When people think of low-carb diets, their first thoughts run to any of the popular commercial diets from best-selling books, designed to sell you low-carb products. Low-carb protein bars packed with artificial sweeteners particularly spring to mind.
A true low-carb diet, one designed by an experienced dietician, is nothing of the sort. It’s a diet to help control insulin production in the body. Excess insulin is what causes fat to pack around the stomach. Diet or medical factors can contribute to high insulin levels, and if the levels remain high, the cells become resistant to insulin and the body keeps producing more to compensate. It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way to control it is to stop eating foods that cause insulin spikes.
These foods are high in simple sugars, and include foods normally considered healthy: potatoes, rice, pasta, breads, bananas, fruit juices, honey. Also excluded are traditional unhealthy foods: sugary foods such as cakes and candies, jams, jellies, bottled sauces, processed foods, all artificial sweeteners and chewing gum. A single stick of gum can set your diet back two days with its disruptive effect on body chemistry. The artificial sweeteners in gum are particularly bad because they send false signals to the brain: the tongue tastes the sweetness and the brain thinks sugar is coming. It releases insulin to cope with it, but no sugar comes. The insulin floats around with nothing to do and eventually packs around your stomach as fat.
Once the insulin levels are under control, and weight drops down to acceptable levels accordingly, whole grains and some starchy vegetables will ease their way back into the diet. But until then, what can you expect from a dietician’s low-carb diet?
Surprisingly, you will find a lot of carbohydrates. You’re looking at 800 grams of vegetables and 500 grams of fruit per day for an active man. If you analyse that with a nutrition program, it adds up to about 178 grams of carbohydrate, or what you would find in nearly 9 slices of whole grain bread. But vegetables have insulin-friendly carbohydrate, and so you may eat them in plenty. If you’re smaller, or less active, you will have trouble eating that amount of food, and will scale your meals accordingly.
Not allowed are: corn, beetroot, peas, dried beans, broad beans, potatoes, bananas, dried fruit.
Add to that about 300 grams per day of chicken, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, cheese or other sources of protein excluding sausages or other processed meats.
All vegetable oils are fine, as well as mayonnaise that is not made with a binding agent. Whole yogurt, unsweetened, is fine. Milk is technically not allowed, but if you do want it for tea, use whole milk and avoid low fat anything like the plague.
To drink, look for water, unsweetened tea or coffee, bouillon, tomato juice, vegetable juices and dry red or white wine.
You will also be asked to eat three meals a day, and to eat until you have had enough. Every meal must contain protein, plenty of vegetables and some fruit.
Not onerous, is it? In essence, you can eat anything you like provided it’s not starchy or sweet or processed food. Some dieticians allow a single square of 85% chocolate to control cravings for sweets after meals. And you can eat as much as you need. Your body needs fuel, and not supplying it works against you, not for you.
If you’re considering a low carb diet, buy a doctor’s appointment and a visit to an experienced dietician who understands insulin resistance before you buy the latest diet book or any processed low-carb foods. Low-carb eating is a lifestyle choice, for people with particular metabolic needs. Your health is worth the investment to find out what’s right for you.