I’ve talked about using the low-carb (ketogenic) diet for years as part of my weight-loss journey. The reason why I like it is that it lets me eat my fill of good, whole foods, while letting me lose weight. I’ve been off and on the low-carb and Paleo wagons for years, and it can be a very good program depending on your goals and preferences.
Any diet will work as long as it creates a caloric deficit, they just go about doing this in a different way. Low-carb does it by switching you off the typical Western diet rich in non-filling, highly processed, low nutrient density but high caloric density foods. Then switching you over to high nutrient density, filling foods that naturally makes you body down-regulate how hungry you get.
When burning fat, you also never get low-blood sugar, and rarely feel hungry at all. I was a person who was constantly hungry, even when consuming hundreds if not thousands of calories in excess every day, who used food as entertainment, but on the low-carb diet I had to remind myself to eat something.
The Benefits of Low-Carb Diets
The major benefit of the low-carb diet is that it can be very low-maintenence. I can get away with eating just one large meal every day and I can fast for up to 48 hours, when I’m in ketosis without it affecting my moods or energy levels. For a person who has never tracked calories or macro-nutrients, just having to keep track of dietary carbohydrate is also much easier than tracking calories, weighing out portions, meal-prepping, eating 6 times every day and being constantly hungry.
The simplest form of low-carb diet is the “Carnivore Diet” and variations of it are as easy as just eating steak and eggs cooked in butter whenever you’re hungry. There is no tracking involved what so ever, just eat meat, eggs and butter. Going a bit more towards the normal spectrum, sticking with meat, eggs, butter and vegetables like broccoli, lettuce and cauliflower, you don’t have to track anything and you will still lose weight most of the time.
You’ll also lose a lot of weight initially when your glycogen (sugar stores) empty, and your body releases the water it holds along with these sugars, this is very motivating.
The Problems with Low-Carb Diets
The major benefit of the low-carb diet, the fact that it’s low maintenance is also the major problem with it. You can see this if you read low-carb forums or low-carb blogs, people hit plateaus, they stall out, and their weight loss is very unpredictable. I experienced many stalls on the low carb diet, and my weight loss varied between 6 kg (13 lbs.) and 0 kg, month to month. I had no way of knowing why I was stalling or why I’d suddenly lost a bunch of weight one month, despite doing the exact same things and eating the same foods.
In the table (in kg) you can see my results during my last period of the low-carb diet before switching over to another style diet. The results are very erratic, despite me thinking that I ate pretty much the same meals in the same amounts in every month. l
When you plateau on a low-carb diet the advocates will recommend eliminating more foods, usually dairy (cheeses, cream) and nuts. Allegedly this is because some people have problems processing dairy, and nuts. This is half-way true, there are people who have problems digesting dairy or nuts properly. If the nuts are salted, it can also lead to bloating that can mask weight-loss. However, the major reason is that nuts and dairy are what I call “EOE” foods, foods that are easy to eat, but are also very calorie dense and are not really filling.
This means that people can rack up the calories very quickly when they are adding cream to every coffee and snack on slices of cheese containing up to 110 calories per slice.
The biggest problem is that most of the advocates use “You don’t have to count calories or track anything and you’ll still lose weight” as a selling point for the diet, and this is the exact reason why every other post on keto forums is “How do I break my stall?” I stalled out in weight gain at 335 lbs, because at that point I would need to eat between 3500 and 4000 calories every day just to maintain my weight. On the same side of things, the reason people stall on low-carb diets is that they are consuming a very small deficit or have no deficit at all.
Why Should You Pick Low-Carb?
The major benefit of low-carb diets from my perspective is that it helps with breaking addictions to carbohydrate. In my case, I was a major carb addict, and by maintaining a low carb diet for months or even years in some cases, I was able to break this addiction so my relationship with carbs normalized. It’s also a good “gateway diet”, as it gets people who have never dieted before into the idea of thinking about what they are eating, making conscious food choices and tracking.
Much of the eating we do is habitual, grabbing a cookie, a sandwich or a burger because we’re bored or a little bit hungry. These calories do all add up, and just eating 100 extra calories every day (about 1 slice of cheese) will result in a 4.7 kg (10 lbs.) of weight gain in a year. The low-carb diet gets people used to reading labels, tracking macros and being aware of what they are eating.
If you are a carboholic, eat for comfort and emotional regulation, or are just getting started with your weight loss I recommend trying the low carb on for size. If you are the type of person who prefers predictability and control, I’ll review other weight loss programs I used during my journey in the coming weeks that are much better than low-carb for control.