Pitfalls of Paleo: Highs and Lows of Low-Carb Dieting

By Martha Michael

Happy Couple in Kitchen Cooking Paleo

There are no shortcuts to maximum wellness -- it’s what you do in the long haul that makes a difference. So, if your goal is to fit into that little black dress for this season’s holiday party circuit, you may reach back to the beginning of time for a paleo diet … but just for the short-term.

If you’ve tried to lose weight in the last decade or two, you may have become acquainted with the Atkins, Mediterranean or South Beach diets. They all involve carb-cutting strategies, and have proven rather successful, but like most weight loss programs, there are ups and downs.

The Highs

When you consume carbohydrates, they break down into glucose, which provides you with necessary fuel. By cutting back on carbs, your body turns to fat stores for energy, which can get you marked results if you’re trying to slim down.

Weight-loss, in and of itself, offers health benefits, such as better management of diabetes and a lower potential for cardiovascular damage. Because there is less pressure on your joints, you can stay active longer and experience fewer aches and pains as you age.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you can expect to see an improvement in your cholesterol and blood sugar levels when you have a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. If you pay attention to your choices of food -- eating fish and poultry, legumes, vegetables and fruits -- you can bring up your HDL, or “good cholesterol,” levels. You may also show a greater loss of fat mass, plus large quantities of meat tend to make you feel more full which, in turn, satisfies hunger and contributes to successful weight loss.

The Lows

The Mayo Clinic also warns that a drastic reduction in carbohydrates may temporarily cause unhealthy side effects, including:

  • Bad breath
  • Skin rash
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or diarrhea

A low-carb diet presents another health risk. Lowering your intake of starches in favor of meats increases a natural metabolic process called ketosis, in which your body burns stored fat, explains an article in Medical News Today. A byproduct of that process is a buildup of acids known as ketones in your bloodstream. Taken to the extreme, the ketone levels can become high enough to poison you, a condition known as ketoacidosis.

Diabetics have a heightened risk of ketoacidosis because of their limited insulin supply. If you have diabetes, it’s particularly important to monitor blood sugar levels carefully and adhere to meal schedules because high ketone levels can result in a diabetic coma, landing you in the intensive care unit or even leading to death.

If you’re in relatively good health, an adherence to trendy or extreme diet plans may still invite trouble. Experts haven’t extensively studied the long-term health effects of low-carbohydrate high-protein diets, according to the article. They may have serious consequences, such as heart disease or some forms of cancer.

The website HealthAfter50.com, which includes research from the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, adds that the long-term effects of heavy meat intake on heart health are unknown. An excess of protein places a burden on kidneys and the liver. It increases the volume of waste in the system, and high levels of uric acid may create kidney stones or cause kidney disease to progress. Other research piles on, adding that excessive protein intake may cause calcium loss also, which contributes to the onset of osteoporosis.

Bottom Line

You should only stay on a low-carbohydrate high-protein diet for a short period of time, the article suggests. When you avoid foods high in carbohydrates, you shortchange your intake of necessary vitamins and minerals, and without a balanced diet, the weight-loss you expect isn’t permanent.

You also want to fit an appropriate amount of time into your schedule for exercise, though be careful not to take your workout to extremes because that can trigger ketosis as well.

Short-term loss may be the motive, but long-term gain in overall wellness may be the result, as long as you don’t overdo it with a diet high in meat and too few carbohydrates. You can get the party started when you skip the seconds on stuffing ... but you don’t have to pass on pumpkin pie.

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