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A low-carb diet is one that limits your carbohydrate (carb) intake -- this includes those found in starchy vegetables, fruit, and grains. Instead, it emphasizes consumption of foods that are high in protein and fat. There are many types of low-carb diets (such as the Atkins diet), each having varying restrictions on the type and amount of carbohydrates you can eat.

The usual purpose of going on a low-carb diet is to lose weight, but some people also aim to reduce their blood sugar levels, which is a risk factor associated with metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

How A Low-Carb Diet Works

Carbohydrates are macronutrients found in various foods and beverages. They provide a source of energy for the body. They are naturally present in grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, milk, nut, seeds, and other foods. However, many processed foods also contain carbohydrates in the form of refined sugar or simple carbohydrates, which are easily absorbed in the body and are known to quickly increase blood sugar levels.

This is in contrast to the fiber-containing complex carbohydrates found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables, which resist digestion, provide bulk and support other body functions besides providing fuel. Extra glucose (sugar) is usually stored in the liver, muscles and other cells for later use, but it may also be converted to fat.

A low-carb diet aims to decrease carbohydrate intake to lower insulin levels, which allows the body to burn stored fat to use as a source for energy, thus causing weight loss. It usually sets a daily intake limit of 60 to 130 grams of carbohydrates, which provides only about 240 to 520 calories.

Some people take a severely restrictive diet or a very low-carb diet during the initial phase of their weight loss program and gradually increase the amount of allowed carbs. They may take 60 grams or less of carbohydrates daily.

A low-carb diet does not follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends that carbohydrates make up 45-65 percent of one's total daily calorie intake. A person who consumes 2,000 calories a day would need to eat 900 to 1,300 calories/day from carbohydrates, which is found in 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates/day.

Effects Of A Low-Carb Diet

In terms of weight loss, most studies have found no significant benefits of a low-carb diet after following it for 12-24 months. In terms of improving or preventing medical conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, however, a low-carb diet may help. However, this is also true for any diet that helps you lose excess weight.

Weight loss, in general, can help improve blood sugar levels and blood cholesterol, at least temporarily.

However, if you drastically cut on carbs, you may experience a variety of symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Rashes

Other negative health effects include:

  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (ex. Vitamin B and potassium deficiency)
  • Bone loss
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Increased risks for various chronic diseases

Consult your doctor before going on a low-carb diet to learn more about its advantages and risks.

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