How low can you go? The basics of low carb eating

There are many benefits of a low carb diet, particularly for certain conditions like diabetes, hormonal imbalances and weight gain, but exactly what is low carb eating and how low can you go?

Current official dietary guidelines recommend you eat at least 250g of carbohydrates a day from sources like bread, pasta, rice and cereals, however this advice does not take into account the needs of our body’s biochemistry and is potentially harmful.

Your bloodstream roughly contains 2 teaspoons of glucose and if you go over that on a regular basis, your body will increase its output of insulin to rid your bloodstream of the excess, which can be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles (only about a day’s worth) and the rest as fat.

Starchy foods are broken down by the digestive system into glucose which then gets absorbed into the body the same way as sugar. Pasta, rice, potatoes, bread and cereals all raise blood sugar levels over its comfortable threshold, leading to weight gain and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the main driver behind most degenerative diseases including diabetes and heart disease.

infographic courtesy of Happy Hormones For Life

The problem also with eating a lot of carbs is that you get addicted to them. Blood sugar initially rises, then you feel a “sugar dip” as the insulin overreacts to bring levels down. This creates the feeling of needing a pick-me-up and cravings for quick-fix starchy, sugary foods. It’s the main reason for that 3pm slump when lethargy and tiredness kicks in and you reach for a couple of biscuits or a chocolate bar. Over time, this way of eating can lead to insulin resistance, where your body can no longer listen to insulin’s message because the cells are already over-loaded with fat from all the previous glucose-rich meals consumed. At this stage the body loses its ability to manage blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes sets in.

How low to go

Liberal low carb allows more dietary flexibility. If you’re not overweight with a good metabolism, you’re feeling healthy and do a lot of exercise, a liberal low carb diet may suit you. Aim for no more than 130g carbs per day.

Moderate low carb still offers a wide range of foods and is a great starting point for embarking on a low carb lifestyle. Most people will feel more energised and focused by following a moderate low carb diet of up to 75-100g carbs per day.

Strict low carb excludes all starchy foods like rice, pasta and bread and is recommended for people with excess fat stores, diabetes, low energy, cravings and lack of vitality. The diet includes high-quality fats and proteins and a limited amount of slow-release carbohydrates like oats and starchy veg, like sweet potatoes, beetroot and pulses. Daily carb limit is 50g.

A low carb diet is a high plant diet packed with an abundance of low starch veggies

8 ways to go low carb:

  1. Eliminate sugar and sugary foods like cakes, biscuits, sweets, milk chocolate, fruit juice, cordials and fizzy drinks.
  2. Reduce starchy carbs, like bread, cereal, pasta, potatoes, rice, cous cous, oats and crackers.
  3. Reduce high-sugar tropical fruits like mango, pineapple and banana. Berries are a good choice as they are low in sugar.
  4. Stop snacking. Insulin resistance is improved by giving your body a break from constant eating. Try going longer between dinner and breakfast (intermittent fasting).
  5. Load your plate with non-starchy veg and salads.
  6. Include quality protein with each meal.
  7. Enjoy healthy fats with each meal, such as avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, oily fish and grass fed butter. Use high fat dairy products in moderation if you can tolerate them, but skip any low fat versions.
  8. Stay hydrated. Initially you’ll lose water on a low carb diet. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Drink 2l of water a day, which can include herbal teas.
A low carb diet is packed with natural low starch foods and healthy fats

Do you need to go low?

If you suffer from any of the below, you may benefit from following a lower carb intake. The more you suffer from, the lower you’ll need to go with your daily carb intake to start feeling good again.

  • Experience energy slumps during the day
  • Feel tired a lot
  • Wake up feeling tired
  • Crave sweet foods
  • Crave starchy foods like bread and pasta
  • Rely on coffee as a pick-me-up
  • Have excess body fat
  • Have low moods or suffer depression
  • Often feel stressed or anxious
  • Find it hard to lose weight
  • Suffer insomnia or waking through the night
  • Irritability between meals
  • Habitually eat something sweet after meals
  • Have PCOS or hormonal imbalances (women)

All fruit and veg are not created equal

Eat non-starchy veg freely: green leafy veg, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, cavelo nero, salad veg, onions, garlic, peppers, courgettes, aubergines, asparagus, spinach, mushrooms, fennel, artichoke, celeriac, chicory, green beans.

Limit starchy veg: parsnips, carrots, beetroot, butternut squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, turnips

Enjoy low sugar fruits: berries, cherries

Minimise medium sugar fruits: pears, apples, peaches, plums

Limit or avoid high sugar fruits: bananas, melon, pineapple, mango, grapes, dried fruit

Article by Jo Rowkins DipNT MBANT, nutritional therapist.

If you’d like help transitioning to a low carb way of eating or if you suffer from a particular health complaint, please get in touch to see how I can help you.

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