In Part 1, I wrote mostly about physiological aspects of LCHF and its effect on weight loss, health, and insulin levels. Part 2 is about carbs, yo-yo effect and cheat meals.
Importance of carbohydrates in diet
Unlike protein (essential amino acids) and fats (essential fatty acids), carbohydrates are a non-essential nutrient. In other words, your body can survive without them – it will either produce them endogenously from protein, or it will start producing ketones from fats instead.
Many carb-haters will use this fact „against” carbs. But let’s not mix essentiality in biological sense with importance.
Doesn’t the fact that your body will produce carbohydates from protein – nutrient that builds our bodies – point to the importance of carbs?
Carbohydrates – more specifically, their simplest representative, glucose – is your brains fuel of choice. Also, without them, your muscles couldn’t work during a prolonged period of high intensity activity.
We mustn’t forget the importance of fiber in diet – the fact that they’re essential for health maintenance. A lot of fiber intake comes through high carbohydrates foods – whole grains, beans, and fruits. They also give us a whole palette of specific phytonutrients which we will miss out on by excluding them from our diet.
Sticking to the diet, sustainability, and yo-yo effect
I cannot emphasize enough the most important factor in any diet’s success – sticking to it.
Short-term solutions are all in vain if they’re not sustainable and if they will lead you back to your old habits.
Any weight loss is in vain if you gain those kilos back after the diet.
There’s nothing mystical about the yo-yo effect. It’s a logical consequence of a return to old habits due to unsustainability of the diet or the fact that during the diet you failed to learn how to eat in a healthy and sustainable way.
Diet shows its influence on health in long term. Consequences of (in)adequate diet will be visible after 20 to 30 years, not 2 to 3 weeks. So focusing on any kind of short-term results is a waste of energy and a recipe for disappointment, if there’s no sustainable long-term plan.
Most popular diets are focused on fast – but also short-term results. LCHF is no different. Even though it’s marketed as a lifestyle (marketing trick for increasing its allure), it’s just another fad with a short-term effect and very low sustainability.
People almost always, consciously or unconsciously, increase their intake of carbohydrates with time. Why? Because we’re programmed that way. Because our body needs them.
If you can achieve equal or better results with a „normal“, sustainable carbohydrate intake, why try something that is not sustainable long term?
Cheat meals and days
One thing I notice with clients on (too) restrictive diets, including LCHF, more as a rule than as an exception, is the high occurrence of cheat meals or even cheat days. It is a term used when a person allows themselves to exit the boundaries of a diet for a single or more meals in a week, during a whole day, or even several days. Depends how bad you need what you had restricted.
High occurrence of cheat meals in LCHF diet points to the body’s need for carboyhdrates and energy-dense, tasty food. Exactly what LCHF lacks. Cheat meals are almost universally defined by a very high intake of energy-dense foods that are mostly carbohydrates.
(If you know someone who cheats (themselves) with salmon, please forward their contact information to me. For scientific purposes.)
Most clients I’ve worked and work with have used this way to compensate the lack of carbohydrates and energy while following a LCHF diet. Cheat meals would start to occur more often, becoming more energy-dense, until they would completely compensate or even transcend the energy deficit created during the day while sticking to LCHF. Result – lack of weight loss or even weight gain.
Equally important, this process creates an unhealthy dietary habit which can sometimes lead to an eating disorder – binge eating (overeating).
The body wants what it wants, and it’s difficult to trick it.
When I type „LCHF diet“ (in Croatian) into Google, one of the first results was:
„This type of diet consists of real authentic food: fish, meat, eggs, various vegetables and natural fats. We already know that the fear from saturated animal fats and cholesterol is an unfounded myth so natural fats shouldn’t cause fear. Dairy products are also consumed, as well as nuts and fruits. Emphasis is on pure and natural foods in their authentic form, from domestic and organic cultivation. Along with sugar and starch, refined and hydrogenated plant oils are also avoided, as well as other industrial products filled with artificial extras and harmful chemicals. LCHF is natural and healthy, most similar to the original diet of our ancestors that we are genetically adapted for and which is optimal for maintaining good health and normal body weight.“
Why are certain words accentuated?
a) Because they marvelously describe the essence of LCHF diet,
b) Because they falsely describe LCHF diet, giving it characteristics of „purity“ and „naturality“, whatever that meant.
Don’t be surprised, but the answer is b).
Also, the distinction between natural and artificial, in nutrition as well as with anything else, makes no sense. If human beings are natural, everything they build on Earth using Earth materials is necessarily natural. Is anthill natural? And the city?
Even if we accepted this distinction, it tells us nothing about it being useful or harmful. Botuline is natural (found in nature) and it’s the strongest known poison. Taken intravenously, 0,1 ug can kill a man of 70 kilos. Yes, a tenth of millionth of a gram.
Instead of focusing on artificial or natural, ask yourself if it’s good, neutral, or bad for you. If this diet has positive, neutral, or negative effects on your health.
But let’s get back to LCHF.
The quoted introduction is (ir)relevant because it hides intellectual dishonesty. It attributes nature, originality, and purity to LCHF on no grounds, because it has nothing to do with the quantity of carbohydrates or fats in diet.
As with many other alternative diets, their descriptions trick you by adding imaginary value to a diet in order to make it sound more attractive.
A healthy diet can have many forms and characteristics, as long as it satisfies your nutritional needs, minimizes the intake of harmful items, and has a positive effect on the psychosocial component of life.
Stealing intellectual property
A carefully planned diet that reduces carbohydrate intake in order to reduce calorie intake is something that many nutritionists recommend anyway. Not because carbs are bad, unnatural, unhealthy, or fattening.
It’s because they become a logical target when we know that protein and fat intake shouldn’t be reduced – except when it’s unnecessarily high – if we want to maintain muscle mass and diet palatability.
Diet with reduced carbohydrate intake can satisfy your nutritive needs as long as it doesn’t exclude any food group.
However, there is no reason for the demonization of carbohydrates. And LCHF has no right to privatize professional knowledge.
A good nutritionist will recommend you a diet with adequate protein intake, with adequate intake and choice of fats that food naturally consists of or that are added in food preparation. Carbohydrates, with emphasis on whole grains, will fill the rest of the calorie intake. Depending on energy expenditure and individual preferences, they will make between 30% of total caloric intake for a person with minimal physical activity, and up to 70% for someone seriously engaged in endurance sports.
Anecdotes and personal testimonies
What about all those who swear by LCHF being easy and successful?
First of all, it’s possible that there’s a certain number of people that this type of diet suits. We don’t know exactly why, but it’s probably genetic factor combined with carbohydrate and fat metabolism. In these cases, reducing carbohydrates will be justified regardless of the need to create calorie deficit.
Second, bear in mind that people who failed with LCHF diet probably won’t brag about it, so you’ll only hear about praises, and get a distorted perception about the functionality of this diet.
Pop culture is full of testimonialss about magical benefits of low carb or any other diet. It’s full of all kinds of testimonials.
You might not believe me, but…
Personal testimonials are not reliable. There are many factors that influence our personal opinions and conclusions, and the strongest are those that defend our ideas and stands.
Do you enjoy being wrong? I thought so.
Confirmation bias, the search for information that confirms our opinions and actions, and renouncing those that do not fit in, is one of basic human thinking errors that no one is immune to – especially if they’re not aware of its existence.
Science, in its ideal form (there’s plenty of bad science), is the only one that can offer an objective answer to questions. It’s organized in such a way. Scientific method was created as an answer to search for truth.
Personal testimonies can be a basis for scientific research, but we cannot and should not rely on them until we receive scientific confirmation.
As a nutritionist, you see the other side of alternative diets. The one rarely seen in the media.
I often listen to people who felt dreadful due to LCHF diet, waiting for the weekend and the „cheat meal“ which would compensate for the lack of carbohydrates during the week. They slowly gave up on LCHF, adding more and more carbohydrates to their diet, achieving no results, and feeling like a failure. They also developed a fear from carbohydrates and food in general, as well as an unhealthy relationship with food.
Of course, you mostly don’t write articles about how bad you felt. Remember this filtered view of reality next time you Google LCHF.
Exclusiveness of LCHF community
In my social media posts, from time to time I touch the subject of LCHF. As a rule, these posts cause the most furious reactions. Most vicious. Most offensive.
Is the behavior of low-carb community just another example of human tendency to create communities that propagate either-or, all-or-nothing, black and white mentality, affirming their own beliefs by selectively feeding one another with affirmative information and expressing hostility towards those with opposite opinions?
I would say so.
Along with creating a community with elements of a cult, LCHF has an additional purpose: externalizing the fault, transferring it from undesirable dietary and life habits to „evil“ carbohydrates, reducing individual responsibility.
Reasonably about LCHF
The war against fats was unjustified. But that doesn’t mean we need to start a war against carbohydrates.
Most people don’t want to spend their lives not eating pasta. Nor should they try. Nor should you say no to your friend inviting you to dinner in an Italian restaurant.
Diet and health are much more complex and multi-factored than minimizing carbohydrate intake. Focusing on macronutrient content of the diet is a shot in the dark.
When you wish to lose weight, low carb, low fat, or something else, it won’t matter unless you create a caloric deficit. However, don’t forget that diet isn’t just calories and number on the scale, but also has nutritive and psychosocial value. In this regard, LCHF in most cases won’t be an optimal choice.
LCHF is definitely not the worst choice of diet. However, we should ask ourselves do we even need to choose a specific diet. If we can achieve equal or better results by knowing and applying principles of balanced diet without needless renunciation and exclusion of foods, why limit ourselves?