Are low-carb diets healthy? A dietician explains…

By Meg Yonson |

I Quit Sugar - What we think about low carb diets.

High-fat low-carb diets are trending on the interwebs but we’re increasingly hearing reports that some of us shouldn’t be buying into it, particularly women. Are you one such “type”?

We’ve asked Kelsey Marksteiner, New York dietitian and regular contributor to functional and integrative medicine specialist Chris Kresser’s blog, to explain.

Note: Naturally, IQS is lower carb than many eating approaches. We fill up on whole veggies, good fats and protein first. However, we do still include unprocessed and nutrient-dense legumes and wholegrains like quinoa, oats and buckwheat in our recipes and menu plans.

Low carbohydrate diets are all the rage right now. Most people try them as a way to lose weight, improve brain function, reduce risk of cancer and more. But is there a downside to eating so few carbohydrates?

The short answer is: Yes. A low-carb diet may very well be detrimental, especially for women struggling with hormonal issues and excessive stress. But let’s explore further…

How do I know if I need to eat more carbs?

You’ve stopped menstruating

In my work as a dietitian, I see many women that have struggled on a low carb diet. Her story often goes like this:

First, she heard about a low carb diet and wanted to try it to lose weight. She started and felt really good at first! She was losing weight, able to exercise and recover well, she was sleeping well…things were going great.

But after a few months she was waking up feeling exhausted. She barely had the energy to work out, and when she did, she felt like she’d been hit by a truck the next morning. Her period started to become irregular. She noticed big clumps of hair falling out in the shower. She never wanted to have sex anymore. She couldn’t lose weight and in fact, the weight she lost started creeping back on.

Sound like you?

I’ve seen this pattern over and over again in my work with clients. Often, my clients have already developed a condition called “adrenal fatigue” or HPA axis dysregulation as a result of their low carb eating and stress levels.

You’re stressed and exhausted

When the body is starved for carbohydrates (and often calories, as a result of the appetite lowering effects of a low carb diet), the body starts to increase levels of cortisol, our “stress hormone”. In combination with excessive exercise and life stressors, the body becomes increasingly stressed and it eventually stops listening to the cries of the HPA axis to produce more cortisol. The adrenal glands that produce cortisol stop doing their job and our cortisol ends up in the tank.

Cortisol is a very important hormone that we want just the right amount of.

Too much cortisol = weight gain around the middle, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and depression,

Too little cortisol = exhaustion, recurring sickness, and our hormones are completely out of whack.

If you want to learn more about the importance of cortisol in the body, I’ve got a free 28-page book called Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue.       

If you’re suffering from exhaustion and you resonate with the story I told above, you’re a prime candidate for a higher carbohydrate diet. You’ll want to focus on real food carbohydrates from sources like starchy tubers (sweet potatoes, potatoes, taro, yucca, squashes, etc) and whole fruits.

But here’s the part to remember: It’s a good idea, of course, to avoid processed forms of carbohydrates like sugar, pasta, crackers, chips, etc.

How many carbs should I eat?

When I work with clients, we’ll generally start somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of calories as carbohydrate. That means you’ll want to get between 100-150 grams of carbohydrate over the course of a day.

What does that look like?

With a client who has no underlying health issues and wants to find their ideal carbohydrate intake, I recommend “The Rule of Thirds”. That is, their plate should be one-third protein, one-third starchy tubers, and one-third non-starchy vegetables (with healthy added fat throughout).

It ends up being a moderate carbohydrate diet – not astronomically high like the typical processed food diet, and nowhere near a ketogenic diet. Eating three meals a day like this also means you’re less likely to skimp on calories.

Kelsey Marksteiner
Kelsey Marksteiner MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian with a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from NYU and a Master’s in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. She works in private practice and recommends individualized dietary therapy focusing on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in losing weight, gaining energy, and pursuing continued health. She is a firm believer that everyone is different, and she tailors her plan for each and every individual. Through her work, she aims to meld the dietary wisdom of traditional cultures with the latest science in integrative and functional medicine to create plans for her clients that work in the modern world. You can learn more about Kelsey by visiting her private practice website. Join her newsletter!

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