Drawbacks of a low-carb lifestyle

Recently I wrote a post about the benefits I’ve experienced since June 2007 when I started eating a low carb diet (well, I listed the benefits, and wrote a history about my weight issues.  I need to discuss the benefits in more detail, I think).

But there are also drawbacks to pursuing a low-carb lifestyle – physical, psychological, and social.  Given that many of the drawbacks that I have experienced are the same ones that discourage others from starting or staying with low-carb, I thought in the interests of fairness, I should discuss the drawbacks.

Side effects during transition due to electrolyte deficiencies – I had dizzy spells when I first started eating low-carb, and I didn’t really get them “cured” until I went back and read “Protein Power” more closely, and found out that the body will dump a lot of potassium and sodium (which are electrolytes, along with magnesium and chloride) as it’s dumping the extra retained fluid.  I started supplementing with potassium and magnesium, and eating more salt, and this eventually worked itself out.

Heart palpitations – same thing – some sort of electrolyte deficiency or imbalance.  It worked itself out as I got used to the diet and was taking supplements, but it was weird.  Fortunately, I knew it was diet-related and that I wasn’t having a heart attack.  The main problem with electrolyte deficiencies is that the symptoms are pretty much the same as when you’re getting too much!  So you really have to know how much of them you’re getting so you can adjust your dosages properly.

I had other side effects as well, but I didn’t document them so I don’t remember them!  This is like a lot of other health stuff – your results may vary.  You can pretty much count on experiencing some odd or uncomfortable side effects, so it’s really important to educate yourself on them.

Different body – the body I have now is not the same one I started with on low-carb.  It has just as many quirks but some of them are different ones than before.

I can easily get muscle cramps due to (I assume) a lack of potassium.  I still take potassium supplements on occasion but I still haven’t figured out how much or how frequently is just the right amount.  This is a significant deterrent to exercise (not that I need any deterrents, though).

I seem to be more easily dehydrated, but (like a lot of people) I don’t seem to feel thirst until I really really need it (although I will drink quite a bit if water is sitting right in front of me, fortunately).  I’ve always had a problem drinking enough water, but it’s more of an issue now that I’m not carrying around an extra gallon or so in vivo.

Skipped meals – hunger signals are more subtle now that my blood sugar isn’t surging up and down to unhealthy levels.  So, if there’s nothing in the fridge that I want to eat, it’s a lot easier to snack on a glass of milk or a few crackers with butter or cheese than it is to cook a decent meal.  This is an advantage, of course, when no food is available, but it can be a disadvantage when I just don’t feel like cooking (which is most of the time) and there are no tasty leftovers in the fridge.

Reduced dental hygiene habits – I didn’t realize the extent to which I relied on mouth fuzz to prompt me to brush my teeth until I stopped getting it.  Since I still eat some carbs (including sugar) I still get some fuzz, but not nearly as much as I used to – so the fuzz rarely gets to the point where I feel I absolutely have to brush my teeth.  I don’t have bad breath and I have really strong teeth – so I just don’t have as much incentive to brush my teeth as I used to.  It’s embarrassing to admit this in our hygiene-crazed culture, which makes it all the more important to talk about.  And no, I will not tell you how often I actually do brush my teeth!  But obviously – less fuzz means less decay due to sugar, so I don’t believe I am compromising my dental health.  Here are a couple of great blog posts about preventing and reversing tooth decay in case you get more worried about my teeth than I am.  And good luck finding a dentist who is aware of this information (which should be known by all of them).

Carb cravings – well, this is a problem I also had before low-carb, of course, I just didn’t feel as guilty as I do now when I satisfy them.  I wonder how much of the carb cravings might be due to some sort of deficiency, versus the simple psychology of “it feels good to eat carbs”.  Dr. Michael Eades of “Protein Power” advises people to start or increase magnesium supplementation if they have carb cravings, but I still have the cravings even with supplementation.  I discuss my effort to puzzle out my feedback mechanism for cravings in a previous post, A buzz or a glow?

Lots of guilt and shame – am I craving carbs (especially sugar!) because I am a weak person, or is there something going on physiologically that I just don’t know the cure for yet?  It’s just so easy to assume my frequent desire for ice cream or sweets is “just me” and feel ashamed at my weakness.  It’s also a lot easier to feel guilty/ashamed than it is to devote considerable effort, time, and perhaps money to figure out what is actually behind the carb cravings (if it is other than psychological … or even if it is psychological!).  Of course, there was also constant guilt with the low-fat diet, because even if I followed the guidelines, I was still hungry and wanted more fat/protein – so then, too, the easy assumption was that there must be something wrong with me… which was true … I wasn’t getting enough fat and protein!

Toxic culture – well, this is a huge issue, and has been discussed in so many other media (like this recent excellent post by Dr. Michael Eades (Protein Power))  that I’ll just mention the basics.  Our culture – particularly the media – aggressively criticize a low-carb lifestyle.  Numerous studies showing its benefits are ignored, or worse, skewed into showing no benefit.  Health experts, most with virtually no training in nutrition other than the food pyramid, preach the non-existent benefits of grain-based diet.   Anyplace where food is sold has numerous high-carb, low-fat, no-nutrition products touted as health food.  It’s an upside down world in so many ways, and this toxic culture is one of the most basic, one of the most insidious, and is the single most difficult issue that low-carbers must contend with in pursuing their own good health.

Not a cure-all – I believe that anyone that has done a decent amount of reading about the benefits of eating a low-carb diet could be forgiven for forming an unconscious assumption that low-carb will cure anything.  Every aspect of human health is either directly or indirectly affected by unbalanced blood sugar and by insulin resistance.  While following a low-carb lifestyle will certainly improve many aspects of one’s health (as I have already attested) it can’t cure everything, especially if a health problem has been plaguing someone for years.

This leaves an enthusiastic but disappointed low-carber (like myself) to wonder – am I just not doing it right?  What else could be the problem?  This is especially true for weight loss. I’d bet good money that when people stop losing weight with low-carb, they lose faith in the diet, regardless of how good they feel otherwise.  I certainly did!  Some really good long-term studies on what is going on when weight loss stalls, but the low-carb diet is maintained, would provide a tremendous boost for people who are struggling to maintain a low-carb lifestyle while facing tremendous pressure from their culture, family, friends, and health experts to switch back to a high-carb, low-fat diet.

Conclusion - pursuing a low-carb lifestyle has most certainly been worth it for me and my husband – we are healthier because of it, and if we ever get around to reproducing, our kids will be healthier for it, and much more knowledgeable about optimal nutrition than we were.  I am grateful to all those health care professionals who wrote books and set up websites to get the message out about low-carb diets.  I feel confident now that I, my husband, and our (future) children will not have to suffer from diabetes or other lifestyle-related metabolic disorders, and that gives me some measure of peace in this upside down world.

Recommended reading:

Weston A. Price Foundation

Real Milk Campaign

Nourishing Traditions – great book on food raised and prepared naturally

Lardy, Lardy – great post on the health benefits of lard by Dr. Mary Dan Eades (Protein Power)

2 Comments

  • By Gwennie, August 15, 2009 @ 6:16 am

    Hi! I am new to your blog, having followed the link you left in the comments to Tom Naughton’s latest post.

    In regards to muscle cramps on low carb diets, I have seen that several ultra low carb posters on Zeroing In On Health (http://forum.zeroinginonhealth.com/index.php) report getting cramps when they eat too much salt rather than when they do not get enough. I certainly have a lot of respect for Dr. Eades as well, but figured I’d pass along an alternative view in case you haven’t yet found something that works for you.

  • By Angel, August 15, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Hi Gwennie,

    Thanks for that information about the possible too-much-salt connection. I had a blood test done several months ago, and one of the things measured was the level of salt or sodium (don’t remember). I was on the very low end of normal. I suppose it’s possible the cramping could be due to too little salt. I have to make a conscious effort to include salt in my diet, because it’s not something I crave. Of course, up until recently, I’ve probably been at least somewhat dehydrated as well, and I believe that contributes, too.

    Fortunately, cramping isn’t a problem I have very often! Thank you for your comment – I’ll be keeping a closer eye on my salt intake and see how that correlates with any potential cramping.

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