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Get the low-down on low-carb diets

Selection of food low in carbs
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Low-carb diets are diets that encourage you to cut back on bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans and sugar – usually in favour of more protein and fat.

In 2021, Diabetes UK released new guidance stating that, in the short term, a low-carb diet maybe effective for adults with type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese – helping with weight loss, glucose management and reducing the risk factors associated with heart disease.

For most people, though, a low-carb diet won’t be necessary or beneficial. In fact, any kind of eating that cuts out certain food groups and puts a greater emphasis on protein and fat can be risky.

This is why it is advised that you speak to your GP before starting a low-carb diet, especially if you have a pre-existing condition.

The various types of a low-carb diet

There are many different diet plans that put a focus on reducing how many carbohydrates you consume. Generally, a diet is considered low-carb if it incorporates less than 130g of carbohydrates each day. This may seem like a large amount, but just remember that lots of different foods contain carbohydrates, including fruit juice.

In many cases, specific low-carb diet plans will recommend eating far fewer carbohydrates than this – this can make them hard to sustain.

Keto diet

A keto, or ketogenic diet, is one that increases your fat consumption, while drastically lowering your carbohydrate consumption. By eating a lot more fat and far fewer carbs you can encourage your body to go into ketosis – this is where the body breaks fat down into a fuel source called ketones, which it then uses for energy.

Early versions of the ketogenic diet were extreme, limiting carb consumption to just 10-15 grams per day. Modern versions tend to be adapted to the individual’s needs, but as an example, Diabetes.co.uk recommends:

  • Fewer than 50g of carbohydrates each day
  • 40-50g of protein for women or 50-60g for men each day
  • “Free” fat i.e. however much you want to eat, within reason

Typically, people following a ketogenic diet will eggs, fish, full-fat dairy, meat, nuts and seed, and non-starchy vegetables, but will avoid having too much protein, as this can prevent ketosis.

You can learn more about the keto diet, including which foods to eat and which to cut, by reading this article: Keto diet – what is it?

Who should and shouldn’t utilise a keto diet

The keto diet was originally developed to help people with severe epilepsy, and today may be recommended to people with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or severe headaches. However, some people think it’s also beneficial for those with diabetes.

Generally, the keto diet shouldn’t be used on a long-term basis. It can be hard to stick to, as it is so restrictive on what you can eat. Also, eating large amounts of fat puts you at risk of high cholesterol and other health risks.

Whatever your circumstances, if you’re thinking about trying keto, it’s important to speak to your GP first.

The Paleo diet

The Paleo diet is one that tries to recreate the eating habits of hunter-gatherers from the Paleolithic era. At this time, processed foods, grains and dairy products weren’t available, which means humans survived on fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seed, eggs, meat and seafood.

Food groups to focus on are:

  • Protein sources e.g. non-processed meat, fish, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds
  • Non-starchy fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Healthy fat sources low in saturated and trans fats e.g. vegetable and nut oils

Food groups to cut out are:

  • Grains and food made from grains e.g. pasta, bread, rice
  • Dairy
  • Refined sugar
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Refined oils

Who should and shouldn’t utilise the Paleo diet

Some people claim that the Paleo diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and degenerative diseases. It’s also said to enable weight loss and improve sleep and energy levels. All in all, however, there’s not a lot of evidence to support claims about its efficacy in these areas.

What we do know is that too much red meat, too little dairy and few wholegrains can be bad for the health. If you’re going to try Paleo it’s important not to eat more than 70g of red (or processed) meat each day – you should also aim to get some dairy and wholegrains into your diet.

As with the keto diet, it’s important to speak to your GP before starting the Paleo diet.

The Atkins diet

The Atkins diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that was developed by American cardiologist Dr Robert Atkins. Unlike the keto diet and the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet has phases which should be followed in order.

The first phase involves eating very few carbs – Diabetes.co.uk suggests 20g per day to begin with, then increasing this number gradually. In the first phase you’ll usually be able to freely eat high-protein and high-fat foods; in the second, more carbs will be introduced.

Who should and shouldn’t utilise the Atkins diet

The Atkins diet is essentially a ketogenic diet, so its effects will be similar to that style of eating. To recap, a ketogenic diet was originally developed for people with epilepsy and may still be recommended for people with neurological conditions. This style of eating may also be beneficial for people with diabetes.

However, the Atkins diet is an extreme eating style and isn’t necessary to lose weight. If you are interested in trying it, speak to your GP first.

How to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way

If you want to lose weight and keep it off, the best thing to do is commit to a manageable eating plan that incorporates all the major food groups. For inspiration, check out the NHS Eatwell Guide.

References

https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/eating-with-diabetes/meal-plans/low-carb
https://www.diabetes.org.uk/professionals/position-statements-reports/food-nutrition-lifestyle/low-carb-diets-for-people-with-diabetes
https://www.diabetes.co.uk/keto/foods-to-eat-on-a-ketogenic-diet
https://patient.info/news-and-features/is-the-ketogenic-diet-safe-and-will-it-really-help-you-lose-weight
https://www.diabetes.co.uk/keto
https://patient.info/healthy-living/weight-loss-weight-reduction/paleolithic-diet-paleo-diet
https://www.diabetes.co.uk/diet/atkins-diet
https://patient.info/healthy-living/weight-loss-weight-reduction/atkins-diet