Spotlight on... low-carbohydrate diets

If you're considering cutting back on carbs make sure you know all the facts first. Nutritionist Jo Lewin discusses the health benefits of 'good' carbohydrates and looks at the pros and cons associated with following a restrictive diet...

Spotlight on... low-carbohydrate diets

An introduction to carbohydrates

Dietary carbohydrates play a central role in nutrition because they are the body’s primary source of energy and are important for the proper function of everything from muscle contractions to brain activity. Carbohydrates are classified into two basic groups: simple and complex:

Simple carbohydrates
As their name suggests simple carbs are just that - typically one-sugar molecules (mono-saccharides) or two-sugar molecules (di-saccharides). This category includes refined carbohydrates, which are rapidly digested and release sugar quickly into the bloodstream. They are good when a quick, readily availble source of energy is required, for instance before or during exercise. However, if eaten too regularly and in large amounts they can leave you feeling unsatisfied and prone to energy highs and lows. Examples include white bread, honey, pastries and biscuits.

Complex carbohydrates
These starchy carbs are made up of many simple sugars joined together by bonds - the more bonds, the more complex and the longer the carbs take to break down. Eating complex carbohydrates can reduce the chances of feeling fatigued or hungry between meals.  The best examples are those that have undergone the least processing – such wholegrains include jumbo oats, brown rice, spelt, rye and barley.

Ideally complex carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your carbohydrate consumption, as they are the best source of nutrients and fibre. 


ResearchHeart disease

Some research suggests that excessive consumption of carbohydrates – specifically, simple carbohydrates - can be harmful to blood sugar control, especially if you are insulin resistant, experience reactive hypoglycaemia or are diabetic. Carbohydrate excess, especially consuming too many refined carbohydrates, is sometimes associated with weight gain and increased risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.


Fruit & vegetables

The natural sugar found in fruit and vegetables is called fructose. While fructose is considered to be a simple sugar, the high fibre content means the body digests whole fruit and veg more slowly than say a biscuit that contains no fibre but high amounts of white sugar. As a result, eating high fibre foods containing simple sugars is thought to have less of a dramatic effect on blood sugar levels.


balanced dietLow-carb diets and weight loss

The Reference Intake (RI)  for a balanced diet is currently 260g of carbohydrates a day. People following a low-carbohydrate diet often try to stick to less than 50g a day.

Ketosis is often a by-product of a low-carbohydrate diet. Ketones are produced when the body’s glycogen stores have been used up and protein and fat become the primary source of fuel.

Because food choices are limited, low-carbohydrate diets tend to be low in calories yet high in protein and fat. Fruit, bread, grains and starchy vegetables are often limited. The proportion of protein and fat is increased to contribute towards the calories that formerly came from carbohydrate sources. 

The Atkins diet and The Dukan diet are well-known ‘classic’ low-carbohydrate programmes, while other plans focus sometimes on the glycaemic index of foods. The glycaemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods based on the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels in the hours after they are eaten. The reference point is pure glucose which is scored at 100. The higher a food scores on the GI scale, the more rapidly the carbohydrate (sugar) is released into the bloodstream. 


Low-carbohydrate diets, if followed over a consistent period of time, present a number of health concerns. Such a diet is likely to be low in fibre which may lead to digestive issues including constipation. The lack of carbohydrate in the diet means the body doesn’t have a ready supply of glucose, the brain’s primary source of fuel – this may lead to dizziness and headaches as well poor concentration. Other side effects include halitosis, insomnia and nausea. In addition to this the likely increase in the proportion of protein in the diet places an additional load on the kidneys and may lead to problems with bone-health.

While the exclusion of all carbohydrates often means less refined sugar in the diet which can only be a positive benefit to health, such strict dietary approaches are not conducive to long-term health and should be discussed with a GP or qualified health professional before you start.


More information and recipeslow-carb recipes

Read our nutritional therapists view on two low-carbohydrate diets:
What is the Atkins diet?
What is the Dukan diet?

If you’ve read all the factsand want to include some low-carb options into your balanced diet, our recipe collection has some delicious suggestions, all containing under 10g of carbohydrates per serving:
Low-carbohydrate recipes

Jo Lewin works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

This article was last reviewed on 27 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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21st Aug, 2017
The problem is that both the food industry and the diet industry are multi billion pound/dollar earning industries. So they want you to eat, get unhealthy and then diet. I saw Lilcassiemoo's comment below. I too started a 21 day diet. Its not high protein as it advocates 20g per portion for a woman for each of the 3 meals which is not too much. Its about learning portions and nutritional value of what you are eating and when. No more eating a 10 oz steak!! I am eating healthier than I have done in years as its forcing me to cook healthy portions of protein and good fats, I have increased my intake of vegetables (which I hate but I need to fill up my calorie quota) and now just eat 3 times a day midday 4pm and 8pm. I am managing to attend the gym, no dizziness, no trouble with my 'movements' either. Don't get me wrong - personally I would love to be sitting on the sofa with a whole Sourdough loaf and a tub of butter, or 10 bags of chocolate buttons. But this diet is teaching me all in moderation. So if I have been good for the day I can allow myself 3 digestive biscuits (approx. 30g carbs) as a treat. Rest of my carbs are from vegetables. I lost 8 pounds on my first week, and 6 on my second just into my third week and am feeling fantastic. I hate vegetables but if eating high vegetable, weighed out good proteins and good fats is doing this to me then bring it on. If my weight goes down so does my risk of Type !! diabetes, and my high blood pressure and all the other things that task us as we get older. Bread love it, Potatoes love them, biscuits - 3 weeks ago I would have eaten a packet at a sitting because I have a sweet tooth. Now I avoid it all, no snacking either. You have to just find what works for you and keep advised by your own doctor if you have questions I think . Good luck everyone on whatever you are eating - enjoy ;o)
21st Jun, 2017
Mmm A very simplistic article for a very complex topic Stay away from it BBC or do it properly Please do not use nutritional therapists from BANT or links to complementary medicine organizations Rather, use proper nhs dietitians Readers beware of the above article it's Simplistic
7th Mar, 2017
Thank you to all who commented on the benefits of Low Carb Diets! I'm just beginning with it, sticking to under 50 g of carbs from veggies, and I'd say I feel quite alright. I certainly consume a lot of fiber, my gym performance is the same as before, and I'm not lightheaded in the least. I guess I'm finally eating what my doctor recommended for anemia some years ago. I'm surprised that the author of this article presents the Low Carb Diet in such a negative light. Most of the Low Carb misconceptions listed on other sites are quoted here as facts. Also, the new research that shows the importance of fats has been ignored. Yes, whole milk (plain) yogurt is way healthier that the low fat alternative! Some of the comments seem to go overboard, thought. Carbs are not toxic, as long as you get them from veggies, fruit, and whole grains, and consume in moderation. Let's not get too dogmatic while defending the Low Carb Diets.
6th Mar, 2017
Yes, well, I've just been through this myself for the first time in 65 years, and I can tell you, carbs are not the problem. Parasites are the problem. Mostly everyone is infected, the soil is infected and these little chums go through the cycle from animals to humans where they may be unseen and undiagnosed for years, until you start to have digestive problems because the worm has used up all your enzymes, or joint problems or bone pain or sleep disturbance or any of the dozen disparate symptoms that they produce, and the medical community, in it's drive to create medical robots, has deliberately ignored. Big Pharma, Big Medicine and Big government have been fooling you. What is needed is not more diets, certainly not more antibiotics, but the declaration of a public health emergency the likes of which we have never seen before. More than 4 Billion people world wide are infected, yet NO ONE, not your doctor, not the government and certainly not your friends talk about it. It does no good to treat Joe and Jane, if 50 million people on the continent or more, can come and go and leave little packages for other to become infected with. I found a tapeworm in me that had been there for 60 years. It wasn't until I realized that my suspicions about picking it up in a near drowning incident near a slaughterhouse were confirmed, that I began to realize what a catastrophe parasites of all types are to people. In deed, it has only been since the early part of this century that they had even been able to culture properly for these things.
6th Mar, 2017
''such strict dietary approaches are not conducive to long-term health '' Prove it. The article boasts 'the facts on low carbs' and then expresses mostly opinion. Eating low carb has changed my life, I have never been so well, ate in so much variety, far from finding it restrictive I have found it freeing.
17th Aug, 2016
I am so chuffed to be reading all these fabulous helpful comments. Myself and my daughter have struggled for years doing many different diet's where you eat loads ones where you count points and the weight losses have been so slow or non existent soul destroying. My daughter found a 21 days paleo diet which I found a bit extreme so after adapting a little we are basically on a very low carb high protein and fat diet. Wow it's working 12.5lb off in 8 days. We eat from midday to 6-7pm and fast for the rest if the time, it's all back to basics of meat, veg, salad, limited fruit, nuts, yogurt, coconut's amazing. We sleep really well. No toilet trouble. No bad breathe. Loving it and can only recommend highly that cutting out crap processed junk and carbs works. The science behind it is amazing.
25th Jun, 2016
I have been on a low carb diet for years and this "nutritionist" has her facts all screwed up, particularly where "safety" is concerned. First, nutritionists like her have been pushing the wrong dietary advice on us for the last 40 years that have gotten us to the point of the low carb diet, or as I'd like to say, back to where humans use to be. She says bad breath is a side effect. I've been low carb for several years. The only time I have bad breath is my food is flavored with garlic or some other spice. Mouth wash takes care of that. There is no evidence that supports the theory that a diet high in protein causes kidney damage, unless the kidneys have had troubles functioning prior to the low carb diet. Fiber...there is evidence to suggest that fiber can be rather harmful and that it is not even needed in the first place. I can attest to the fact that I eat little fiber, however, I have no issues with bowel movements. Want issues with bowel movements? Consume too much fiber then head to the doctor to look at that bowel obstruction. Dizziness, insomnia, nausea --- think there aren't other things in your life that don't cause those conditions? Brain fog is temporary until the body adjusts to using ketones for energy and the brain can use those just as nicely as glucose. However, a low carb diet that is too low may cause gluconeogenesis, which is when the body converts protein to glucose --- only after the body breaks down protein for its other uses. I am not a nutritionist but know these things. Yet it doesn't surprise me that this nutritionist does not. Most don't.
13th Jun, 2016
After years of being a borderline diabetic my yearly hba1c test showed +ve and combined with cholesterol of 7 a change was due.. With advice from a book' how to reverse your diabetes' I changed to a low carb diet. My weight has gone from 123kg to 99kg and my cholesterol from 7 to 4.3. 'Nice 'guidelines say low fat high carb diets are best but people are now smelling the coffee and realising that all the latest healthy manufactured foods and advice don't work. At a recent visit to a diabetic nutritionist I was told that nice guidelines dictated the advice that she could officially give me and was advised to eat more carbs and eat less fat ! Luckily my doctor is switched on and is quite happy with my progress and choices.
25th Apr, 2016
I've been on a low carb, high fat diet for two years and eat plenty of fibre ( from green veggies). Constipation has never been an issue! Broccoli, kale, spinach and the like give me loads of fibre, as well as tons of vitamins and minerals. Think you don't like greens much? Drown them in butter and I promise you they'll taste great! Don't listen to the "glucose is the best fuel" guff! My brain is working perfectly well, thank you. No dizziness, no cloudy thinking, no headaches and much better sleep than when I was on the so- called ' balanced diet'. Oh and by the way, I've lost 5 inches off my waistline without starving myself. LCHF is LOW carb, not NO carb ( which is probably impossible to achieve, even if you wanted to do it). Moderation in all things? No thanks! Ditch the sugar, drop the processed carbs massively and replace them with LOTS of healthy fats, such as avocado, olives, full fat yoghurt, cheeses and fatty meats and offal. It may not work for everyone, but many could transform their health by not listening to out dated, old school nutritionists.
ladoll0606's picture
2nd Jan, 2016
Hallelujah for LCHF! It's changed my world! Some real bad research re side affects!! Been LCHF for a year now and have NEVER been constipated - what BS (pun intended).


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