Carbs. They energise your workouts and keep your brain functioning A-Okay (and therefore all your other bodily functions), yet, for some reason earned a reputation as every weight-loss goers’ ultimate enemy. Again, and again, and again.
Indeed, look at many a weight-loss plan, including the keto diet plan, and you’ll notice they promote reducing carbs to tip the scales towards a healthier body composition. The Slow Carb Diet, which is currently making an unexpected comeback, is no exception. And, its results are being shared internet-over.
But take a closer look – and speak to nutritional experts – and you’ll quickly realise that omitting this vital food group from your diet is a) not sustainable b) not healthy and c) has a list on nutritional negatives: hunger pangs, cravings or food prep faff. Oh, and it could make you put on more weight than it will help you lose (time to get to know your body weight set point).
So why does the hype continue? We spoke to the weight-loss pros to get the all-you-need-to-know on the Slow Carb Diet. If you’ve been considering giving it a go, you need to read this first.
WHAT IS THE SLOW CARB DIET?
First up, let’s set the scene. The Slow Carb Diet was created by Tim Ferriss as a way of helping people to lose weight – fast.
It’s principles, in a nutshell:
• Follow six days a week of very low-carb meals
• Don’t eat fruit
• No dairy
• Ditch “white” carbs
• Say ta-ra to certain vegetables
“Within the body, this diet works like any other super restrictive diet,” says Good Zing dietitian Sammi Haber. “Because total calories are reduced significantly, and empty calories are cut out, the body can lose weight at a pretty fast – albeit unhealthy – rate.”
In addition to weight-loss, the Slow Carb Diet also claims to have many health benefits such as increasing the level of HDL (good cholesterol), balancing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation in the body.
Time to dig a little deeper and feedback on just how healthy each of those slow carb diet principles really is.
PRINCIPLES OF THE SLOW CARB DIET
1. Follow six days a week of low-carb eating
Which also means, get one day off per week. Which sounds like a plus, right? Watch what you eat Sunday to Friday then go out with your squad for Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a glass (or more) of wine and, let’s face it, probably not the best desserts for weight loss.
“Eating the same meals over and over is bad,” says NHS consultant and weight-loss expert Dr Sally Norton. “Although intended to make a diet easier so you are more likely to stick to it, lack of variety can make you bored and leave you craving other foods.”
As for that cheat day… “For many, a rigid diet that leaves no room for indulgence is a recipe for failure, says Dr Norton. “But a ‘day off’ feeds into that ‘on diet / off diet’ mentality that has many of you trapped into a lifelong pattern of yo-yo dieting. Rather than following a healthy diet, then binge eating on junk one day a week, it is far better to build a mindset of caring for your body whatever day of the week it is, whilst cutting yourself a bit of slack when you need it.”
2. Don’t eat fruit
“This is bad advice,” Dr Norton says.
Obvious, surely? After all, who hasn’t heard about the life-lengthening and all-round Wonder Woman health benefits of berries, pomegranates, citrus, apples and so on.
“Although this advice is intended to limit your intake of fructose, a type of sugar that may increase your risk of fatty liver disease and associated health problems,” says Dr Norton. “The fructose in fruit comes packaged with fibre and nutrients. It’s far better to satisfy any sugar cravings with an apple than a bag of sweets.”
The trick is to not OD on it like you might that bag of Haribo. “Steer well clear of fructose in fizzy drinks and fruit juices and consider limiting fruit to one or two pieces a day, prioritising berries, and getting the rest of your five-a-day from leafy veg.”
3. No dairy
Ever asked yourself “Is giving up dairy a good way to lose weight?” and decided it must be – after all, it’s what the Slow Carb Diet says to do.
You may wish to reconsider.
According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who eat dairy gain less weight than those who have none. And… the weight-loss results were greatest in those who consumed more full-fat dairy.
“Dairy is a rich source of fat and protein, which keep you full because your body digests them more slowly,” says Rebecca Blake, director of clinical nutrition at New York’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel Health.
Find out six other things that happen when you stop eating dairy.
4. Ditch “white carbs”
This one holds. After all, white carbs – think sugar, cake, biscuits, bread – are calorie dense and nutrient poor, meaning, when it comes to your health and weight-loss goals, they the opposite of your BFF.
“White carbs, which are lacking in fibre, are broken down rapidly by the body into sugar, prompting the sugar spikes followed by sugar crashes that have us reaching for more food to compensate,” says Dr Norton. “Plus, the resultant insulin rise promotes fat storage.”
But don’t mistake “Ditch ‘white carbs’” to mean “Ditch carbs completely” as not all carbs are made equal.
“Genuine wholegrain carbs can provide valuable micronutrients and fibre – and many of us don’t get close to the 30g of fibre a day that we need,” says Dr Norton. “A blind avoidance of carbs can lead to us missing vital benefits and over-indulging in poor choices in the other food groups – think fats and protein.”
Registered nutritionist Kym Lang of Pip Nutrition, agrees. “It’s easy to feel confused about carbs. While it’s fine to ditch white refined carbs, which convert to sugar quickly in the body, cutting all carbs – from wholegrains and pulses to fruit and veg – means you’ll be losing your main source of energy, not to mention essential vitamins and fibre. The evidence is very clear that fibre (especially in wholegrains) can reduce your risk of heart disease, bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.”
5. Avoid certain vegetables
Err, no. The 5-a-day guidelines are in place for a reason. As were the suggestions to aim for a total of ten fruit and vegetables a day.
“Vegetable and fruit restrictions on the slow carb diet, could mean you end up with an inadequate intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants,” says Good Zing nutritionist Milena Kaler.
And you know all those health benefits that come from having a healthy, good bacteria-rich gut? You can throw those out the window if you hold back on the veggies.
“Increasing evidence suggests we have a much less varied diet than our ancestors, which may be bad for our microbiome,” says Dr Norton. “If our population of gut bacteria is healthy, it can keep us healthy, too.”
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF THE SLOW CARB DIET?
To put it simply: our bodies need carbohydrates to function. They are a source of fibre – which, as mentioned, can maintain bowel health – plus essential vitamins and minerals. They also provide energy – so you can get the most from your HIIT training for women and are required for almost all of our body’s internal processes.
“At a minimum, our brain needs 130g of carbs per day to work properly,” says Haber. “Not only is cutting out carbs unsafe in general but removing entire food groups from your diet is a restrictive way of eating that is never successful in the long term – any weight lost is, unfortunately, usually gained right back.”
WHO IS THE SLOW CARB DIET SUITABLE FOR?
The bit you’ve all been waiting for – there’s no doubt that the slow food diet is popular so surely it must work for some people?
Well, when it comes to who shouldn’t follow it, the experts are in accord.
“Women who are very active should not follow this diet,” says Haber. “During exercise, the body uses glycogen (carbohydrate stores) for energy. Glycogen is immediately released to prevent low blood sugar and/or fatigue. With a low-carb diet, glycogen stores would consequently be low as well. This means it is unsafe to exercise, as without proper glycogen stores, the body is at risk of early fatigue and low blood sugar, which can lead to chills, excess sweating, and even fainting.”
Training in line with the fittest woman in the world Tia Clair Toomey? Strikes you off, then.
“Our muscles are literally fuelled by carbohydrates,” says Lang. “But their storage capacity is limited, so it’s important to eat slow-release carbs such as oats, brown rice or quinoa at every meal – and particularly before and after exercise, so you don’t flag halfway through a run or feel exhausted after it. Try having Bircher for breakfast, a chicken salad on a multigrain for lunch and a quinoa salad with salmon after an exercise class.”
“If you train more than 3-4 times a week, and at high intensity, the slow carb diet wouldn’t support your training,” says Kaler. “I would instead recommend carb cycling, with one high carbohydrate day a week, and with carb-rich meals around workouts. There is evidence that ‘refeeds’ can stimulate metabolic rate and increase blood levels of leptin (the satiety hormone).”
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT?
The experts lay it out flat:
Haber: “The most sustainable form of weight loss is one that’s balanced with all food groups and even includes occasional treats. The diet should include plenty of vegetables as they provide essential micronutrients and a lot of volume for few calories. Eating like this will produce slower – but longer lasting – results. After all, if weight is lost quickly, it can easily be gained just as quickly, but when weight is lost gradually over time, it’s much harder to gain back.”
Dr Norton: “If you want to succeed in long-term weight-loss you are better off finding a solution that works for you. So, take away the good bits of advice and work out how to fit them into your own life. The only diet plan that works is the one you can stick to.”
Lang: “A balanced diet with smaller portions and high-fibre foods to keep you full is a healthier approach to weight loss and one I recommend all the time to my clients. Be creative – try courgetti instead of spaghetti, or blitz cauliflower florets in the blender to make cauli rice. You don’t have to rely on bread or pasta for your carb sources.”
Still looking to lose a few lbs but not quite sure where to start – you need our guide to how to lose weight well.