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Diet 101: The pros and cons of reducing carbohydrate intake

Diet 101: The pros and cons of reducing carbohydrate intake

A low-carb diet has its benefits but overdoing it can get you into trouble. A healthy diet has carbohydrates of the right quality and in the right quantity.
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A low-carb diet is based on the principle that carbohydrates are usually high in calories and, therefore, cutting back on them or restricting their intake will enable the individual to lose weight.  Interestingly, the diet does not eliminate carbs from the plate but just limits the number of good carbs consumed daily to 50 – 150 grams. Cutting down on carbs makes the body first use the glucose from the food consumed and then move to the fat stored in the body to meet its energy needs.   

Consuming the right carbs 

Michigan-based dietician and nutritionist Moushumi Mukherjee is an advocate of consuming the right kind of carbohydrates that include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables rich in fibre. This keeps the gut in good working condition, she says. “My mantra is enhancing your diet instead of eliminating items for sustainable long-term changes,” Mukherjee says.  

She recommends healthy eating, trying a new fruit or vegetable every week or every other week, and making a gradual transition to any new diet to make it a sustainable goal. “Carbohydrates are not the enemy. Our bodies require a certain amount of carbohydrates to enable them to function properly. What is important is the portion size, quantity, and kind of carbs we eat,” says Mukherjee.  

Not just a weight loss diet 

While most people switch to a low-carb diet to lose weight, there are other health benefits too. For instance, it may help reduce the risk of Type-2 diabetes, heart diseases and metabolic syndrome, and abnormalities associated with cardiovascular conditions. It is a given that once an ideal body weight is attained, the risk of high cholesterol and diabetes is also mitigated, at least temporarily.                          

Extensive studies have shown the positive effects of a low-carb diet on people with heart disease. A longitudinal study of over 80,000 women over a period of 20 years sought to look at the relationship between low carbohydrate intake and the risk of heart disease. Another subsequent study looked at its relationship with diabetes. It was observed that women who ate low-carb diets high in vegetable sources of fat or protein had a 30% lower risk of heart disease and an approximately 20% lower risk of type-2 diabetes, compared to women who ate high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. However, women who ate low-carb diets that were high in animal fats or proteins did not see any such benefits.  

There is a downside too 

When you restrict your intake of carbohydrates, it leads to a deficiency of micronutrients and can result in headaches and dizziness, constipation, fatigue, and weakness. It could also result in ketosis if you’re consuming less than 20 grams of carbs daily.   

In ketosis, your body starts using stored fat for energy because there isn’t any further reserve of glucose (the simplest form of sugar obtained from carbohydrates) to fall back on. Should ketones accumulate in the body, it can result in nausea, headache, and bad breath. For those already suffering from a kidney ailment, eating a diet low in carbs and high in protein may make their condition worse.  

Dietician J Mira from Kolkata says, “It is a different matter if you are prescribed a certain diet for a medical condition. For weight loss, I would always stick to healthy eating in right portions and proper exercise.” She also has a word of caution for those who rejoice too early watching their weighing scales displaying lesser kilos by the week. “Once you are off the diet, the weight tends to come right back. So, one needs the right combination of diet and exercise, customised for you after consultation and proper planning by a health specialist,” she says. Moreover, if you have a medical condition, it is imperative to take the advice of a medical professional, Mira suggests. 

You can reduce the number of carbs in your diet by following these simple and sustainable eating habits: 

  1. Eat fruits and vegetables in their natural form whenever possible. Fresh fruits and salads made with raw vegetables are filling, rich in dietary fibres and comprise of good carbs.
  2. Avoid processed food and snacks and beverages with added sugars like cookies, candies, potato wafers, carbonated drinks, deep-fried food, and so on. These are high in calories and low in nutrition. 
  3. Include whole, unprocessed grains in your diet to increase the fibre intake. Refined grains like polished white rice and refined wheat flour are low in nutritional value in comparison to unpolished rice and wheat ground with husk.
  4. Include dairy products made from skimmed or low-fat milk to cut down on calories. Full-fat dairy products add to the daily calorie intake.
  5. Pulses and legumes like beans, lentils and peas are nutritious, high on protein and filling. One of the easiest ways of reducing carbs on the Indian plate is to decrease the proportion of rice or wheat and substitute it with cooked lentils and lightly sauteed vegetables.

Carb intake recommendation 

The dietary guidelines for Americans, by the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board, suggest 45% to 65% of the total daily calorie intake as recommended daily allowance (RDA) of carbohydrates for adults with an active lifestyle. This translates to about 225 grams to 325 grams of carbohydrates daily for a person consuming 2000 calories.

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