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by Karen Ciancio

Many people are confused about how low carb diets work. It doesn't make sense to them that you can eat more fat and protein than is traditionally called for and still lose weight.

A low carb diet plan greatly restricts the amount of carbohydrates you consume, as compared with a traditional North American diet, or even compared with a low fat diet. While our bodies would usually burn stored carbohydrates for energy, low carb eating forces the body to burn more stored fat instead. When this happens, your body produces chemicals called "ketones".

Ketones result when your kidneys convert fat to soluble waste. There are test strips that will measure the amount of keytones in your body and getting your body to reach this point is one of the goals of a low carbohydrate diet.

There is a scientific reason behind the development of this diet. Dr. Robert Atkins first introduced the concept of eating a low carbohydrate diet in the 1970s. He noticed that primitive people consumed a diet of mostly meat, vegetables and some fruit. Because this diet was in existence for thousands of years before the development of agriculture, Atkins concluded that the reason most people had difficulty losing weight and keeping it off is that we are eating contrary to the way our digestive system is set up. In other words, our bodies do not support eating wheat, barley and other grains and sugars.

In the 1990s the diet seemed to be rediscovered and became known as the Atkins New Diet Revolution. Since the reemergence of the Atkins diet, other low carb diets have been developed that are variations of it. The Zone Diet, the Stillman Diet, the Hollywood Diet, the Ketogenic Diet and the South Beach Diet are all based on the idea of eating fewer carbohydrates. They all advise eating more protein and limited carbs and inducing the body to burn its own fat. 

Low carb diet plans differ somewhat in the amount of carbohydrates they allow, but all advise cutting out all white or starchy foods. The most strict is the 20 gram per day carb limit of the initial stage of Atkins, plus some of the other diet plans. The 20 grams is generally derived from salads and non-starchy vegetables, plus the trace amounts of carbs in sauces, dressings and cheeses.

In the first stages of a low carbohydrate diet, dieters are not allowed to have any milk, fruits, grains, cereals, pasta, breads or "high glycemic index" vegetables such as potatoes, peas, corn and carrots. The missing carbs are replaced with ample amounts of protein.

This is a very low amount of carbohydrate when compared with the large amounts of pasta and grains advised by traditional low fat diet recommendations, so this diet has become quite controversial. Butter is also included, which is another reason for the controversy over low carbohydrate eating plans. The butter is recommended because fat slows down the absorption of carbohydrates into the body and helps to maintain an even blood sugar level.

The whole idea behind Dr. Atkins original principal is that it we gain weight in our Western world because our blood sugar levels are allowed to go too high by eating too much high starch food. Control the carbohydrate levels and you control weight much more easily. Much research has shown this to be true. Of course opposing research has been done too, so the controversy continues to some extent, although it is generally acknowledged by all now that the high carb recommendations of the past were incorrect. 

The great difficulty of any severely restricted diet is that most people can end up regaining much of their lost weight because of the difficulty of adhering to the restrictions over the long-term. This can ultimately result in rebound weight gain and is the reason that the modified versions of Atkins diet have evolved. They purport to have more food options and therefore be an easier lifestyle to maintain over the years to come. 

The Atkins diet itself though, does gradually increase the amount of carbohydrates you consume as you complete your weight loss, to avoid the extremes of losing then regaining weight. It can me more difficult to follow but are the benefits worth it?

Karen Ciancio is a cook and lover of all things food and cooking related. Her website contains hundreds of recipes, cooking tips, measurement conversions, kitchen ideas and diet and nutritional information.


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