Though it seems to be calming down a little bit (I hope), there has been an ongoing and very heated debate about how many carbs people should eat. It often boils down to an argument about whether we “need” them, at least for optimal health. For a while I was totally on board with the argument for eating low carb. We can survive without them, so I agreed that there’s really no need to eat them. Especially if it could make me skinny*! About a year after I started eating Paleo and when I was still on my quest for thinness, I tried a very low carb diet (<50g/day) for several months. The results were not pleasant.
[*This was a supremely silly reason to undertake a food experiment. I was prioritizing thinness over health and was nowhere even close to overweight when I tried a VLC diet. I just wanted to be even skinnier. Ugh ugh ugh…..]
I think it’s important to point out that I was not in a caloric deficit. I made sure to eat at least as much as I did prior to going low-carb. I found that eating this way increased my hunger, so I didn’t have the oft-cited low-carber problem of being so satiated that I forgot to eat. I was also coming from a relatively strict paleo template, so I wasn’t making a drastic leap from a high carb, grain filled diet to very low carb. I had plenty of transition in the year between abandoning grains, legumes, and potatoes, and embarking on this experiment.
So how did my body respond?
Physical Side Effects
Random Bruising – About a month into my low-carb experiment I started finding small circular bruises on my arms and legs and had no idea where they came from. They were perfectly symmetrical and not at all painful, which makes me pretty confident that I didn’t keep bumping into things. I have absolutely no idea what caused my blue and purple spots, but to this day I still get them if I accidentally go too low carb for a while (which is surprisingly easy to do).
Sleep problems – I am extremely lucky in that I am usually able to fall asleep within a minute or two of closing my eyes and can then sleep through the night. After about a month of low-carbing I struggled to fall asleep and woke up 3-5 times during the night. For weeks, I was extremely frustrated and could not for the life of me figure out why my sleep was so screwed up. I don’t remember how I figured it out, but one day it just clicked that the way I was eating could be playing a role. Within a couple days of reintroducing carbohydrates, my sleep was back to normal.
Weight gain – What the what? I thought a very low carb diet was supposed to make me instantly svelte! Instead, I felt and looked heavier than I had in quite a while. At the time, weight gain was an extremely unpleasant side effect and felt like one of the worst things that could happen. My guess is that it had a lot to do with stress and lack of sleep. I’m sure my cortisol levels were totally dysregulated and my body was just trying to do what it could to deal. In this case that meant weight gain, despite severely restricting my carb intake and exercising regularly.
Hair loss – I’m not sure when exactly it started but I noticed more hair falling out when I brushed it and more in the drain after showers. This has been a notable sign of stress or thyroid issues for me in the past. It’s definitely a sign of health problems of some sort, and one I’m not about to ignore. The hair loss slowed down to normal levels within a couple weeks of upping my carb intake.
Grumpiness – In retrospect, I think I was probably rather unpleasant to be around. I was tired, grouchy, and exceedingly emotional most of the time. Fortunately, I have the most patient husband on the planet and I don’t remember him complaining about it once. The only thing I heard from him was (legitimate) concern about my health.
Skin – I have been prone to breakouts since middle school. When I’m stressed, sleep-deprived, or have eaten something I’m sensitive to, my skin is the first thing to go. My skin was not happy when I was eating low carb and I broke out quite a bit. It was mostly around my mouth and chin, which further supports my theory that going low carb totally screwed up my cortisol regulation and consequently affected other hormones.
Looking at it now, this list could be taken almost verbatim from those who caution about going low carb, especially for women. I realized what was going on a few months in and stopped immediately, bringing back sweet potatoes and fruit. I felt so much better and haven’t intentionally followed a low carb approach since.
Wait, There’s More?
In case my months of grumpiness, health issues, and worsening appearance weren’t enough to keep me eating more carbohydrates, there are a couple other reasons I have no intention of delving back into that way of eating.
Counting Food Things – Ugh. I have spent way too much of my life counting food. Calories, fat, carbohydrates. To me, it’s really all the same. And I hate it. In the paleosphere, we frequently hear people knock calorie-counting. And I completely agree. At least for me, it leads to neuroses, food obsession, stress, and an unhealthy focus on things that don’t freaking matter. As far as my experience goes, strict counting of carbohydrates is not much different and I have no interest in reintroducing that level of food monitoring into my life.
Nutrient Density – Some of the foods with the highest polyphenol and micronutrient content have enough carbs that eating them on a regular basis would most likely not be allowable on a low carb diet. Once we start talking about ketosis, even many polyphenol- and nutrient-rich vegetables would have to be removed or severely limited. I am not willing to sacrifice micronutrient intake for the sake of limiting my carbohydrate consumption.
Microbiome – There is still some debate here, but a great deal of research tells us that “good” carbohydrates (essentially, those allowed on a paleo/primal diet) feed our beneficial bacteria. When we remove carbohydrates from our diet, we might starve out some of the pathogenic bacteria in our guts. But in doing so, we also start to starve out the bacteria that are essential to our health. I have every intention of keeping my gut bugs healthy by providing them with lots of fermentable fibers via nutrient dense carbohydrate sources.
Enjoyment – Simply put, I want to enjoy my food. This in no way means I’m going to go out and gorge on oreos and pizza. But there are some extremely healthful and delicious foods out there that happen to be higher in carbohydrates. I like roasting root vegetables from my mom’s garden and making plantain pancakes on the weekends (and, let’s be honest, sometimes for dinner as well). I don’t want to add more stress to my life by worrying about counting the number of net carbs I’ve had that day, or by missing out on meals with the people I care about. I want to eat health-giving foods that make me happy and to not worry about calculating anything. It’s just not worth it to me, and I’m really not convinced that doing so will bring me optimal health.
I don’t think that low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets are bad for everyone. Some people have major success with eating that way. I do, however, think it is important to stay open to the idea that not everyone benefits from such a diet. Some may even react negatively to going too low-carb, and if they do it’s probably not because they “didn’t low carb hard enough”. Everyone is unique, and I think we forget about that sometimes. Let’s do what’s best for our individual bodies, even if that strays from what someone else tells us is the “best” or “right” way to do something.