Do low carb diets work?
In terms of weightloss, yes they do. Proof of the pudding – to use an extremely low-carb unfriendly phrase – is a recent two-year study, which found that the overweight study group lost more pounds with a low-carb diet than they did from a traditional calorie-counting one. The volunteers were put on one of three diets: a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet; a Mediterranean diet (high in fibre, fish and unsaturated fats) and a low-carb diet with no calorie restrictions. The low-fat dieters lost on average 6.5lb in weight over the two years in comparison with those on the Med diet who lost 10lb and those on the low-carb diet who lost on average of 10.3lb. The low-carb diet was also found to be best for reducing levels of bad cholesterol.
Are there 'good carbs' and 'bad carbs'?
Yes. Good carbs are of the slow release variety and bad carbs are of the refined sort. Essentially wholegrain rice versus whole white rice; multigrain bread versus white bread; chips versus sweet potato.
Are low-carb diets not really dangerous and unbalanced?
If you were to take a simplistic approach to a low-carb diet and decide that it's licence to eat in fast-food places every day – hold the fries and the bun of course – without a green vegetable ever passing your lips, yes of course they are. Your interpretation of a low-carb diet decides how balanced or healthy it is. After being hailed as the diet to end all diets in the Nineties, Atkins suffered a backlash; there were allegations that it caused kidney and heart disease. There is no proof that this is the case, although a high-protein diet will aggravate kidney problems in someone who already has them.
Is there a massive difference between different low-carb diets?
There can be. Atkins, for example, is described as ketogenic. This means the body is starved of carbohydrate and then turns to its own fat reserves. Diets like the Zone or South Beach or any other low GI diet are preferred by health professionals because they allow for a greater intake of healthy carbohydrates. In case you're not familiar with the phrase, low GI means that the food has a low glycaemic index, meaning it doesn't raise blood sugar dramatically, which has been proven to cause cellular damage as well as subsequent blood sugar crashes, which lead to cravings.
Okay, but what's 'glycaemic load' then?
This is a more accurate way of estimating the effect a food will have on blood sugar levels because it takes into account the GI rating and portion size. Watermelon, for example has a high GI (plus 70) but when you calculate the GL (essentially the quantity, in grams, of its carbohydrate content, multiplied by its GI, and divided by 100) it's only 3.6, making its effect on blood sugar negligible.
So how on earth do you work that out?
Either follow the formula above but otherwise just use common sense. Wholewheat, wholegrain and multigrain breads have a low GL; wholemeal bread has a medium one, while white rice is high GI. The GL Diet by Nigel Denby is useful.
Are low-carb diets really hard to follow?
In the sense that sugar is added to almost everything, yes. You'd be amazed where it creeps in. Obviously it's present in biscuits, chocolates and many ready-made meals, but it's often the second ingredient in rashers. Check your sausages and you might discover that rusk and wheat-fibre are key ingredients. Even that Atkins staple, cheese, isn't sacrosanct. Some manufacturers of pre-grated cheeses use potato starch as an anti-coagulant. Breakfast can pose a problem. Many people don't feel like eating first thing, never mind eating bacon and eggs. What many low-carbers do is cultivate the attitude that breakfast can be everything and anything, whether that's last night's curry or ham slices rolled up and filled with cream cheese. On the plus side – and generally speaking – eating low carb is an inducement to cooking fresh ingredients from scratch. This isn't necessarily as time-consuming as it sounds. What's quicker or easier than pan-fried fish in herb butter with some steamed broccoli alongside?
But I want baguette! I need baguette!
So have it. But bear in mind that it will stall weight loss. The first few days of low-carbing are the hardest but after that, as blood sugars stabilise, it does get easier. Cravings are reduced and it's advisable that you drink plenty of water during this stage. Carbohydrates have been called addictive. This may be overstating it but there's no denying that they cause a sugar high, followed by a slump which results in further carbohydrate cravings.
What if I just cut them out after 6pm?
Also known as the 'carb curfew', this is the school of thought that goes if you cut out pasta, bread, rice after a certain time, you'll lose weight. This will work in the sense that it restricts calorie consumption but not if you're loading up on Danish pastries, paninis and pasta during the rest of the day.
Apart from losing weight, are there any other benefits to low carbing?
Advocates claim increased energy, improved mood, reductions in food cravings, less pre-menstrual tension, reduction in heartburn and improved quality of skin. This is anecdotal evidence however.
How about booze?
No matter what diet you're following, alcohol is a weight-loss inhibitor. The body burns the calories from booze before it turns to its fat or carbohydrate reserves. In the early phases of most low-carb diets, no alcohol is permitted. Moving forward, dry wines and spirits are advisable (with sugar-free mixers) while liquors, beers and alcopops are not advisable.
5 clever low carb ideas
• Swap the bread in your sandwich or your bun burger for some crisp romaine lettuce leaves. It's messy but nice
• Try some shredded cabbage or leek as a pasta substitute. This works really well with carbonara
• Instead of mashed potato, try cauliflower instead. Steam it, then mash it with some butter and freshly grated nutmeg
• Make your own soups and instead of using flour as a thickener, try adding some puréed veg (cauliflower works well) instead
• Lack of crunch is often the low-carber's downfall. Try baking little mounds of
grated Parmesan on some greaseproof paper in the oven for a couple of minutes. Store any you don't eat in an airtight tin
• If you low carb, you need good fats
in your diet. Dress your salads and toss
your vegetables in a good olive oil
• Stay away from any food labelled 'low fat'.
These are generally high in sugar
• Read your labels. Sometimes the most unexpected foods are high in carbohydrates
• Make sure your protein comes unprocessed and not from burger joints and hot counter delis
• Drink your water and don't forget that eating
this way – fresh, wholesome, filling –
shouldn't be a punishment but can
actually be pleasurable.
'The Idiot-Proof Diet Cookbook' by Bee Rawlinson, India Knight and Neris Thomas.
The accompaniment to their diet book of the previous year, this has lots of inspirational and easy-to-
'The Low Carb
Cookbook' by Fran
250 recipes from an award-winning food writer. Creative with plenty of solid advice.
'The Low Carb
Gourmet' by Karen Barnaby.
So drool-inducing, this is the furthest remove from dieting that you can think of. Her
Broccoli Italianissimo is outstanding.