Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?

List of Low Carb Diets

Before we consider whether low carb diets are healthy, its 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 GI".

  • The Atkins 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 literally hundreds of diets that focus on lowering carbohydrate intake, 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.

Diet and Weight Loss Disclaimer

The scope of this article is just to compare and contrast some of the conflicting dietary advice that is available. I quote short extracts and try to summarize the essence of some of the more popular diets. The extracts are from books and websites that run to many hundreds of pages. 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.

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 diet 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 are closing in one 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, 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 in a similar way.

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 best selling work (unless, of course, this can be turned into an opportunity to write another best-seller).

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 end result is totally unsatisfactory the government, nutritionists, the medical profession and the food industry stick to their mantra of "consume less calories, exercise more and everything in moderation". This is challenged by research, medical profession pioneers and by some enterprising medical journalists who claim that a low carb, high "good" fat diet 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;

Govermment Advice - I used this website to glean the information- http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/Healthyeating.aspx

The Zoe Harcombe Diet - I have a copy of Zoe Harcombe's excellent book, "Stop Counting Calories & Start Losing Weight". There are 3 stages, stage 1 which kickstarts your weight loss and helps to wean you off foods that you are likely to be addicted to and where you severely restrict carbohydrates (apart from 50g brown rice/day), but this stage lasts only 5 days.

In Stage 2 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 1). By following the rules in Stage 2 you should lose weight but not as fast as in Stage 1. When you have reached your target weight, you progress to Stage 3, which, in a nutshell is the same as Stage 2 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!

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) ZH 1 (Zoe Harcombe phase 1) ZH 2 (Zoe Harcombe phase 2) Briffa (Escape The Diet Trap) Archevore (The Archevore Diet)

So.. Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?

There is no consensus and I'm certainly not qualified to make a judgement. The establishment (government and the medical profession) 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. They are fragmented.
  2. They do not agree on an optimum amount of carbohydrate intake.
  3. Many advocates of low carb diets have significant, related, commercial interests (books etc.)
  4. They are NOT the establishment.
  5. They selectively quote different research findings to back their own particular versions of low carb diets.
  6. They 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 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. But please read the disclaimer above.

Proving the Low Carb Case

Obesity is the major health problem in the Western World. Many millions die early through obesity related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes type 2. Many advocates of low carb diets believe that conventional advice given by the medical profession is actually counter productive. 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. Government should invest in extensive research to nail 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 cost in health, healthcare and general well-being of continued inaction.

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

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Comments 3 comments

Andy Mann profile image

Andy Mann 4 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

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


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 4 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!


eternalraspberry profile image

eternalraspberry 4 years ago

I agree vespawoolf...

Not every diet works the same for every individual. That's probably why there are so many diet plans and different supplements on the market. Personally, I stick with a healthy diet, exercise and every now and then a supplement for a boost.

http://www.eternalraspberryketoneblog.com

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