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Low Carbohydrate Diet: Fat or Fiction?

It is easy to become overwhelmed with the vast amounts of dietary advice that’s currently available: Raw Food, Paleo, the 5:2 diet just to name a few.

The ABC program Catalyst explored the science behind the low carbohydrate diet – what are the health benefits and are there any risks? Is it suitable for everyone?

In the 1970s we were indoctrinated into the food pyramid – reduce the fats and increase the carbohydrates. Consequently people ate less fat and replaced it with a lot of processed sugar rich carbohydrates. Processed foods are full of carbohydrates because when manufacturers took the fat out of food, they took the flavour out and replaced it with sugar.

In 2014 the message has been reversed; instead of reducing fat we are being asked to reduce the carbohydrates in our diet.

Many experts contend that eating the sugar in carbohydrates has greatly contributed to the obesity epidemic as carbohydrates stimulate the hormone insulin, which increases the bodys fat stores.

However if you are eating carbohydrates every three hours in an ever constant effort to feel full, then you consistently have an elevated insulin concentration in your blood.

When this occurs excess carbohydrate is forced into the fat cells and the fat cells now cannot release the fat which the  brain interprets this as being starved. So three hours later you have to go and eat again.

This goes part of the way in explaining why you get repetitive eating behaviour in people who are eating too many carbohydrates.


A Low Carbohydrate (not High Protein) Diet – That is the Key.

Researchers have found that when you eat fat, there is essentially no insulin response. However when you eat protein, you get a moderate response and when you eat carbohydrates, you get a relatively higher response again.

The low carbohydrate diet explored on Catalyst is therefore not a high protein diet as proponents don’t want all that moderate insulin secretion from a high protein intake.

However, the low carbohydrate diet needs to be a case of balance – individuals need enough protein to sustain their muscle mass as well as preventing hunger  as protein reduces cravings allowing you to feel fuller for longer.

By reducing hunger, calorie consumption also goes down.


A New Term: Carbohydrate Intolerance

What is the optimal amount of carbohydrate intake? There is no black and white answer to this as the optimal level of dietary carbohydrates will depend on how well an individuals body processes them – some people metabolise them better than others.

Those individuals who can’t metabolise carbohydrates properly have ‘carbohydrate intolerance’.

Carbohydrate intolerance in individuals is associated with some physical attributes such as fat being carried around their middle.

It is associated in people with a strong family history of Type II diabetes, pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome, people who are severely overweight and other conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in women who may not be overweight or diabetic but are very responsive to carbohydrate restriction.


A Restrictive Diet

Professor Tim Noakes a low carbohydrate diet advocate quoted on Catalyst, believes that humans have absolutely no requirement for carbohydrates, however the essential fats and essential proteins which we cannot generate in our body we need to get from our diets.

A very extreme low carbohydrate diet appears to be quite restrictive – it cuts out a lot of foods, particularly a lot of whole grain foods and fruit.

These are really good healthy foods that we know reduce the long-term risk of chronic disease.

For many people, whole grains are an excellent source of energy. But when people become more insulin resistant, they have a difficult time processing these carbohydrates.



Catalyst looked at the value of low carbohydrate diets for athletes. They indicated that carbohydrates can be of some use in explosive athletic events (think 100 metre sprint or 50 metre freestyle) when you need a fast fuel source.

For athletes attempting prolonged endurance activity, their body needs to be trained to use fat as the predominant fuel; it has been found that that fuel tank is more than ten times as big as the carbohydrate tank. That’s why nutrition experts specialising in the low carbohydrate diet are seeing the ultra-endurance athletes not just winning races but setting records on low carbohydrate diets.

Low carbohydrate diet advocates have viewed evidence that once the event lasts two or three hours, there is little advantage to carbohydrates. The more fat you eat in your diet, the more adapted you are.

You can burn an enormous amount of fat if you’re an elite athlete but you have to become fat-adapted. Ketones become the alternative fuel source. Ketones are produced when fat is being burnt for energy and can be measured in the blood or urine. In this state, the person is said to be in ketosis.


It’s about the Good Fats

What are the fats that Catalyst advocated? It certainly was not greasy fish and chips, deep fried chicken or doughnuts!

It’s all about the good fats like coconut oils, extra virgin olive oils, flaxseed oil, cheese, eggs,  fatty meats, even butter (not margarine!).

One of the concerns is that the low carbohydrate diet is high in saturated fat which we’re told raises cholesterol and causes heart disease. However what is known is that saturated fat is not as bad for you as we once thought and can be a great source of energy.


Type II Diabetes

People with Type II diabetes don’t metabolise carbohydrates well. Yet traditionally people with Type II diabetes have been given high-carbohydrate diets. If the amount of carbohydrates in their diets were reduced, there could be a massive and positive impact on reducing Type II diabetes.

A critical review of the literature suggested that low carbohydrate diets should be the first treatment option in Type II diabetes because of the consistently good control of blood glucose and the reduction, or elimination, of diabetes medication.

Interestingly Diabetes Australia currently recommend low fat meals based on high fibre carbohydrate foods like breads and cereals, the very foods that raise blood sugar levels. It will remain to be seen if the current research will be reflected in Diabetes Australias future recommendations.


Not a solution for everyone

There are valid arguments that the low carbohydrate diet is not for everyone. Nutritionists may prescribe this diet to somebody who needs to lose weight quickly, possibly if they’re going to have surgery or they might have been able to do exercise in the past, but now they’ve put on too much weight and they just need to get some fast weight loss off so that they can go and get back into exercise again.

What is important is that a low carbohydrate diet should be initiated and supervised by practitioners familiar with the diet to ensure the process is relevant for the individual.

Don’t know where to start? The Shake It Recipe Book provides a wide range of delicious low carb friendly recipes. There are over 150 recipes to choose from to make it easier for you to cook tasty healthy meals that the whole family can enjoy.


Emeds Comment

Catalyst provided a interesting insight into the low carbohydrate diet. The low carbohydrate diet is not for everyone.

But for those individuals who have a hard time metabolising carbohydrates such as those with insulin resistance, Type II diabetes, PCOS, are obese or even for endurance athletes the low carbohydrate diet could provide a proven method of controlling blood glucose and act as as a fuel source.

The important distinction here is that Catalyst explored the low carbohydrate diet NOT the high protein diet! The low carbohydrate  diet is rich in quality fats, nuts, fibrous fruits, vegetables and meats.

When you eat fat, you get essentially no insulin response, when you eat protein  you get a moderate response and when you eat carbohydrates, you get relatively higher responses.

However, the low carbohydrate diet needs to be a case of balance – individuals need enough protein to sustain their muscle mass as well as preventing hunger and eating to provide important fuel for our day to day activities – which does include unprocessed unrefined carbohydrates.

If you think the low carbohydrate diet may assist your health concerns, talk to a qualified practitioner before starting to make sure it is right for you.


Watch the full video Low Carb Diet: Fat or Fiction here:


Further Reading


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