Could a low carb diet be sabotaging your weight loss?
Are you struggling to lose weight despite following a very low carb diet? Is the waistband of your jeans feeling tighter? Noticed your blood glucose levels rising? Are your moods a bit low? Perhaps you are struggling to fall asleep and then wake up feeling tired? It could be that you aren’t eating enough carbs! I know, I know – but please don’t shoot the messenger. Keep an open mind and keep reading as you might find some interesting answers to YOUR body’s woes.
Stress can be defined as “anything that triggers survival mode.” It can include environmental, physical, and mental stress. It also includes dietary stress. If our bodies sense stress, we move into survival mode. When this happens it signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol tells your body to store fat. Why? Because throughout the centuries, humans that were able to store fat on their bodies in times of scarcity or crisis lived to see another day. Our bodies are super-duper clever, and will do anything to maintain life. This mechanism worked very well for our caveman ancestors. However, in today’s modern world, our genes don’t know that there is a Woolworths just down the road with fully stocked shelves. So when our bodies are under stress, most of us store fat too.
Being in survival mode, especially for long periods of time, causes gains in visceral fat. Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds your internal organs and is what gives you that annoying spare tyre or muffin top. As aesthetically unappealing as this belly fat might be, it is the type of fat that can be easily and quickly accessed for fuel in times of crisis. The fat on our hips, bums, and thighs – not so much.
So, lets look at the dietary stressors in our modern world. Starchy processed food, sugar, gluten, artificial sweeteners, margarine, sunflower/canola oils, and dairy all play havoc with our blood sugar, insulin, gut flora, and inflammation levels. This can result in disease and weight gain. Many of you following a real food, low carb diet know this and are already avoiding these foods.
But did you know that eating too few carbohydrates also puts your body under stress? I doubt any of us need more stress in our lives, especially the self-inflicted kind. Following a very low carb diet for too long (especially if calories are being restricted), places strain on the adrenal glands. This ongoing stress pushes our cortisol levels up and robs us of our serotonin (the happy hormone). We can end up fat, cranky and reaching for the anti-depressants or bottle of wine.
What is important to remember is that cortisol isn’t a bad thing – at the right time. We rely on a cortisol surge in the morning to wake us up. It should then slowly taper off throughout the day. Come night-time our cortisol should be low so that our melatonin can kick in. This is what helps us go to sleep. When cortisol is working as it should, the calories we consume are transported into the muscles, and provide our bodies with energy. But when our cortisol is out of whack, due to dietary and other stressors, we struggle to wake up in the morning (low cortisol) and we battle to fall or stay asleep when evening comes (high cortisol), and calories go into growing a spare tyre of belly fat. Sleeping well every night is critical for fat loss and anything that affects this needs to be sorted out and fixed.
I have been following the work of Dr Alan Christianson, a naturopathic medical doctor who specialises in endocrinology and thyroid disorders. In his book “The Adrenal Reset diet,” Dr. Christianson states that in his practice, most people who eat under 50 grams of carbs per day ended up with more glucose in their blood than those who eat more carbohydrates. This was true for both diabetics and non-diabetics.
Here is his explanation:
“When you have a meal without any carbs, your blood sugar starts to drop. To prevent it from getting too low, your adrenal glands make extra cortisol, which pulls glucose out of your muscles and liver. This not only leaves you without energy, it also raises your glucose more than a meal with healthy carbs would. Erratic blood glucose levels also cause fat storage and sugar cravings.”
Now there is some food for thought. Have us ‘very low carbers’ been cutting off our nose to spite our face? Perhaps eating a sweet potato every once in a while would have done us the world of good. Should we maybe not demonise carbs to the extent that we do?
What is the solution?
I think we can all agree that going the high-carb route is not the answer either. This can cause our livers to make the dangerous fats called triglycerides, which raises the risk for heart disease. A high-carb diet can also cause fatigue, makes us fat and diabetic, and keeps us addicted to foods that are bad for us.
According to Dr Christianson, the answer lies in having the right type of carbs, at the right time, and in the appropriate quantity. This approach can help bring your daily cortisol rhythm back to the ideal, which can help you lose weight more effectively, have good energy levels and mood, as well as sleep soundly at night. Who’s on board? I have my hand up! You know what they say about people who do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I have tried the very low carb diet and got some great results, but it hasn’t been working for me for a while now, and I think my poor body is stressed out. My blood sugar and insulin levels are higher than I would like, the spare tyre refuses to deflate, the weight is very stubborn, and my gut flora is in a bit of a shambles. It is time to try something new. My mind is wide open.
Based on Dr Christianson’s recommendations, I plan to experiment a little. So in addition to the good quality animal protein, healthy fats, leafy greens, salads and other low carb veggies that are a staple on my plate, I am going to include some starchy carbs. He recommends ½ cup with lunch and 1 cup with dinner. This means I will be eating some beans, lentils, chick peas, brown rice, butternut, sweet potato, boiled and cooled baby potatoes, etc. Now take your jaw off the floor and let us continue……
By including a diverse array of veggies, beans and legumes, our bodies get a good dose of the different types of fibre (soluble, insoluble and resistant). This will ensure that we feed our gut flora, keep the poop moving, maintain a strong immune system, and balance our blood sugar levels. Fibre also helps us women especially to excrete used estrogen instead of recycling it. This is vital to maintain hormonal balance. Fructose is bad for us, so upping carbs by including more fruit isn’t a good idea. Having some berries, which are naturally low in sugar, is fine.
If you have been avoiding beans and legumes for a while, you might want to take it slow to avoid any embarrassing gas emissions in public. Your digestive system will cope if given sufficient time to slowly adapt. The “phytate and lectin issue”, doesn’t seen to be too big of a deal either. Many other foods like nuts and seeds contain these anti-nutrients and we eat them without batting an eye-lid. The video below goes into this in slightly more detail.
If you are the kind of person who likes details, then in terms of grams, 75 to 90 grams of carbs per day is best for most adults who exercise under an hour per day. If you tend to hit the gym or Crossfit box hard, then perhaps your body can handle more. Side note: Be careful of over-training as this too is a stressor which raises cortisol.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to following a real food, lower carb, healthy fat way of eating. If you are doing well and losing weight on a very low carb diet, then I am happy for you. If you haven’t been convinced that incorporating beans and legumes is the right thing for you, then don’t do it. But if you have identified with my struggles, then perhaps you want to join me in giving Dr Christianson’s advice a go.
All one can do is try different approaches that make sense, and see how our body responds. Weight loss is an incredibly complex issue. Throw in the fact that we live in a world of chronic environmental, physical, dietary, and mental stress – it really is no wonder that people are suffering from ill-health, and are struggling to achieve their weight loss goals. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but it is in the seeking of those answers that we learn. It is through experimentation that we figure out what works for us as individuals. Hopefully the effort gets us ever closer towards optimum health and the achievement of our weight loss goals.
For more information on this subject I highly recommend that you watch this 12-minute video clip where Dr Christianson explains his dietary approach and why it has worked so well for many of his patients. You can also click on the link below the clip for more information about his book which is an excellent read.
Reference: The Adrenal Reset Diet by Dr. Alan Christianson.
Posted on January 28, 2016, in Primal 101 and tagged beans and legumes, belly fat, blood sugar, cortisol, stress, stubborn weight, very low carb diets, visceral fat. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.