anti-inflammatory potential; and its energy-producing effects. And if nothing else, the ketone diet sure as heck works that self-discipline muscle!

So, is the ketone diet all it's cracked up to be? The answer is...well, it depends.

First, let's be clear about the ketone diet and carbs: Carbs are allowed on the ketone diet, just in very small amounts (5-10% of your daily caloric intake). The no-carb diet is a more extreme version with total carb intake at 0-5%. The main premise of the ketone diet (and a no-carb diet) is that by starving your body of carbohydrates, your body will then turn to fats for fuel. Sounds great on paper, right? Burn fats, woohoo! But as science teaches us over and over again, the human body is way more complicated than that.

History is repeating itself once again. In the 90's, all fats were evil -- ice cream, eggs, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, full-fat milk, cheese...the higher the number beside the word "fats" on the nutrition label, the unhealthier the food (or so we thought). We then enlightened ourselves: "Ah, not all fats are bad! Some fats are good!" Turns out, the same enlightenment exists for carbs: Some carbs are bad and should be avoided, and some carbs are good and should be included in everyone's diet.

Yes, we do need some carbs.

The following paragraphs address two major concerns regarding a no-carb diet. The ketone diet, which is a more realistic alternative, is addressed in more detail in Part II of "To Carb or Not To Carb?".

I'll get right to the point: a no-carb diet with carbohydrate intake at less than 5% is not wise and potentially very dangerous to one's health. Here's why:

  1. The most convincing argument against a no-carb diet is that it is missing two entire food groups: grains/legumes and fruits, as well as starchy vegetables and some dairy products. The diet is very limited because there are actually very few foods with zero carbs. By cutting out grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, and some dairy, a no-carb dieter is essentially cutting out a plethora of essential vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants. Whole grains and legumes possess essential nutrients that aid in digestive health. Fruits and starchy vegetables contain important vitamins and antioxidants that cannot be found in other sources. Without these major food groups, long-term, no-carb dieters run the risk of developing vitamin deficiencies which can lead to a whole host of problems later in life.

  2. Another concern with the no-carb diet is total fat and caloric intake. Without carbs, a person will likely turn to meats and oils for satiety. Here's an interesting fact: there are 4 calories/gram of carbohydrates, 4 calories/gram of protein, and 9 calories/gram of fats. That's a quite a significant increase per gram, more than double that of carbs. If someone isn't careful and disregards caloric intake, it's easy to consume high levels of saturated fats and possibly even trans fats on a no-carb diet. High levels of saturated fats lead to an increase in bad cholesterol, LDL, which contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes. Consuming abnormally high quantities of fats also places more stress on the kidneys and liver.

If the ultimate goal is health and longevity, unless recommended by a medical doctor, consuming a no-carb diet is not a healthy solution and could potentially lead to dangerous health outcomes later on in life.

This brings us to the ketone diet. Is the ketone diet right for you? Continue to Part II for more!

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