Low-carb diets have taken center stage in recent years for their supposed ability to improve blood sugar issues and help with weight loss.
However, with all of the conflicting evidence surrounding diets across the web, it can be easy to brush off claims that low-carb diets are extremely beneficial. Before you do that, let’s look at the facts and research surrounding low-carb diets: the answer as to why they’re great for blood sugar balance and weight loss may surprise you.
Carbs and Blood Sugar: How They Relate
It’s easy to think of blood sugar the same way you think of table sugar. For instance, you might assume that because you don’t eat a lot of sweets or junk food, you aren’t at risk for raising your blood sugar levels because what you eat isn’t “sugary.”
Unfortunately, this is a common misconception surrounding sugar. The truth is that any food classified as a carbohydrate is broken down by the body into simple sugars called glucose molecules, which enter your blood stream to be used for energy.
What this means is that even a simple slice of bread (which is high in carbohydrates) is broken down by the body in the same way a donut or candy bar is broken down: into glucose molecules. Of course, you might not associate bread or pasta with sugar, which ultimately leads you to wonder why your blood sugar levels are out of whack even when you’re avoiding “sugar.”
Why the Sugar Rollercoaster?
The reason we experience blood sugar issues after eating excess carbs is due to the role of the hormone insulin.
In healthy individuals, insulin is released from the pancreas following a high-carbohydrate meal, where it works to bring blood sugar levels back down to normal before any damage occurs.
Unfortunately, in individuals with blood sugar issues or diabetes, the body’s cells stop responding to the effect of insulin (this is often referred to as “insulin resistance”) so blood sugar levels skyrocket. This typically occurs after the pancreas and insulin receptors become burned out from having to work so hard all the time to bring down your sugar levels.
This is why continuously eating a high carb and high sugar diet puts you at risk for developing diseases like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
But Don’t We Need Carbs for Energy?
While it’s true that our bodies (and most especially our brains) rely on glucose as a source of fuel to produce energy, it’s not true that we need copious amounts of carbohydrates to fill this need.
In fact, as long as we’re getting a decent amount of carbs from natural sources along with plenty of good fats and protein, our energy levels will increase due to our body switching to burning fat for fuel rather than sugar.
How this works is once your body has used up it’s carbohydrate stores for energy, it switches to its default backup to meets its needs: fat. This has a multitude of benefits, from weight loss (due to fat burning) to keeping your glucose levels normal. Also, considering fat doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels, you avoid the dreaded “crash” experienced after indulging in too many carbs, which can help you feel more energized through the day.
Also keep in mind that we’re discussing a low-carb diet, not a no-carb diet, so you will still consume some carbs. However, these carbs will be from completely natural sources which have fiber and other nutrients that don’t cause them to wreak havoc on you sugar levels.
How Low-Carb Diets Help Control Blood Sugar
As you saw earlier, carbs convert into sugar in your body, which then raises your blood sugar levels. This is especially true if the majority of carbs you're eating are coming from refined sources, such as processed and packaged cereals, breads, pastas, and desserts.
These types of refined carbs raise your blood sugar levels faster and higher than natural carb sources such as sweet potatoes, which contain fiber that slows the release of sugars.
1. They Stabilize Glucose Levels
Removing the types of carbs from your diet that spike your blood sugar levels will help keep wild blood sugar swings from occurring in the first place.
One study showed that when comparing a regular low-calorie diet with a very low-carb diet in diabetic and non-diabetic individuals, blood glucose levels dropped significantly in the group eating low-carb. In addition, the low-carb group’s blood sugar levels were close to normal by 24 weeks, while the other participants’ remained elevated (1).
This shows that not only can low-carb diets help balance blood sugar levels, but can also help them return to normal if they’ve been chronically elevated.
2. They Improve Insulin Sensitivity
As we saw earlier, consuming too many carbs for too long can cause your cells to stop responding to insulin when it is released, leaving you with skyrocketing blood sugar. You don’t have to be a full-blown diabetic for this to occur either, as it can happen as a precursor to diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Fortunately, low-carb diets can help improve your body’s ability to use insulin (this is also referred to as improving insulin sensitivity).
In fact, research shows that in obese, insulin resistant women, both high-fat and high-protein low-carb diets reduce insulin resistance, while high carb diets do not. In addition, other studies show low-carb diets can reduce the severity of insulin resistance in obese kids (2, 3).
3. They Can Be A Natural Diabetes Treatment
Low-carb diets have shown such promise for managing diabetes that they are now being considered a therapeutic alternative to some diabetic medications. This makes sense due to the ability of a low-carb diet to stabilize blood sugars and help keep insulin functioning properly - which, as you now know, are key elements in preventing and controlling diabetes.
Research shows that in some cases, Type 2 diabetics are able to stop using their diabetes medications after adopting a low-carb diet. One study found that out of 21 participants undergoing a low-carb diet for 16 weeks, 7 were able to totally stop taking their medications, while 10 others significantly reduced their use (4).
How Low Carb Diets Help You Lose Weight
Blood sugar, carbs, diabetes, and obesity are strongly linked. Below we’ll delve into why this is, and how going low-carb could be one of the best ways to lose those excess pounds.
- Helps Burn Fat As Fuel
When you’re constantly fueling your body with carbs, it has no choice but to keep burning through glucose for energy all day long. At first glance, it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this; however, if you have blood sugar issues or are overweight, it can severely limit your ability to burn and lose fat.
When you go low carb, you give your body a chance to deplete its glucose (carb) stores. Once it does this, your body begins “searching” for another fuel source.
And the first place it finds this source? Your fat.
This is one of the most important reasons going low-carb has been shown to be so effective for weight loss (5). You essentially return your body to burn fat instead of carbs for fuel, so the weight begins to drop off effortlessly.
- Results In Less Fat Storage
Not only can ditching the carbs help you lose fat, but it can also help prevent you from storing excess fat.
This is due to the fact that when you eat carbs, your body begins to burn them immediately for fuel. But if it receives too many carbs, it converts the remaining it can’t use into glycogen to be stored in your muscles and liver to use later. If these stores are also full, your body will then store the rest in your cells as fat.
When you go low carb, you avoid this by only getting enough carbohydrates to burn for fuel (and perhaps even less so you can dip into those fat stores). In this way, your body never receives the amount of excess carbs it would require to store as fat.
- Helps You Eat Less Calories
As a bonus, research also shows that a low-carb diet is one of the most filling, which can help you consume less calories overall and lead to weight loss.
One study showed that when participants were offered an all-you-can-eat diet, those that were eating low-carb consumed less overall, while also losing the most weight in as little as four weeks (6).
One of the best aspects of going low-carb to help control your blood sugar and lose weight is the fact that it helps your body do both holistically. For instance, instead of only helping you lower your insulin levels in the short term, a low-carb diet helps also improve your insulin sensitivity over the long term, so you actually begin to heal. A low-carb diet helps your body in multiple areas simultaneously, making it a preferred choice over medications that usually treat only one symptom.
Not to mention, going low-carb is amazingly easy!
- Feinman, Richard D. et al. Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: Critical review and evidence base. January 2015. Volume 31. <http://www.nutritionjrnl.com/article/S0899-9007%2814%2900332-3/fulltext>
- McAuley, KA et al. Comparison of high-fat and high-protein diets with a high-carbohydrate diet in insulin-resistant obese women. Diabetologia. 2005 Jan. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15616799>
- Sorvacheva, TN et al. [Efficacy of low-carbohydrate diet in the treatment of obesity in adolescents]. Vopr Pitan. 2007. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17674517>
- Yancy, William S. Jr. et al. A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet to treat type 2 diabetes. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2005. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1325029/>
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source: Low-Carbohydrate Diets. <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/low-carbohydrate-diets/>
- Johnstone, Alexandra M. et al. Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum. Am J Clin Nutr January 2008 vol. 87 no. 1 44-55. <http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/1/44.long>