Is a Low Carb Diet Healthy?

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Is a low carb diet healthy
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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!

Bottom Line

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!!)

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


87 responses to “Is a Low Carb Diet Healthy?”

  1. Anthony Hallman Avatar
    Anthony Hallman

    Can daily net carbs (i.e. carbs minus fiber) of 25 grams provide adequate vitamins?
    What are the worst things about going low-carb indefinitely?
    I’m starting to ferment legumes and grains using kefir, kombucha, and apple cider vinegar. How much reduction of carbs will that produce?

  2. Lesa Avatar

    The Atkins diet can make you lose weight but is extremely unhealthy as well. My father actually tried this diet, lost 20 pounds, and gained 25 pounds back when he began to eat regularly. This was the same for several other people I know. People who are lean eat well-balanced diets because they are listening to their bodies and fill their stomachs with a large variety of foods, fulfilling all of their bodies needs.

  3. ken Avatar

    I get most of my carbs from brown rice, fruit, veggies, etc. I actually don’t have the intense cravings for sugar I used to, my main concern is how it effects for those with kidney stones or diabetic , is it safe – any opinion on this?

  4. Dai Avatar

    I have read some but not all the above voluminous content and great discussions. One theme I noticed was people talking almost as if their diet had no carbs, with comments about adding some fruit or sweet potato once a week. That sounds a lot like a starvation diet to me. Im not an RD or a nutritionist but even #LCHF diets recommend 40-100gm carbs daily for health reasons, so the idea of adding carbs weekly is strange. Also there are many people who have a LCHF diet for years and enjoy excellent health. Read the Blue Zones magazine by National Geographic which is a very interesting review of the longest lived population groups worldwide and their eating/drinking habits. Many different choices from Italy to Japan and to California.

  5. Anne Croucher Avatar
    Anne Croucher

    I often hear that low carb dieting doesn’t work, or even that it wrecked something.
    It was Dr Atkins who usually got the blame – even when it was obvious that his rules for doing low carb were not being followed.
    Eating a very low almost zero carb diet is not part of the plan, but people will insist that as low is good really low must be even better. I’m not a doctor but I am a Batchelor of Science, and so before I changed my diet I read what I could and studied Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution. It is not quite correct in some of the things it claims, but the advice given on how to do low carb is fairly sound.

  6. Anne Croucher Avatar
    Anne Croucher

    The problem is that you stopped eating a low carb diet.
    It was never expected that you would start to eat the things which make you fat – if you read Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution book it will all become clear.
    Low carb eating is all about keeping excess carbohydrates out of your diet. You reduce right down to lose weight, but introduce healthy types of carb as you reach your goal.
    You should taper off the weightloss gradually,
    Personally, I would advise not reintroducing grains, as I find that I get aches in my joints when I do, and they are not an essential part of the Human diet.
    Be sure that you are not consuming more unsaturated vegetable oils than necessary – they play havoc with the hormones. Omega 3 oils should be promoted, vegetable oils contain an abundance of the unwanted Omega six oils. I know that they are often promoted as healthy sources of fat, rather than more natural ones from fish and meat, but there isn’t much evidence that they are actually good for you. I suspect that rather like the ‘fat is bad’ myth, it was something made up to promote sales of the stuff.

  7. Oksana Avatar

    I’ve done low carb before with great success, but of course the minute I introduced the carbs back into my diet, the weight came back. The biggest and the most concerning struggle has always been the hormonal/period changes that always accompany me removing carbs from my diet. I’ve somewhere before that it’s a normal symptom but it raises concern every time. I have been trying to do more research and how to alleviate the breakthrough bleedings. I have spoken to my doctor and she suggest birth control, which I don’t want to use, as I don’t need it anymore. Please offer any suggestions on how to stay low carb and hopefully regulate my hormones. Which after reading this article I think I will keep with it as the health benefits are definitely significant. Thank you!

  8. Elizabeth Avatar

    I’m glad I read this, because I’ve had many health struggles and trying to figure myself out. I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, EBV, fatigue, and I always feel drained and get sick often. I restarted the grain free diet 7 months ago, and now removed sugar as well. I feel horrible. I feel like my glands/nodes are tender and my thyroid inflamed. Sometimes, I’ll grab an apple and eat it quickly to see if it improves my symptoms and, at times, it does. With my busy schedule, school, being a mom, and extreme fatigue, I’m scared that I won’t be able to continue this restricted diet. I read this could last months!

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