Proponents of low carb diets love to talk about how eating carbs is “bad for you.” Sure…eating too many carbs, just like eating too much of anything, will negatively impact our health. That’s because eating in an unbalanced way creates an extreme metabolic environment, and managing the fallout from those extremes taxes our bodies. But what low-carb fanatics fail to talk about is that too many carbs or eating simple sugars on an empty stomach isn’t the only way we create unbalanced or extreme metabolic consequences.
We also tax our bodies when we don’t eat enough carbs, whether in terms of amount of frequency. Let’s discuss…
Low Carb Leads to Binges
When I was struggling with disordered eating, I was keen to avoid carbs. I thought that sugar was the reason my body had more fat on it than I liked, and so I sought to diet down my body fat percentage by avoiding carbs. It went something like this:
- Drink black coffee for breakfast
- Eat salad and chicken breast for lunch
- Snack on plain greek yogurt and veggies because I was ravenous
- For dinner, eat chicken and steamed veggies
- Crave something sweet and allow myself a single square of dark chocolate
- End up eating the whole chocolate bar
- Eat another chocolate bar
- “Crap…I’ve blown it…”
- Binge—a whole pint of ice cream, a whole box of donuts, or a whole box of cereal, etc. etc. etc.
- Feel horrible.
The reason I was binge eating was not because I was “addicted” to sugar. (You can’t be addicted to something that isn’t addictive...) It was because I was creating a carbohydrate and calorie deficit throughout my day. Basically my body was sick of being starved, and took over the eating process in place of my brain. Because I was starving my body of energy, I ended up bingeing. Because I was also starving my body of carbs, my cravings for sweet foods were particularly intense. Because I spent my whole day thinking about how I needed to avoid food (especially carbs), I literally could not stop thinking about eating.
It had nothing to do with the food itself and everything to do with the battle raging in my mind and soul.
Carb restriction leads to overeating, even if you don’t have an eating disorder.
An example I like to give of how carb restriction leads to overeating comes from a time when I was no longer struggling with an eating disorder. My husband and I were on the tail end of our grocery week, and we didn’t have much in the fridge by way of dinner besides chicken, cheese, and spaghetti squash. We cooked it up for a delicious dinner that also ended up being inherently low carb. It wasn’t intentional…it was really just a consequence of what food we actually had in our house at the time. Right after we finished eating, we headed to the grocery store to restock our pantry and fridge.
By the time we got home from the store, however, both of us were irritable and hungry. Like, ravenous. My husband expressed that he was confused by this, because we’d eaten what felt like a hearty dinner. And it was hearty…except for the fact that it was almost completely void of carbs. As soon as we walked in the door, we put away the groceries and then made (and rapidly devoured) a whole pan of nachos.
Yes, a whole pan.
No, it wasn’t a binge. No, it wasn’t even disordered eating. It actually was the opposite–we honored our bodies by responding appropriately to the hunger signals we received. It was had resisted that hunger, tried to make rules about how many chips was “appropriate” or limited ourselves in any way, the overwhelming urges/cravings would have continued. But, as it was, we ate until we were truly satisfied, went to bed, and woke up the next day and ate normally.
Oh, and no…we didn’t gain weight, either. Because when you honor your hunger, even if it’s out-of-the-ordinary, your body honors you, too.
Often, my meals look something like this: a meaty main dish + a couple sides. Unpictured on this table is the ice cream I ate immediately after dinner, which is why this relatively low carb dinner didn’t lead to a late night nacho session.
My meals aren’t always “perfectly balanced” but I do pay attention to the relative proportion of macronutrients on my plate. I don’t mean counting macros or anything like that, but rather paying attention to whether there is a protein source and a carb source in addition to vegetables, fats, and fiber. While fruit and beans both have some carbohydrates, I know from experience that it’s not enough for what my body needs. With this dinner, I knew I was going out for ice cream afterwards, so I didn’t stress about making rice or tortillas or something to balance out the plate.
Honestly, I eat meals like this pretty often. I’m not a huge fan of rice or potatoes, and so I usually forgo making them in lieu of an extra portion of dessert. I know from my own experience with intuitive eating that I don’t always feel great when I eat a large meal followed by dessert. What I’ve found to work for me instead is to choose a dessert as my choice of carbohydrate for my meal. That helps me to be satisfied from my meal without ending up overly full because I force-fed myself a food item I didn’t like. I’ve reached the point in my intuitive eating journey where I can anticipate whether or not I’m going to want dessert after dinner, and so I proactively save room in my stomach for the cookie, pie, or ice cream I’m looking forward to. When I don’t save room, the dessert just doesn’t feel as good. Other days, I proactively add a carb to my dinner, like pasta, if I’m not craving anything sweet.
Low Carb Leads to Hormonal Problems
The primary way that low carb diets mess with our hormones is through a stress response. The Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid-gonadal axis is a web of hormones that facilitates communication between our brains and our organs to regulate functions like the fight-or-flight response, the rest-and-digest response, thyroid function, reproductive function, and metabolism. When one component of the HPATG becomes unbalanced, it creates unbalance throughout the entire body. This leads to problems like “adrenal fatigue,” hypothyroidism, amenorrhea, and dysglycemia. When these problems are prolonged, it leads to chronic health problems, like cardiovascular disease, infertility, and diabetes.
Even if your symptoms don’t progress to chronic or debilitating diagnoses, low carb diets can still create issues like bloating, constipation, insomnia, fatigue, hair loss, and weight gain. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like my idea of a healthy life…
Although low carb diets aren’t the only cause of these issues, they definitely can predispose us to developing these and other health problems. Other types of imbalances in eating and lifestyle habits also have that effect, like low-fat, low-protein, or low-calorie diets. Read more about naturally balancing hormones in this post: 5 Ways to Balance Your Hormones, Naturally.
Low Carb Leads to Rebound Weight Gain
Weight gain isn’t something to be afraid of, necessarily. But I think we all can agree that the main reason people go on low-carb diets is to lose weight. Well, if the low carb diet just culminates with gaining back all the weight you lost and then some, that’s a pretty good argument against the utility of low-carb diets. (Read more about diet-related weight gain in this post: 3 Ways Undereating Leads to Weight Gain)
If it doesn’t work, why do it?