What is LCHF (low carb/healthy fat) and who should try it?

Low carbohydrate diets have been gaining in both popularity and scientific evidence in recent years, and for good reason.

The main premise of the low carb diet is that not all calories (kilojoules) are created equally.  A calorie does not, in fact, equal a calorie when the calorie in question comes from carbohydrate (starch, sugar/glucose).  This is because when you eat carbohydrate, it significantly increases the hormone insulin.

Among other tasks, insulin is most well known for its role in taking glucose from the blood and moving it into the cells to be used for energy.  Glucose will always be the body’s first choice for energy when it is available.   Fat stored in fat cells can be used for energy, but this is suppressed when glucose is available and insulin levels are high.   

Since glucose will always be the body’s first choice for energy, a high carbohydrate diet means that any extra calories from fat will be stored in fat cells, rather than used for energy.  In addition, excess glucose can also be converted into fat (triglycerides) by the liver, and added to fat stores as well.

In some people (genetically susceptible/inactive) a high carbohydrate diet over many years can lead to a condition called ‘insulin resistance’.  Insulin resistance is when the cells in the muscle, fat and liver don’t respond well to insulin anymore.  The insulin is there, but the cells are no longer listening.  The body’s response to this is to call for backup (more insulin) in an attempt to be heard.  Insulin levels just keep getting higher. Type II diabetes is an advanced case of insulin resistance.

Hand in hand with insulin resistance is ‘metabolic syndrome’, a cluster of symptoms including abdominal obesity (‘apple’ shape), high blood pressure, and pattern B lipid profile (high triglycerides, low HDL, small dense LDL).

Reducing carbohydrates allows insulin levels to drop, and the body can start creating and using alternative fuels for energy: fat, which will fuel many types of cells in the body, and ketones, which will happily fuel the energy-guzzling brain.

LCHF is a filling and satisfying diet, due to the healthy fats, protein and plenty of fibrous veggies, and it can help with having steady energy across the day.  If you complain regularly of being ‘hangry’, LCHF could help.  Fueling yourself on carbohydrates throughout the day is like keeping a fire burning by throwing on kindling.  LCHF is more like a log; slow burning.

A ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate, very high fat diet, and although this suits some medical conditions and personalities, most people can get great results with an LCHF diet that is less extreme.

Some conditions that respond well to LCHF include:

  • Overweight/obesity
  • Pre-diabetes
  • Diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Fatty liver
  • Reactive hypoglycaemia (‘crashing’ between meals – symptoms may include sugar cravings, irritability, light headedness, sweating, shaking) 
  • PCOS (Polycystic ovarian syndrome)

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