13 Low-Carb Diet Myths Debunked: Healthy or Bad? Safe or a Fad?
What did your family and friends say to you when you first mentioned that you were thinking of going on a low-carb diet?
“But that’s just a stupid fad diet. You’ll lose a lot of weight but it’s really bad for you.”
“That diet is way too strict. You’ll never be able to stick with it.”
“After you lose your water weight, it’s done.”
A lot of people who think about going onto low-carb diets are greatly discouraged by comments like these.
They are usually made with good intentions, but you know what they say about roads paved with good intentions.
Far too many dieters have been held back by these myths and misconceptions.
If you are on the fence about switching to low-carb, let’s address some of the concerns which may be stopping you from making the dietary leap that could change your whole life for the better.
1. Low-Carb is just another fad diet.
“You want to go on a low-carb diet? What, like Atkins? That is so 90s of you.”
This may be one of the criticisms that are lobbed your way when you announce your intentions to go on a low-carb diet.
A lot of people remember the Atkins craze, but their only takeaway was that it was a craze.
As human beings, we tend to herd toward popular trends, but sometimes the opposite effect happens.
Because something is popular, we may be tempted to disregard it. After all, a lot of trends are just gimmicks. Why not low-carb?
Like all diets, they may phase in and out of popularity, but that has nothing to do with the science. That is a constant.
Plus, low-carb diets have existed long before Atkins.
Consider the Banting diet invented by William Banting. This diet has stood the test of time for more than 100 years.
The Ketogenic Diet to treat pediatric epilepsy was also studied by doctors clear back in the 1920s and is still in use today.
Its history however arguably dates back to 400 BC, when the author of Epidemics noted that a man who fasted seemed to have been cured quickly of epilepsy.
So low-carb has a long history of successful, healthy use.
What is even more important to realize is that low-carb is not a “crash diet.”
While the words are sometimes used interchangeably, a fad diet is any diet which is going through a popular craze.
A crash diet refers to a diet where you lose weight very rapidly, usually as the result of extreme calorie and nutritional restriction.
Certain low-cab diets may be crash diets, depending on your approach, but they do not have to be, nor should they be.
Healthy low-carb diets do not deprive you of essential nutrition or the calories that your body needs to function.
KEY POINT: The popularity of low-carb was a fad in the 90s, but the science backing it up is not a fad.
Low-carb is also not a crash diet since it does not force you to restrict your calories or your vital nutrition.
You get everything you need from a low-carb diet to lead a long, healthy, active life.
2. You will feel hungry all the time on a low-carb diet.
“… But if I go onto a low-carb diet, I am going to be hungry all the time!”
A lot of people just can’t imagine life without bread, rice, pasta, and sugar.
They worry that they will constantly be hungry and won’t get enough to eat.
Part of this myth goes back to the misconception of low-carb as a crash diet. But remember, it isn’t one.
In fact, it is not a calorie-restricted diet at all. You are encouraged to eat until you are full.
What is awesome about this is that you will get full much sooner on a low-carb diet than you likely do on the diet you are eating now.
Why? Low-carb diets tend to be naturally high in protein. This is actually known as a low-carb, high-protein (LCHP) diet.
This in turn means that you often feel full after you have eaten less food. This makes it easy to lose weight and stick to your diet.
KEY POINT: While many people believe that they will feel hungry all the time on a low-carb diet, this is based on the misconception that low-carb is a crash diet.
It is not, but you will probably naturally eat fewer calories since you are eating more protein, and protein improves satiety.
3. After you lose your water weight, you won’t lose any more.
Low-carb dieters love to boast about how much weight they managed to lose in the initial weeks of the diet.
This leads many skeptics to assert that all the weight they lost is “just water weight,” and that low-carb is not going to actually help anyone burn fat.
It is true that you do lose a lot of water weight at the start of the diet (assuming you are carrying excess water weight to begin with).
This is one of the reasons why weight loss can be rapid at the start of a low-carb diet.
How does it work?
- Your insulin levels drop on a low-carb diet, which results in your kidneys excreting sodium (3). This has the nice side effect of reducing blood pressure (4).
- Carbs are stored as glycogen (5). Glycogen binds water in your muscles as well as your liver. Reducing your carbohydrate intake thus reduces water binding in your body.
So that is two different ways that a low-carb diet helps you shed water weight.
Now, that being said, we have to answer the charge as to whether you only lose water weight when you are on a low carb diet.
This is simply not true at all.
You cannot lose water weight for six months, and this study (6) demonstrated that a low-carb diet can produce long-term weight loss in obese individuals.
In fact, it may promote more weight loss than a conventional diet.
Low carb diets are actually particularly effective when it comes to shedding visceral belly fat (7).
That is the deep fat which is so had to lose on a conventional diet, and which stubbornly seems to cling even at a healthy weight.
That type of fat puts you at a heightened risk for cardiovascular disease.
Getting rid of it eliminates that major risk factor, which may lead to greater longevity.
So not only do you look great and feel your best, but you are protecting your long-term health through the weight loss you achieve with a low-carb diet.
KEY POINT: It is true that a low-carb diet helps you to shed excess water weight swiftly, and this is one of the causes of rapid weight loss in the initial weeks.
But it is NOT true that a low-carb diet causes no long-term weight loss.
Low-carb not only is great at helping you burn fat over a long time period, but it even helps you shed that stubborn belly fat which is so bad for your health.
4. You will destroy your cardiovascular health on a low carb diet.
This myth really could not be further off from the truth, but it stops a lot of health conscious would-be dieters from making the leap.
It is understandable where this myth comes from, because it is intuitive. Most of us were brought up with the traditional food pyramid.
Basically, we have been taught to fear fat wherever we find it.
Fat is a nutrient, however, and incorporated properly into a healthy diet, it is not bad for you.
Low-carb diets are generally high in fat.
You will eat a lot more meat and dairy products as well as fats and oils on a low-carb diet than you likely do now.
That does not mean you are going to get heart disease.
In fact, numerous scientific studies have been conducted on low-carb diets specifically to determine whether they are good or bad for cardiovascular health.
Here are some of the findings:
All of these are important risk factors which doctors look at in evaluating whether you are likely to develop heart disease or a stroke.
Every single one of these measurements can improve on a low-carb diet.
This is true even though you are eating more meat and fat - including saturated fat.
KEY POINT: Most of us have been raised to believe that eating more fat necessarily means that we will develop cardiovascular disease.
The research however paints a different picture.
You can reduce numerous risk factors for heart disease by eating a low-carb, high-fat diet.
5. Low carb diets are too boring/restrictive/hard to stick to.
As far as myths go, this is a tougher one to evaluate, because it is based on subjectivity.
A diet which is very hard for one person to follow may be easy for another.
We can go back to myth #2 however to answer this.
While many people believe that you will always be hungry on a low-carb diet, you actually will reach your full point sooner since the diet is naturally high in protein.
This means you will not be hungry all the time.
Low-carb is not a calorie-restricted diet, in that it does not force you to count your calories in order to stick to the diet.
But you will actually be eating fewer calories naturally, because you will be satisfied sooner and will end up eating smaller portions.
Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has conducted studies (15) on the nature of willpower and has drawn an intriguing conclusion.
Baumeister’s research indicates that willpower is a limited resource which may be depleted through overuse.
This may explain why sticking to a restrictive diet which requires ongoing calorie counting and forced self-limiting behavior is so difficult, and why there is such a high rate of attrition.
Low-carb does not require this much active ongoing discipline to stick to.
Many people discover it is a partially self-regulating diet thanks to the protein that improves satiety.
This means you are less likely to deplete your willpower stores and more likely to stick to the diet.
KEY POINT: Unlike diets that require calorie counting and going hungry, low-carb is a diet where you naturally get full faster.
This means your body sends you a full signal sooner and you eat fewer calories naturally. S
ince this process is automatic, you are less likely to fatigue yourself into giving up by depleting your willpower.
Low-carb may thus be easier to stick to than traditional restrictive diets.
6. All you are doing is restricting calories.
The criticism here is that there is nothing “special” about a low-carb diet.
Proponents of this myth believe that the diet works through the same mechanism as calorie-restricting diets.
You are eating less, and therefore you lose weight.
It is true that this is a principle mechanism for weight loss through low-carb, as discussed above.
As the diet is naturally high in protein, you feel full sooner, and you end up eating fewer calories.
The faster your metabolism is, the faster your body burns through calories.
This helps you lose weight faster and keep it off.
So that is two mechanisms through which low-carb helps you to lose weight.
Contrast that with crash diets which restrict calories unnaturally, sending your body into “starvation mode” - which in turn crashes your metabolism.
That is why with traditional crash diets you gain all the weight right back after you lose it.
To add to all of this, there are the cardiovascular benefits that we mentioned above.
A low-carb diet isn’t just great for burning fat, it is also great for getting healthy.
KEY POINT: A low-carb diet does reduce calorie intake, but it does so naturally through improving satiety, not unnaturally through forcing you to eat fewer calories than you need for optimum health.
Reducing calories naturally causes automatic weight loss.
Low-carb also boosts your metabolism and leads to improvements in cardiovascular health, mood, insulin levels, and more.
These are benefits you will not get from a calorie-restricting crash diet.
7. You won’t be eating your greens!
“But if you are giving up carbs, doesn’t that mean you won’t be able to eat your veggies anymore? How on earth are you going to get your nutrition?”
This is a very common misunderstanding about low-carb.
It probably comes from people assuming that “low-carb” actually means “no-carb.”
This is not true at all, otherwise the diet would be called “no-carb.”
There is also likely some confusion because a number of “starchy” foods that are high in carbohydrates and need to be avoided on a low-carb diet happen to be vegetables.
These include potatoes and carrots, for example, both of which are root vegetables.
In fact, a good rule of thumb with figuring out what to eat on a low-carb diet is this:
- If it grows underground, you should be limiting your intake. E.g. potatoes.
- If it grows aboveground, you generally can eat as much as you like.
Most vegetables are actually quite low in carbohydrates, so that means you can actually eat a lot of greens without exceeding 50 grams of carbs over the course of a day.
You are still low carb if you are eating up to 150 grams of carbs each day.
So that gives you room not only for plenty of “above ground” vegetables, but also for a few higher-carb items like the occasional root vegetable (like a potato), some oats or quinoa, or maybe a little fruit.
Here are some very low-carb vegetables which you can really load up on:
- Bok choi
Here are some moderate-carb vegetables which you should moderate, but you can still eat a significant amount of:
- Artichoke hearts
- Yellow beans
Here are some high carb (starchy) veggies to avoid:
- Most squash
Note that how you prepare vegetables has an impact on how high they are in carbohydrates, as does the parts of the vegetables you eat.
Artichoke hearts contain moderate carbs, but whole artichokes contain higher carbs.
KEY POINT: It is entirely a misconception that you cannot eat a lot of vegetables while you are on a low-carb diet.
Many vegetables are very low carb to begin with, and you can even eat some moderate-carb vegetables as part of your regular plan.
In particular, feel free to load your plate with leafy greens.
Many people end up eating more vegetables on low-carb than they did before.
8. You will have to give up healthy foods like potatoes and fruits.
You are expected to moderate foods like these on a low-carb diet, but you are not necessarily expected to give them up entirely.
Some people do choose to give up foods like potatoes and oats entirely.
But others will now and again treat themselves to some potatoes or oats when they have eaten a particularly low-carb diet and have a little wiggle room.
Athletes may also choose to eat more of foods like these to support their workouts.
You do not need them to support weight lifting or marathon running, but for fast acceleration (sprinting for example), they may be necessary.
In terms of fruits, most people on low-carb diets eat fruits in small quantities.
If you are worried about disrupting ketosis, you can stick with lower-carb fruit choices like lemons, kiwis, and strawberries.
Oranges and blueberries are good moderate choices. Pineapples, apples, pears, bananas, and grapes all have more carbs.
KEY POINT: Most low-carb dieters eat the occasional piece of fruit, and some low-carb dieters (especially sprinters) eat small amounts of potatoes, oats and other carbs as well.
If you manage your carb budget wisely, you can keep eating these foods in small quantities.
9. You will get sick when your body switches to a ketogenic state.
There are a lot of people who are under the impression that ketosis is a hazardous, even deadly, metabolic state.
First things first. Ketosis is a normal, healthy process.
It is what happens your body doesn’t have enough carbs to use them as a primary energy source.
When that happens, your body switches to fat-burning instead.
This process generates ketones. Under other circumstances, there usually are not a lot of ketones present in your body.
It should be noted that researchers have studied ketosis quite extensively.
Doctors may even recommend ketogenic diets for patients suffering from epilepsy.
Research in this area has had particularly promising results for treatment (20).
Doctors would not prescribe this treatment if it were dangerous to patients.
It actually helps patients with epilepsy to function normally and lead healthier, safer lives.
Research has also demonstrated that ketogenic low-carb diets can help with diabetes and heart health.
Consider the studies that were shared earlier in this article.
All of these provide substantial evidence backing the safety and efficacy of ketogenic diets.
Now, there are times when ketosis can become unsafe.
If too many ketones are allowed to accumulate in your bloodstream, your blood becomes acidic.
This leads to a dangerous state called ketoacidosis.
This state can lead to a coma or even to death.
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It is very important to understand that you will not develop ketoacidosis from going on a low-carb ketogenic diet.
This condition results from other very serious conditions, like actual starvation, alcohol abuse, or an overactive thyroid gland.
There will be other symptoms accompanying ketoacidosis, such as feeling physically sick to your stomach, vomiting, struggling to breathe, confusion, excessive urination, fatigue, and dry mouth.
Now, there is one other reason that people sometimes believe you will get sick when you switch to a ketogenic diet, and that is the so-called “low-carb flu.”
Low-carb flu is nothing more than a brief adjustment phase.
Your body is not used to burning fat instead of carbohydrates, and it takes some time to adapt (usually several weeks).
You may also forget to drink extra water and electrolytes while you are dropping your excess water weight.
This brief phase is characterized by flu-like symptoms such as headache, fatigue, confusion, irritability, and sometimes even nausea and constipation.
Do not panic; this will pass. You just have to stick with it. Before you know it, you will probably be feeling better than you have in years.
KEY POINT: There are two main reasons why people mistakenly believe ketosis is dangerous.
1 - There is a brief but unpleasant adjustment period called “low-carb flu,”
2 - When ketosis goes too far, it leads to ketoacidosis, which is deadly.
Neither of these should concern you. Low-carb flu is temporary and it is not dangerous.
Ketoacidosis is dangerous, but it will not result from a healthy low-carb diet.
Low-carb ketosis will only benefit your body by helping you burn through excess fat quickly.
It is good for your insulin levels, cardiovascular health, and even for your brain function.
10. Your brain needs you to eat carbohydrates in order to function.
That brings us to the next myth, which is that your brain cannot function at all if you are not eating carbohydrates.
This misconception stems from the fact that certain pats of your brain do require glucose for fuel.
Many parts of your brain actually do not, and will switch to using ketones as a fuel source instead when you are on a ketogenic diet.
So what about those parts that do? You certainly would not want to eat a diet which will kill any parts of your brain.
Thankfully, you do not need to worry about it, because there is a metabolic pathway in your body called gluconeogenesis.
This process allows your body to actually produce its own glucose using protein and fat burning by-products.
This glucose production takes place in your liver. That glucose is available to your brain to use.
For that reason, you do not actually need to eat carbohydrates at all for your brain to function.
As a plus, a low-carb diet actually has brain benefits. Remember, it is used as a treatment for epilepsy (21).
If you take a closer look at study 22, you will notice that it states that low-carb may be used to treat “a broad range of neurological disorders characterized by the death of neurons.”
So you may actually discover that after the initial low-carb flu confusion passes, your brain functions better than ever with low-carb.
KEY POINT: A low-carb diet does not deprive your brain of essential glucose, since your body can make its own.
Furthermore, a low-carb diet can be used to treat a broad range of neurological conditions, so it is good for your long-term brain health.
11. Athletes cannot work out on low-carb diets.
If you are an athlete, you may have heard that your performance will be reduced on a low-carb diet.
It is true that for the first several weeks, you will see a decline. This is because of the previously mentioned low-carb flu.
KEY POINT: It is a myth that a low-carb diet is disadvantageous to athletes. Your performance may even be improved in terms of endurance, strength, and more.
12. You have to go with a ketogenic diet in order to be truly low-carb.
If you eat under 50 grams of carbohydrates every day and take in a large amount of fat (usually comprising anywhere from 60-85% of your calories), you will likely reach a state of ketosis.
While many of the benefits of low-carb do not kick in without going ketogenic, you do not have to go ketogenic to eat low-carb.
You could for example eat a diet which includes 100-150 grams of carbohydrates every day, or even more than that.
If you do this, you will not be ketogenic, and you will miss out on certain advantages, but you will still be able to take advantage of many of the benefits of low-carb.
KEY POINT: If you are not keen on a very low-carb ketogenic diet, that does not mean you cannot take a more moderate approach and still reap many of the rewards of the low-carb lifestyle.
There are no dogmatic rules here. You can pick a low-carb diet that fits your personal needs.
13. Low-carb is just a giant marketing ploy.
Perhaps the worst and most pervasive myth about low-carb is that it is all a giant marketing ploy used by X or Y dieting company.
It is amazing how many articles we have run across on high profile websites which allege this.
Consider this piece on AskMen.com as a perfect example.
This article lists “myth” after “myth” as arguments against low-carb, but does not provide scientific research studies to back up the assertions which are made.
The arguments are presented in a way which seems very logical, but in the end, comes across only as cynical and narrow-minded, particularly since the article concludes, “The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be duped by every dieting trend that’s thrown your way. Come on, what’s next? Low-carb water?”
Our bottom line is that you should not be duped by every article you see online which claims to know better, but cannot back anything up with real science.
Low-carb is not a marketing ploy or a passing trend. It is a diet backed by real, hard science, and the proof is in the studies.
Review the citations in this article, and you will be empowering yourself with the knowledge to lose weight, improve your overall health, and increase your lifespan.
If you are ready to start a low carb lifestyle, you can check out our low-carb beginners guide.
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