Tailoring a Carb Control Plan Just for You, Today and Tomorrow, Requires Understanding Your Personal Health Needs:
Part One: The Four Faces Plus Black Box of Low Carb
Did you know there may be wonderful health benefits even if you do not follow the kind of very strict low carb diets you may have heard of or may have undertaken yourself in the past?
Don’t let the goal of perfection cause you to lose out on claiming and keeping your gold nugget to be found within a controlled carb eating lifestyle.
The key is to understand which benefits from carb control are important specifically for you. This will allow you to find the choices that bring the most benefit for the least “cost” in terms of changes you are willing to make.
Low carb eating is actually four medical interventions mixed together:
- (1) it reduces the need for insulin, and thereby reduces the impact and expression of metabolic syndrome, which at its core is insulin resistance (with initially higher levels of insulin and later falling and inadequate levels of insulin) and inadequate control of blood glucose levels. Other aspects of metabolic syndrome include weight gain in the abdomen, a tendency to develop high blood pressure and changes in blood lipids, most specifically an increase in triglycerides and decrease in HDL
- (2) it is a means to maintain abstinence for people who find that they have an addiction-like response to sweet or starchy foods OR to fatty or salty foods that are also sweet or starchy. They can learn that they do not need to eat any sweet or starchy foods and therefore abstinence is available as an option.
- (3) it improves the ability to maintain a stable blood sugar within the healthy range by dietary means with or without the help of medications. It also can be used as a means to reduce the doses of medication needed, therefore reducing the risk of adverse effects.
- (4) it allows a person to be in the metabolic state known as “nutritional ketosis“.
… and a black box:
Are there other basic mechanisms by which a low carb or controlled carb lifestyle can help your health? Probably yes. There is a lot of discussion about other possible mechanisms of benefit. Much is speculated and much more is unknown. The answers to many questions still lie in a black box that needs to be illuminated by research.
The biggest question is probably whether being on a very low carbohydrate diet with a resulting state of nutritional ketosis provides a “metabolic advantage” in weight loss by leading to increased non-activity burning of calories. There is some evidence that a low carb diet can lead to less systemic chronic inflammation. The research on this is only in the early stages and it will be difficult to separate what effects are from the change in carbohydrate intake itself and what of the effects are from changes in adverse effects from specific food stuffs, like gluten.
By understanding your own health needs and responses, you can make plans you find to be worthwhile staying with long term and you can understand how to sensibly adjust your eating plans when needed. This way, everything becomes about what you find worthwhile. The more you understand about your options, and the more you understand about your individual needs, the better this will work out.
People are unpredictably different. This has to be kept in mind when listening to other people’s stories of how any particular thing they have tried has worked out for them.
This is especially true when hearing about other people’s experiences when they have decided to take control of the carbohydrate in their diet – whether by cutting back on sugar, or changing the type of carbohydrate foods they eat, or cutting down to a very low amount of total carbs. The reason is that these kinds of changes in the diet can be beneficial in so many different ways. For any one person who finds benefit from reducing or changing the carbs in their diet, any one of many different effects may be responsible for that benefit – or the benefit could come from many different factors acting together. The story you are listening to may be the experience of someone whose health needs are not similar to yours.
Sources of Confusion Can Cloud the Picture
When people switch to controlled carb or low-carb eating, there are many things that occur that can affect symptoms and health that have nothing to do specifically with the change in carbohydrates themselves. For example, some of these could be:
- the enthusiasm of starting something new
- the breaking of old habits and patterns
- change in meal times
- an increase or, more often, a decrease in caffeine consumption, which can lead to various effects such as a severe withdrawal headache
- starting to eat (or eat more of) some food the person has an adverse reaction to
- more commonly, stopping eating (or eating much less of, at least for a time) some food that the person has an adverse reaction to. This can be very confusing and it is of great importance that such problems be actively sought out and identified (see my posts on the importance of recognizing gluten sensitivity even in those people committed to a low-carb and/or grain-free lifestyle).
- a decrease in alcohol consumption, with various possible consequences up to withdrawal symptoms.
The list of things that can confuse the picture could go on and on.
What is meant by a “controlled carb” eating plan or lifestyle?
That term is used when a choice has been made to control the types and/or the amounts of carbohydrate-containing foods that are eaten.
“Controlled carb” can mean anything from:
- “A” (what most would consider the first level of control – cutting back or eliminating liquids with sugar in them, such as soft drinks and fruit juice) but not trying to cut back on the total carbs in foods in a day, to
- “Z” (a very low carb diet with less than 20 grams of carbs and only as much protein as needed for health)
- and everything in between, which represents a vast array of choices.
This does not refer to choices made for reasons other than the amount or type or form of starch and/or sugar content of the food eaten.** For example, a person might decide to eliminate wheat due to concerns about immune reactions to gluten or concerns about other potential harmful effects from wheat (for example, the human digestive tract is not able to properly digest gliadin). That wheat elimination would not be, in itself, a controlled carbohydrate program. Many people who have decided to limit or control their carbs also have eliminated wheat with or without a full gluten elimination, but it is important to keep in mind the differences between metabolic effects (e.g. sugar), toxic effects and immune effects. Because it is acting through the immune system, gluten can be an issue for people down to 20 parts per million, whereas it takes gram levels of sugar or starch to have an effect on metabolism.
An Aside: Keep in mind that no research studies can ever offer firm conclusions about what will be best for you personally. In the end, after all the research and information is looked at, it always comes down to three steps. First, the available choices must be considered in terms of their suitability for that particular person, in their particular circumstances and at that particular time. Second, if an intervention (treatment or lifestyle change) is chosen and undertaken, it is always an individual trial-of-therapy and third, the results have to be assessed. One can never take the expected results for granted. Again, we are just so unpredictably different.
** Technically, the term “dietary carbohydrates” includes dietary fiber
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