For most of the 21st-century low-carb diets have been the go-to for people looking to lose weight or help maintain blood sugars in those with various types of diabetes. And even though they have been around for a long time, people are always making modifications and concocting new ways to find the ultimate meal plan that will fit their needs. This time, the latest twist on the low-carb trend is a no-carb diet, sometimes called a zero-carb diet.
What is a zero-carb diet?
A zero-carb diet is a lot like how it sounds—a diet that restricts carbohydrate intake as low as possible. This may sound very similar to other diet plans that aim to restrict carbohydrates, like Atkins or Keto, but there are some differences. Atkins, for instance, has its users consuming between 20 and 100 grams of net carbs per day, depending on their plan. The term net carbs is important here, which means total carbohydrates minus fiber in any meal. By basing its recommendations off of net carbs, Atkins does allow room for some carbohydrate foods if they are also fiber sources.
The keto diet is another popular plan which restricts carbohydrate intake. Keto users are usually aiming for 50 g or less of carbohydrates per day. But, keto also places emphasis on high fat intake and only moderate protein intake.
A zero-carb diet, on the other hand, aims for its users to go as low carbohydrate as possible, but doesn’t offer specific guidelines on how protein versus fat intake should be divided.
What foods can you eat on a no-carb diet?
A zero-carb diet aims to eliminate carbohydrates from the diet completely. Instead, no-carb dieters can choose from mostly animal products:
- Cream cheese
- Butter and lard
- Some allow for leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, etc. (Whether there’s any room in a no-carb diet for non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens is open to interpretation. Some proponents argue that zero-carb literally means zero carbohydrates and this means no plant-based foods, and others might argue that the lowest carb vegetables like spinach, lettuce, etc. are allowable.)
Foods to avoid
The no-carb diet would effectively eliminate all plant foods from the diet, as all plants contain at least some carbohydrates.
- Starchy vegetables
- Legumes (as they have some carbs)
- Yogurt and milk (While being good protein sources, naturally contain lactose–a type of carbohydrate–which would mean yogurt and milk don’t work for this type of diet plan.)
No-carb diet benefits
So why are some people interested in a no-carb diet? The main reasons cited are similar to those recommending keto and other low-carb diets: weight loss. It’s true that people following low carb diets typically see initial weight loss results, mostly due to the loss of water weight. No-carb dieters will also point to other potential benefits such as improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar. These latter benefits, though, are more debatable.
A very low or zero carb diet is not necessary to improve insulin resistance or manage blood sugar; most healthcare providers working in this specialty instead emphasize moderate carbohydrate intake at predictable time intervals, increasing fiber, and balancing out all the major nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) with each other.
One reason individuals may really gravitate toward such a restrictive diet, however, is how satiating protein and fat are. Protein and fat are generally more filling nutrients, and people who dramatically increase their intake may notice a steep decline in their appetite and cravings. This dynamic may be one of the main reasons people feel successful on this plan.
No-Carb diet downsides
Humans are built to eat a varied diet. Eating a variety of foods from all the major food groups is the best way to ensure you get all the nutrients you need, including vitamins and minerals. Plant-based foods are a good source of certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, potassium, and many B vitamins (although, notably, not vitamin B-12).
Eliminating or nearly eliminating plant foods would make it much harder to get enough of these important nutrients, potentially leading to possible nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, no-carb diets are very low in fiber, which is important for regulating digestion, feeding healthy gut bacteria, and managing cholesterol. Furthermore, high fiber intake has been associated with lower risk of heart disease and cancer.
A no-carb diet may be low in heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fats, which are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. While certain types of fish are good sources of omega-3 fats, like salmon and tuna, many other types of unsaturated fats are primarily found in plants like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocado.
In addition to limiting plant-based foods that can provide important nutrients and support heart health, no-carb diets, like all restrictive diets, have the potential to foster an unhealthy relationship with food and start someone down the path of disordered eating. Eating disorders are among the mental health diagnoses with the highest mortality rates, so if you’re someone with an already rocky relationship with food, it’s probably best to skip this diet.
The bottom line
Overall, you’d be right to be wary of any diet that restricts any one food group. The healthiest diet for humans is one that contains a variety of nutrients from a variety of food groups. Diets like the zero-carb diet are needlessly restrictive and villainize a huge swath of foods (plant-based foods) that have important nutrients and have been associated with positive health outcomes.
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