Are Low-Carb Diets Healthy?

Updated on March 2, 2018
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Diet and Weight Loss Disclaimer

The aim of this article is just to compare and contrast some of the conflicting dietary advice that is available. I quote short excerpts and try to summarize the essence of some of the more popular diets. The selections are from books and websites that are quite lengthy, but I have taken the most pertinent information from each source and used it in this article. In no way should anyone use information within this article to determine their own dietary requirements or weight-loss program. You should always check with a suitably qualified practitioner (preferably your doctor) before embarking on any significant dietary change.

This article merely highlights the difficulty in deciding which is the best diet; it does not set out to promote any particular diet over another.

List of Low-Carb Diets

Before we consider whether low-carb diets are healthy, it's probably useful to define what we mean by "low-carb diets." Here's a list of just a few of the diets that could be considered "low carb" or "controlled carb" or "low glycemic index."

  • The Atkins Diet
  • Zero Carb Diet
  • Paleo Diets
  • Zoe Harcombe Diet
  • The Dukan Diet
  • The Primal Blueprint
  • The South Beach Diet
  • Low GI Diet
  • Glycemic Load Diet
  • Archevore Diet
  • Dr. John Briffa's Escape The Diet Trap

This list just skims the surface. There are hundreds of diets that focus on lowering carbohydrate intake or controlling carbohydrates or that advocate low glycemic index/load foods. But should low GI/GL diets and "primal" diets be considered part of the low-carb spectrum? I believe they should. It might be more accurate to use the term "controlled carb diets." The one thing that all of these diets have in common is that they promote the control of sugar and carbohydrate intake.

A low-carb meal
A low-carb meal | Source

Low Carb, Low GI, Low GL or Primal?

The reason I think it's reasonable to consider all these diets together is that there is no consensus about the best way to eat for health or to control weight. That is quite a damning statement. We put a man on the moon over 40 years ago, we have mapped the human genome, we have discovered the so-called God particle, but we still don't know which diet we should follow!

It is in the interests of governments, the medical profession, and the powerful food industry to maintain the status quo. Governments want to maintain the status quo because their reputations would be further eroded if they had to announce that all the dietary advice they have provided over many years was erroneous. The medical profession establishment is compromised similarly.

Then we have what I will call medical profession pioneers. Such pioneers include all the doctors that author diet books. These pioneers probably start off with good intentions, but once they have published a book, they are wedded to a position, and this makes it difficult to accept research that contradicts their bestselling work (unless, of course, this contradiction can be turned into an opportunity to write another bestseller).

The food industry makes its money from selling processed foods. These foods are cheapest to make when their main ingredients are sugars, carbohydrates, and additives. Therefore, the food industry spends millions lobbying governments around the world to maintain the current advice of balanced meals with a high carbohydrate content.

The result is unsatisfactory as the government, nutritionists, the medical profession, and the food industry stick to their mantra of "consume fewer calories, exercise more and everything in moderation." This is challenged by research, as some medical professionals and some enterprising medical journalists have claimed that a low carb, high fat diet that focuses on the consumption of healthy fats is the key to controlling weight and living healthily.

The following table illustrates the problem. I have compared the government advice to three leading alternatives:

Three Alternative Diets

The Zoe Harcombe Diet - I have a copy of Zoe Harcombe's excellent book, "Stop Counting Calories & Start Losing Weight." There are three stages, stage one kickstarts your weight loss and helps wean you off foods that you are likely to be addicted to, and this stage is where you severely restrict carbohydrates (apart from 50g brown rice/day). But this stage lasts only five days.

In stage two, there are three simple rules to follow: avoid processed foods; do not eat carbs and fats at the same meal; and do not eat foods that cause food carvings (which you identified in stage one). By following the rules in stage two, you should lose weight but not as fast as in stage one. When you have reached your target weight, you progress to stage three, which, in a nutshell, is the same as stage two but you work out how much you can cheat without putting weight back on.

I have tried to summarize Zoe Harcombe's dietary advice in the table below (columns ZH1 and ZH2).

Dr. John Briffa's Escape The Diet Trap - This is a non-diet diet book! Dr. Briffa advocates that we should eat the sort of foods that sustained our primal ancestors for the vast majority of the time that human beings have existed. In general, this means cutting out processed foods, sugars, and grain-based foods and eating more animal fats and protein (see Briffa in the table below).

The Archevore Diet - This based on advice given Dr. Kurt Harris M.D. on his blog, Archevore.com. Dr. Harris defines an archevore as "someone who eats based on essential principles, and also someone who hungers for essential principles." I like Dr. Harris's approach; he says that his blog is just the opinions of someone who has spent a lot of time reading and thinking about nutrition. I also like the fact that he does not seem to have a book to sell!

Low-Carb Diet Advice Compared

Food Type
Governm't
Zoe Harcombe 1
Zoe Harcombe 2
Briffa
Archevore
Sugary Foods
Small Amounts
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Cakes, Biscuits, Pies, Crisps
Small Amounts
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Bread/Pasta
Good
Avoid
Carb Meal (whole only)
Avoid
Avoid
Rice
Good
Limited (brown only)
Carb Meal (Brown only)
Avoid
OK
Eggs
Eat Freely
Eat Freely
Fat Meal
Eat Freely
Eat Freely
Fats- Butter and Meat
Cut Down
Eat Freely
Fat Meal
Eat Freely
Excellent
Vegetable Oils
Better
Avoid
Fat Meal
Avoid
Avoid
Fish
Good
Eat Freely
Fat Meal
Eat Freely
Good
Olive Oil
Good
Eat Freely
Fat or Carb Meal
Eat Freely
Eat Freely
Nuts
Good
Avoid
Limited
Eat Freely
Go Easy
Fruit Juice
Part of 5 per day
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Avoid
Dairy
Low Fat Best
Only Natural Live Yogurt
Very Low Fat- Carb Meal, Full Fat- Fat Meal
Butter & Full Fat Nat Yog- eat freely, others- limited
Depends, Butter is good
Berries
Part of 5 per day
Avoid
Fat or Carb Meal
Eat Freely
Eat Freely
Non-Tropical Fruits
Part of 5 per day
Avoid
Carb Meal
In Moderation
OK
Tropical Fruits
Part of 5 per day
Avoid
Carb Meal
Limited
Limited
Vegetables & Salads
Part of 5 per day
Eat Freely (not mushrooms)
Fat or Carb Meal
Eat Freely
Eat Freely
Legumes
Part of 5 per day
Eat Freely
Carb Meal
Limited
Eat Freely
Potatoes
Good starchy food
Avoid
Carb Meal (but crisps, chips & fries avoid)
Avoid
Good Fuel Source
Key Government (UK Gov't website: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/Healthyeating.aspx) ZH 1 (Zoe Harcombe phase 1) ZH 2 (Zoe Harcombe phase 2) Briffa (Escape The Diet Trap) Archevore (The Archevore Diet)

Are Low-Carb Diets Healthy?

There is no consensus, and I'm certainly not qualified to make a judgment. The establishment (government and the medical experts) are steadfast in their promotion of a "balanced" diet that includes carbohydrates as a significant part. Equally adamant are a growing number of doctors, nutritionists, researchers, and journalists that advocate varying degrees of carbohydrate control. However, the "anti-carbohydrate" movement has significant disadvantages:

  1. The individuals in the movement are a fragmented group who do not agree on an optimum amount of carbohydrate intake.
  2. Many advocates of low-carb diets have significant, related, commercial interests (books, etc.) and are not part of the establishment.
  3. Many low-carb advocates selectively quote different research findings to back their own particular versions of low-carb diets.
  4. Due to their stance against the consumption of processed foods, these people face the huge lobbying power of the food industry.

Despite all of this, my opinion is that we would all benefit by reducing carbohydrate intakes. In particular, amongst low-carb advocates, there seems to be a consensus that:

  1. Sugary foods and drinks should be avoided.
  2. Processed grain foods should be avoided.
  3. Processed food intake should be minimized, and real fresh food intake should be increased.

I have reviewed the Zoe Harcombe Diet and Dr. John Briffa's book. However, if I was starting out on an attempt to eat more healthily, I think I would try the one-page (12 steps) given by Karl Harris M.D. as part of his Archevore Diet blog.

Source

Proving the Low-Carb Case

Obesity is a major health problem in the Western world. Many millions die early through obesity-related diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Many advocates of low-carb diets believe that conventional advice given by the medical profession is actually counterproductive. They believe that high carbohydrate diets lead to a vicious circle of increased appetite, lower metabolism, and increasing levels of hormones that stimulate the body to increase fat reserves.

If the low-carb advocates are right, then we could save millions of lives, improve the quality of life for millions more, and save billions in health costs. The government should invest in extensive research to prove once and for all which type of diet is best for weight control and long-term health. The cost of such research would be minimal compared to the projected costs of healthcare for people who are suffering from metabolic disorder, obesity, and diabetes. Continued inaction will only maintain the broken status quo and continue to increase the number of people affected by these diseases.

Do You Agree That Low Carb Diets Are Effective In Controlling Weight?

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    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is a useful comparison. My husband has been following a balanced diet which includes complex carbs and excludes processed foods and simple carbs like refined sugars and flour. It's so true...technology has advanced but diet is still a puzzle. I think it also depends on how each individual metabolizes foods. Thanks so much!

    • Andy Mann profile image

      Andy Mann 5 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      I started eating 'primal' because I wanted to feel better. The weight loss was a welcomed side effect :)

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