Atkins, Keto, Dukan. Low carb diets have sprung up many times over the years under different names and different styles. While they might look different from the outside – they all promise weight loss, better health and a better life, through limiting carbs. Yet, what are the actual physical and hormonal effects of cutting out such a large group of foods?
Why are carbohydrates important for our health?
Carbohydrates is a word used to describe chains or combinations of sugar molecules (such as glucose or fructose). A single or small chain of molecules are called simple sugars, typically, while longer or more complex chains are called complex carbohydrates. The body breaks down these chains of carbs to use the single sugar molecule as energy.
There are many different roles of carbohydrates in the human body!
Carbohydrates are the main energy source for all the cells in our body, but some cells are only able to use glucose for energy production, like red blood cells and brain cells. Our brain, like a finicky European sports car, is very sensitive to low glucose since it’s the only fuel it uses to produce energy!
If the body has enough energy to assure basic functions, the glucose is not needed to produce energy and is instead stored as glycogen, like stacks of papers filed away in a cabinet. This is mostly in the liver and the muscles. If muscles are stimulated for too long, during a long-distance run, for instance, we would use up all our stored carbs. After using up the stores, we have to rely on other sources, which makes us tired, sluggish and less coordinated. This happens because it takes more time to make energy with proteins and fats compared to glucose. This is a big reason why carbs are so important for physical activity and for athletes!
Some glucose is used to make ribose and deoxyribose, which are essential to helping our body fight inflammation and diseases like cancer or heart disease.
When the body’s carb stores are used up, glucose is made from amino acids which come from breaking down protein, mostly from muscles! So, eating sufficient carbs also prevents protein in muscles from being broken down.
Assisting in lipid metabolism
Similarly with proteins, glucose spares lipids (or fats) too. In fact, the increase in blood sugar releases a hormone called insulin which tells the body to use glucose instead of lipids to make energy. While it may seem like a good thing to use up fat stores, the fuel we get from lipids is not as efficient – sort of like putting diesel in our European sports car!
Low-carb and nutrient deficiencies
Since low-carb diets are lacking in vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, it’s obvious that they may put your body at risk for micronutrient deficiencies, like selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, folate, calcium, and vitamins B and C. However, these food groups are also sources of fiber, and it is scientifically proven that strict restrictions on fiber intake results in higher blood cholesterol levels. Plus, cutting out legumes results in possible deficiencies like molybdenum and folate which are essential in processing protein, conserving DNA, and in the case of folate – having healthy pregnancies. Diversifying across food groups is the key to preventing any micronutrient deficiency, which is where low-carb diets come up short.
Low-carb impact on hormones and the body
Consuming enough carbs is important to maintain a hormonal balance and to facilitate the communication between our neurons (brain cells) and our hormones. For women, levels of reproductive hormones like estrogen, progesterone, Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH), Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone ( LH) can be affected, impacting menstruation and ovulation. In fact, the body goes into a starvation state and shuts down the reproductive system, deciding that there isn’t enough energy to maintain a regular menstrual cycle. The body knows that it is an unsafe time to simultaneously care for itself and for a baby (Learn more about this effect, called hypothalamic amenorrhea with our blog). Low-carb diets can also decrease levels of testosterone in those who are biologically male.
When glucose isn’t available, the body relies on cortisol, a stress hormone, to raise blood sugar, which puts more stress on the body and contributes to hormones being dysregulated. Carbs improve our cortisol response and calm the nervous system down, allowing us to better deal with stress. Cortisol is also used to create glucose from scratch in the body. So, by limiting carbs, there is more cortisol made and the body’s stress levels are higher!
A low-carb diet can also lead to low blood sugar levels and cause symptoms of dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and lack of concentration, since glucose is the brain’s main source of energy.
Low-carb diets and athletes
Athletes can put themselves at risk of low energy availability (LEA, or an imbalance between calories eaten and calories burned) if they don’t eat enough due to limiting carbs. This happens often since many people following this diet don’t fully replace the calories lost by limiting their carbs.
LEA contributes to hormonal dysregulation, impaired bone health, dysregulated menstrual function, and poor mental health. To learn more about the impacts of LEA on mental health, you can check out our previous blog post about amenorrhea.
Wrapping it up
Carbs are seen as the enemy in the mainstream media, but they are actually essential to support the body’s most basic needs and maintain proper functioning. While some studies show that someone can lose weight quickly on a low-carb diet, there are a cascade of metabolic changes that occur in the body, often making it difficult to maintain this diet and get adequate nutrition.
We at Sööma believe that any form of restriction, whether it be macronutrient restriction or energy restriction, can be harmful for the body and mind long term. Micro-managing your nutrition does not have to be the answer and if you’re unable to maintain a diet long term, it’s most likely due to your body fighting back rather than your own personal failure. Overall, variety is key with carbs – which helps balance out the proper amounts for the body and helps ensure that all foods fit into a “healthy“ life!
If you think you’re struggling with disordered eating patterns and are tired of engaging in diet culture, try to seek help by scheduling an appointment with a trusted health professional and reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 514-437-4260.
By: Mia El-Eid, Digital Marketing Coordinator
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Sööma is a bilingual company that operates in both English and in French. We will provide blog posts, recipes and articles from various sources that are sometimes written in English and sometimes in French. If you feel unable to access a specific article or topic due to a language barrier, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to translate the content for you.
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