Starting a new diet always comes with its share of questions and concerns. Whether you’re looking into a low-fat diet, low-carb diet, vegan diet, or something in between there’s someone out there just waiting to fill you in on why it’s not a good idea.
The problem is — when it comes to food and health, there are often more misconceptions out there than one book or expert has time to refute. And this is especially true in the case of low-carbohydrate diets.
Even dietitians and nutritionists get confused with all the chatter.
To clear away some of the confusion, take a look at the top 10 low-carb myths that seem to pop up like whack a mole in wellness communities. Some of these may be new to you, while others you’ve likely heard about for years. Don’t let these pervading myths get in the way of achieving your dietary goals.
10 Low-Carb Myths
#1 Saturated Fat Gives You Heart Disease
One of the most wide-spread myths concerning a low-carb diet is that consuming saturated fat gives you heart disease. While this myth doesn’t strictly apply to low-carb eating, low-carb diets have taken the brunt of this misconception due to the focus on animal-based foods.
The truth is; heart disease results from a myriad of imbalances in your body. While diet certainly plays a role, other aspects like inflammation, lifestyle, genetics, and other metabolic diseases all contribute[*].
The outdated story that saturated fats clog your arteries and therefore leads to heart disease has been disproven, and a new culprit has begun to take the stage — inflammation. In fact, research shows that there is no association between saturated fat and coronary heart disease (CHD), ischemic stroke, all-cause mortality, or type 2 diabetes[*][*].
Inflammation, on the other hand, is heavily involved in the processes that lead to cholesterol deposition in your arteries[*].
Saturated fats are present in a wide variety of natural, real foods like butter, eggs, red meat, and coconut oil. In addition, medium-chain triglycerides (a type of saturated fat) are linked to improved digestion, heart health, and immune responses[*][*][*].
#2 You Need Carbs For Energy
Indeed, you do need fuel to keep the cells in your body running smoothly and producing energy for your body. However, a common misconception is that this fuel needs to come from glucose (AKA carbohydrates).
Glucose from carbohydrates is the most readily available form of fuel that you can take in. That’s because it breaks down relatively easily in your digestive tract and can be delivered to fuel your cells in less time than most forms of protein and fat[*].
However, when you restrict your carbohydrate intake, your body naturally starts to shift into ketosis, where it begins to burn fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. One of the primary benefits of a ketogenic state is that your energy supply is no longer at the whims of your blood sugar.
Glucose, or its storage form glycogen, needs to be continuously replenished if you don’t want to feel dips in energy when running off this fuel source[*]. In a ketogenic state, however, you can continually break down fat stores for fuel — of which you have many more than glucose stores.
This results in a steady stream of energy that can carry you through your day, even way dietary fuel is scarce. In this way, ketones are said to be a more efficient fuel source than glucose[*].
#3 Ketosis Is Dangerous
Many people confuse ketosis with the metabolic complication ketoacidosis. While the two words sound similar, the processes in your body that contribute to each are very different.
In ketosis, your body switches from using glucose as its primary source of fuel to ketones. This process happens when you intentionally restrict carbohydrates, nudging your body to use another source of fuel. As a result, you have increased levels of ketones in your blood to fuel your cells[*].
Diabetic ketoacidosis(DKA), on the other hand, is a complication of type 1 diabetes. DKA often results from poor medication management.
When someone with diabetes does not take their medication regularly, it can cause levels of insulin in their body to remain low for too long. With insulin being the hormone responsible for glucose transport into your cells, low insulin results in high levels of glucose in the blood.
This triggers your liver to make more glucose, and at the same time, your liver begins to produce ketones — all in an effort to supply your cells with fuel.
Unlike a ketogenic state where ketone production takes place at a slow and steady rate, in DKA your body produces ketones too quickly, and they build up in your blood. This creates an acidic environment in your blood and is known as diabetic ketoacidosis[*].
DKA can lead to a several serious health issues like cerebral edema, fluid in your lungs, kidney damage, and more[*].
#4 A High Fat Diet Will Cause High Cholesterol
A very common myth associated with low-carb diets is the idea that replacing carbs with fat will lead to high cholesterol.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
It’s important to understand that cholesterol itself is not inherently bad. In fact, cholesterol plays a number of crucial roles in your body, including the synthesis of sex hormones and the production of bile salts[*].
The confusion begins around the terms HDL and LDL, which are actually names for the vehicles by which cholesterol travels around in your body. These “vehicles” are called lipoproteins, and they carry cholesterol in your blood.
High levels of HDL are associated with a healthy cardiovascular system, while high levels of LDL are often associated with an unhealthy cardiovascular system[*].
To make matters more complicated, it appears that the particle size of LDL cholesterol is more significant than its mere presence when it comes to risk factors for heart disease. This is because small LDL particles are more likely to lodge into your arteries than the larger LDL particles[*].
This is what makes low-carb dieting, and its effect on LDL particle size so compelling[*].
#5 Your Brain Can Only Run On Glucose
There’s a common misconception that while your body can run on ketones, your brain can only use glucose as fuel.
The truth is, ketones can actually supply as much as 70% of your brain’s energy needs — and they do so more efficiently than glucose. This has been shown in studies of brain injury where cerebral ketone uptake significantly increases[*].
But traumatic brain injury isn’t the only example of the positive effects that ketones can have on this essential organ. In fact, the ketogenic diet was first developed to help people with epilepsy control their seizures[*].
In addition, ongoing research continues to uncover the role that ketones may play in the treatment or prevention of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
#6 Your Kidney Suffers From Protein Overconsumption
This myth is actually two-fold — #1 you don’t need to over-consume protein on a low-carb diet, and #2, unless you have kidney disease, you should be able to process a considerable amount of protein without a problem.
Let’s tackle #1 first. Many people believe that low-carb dieting is a synonym for eating copious amounts of meat and animal products all day. However, a well-balanced low-carb diet is rich in healthy fats, low-carb vegetables, and moderate in protein. There’s no reason to up your protein intake when you’re eating low-carb unless you were already eating an extremely low-protein diet before.
#2, your kidneys do a fantastic job processing protein from your diet. It is only in the case of kidney disease that you need to take extra care to ensure you’re not overdoing protein. But this would be true whether you were eating a low-carb diet or not[*].
Clinical studies that have looked at the effect of low-carb dieting on kidney health find that there are no adverse markers in renal function[*].
And in fact, recent research suggests that a low-carb ketogenic diet may even reverse diabetic nephropathy (diabetes-induced kidney disease). Since glucose metabolism is often the cause of kidney failure in diabetics, switching over to ketones could have a protective effect[*].
#7 You Don’t Get Enough Fiber On a Low-Carb Diet
Some people like to throw around the idea that eating a low carb diet means you will be eating a diet low in fiber. However, a low-carb diet does not mean no-carb.
Two of the most significant sources of fiber in your diet comes from either whole grains or vegetables. While the former will be restricted heavily on a low-carb diet, you should be eating the latter in abundance.
Food groups like starchy vegetables don’t take a front seat on a low-carb meal plan, but there are plenty of low-carb veggie alternatives. Some examples of high-fiber vegetables that fall into the low-carb category include spinach, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower[*][*][*][*].
While fiber is, in fact, a form of carbohydrate, it doesn’t enter your bloodstream and cause an insulin response. Therefore, foods high in fiber make an excellent addition to your keto diet. Even ingredients like psyllium husk, which are almost 100% carbohydrates, are perfectly fine on keto since most of their carbs come from fiber.
#8 Low-Carb Dieting Causes Nutrient Deficiencies
Similarly to #7 above, the misconception that low-carb diets cause nutrient deficiencies stems from the idea that they are devoid of nutrients coming from plant foods. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
With a low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet, you should be getting the bulk of your nutrients from low-carb vegetables, complete sources of protein, and healthy fats. Unlike diets that make it incredibly easy to eat fast-food and processed meals, following a low-carb diet takes more attention to detail.
By eliminating nutrient-deficient go-to food (like white bread), you’ll find that your low-carb meals are packed with real, whole foods that supply an abundance of nutrients to your body. And unlike diets that avoid animal products, you don’t have to worry about nutritional deficiencies like vitamin B12 or iron[*].
As for fruit, small amounts of berries are allowed on low-carb diets. However, when it comes to nutrients gained from plant foods, most foods considered “powerhouse foods” by the CDC fall under the green leafy vegetable umbrella[*].
All this to say — a well balanced low-carb diet that’s rich in low-carb vegetables can provide all the nutrients your body needs.
#9 Low-Carb Diets Are Restrictive
More than ever, low-carb dieters can throw away the myth that a low-carb diet has to be restrictive. Although you are restricting your carbohydrate intake, the list of foods that you can continue to enjoy is much longer than those you need to omit.
You can enjoy eggs, dairy, meat, low-carb veggies, healthy fats like coconut oil, nut butters, nuts and seeds, avocados, berries, and much more.
And here’s the best part; when it comes to high-carb items like muffins, breads, cakes, and ice cream, you can still enjoy them all — just find low-carb versions.
Recipe developers are catching on to the need for low-carb options and have provided everything from mac and cheese to birthday cake in low-carb friendly recipes. Check out some delicious low-carb recipes here.
And if you’re not a big fan of the kitchen, no worries — there are several low-carb food manufacturers that want to take the guesswork out of low-carb cooking for you. Again, everything from low-carb bread to pasta to cookies are all available to you premade.
#10 Low-Carb Diets Lead To Depression
Some people may feel a bit low when they start a low-carb diet. This isn’t due to a lack of nutrients in the diet, but rather a withdrawal from high-carb foods and sugar, or simply because your body is going through something called keto flu.
As your body transitions into a ketogenic state, you will likely feel symptoms that can be associated with depression-like brain fog and lethargy. These temporary symptoms are the result of your body trying to learn how to use a new source of fuel for energy.
In addition, it’s well-known that sugar is a very addictive substance. And just like coming off any other drugs, when you shift your diet away from sugar, your body is going to react with unpleasant symptoms[*]. These effects typically only last for a couple of weeks, as your body gets used to being without sugar.
Research shows that both low-carb and high-carb diets for weight loss can result in improvements in mood long term[*]. This elevation in mood may be in part due to the physical activity that the volunteers engaged in, but the point is that when compared with a high-carb diet, a low-carb diet didn’t poorly affect mood.
Following a well-balanced low-carb diet is not only safe, but there are many health benefits you can reap from this type of eating.
If your concern is the high-protein intake — don’t worry, this diet doesn’t have to be high in protein. If you’re worried about your cholesterol levels, great news — low-carb diets can help lower your cholesterol.
While some people want to file low-carb eating under the fad diet label, research shows that keeping your carb intake low can have a myriad of benefits. But if you want to reap the benefits, don’t look at low-carb eating as a short-term flash in the pan; it’s a lifestyle.