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“Is a Low Carb Diet Healthy?” This question has been swirling around the blogosphere lately with many different answers.
Some claim that really low-carb is the only way to go, others claim that eating low carb messed up their thyroid or other hormones.
One important distinction that must be made is between low-carb and grain-free. These two are often lumped together and then the argument is made that grain-freeis unhealthy because it is too low-carb.
Certainly, one could eat a very high carb grain-free diet, or a somewhat low-carb diet with grains. For the sake of understanding the health aspects of either diet, they must be separated.
You know how I feel about the dangers of grains, so for now, let’s just address the low-carb aspect.
Can Low Carb Affect Your Hormones?
Short answer: Yes. But this can vary widely by individual and can be both positive or negative, depending on the person.
Some people (a very small percentage of my clients) who jump into low carb from a very high carb diet will experience some thyroid-like side effects a few weeks or few months after switching such as fatigue, coldness in extremities, hair-loss or other problems.
The interesting factor here, is that when these people have their hormones tested, most thyroid panels will come back normal (because most doctors only test Thyroid Stimulating Hormone or TSH and T4 hormones).
In my experience, these clients are also ones who went low-carb for weight-loss reasons and often have an underlying hormone issue to begin with.
Interestingly, even for those who have completely normal blood results, adding a lot (like Standard American Diet a lot) of carbs back to the diet will make these symptoms go away. This obviously means that low-carb is bad for these individuals…. right? Nope! And actually could mean quite the opposite.
I’ve noticed with clients that those with the worst “carb flu” in the beginning either had a lot of weight to lose or had an underlying hormone imbalance, and that logically, these people would benefit the most from going low-carb in the long run. Unfortunately, because of the carb flu, these people often had a to take a gradual path to low-carb, or the symptoms would be overwhelming and they’d be overly fatigued.
For a long time, I considered this slow-transition a problem, and was able to find some things (adding more natural salt into the diet, taking magnesium and gelatin, etc.) that made the transitions easier.
While these supplements do help the transition, and I’d recommend them anyway, a recent article by Dr. Cate Shanahan helped me understand why some individuals experience these thyroid like-symptoms after going low-carb for a while and explains why the slow-transition might actually be the best thing for these people.
What Causes It?
Dr. Shanahan explains that advanced thyroid testing will often reveal that these individuals have an extremely elevated reverse T3 level (rT3) and at this point, most doctors will prescribe T3 and think that the problem is solved. Dr. Shanahan explains the rT3 has the opposite effect of regular T3 and essentially makes the body think it needs to hibernate and prepares for such (weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, etc.).
Since high levels of rT3 can also lead to high LDL Cholesterol (that’s the bad one) this is definitely something that needs to be addressed!
Dr. Shanahan has a theory on this and explains it much better than I could:
In doing research on rT3, I ran into afascinating article on a group of little-understood compounds called thyronamines (pronounced thigh-row-na-meens). The key to understanding rT3, and unlocking the relationship between carbohydrate consumption and thyroid function, may lie in these newly discovered compounds.
Thyronamines have powerful effects on energy metabolism
Studies performed in 2010 showed that injecting thryronamines into the belly cavity or brain tissues of experimental animals cause the following physiologic and behavior changes:
- Impaired ability to utilize sugar as an energy source
- Insulin resistance
- Lowered basal body temperature
- Weaker than normal heart contractions
- A marked decline in activity (We can’t ask the lab animals, but presumably this would be induced by what we would describe as feelings of extreme fatigue)
She goes on to explain that this phenomenon is similar to bears before hibernation, and this drop in rT3 caused when berries and other readily available carbs disappear creates the fatigue needed for hibernation. Unfortunately, for those of us not interested in hibernation, this can be a problem.
So No Low-Carb?
That’s not what I’m saying at all, and compared to the amount of carbs that the average person consumes these days, “low-carb” is definitely more healthy. I still advocate removing grains, since, carbs or not, there is no need for grains.
If you are part of the group that suffers from severe carb flu when you remove carbs, or if you’ve gone low-carb for a while and then started to lose energy and gain weight, it’s possible that your rT3 is elevated.
Fortunately, while suddenly removing carbs shocks the system, doing it gradually often helps the system adjust. Dr. Shanahan recommends that patients who suffer from these symptoms go low-carb slowly beginning with breakfast and slowly reducing overall carbs over a period of time.
From what I’ve seen with my own clients, this can be helpful and necessary, especially for those who already have an underlying hormone struggle or who have a severe reaction to removing carbs.
I’d also suggest certain supplements to help support the body during the transition!
Despite the recent firestorm of information about the possible “dangers” of low-carb and the “importance” of eating more carbs, especially from grains, I maintain that there is NO biological need to consume grains, even if you want to eat a high carb diet (try sweet potatoes, fruit, squash, etc.).
Most people will be able to transition to a low-carb diet, even quickly, without a problem, and those with a history of thyroid problems or hormone imbalances may just need to take it a little slower.
Unless a person’s endocrine system is severely damaged, he or she should be able to transition to a low-carb diet over a period of a few months without any adverse health reactions and see weight loss and health improvements as the body adjusts.
Do you eat too many carbs or too few? Are you even worried about your carbs? Weigh in below! (no pun intended!!)
Discussion (87 Comments)
Thanks for the great info.
Popping over from Conversion Diary.
Curious as well if you count fruit carbs? It would make sense that you do but just wondering. Thank you!
I do include them just to have an accurate count. Again, definitely not trying to discourage low-carb, just caution about the transition to it 🙂
I’m fairly new to eating low-carb, no grains, and sugar free. I generally stay in the 50-100 grams per day range. I can’t say that I feel great. I am definitely lacking energy, but I lost 20 pounds this month, so I really think I should continue. I’ve also noticed on days my carb count is below 50 I’m starving the next day. Is that normal? Does this mean I need more carbs? Or less? And do all carbs count? I’ve heard people say they don’t count the carbs in fruits and veggies, but those are pretty much the only carbs I get. I’m so confused!!
I count all carbs, fruit included, in overall carb count. It would be tough to know if the low-carb is making you hungry without knowing what the rest of your diet that day looked like, but for most people 50-100 is a good range for weight loss. If you hit a plateau or if your energy doesn’t improve, you might consider temporarily adding more carbs and then reducing again. How much fat are you eating? Not eating enough fat or not eating enough real salt could both contribute to the tiredness, and you’ll need more water eating low-carb.
This past week I average 54% fat, 23% carbs, and 23% protein. Is that a good ratio? I have a very hard time coming up with enough protein. I’d love to hear some low-budget protein ideas.
I’m trying to decide what to do. I had a slow and therefore pretty easy transition to low carb and initially lost a good bit of weight, but I have been stalled for a very long time (8 months!) with still a lot of weight to lose. At least I have maintained my almost 40 lb weight loss, but I’ve been low carbing (no grains) pretty seriously (20 to 30 grams net per day) to do so.
I feel GREAT! I’m warm, energetic, able to do things I couldn’t before lowering my carbs, BUT my TSH is high, which is probably a factor in the lack of weight loss. My HMO will test only TSH and T4, and will not treat with natural hormone, so I’m not sure I trust them to treat thyroid at all if they don’t consider the entire thyroid function.
I read Dr. Shanahan’s article with interest, and I’m considering adding some starchy veggies like sweet potato and winter squashes in to see if it budges anything. I’m not sure how much to add in and when I will know if it’s working or not. Should I add in starchy veggies until the weight starts to go up and then stay at a slightly lower level for a while?
I don’t want to be too far out of ketosis as I feel so good on it, and I am experiencing myriad health benefits. But I’m also frustrated at the lack of weight loss, even though I’m being very careful with my diet.
I”d suggest going higher carb, slowly and temporarily, as a thyroid re-set and then gradually going back down to lower carb over a period of a few weeks. You could definitely add in healthier starches like sweet potatoes, extra fruit, winter squash, etc. The threshold that I’ve seen with other clients is getting 100-150 grams per day for about a month and then slowly tapering down. If the stall is thyroid related, this shouldn’t actually cause much weight gain, other than the first few pounds of water weight/glycogen, and that should disappear too as you go back down. You could also try carb cycling for a month, which would be even less likely to cause weight gain but which also might re-set the thyroid. I’ll be posting more on that soon. Whichever you do, I’d suggest taking magnesium, gelatin, vitamin D and possibly b-vitamins to support your body in the process. You aren’t by chance taking 5-HTP or L-tyrosine are you? I’ve also seen these cause a stall…
I’ve been experiencing fatigue lately. Bone crushing fatigue. Granted, I have been dealing with a husband with pneumonia (for 5 weeks – coughing tons at night) and also trying to keep my immune system up myself. We’ve been paleo about 7 months now. I have found that making sure I keep up with my iodine and an extra D3 each day helps. Also, to combat the cortisol dysregulation that appears to be my problem, I’m trying to stay off of stimulants (including sugar!), shutting off electronics about 30 minutes before bed, and going to bed with the kids at 8. Those seem to be helping the most. I don’t know what sparked it, but hopefully with these tweaks in our lifestyle, I’ll stop being cold, finally stop shedding hair at an amazing rate, and stop feeling tired. Going outside in the sun, even for 15 minutes a day is also helpful.
I was going wheat free, but not grain free or low carb for years. I found paleo 7 months ago and I’ve not looked back. When I first went paleo (moderate carbs 50-100g), I did have the ‘carb-flu’ for about a week. I was very sluggish and fatigued. In order to make it, I just reminded myself that this was part of the process and that my body was learning how to adapt to the lower carbs. I let myself be ‘lazy’, I read, went for walks for workouts and had fun planning meals. I got through it and felt like a switch had been flipped! I had a ton of energy (I also thank Vit D for this)!
In these past 7 months I have played around with my carbs; moderate carb (50-100 g), low carb (no more than 50g) and “higher” carb (over 100). I felt the worst on the “higher” carb. I was making paleo ‘treats’ like banana bread, and desserts. I was hungry more often and was craving food constantly. I don’t and won’t own a scale, but I could tell by my clothes that I had started to gain some weight. I felt so bloated. I went back to the moderate/low carb, meaning some days I have no more than 50g and others I may have a little more. I am not really doing it for weight loss, but getting leaner is a nice side affect. My goal is just to feel good and not be so obssessed with food all of the time. The low carb paleo has really helped me with that.
That is exactly my experience! Higher carb amounts, bread, pasta, sugar etc mean more food cravings, I was thinking about food constantly. I was like this for years and always looking for answers because it was exhausting. When I went Paleo (not strict) my problem with obsessing over food was over.
I had carb flu when I first went very low carb but I got over it after a few weeks. I have however suffered from hair loss and I’m glad to see you mention it here because most low carb diets claim that it is absolutely not a result of going low carb. But I’ve seen it brought up often enough in chats that I know I’m not alone. I’ve lost extensive weight being low carb and am fitter, leaner and healthier than I have ever been but the thinner hair depresses me. Any suggestions?
Some people do really well with carb cycling for getting the hair to come back (A post on that coming soon!) or you could try slowly introducing 30-50 more grams of carbs per day for a few weeks and then cutting back again gradually which may bring down the rT3 levels and help with the hair loss without causing weight gain…
I have been wondering why I’m shedding hair so badly, and it definetly corresponds with the 1 year I have been lo-carb. Im almost 53 and not in menopause. I have a scedualed dermotogist appointment to address my sudden hair thinning which has really affected my self-esteem.
You should take Biotin, it is a form of vitamin B. It takes a few months but from pregnancy hair loss I noticed it really helped. You could also get extensions if it really bothers you. I had a row put in and it make my confidence go way up because I didn’t feel like such an overweight mother! It is costly though, around $300.00 but it really healped me! Good luck!
Hi Allison ,
I am having severe carb flu when i try to go low carb.Can you tell me how did you overcome it
This article has some tips https://wellnessmama.com/2799/carb-flu/ and the article linked in there from Dr. Eades has some great info…
Yes! Take Biptin!! Very cheap to buy and works wonders!!
Does this happen to everyone who is hypothyroid? I’m on day 6 and have lost a few pounds and am no longer obsessed with food! I don’t want to go back to more carbs – I was counting on this way of life to GIVE me energy. I felt like I was needing to hibernate BEFORE making the change and am freaking out a little bit at the idea of going back to that. I don’t feel great yet; I tire easily and am achy but I no longer feel like I need to hide in bed.
Nope, definitely not everyone… just a small percentage. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from going low-carb, just wanted to shed light on the potential for this to happen for that small percentage of people! If low-carb is working for you… go for it. If you hit a plateau at 9-12 months, (doesn’t sound like you will) then just consider adding in a small amount of carbs and then cutting back slowly to re-set the energy and weight loss benefits!
I have read her article and have to agree with most of it. I am personally experiencing this myself and am struggling to come to terms with the fact that the lifestyle/diet that was supposed to make me healthier than I had ever been has unfortunately made me about as unhealthy as I have been in 20+ years and fatter! I am currently 10 pounds heavier than my heaviest body weight ever. I have already spent hundreds of dollars on non traditional help and tried the route of upping my carbs thru veggies, sweet potatoes and fruit and it hasn’t really helped. I am battling both adrenal fatigue and possibly Thyroid issues brought on by a low carb Paleo diet. I had been eating strict Paleo for about 9 months before I started having some pretty major problems. I have seen this not only in myself but in friends who have gone Paleo (it hits around the 9-12 month mark), so I am pretty skeptical about the whole Low carb Paleo diet being healthy for anyone! After some recent research I have added a sprinkling of rice back into my diet and once a week corn tortilla with my tacos. I still eat Paleo otherwise and love the idea behind it, but I find myself falling more into the category of specialist suggesting that rice, corn and/or the inclusion of white potatoes is a good idea. The problem with adding a lot of sweet potatoes and fruit is the sugar content of those can make you fat too.
Sorry you are having those problems. I’ve been Paleo for over a year. I can’t say I am high or low carb. I eat what I want, eat when I am hungry. Many of my clients have also been Paleo over a year and are not suffering like you are. I hope you can get your issues worked out. A client of mine came to me with seriously messed up adrenals from Figure Prep diets (body building diets) and after getting help from a Naturopathic Dr and then switching to Paleo she is losing weight again and feeling amazing for the first time in years. Paleo, or eating whole foods doesn’t always mean low carb. They are not tied together. Your health will still be better if you follow a whole foods diet versus going back to eating processed foods, gluten, wheat, etc.
She never said she was going back to processed foods or gluten.
One thing she did say that is not true is that the sugar in sweet potatoes and fruits will make you fat. This is a completely false statement; sugar does not make one fat. Eating of excess calories makes one fat (regardless of macronutrient: fat, sugar/carbs, proteins). If it were true, it makes no sense that she would state that when she is okay with eating corn tortilla and rice which have the same or higher glycemic load as sweet potatoes and fruits , in general.
Actually, newer research shows that all calories are not created equal and the same number of calories from sweet potatos and fruits will add fat more quickly than that number of calories from protein or fat will. So yes, eating too many ‘healthy’ carbs will make you fat if you eat enough of them. There are other problems with over eating protein and fats, but the old calorie counting thing is not scientifically sound. It takes relatively little effort for our bodies to break down those carbs so they get stored as fat more quickly. It takes a lot more effort for our bodies to break down protein and significantly more effort to break down fats. As a result, it’s harder for our bodies to store them as fat.
You want to know the problem with this idea? I got and stayed fat on almost a zero carb diet. I also got anxiety attacks and insomnia. Initially low carb worked but over time weight kept creeping up so I kept lowering the carbs but it just became more and more ineffective. By the time I chose to quit I was not losing any weight no matter how low carb or even low calorie I went. The worst part however was the anxiety and insomnia. Personally I’d rather be fat and feel halfway decent. And I don’t think that everyone can be thin.
Agree completely! Even for those who need more carbs temporarily, I definitely don’t encourage getting these carbs from grain or processed foods! There are plenty of natural and healthy sources of carbs that can work that don’t involve grains!
I have heard this a lot from a lot and it scares me to start the diet
I have good metabolism and such I don’t want anything made bad coz of this diet
but I do believe to focus on nutrition. which includes focusing on good fats vegetables fish and meat. everything else fills me up unnecessary so that I can’t fit in the good stuff. carbs being one if which.
I also read though somewhere that if you eat low carb for extended period of time in ketones mode your enzymes have problem not having anything to burn
this sooner or later can mess up your metabolism lipid etc and thyroid
the suggested advice here from this doctor was to cycle carbs every once in awhile
I heard weekly
perhaps you and your friends didn’t know or try this at the time
but basically you up the carb to sweet potato fruit oncr every week
I don’t know if this will help
but I reckon you need to balance your hormones and everything again
do the autoimmune diet
avoiding sensitive foods and such healing your system
I also heard that the gut wellness and hormonal system is all connected
if your gut is messed up
your hormonal will be too in some way or big ways
I don’t know for facts but these are just things I’ve learnt and passing them on as suggestions
This debate intrigues me. What is your definition for the number of carbs considered to be low carb? How many carbs in the SAD diet?
I’m considering low-carb under 50 grams (which I’m not saying is a bad things at all) and SAD carbs are typically 300+
Actually, low carb, paleo style, is between 50 -150 carbs, but very low carb, like for ketosis is under 40-50, depending on the person.
I find that I feel better, have a lot more energy and need less food when I eat low carb. I have gone on this diet several times. The first was after college and I was feeling terrible with fatigue for several months, a natural doctor I went to recommended going grain-free & bread-free for a couple months, taking a couple different supplements, and slowly add the grains back into my diet. Well, after a couple days the nasty symptoms I was experiencing were gone. I had no plan on incorporating grains back until I was pregnant and craving french toast… no problems during pregnancy but after the ONLY way I was able to loose the weight was to go low-carb again.
I agree, I’m the same way and definitely am not suggesting that people don’t go low-carb, just making sure to point out that some people need to do it slowly 🙂