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Laura Dolson

What Should We Call Ourselves?

By February 24, 2013

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low-carb From time to time someone will mention that the term "low-carb diet" may not be the best description of how we eat. For one thing, "low-carb" has never been defined, so it means different things to different authors, researchers, and eaters. This obviously leads to a lot of confusion. Among popular diet books, some may not want to embrace the label -- Arthur Agatston, the author of the South Beach Diet, insists that his diet is "not a low-carb diet", which is an easy claim to make when no one is really sure what a low-carb diet is! I have seen studies with "low-carb" groups eating everything from less than 20 grams of carbohydrate per day up to 40% of calories from carbohydrate -- surely the South Beach Diet is in there somewhere. One of my pet peeves is the difficulty in comparing studies when they all define "low-carb" differently! (See: How to Read Diet Research)

Part of the problem in figuring all this out is that different people can tolerate different amounts of carbohydrate. Atkins called this "metabolic resistance" -- it also has been called "carb sensitivity" and "carb tolerance". A relatively mild reduction of carbohydrate can do wonders for one person, and not much for another. Many people find that cutting back on sugar is very helpful. Others may find that doesn't do enough, but that staying away from grains and sugars is life-changing. There simply is no one formula. That's why diets like Atkins and South Beach are structured to help individuals find out what works for them.

Is there a phrase that can really encompass all of this? Frankly, I have trouble thinking of one. Some (Jackie Eberstein; Regina Wilshire) have proposed "controlled carb". My husband suggested "carbohydrate optimization". "Carbohydrate reduction" means eating less carb than you did before -- not very definitive, but general enough to encompass a wide range of diet modification. "Carbohydrate restriction", which some physicians favor, means limiting yourself to a certain amount of carbohydrate, which could vary according to the person.

Addition 2/25: Thanks to Dr. Steve Parker, who reminded me in the comment section of the recommendation by experts 5 years ago in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism to have the following categories:
  • 26%-45% of calories as carbohydrate: moderate carbohydrate diet
  • Below 26% of calories, or below 130 grams of calories per day: low-carb diet
  • Less than 30 grams of carbohydrate per day: very low-carb ketogenic diet
What do you think? Do you like or dislike the low-carb label? Can you think of anything better? Does it matter?

Image © Karen Struthers

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February 25, 2013 at 1:39 am
(1) Steve Parker, M.D. says:

Prominent low-carb researchers suggested low-carb diet definititions in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism in 2008. I vote for their concept. Debate over as far as I’m concerned.


Reference: http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/5/1/9

February 25, 2013 at 11:49 am
(2) lowcarbdiets says:

That is a great point, Steve! I will add that into the blog post.

February 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm
(3) Lorena says:

I think low-carb is an appropriate label, and I don’t really care if the term has fallen out of favor. Low-carbing has saved my life, and many thousands of others. To heck with what is fashionable, and shame on Agastson; because of him my best friend is convinced that being on South Beach is not similar what I do, so she is not open to my sharing my 10 years of experience with low-carbing and how to make it a lifestyle.

February 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm
(4) LeftyLucy says:

Carbohydrate Contained.

February 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm
(5) Kathie says:

Low-carb is perfectly fine. It tells it like it is; no euphemisms or fancy names. For me it will ALWAYS be “low-carb”.What’s the problem with those who don’t like it?

February 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm
(6) Goldiegal says:

If I am asked, I say I limit my carbs. Low carb is also fine with me. I won’t argue about it with anyone; I just wish them well with their food choices and ask that they wish me well with mine.

February 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm
(7) Pat says:

I find the term Paleo is pretty well understood these days, if not 100% low carb compliant, and I sometimes I say that vs. low carb. You don’t have to be gluten intolerant to be sensitive to its effects. There are a myriad of reasons not to eat starch – avoiding diabetes for one and just plain feeling better eating non-processed foods.

February 25, 2013 at 2:48 pm
(8) Lisa says:

I tend to tell people I am on a ketogenic diet.
If pestered, I tell them it helps to end my horrific migraines, in the same way it has been shown to stop intractable cases of epilepsy. Usually this stops them asking anything else. The word ketogenic sounds clinical, which it is. This is the truth, one reason i started was to stop the migraines.
I could say low-carb or Atkins, but I consider that too much information-
1. they know I am looking to lose weight, which is none of their business.
2. they usually jump in with how unhealthy it is. then I get mad at them.

February 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm
(9) Lisa says:

I have also used “whole foods” or “clean eating” or “natural eating”. All of these apply. I eat meats and vegetables, avoid processed (carb filled) food.

February 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm
(10) exotec says:

I think the term “low-carb” conjures up all sorts of demons for the general public.

A possibly less inflammatory label might be *restricted* carb. This is accurate for whatever level of carb intake your plan encompasses, and doesn’t attract all the warnings from well-meaning friends, family, or nutritionists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede to the suggested categories. Labels aren’t going to change the way I eat! LOL

February 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm
(11) Gail says:

I am 5’8” and 130lbs since I’ve been on the low-carb live-it (not diet). People ask me about why I’m on a low-carb diet and I say because I’ve never felt better in my life! I have lots of energy and have little or no intestinal distress. I always make Laura’s goodies to take to pot lucks and everyone loves them!

February 25, 2013 at 5:36 pm
(12) Elenspiegel says:

I started on Atkins way, way back, when it first ‘caught on’ with a significant number of people.
There was MUCH more stigma, back then.

The reactions to saying, ‘I’m on the Atkins Diet were so (negatively and ridiculously) extreme, I learned to say ‘I’m just avoiding sugars and starches.’

Voila!!! LOL!!!! That was accepted as a perfectly healthy way to go and no one got apoplectic over my dietary habits!!

It may seem quicker to just give the diet a one or two-word name — but not when you take into account the ‘debate’ that often follows using it!!!

February 25, 2013 at 7:26 pm
(13) Brigitte says:

I am Low Carb Paleo… I am at nearly 50% weight loss and nobody ever asks what I have done. I believe the reason (these days) that no one asks is that they assume you’ve had a gastric bypass. In 5 years only about 4 people have inquired how I lost weight so the opportunity or requirement to define my diet is just not an issue.

February 25, 2013 at 7:56 pm
(14) RigelDog says:

I don’t have a catchy label for it, but I have found that the most effective, least confusing/controversial way to describe how I eat is to say that I limit starch and sugar. I haven’t had one person say that sounds dangerous, although many will comment that it must be difficult to follow.

February 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm
(15) Marie-France says:

I usually explain that some people on a ‘diet’ choose to give up fat and eat more carbs. On the other hand, I much prefer to give up bagels, bread, pasta and potatoes so that I can continue to eat eggs, butter, steak. It’s actually not a diet but a permanent way of eating, I feel better, I am not constantly hungry, among other benefits!

I like ketogenic but this requires too many explanations. I don’t mind low-carb (it’s easy to say and gives the gist of the concept). There is a difference between defining the concepts for research purposes and using a term in everyday interactions (although I think 130 g of CHO/day is still alot!!)

I like Dr. Parker’s suggestion to use the definitions described in the 2008 article in Nutrition & Metabolism for a standardized scientific categorization.

February 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm
(16) Joan says:

I say this all the time:

“No thanks I am counting carbs” or

“I count carbs”

No one has ever asked how many do you get a day so that has always been enough. Although one morbidly obese woman sitting next to me at a party eating a chocolate cookie the size of a dinner plate said to me (when I told her I would not eat a cookie because I was counting carbs) “Oh really, how do you get your fiber?” in a real snarky way…

February 26, 2013 at 12:16 am
(17) John says:

My FIL was diagnosed in Oct with Type II diabetes. I do the cooking in my household. I put him on a low-no carb diet after researching how to get his blood sugar under control, and serving Atkins induction. I started eating that way too.

It worked for

I’ve lost 45 pounds in 5 months. Lots of people have noticed the weight loss, and compliment me on it. I give all credit to Atkins in response to them. If it worked for me it may work for others needing this help. I have no hesitation giving credit where it’s due.

February 26, 2013 at 2:19 am
(18) Spikeygrrl says:

What does it matter to us what other people think of how we describe ourselves? When people comment on my weight loss and ask me how I did it, I simply reply “I’m on a medically-supervised diet.” (It IS medically supervised, of course…by the fond memory ghost of Dr. Atkins :) ).

Anyone who presses me further has usually got an obvious reason to do so: either they’re visibly overweight themselves, or they volunteer some information in return, such as “I have diabetes in my family” or “I’m gluten intolerant.” To THEM I describe what I do as “ultra-low-carb” because I have NEVER been able to increase my carbs past Induction level (20g/day). I’ve been doing that for six entire years, lost 125 lbs in the first two years and with only a few small short-term setbacks have kept it off ever since. While folks without any medical problems might be shocked at such a “radical” eating regimen, folks who do have medical issues of their own are highly unlikely to socrn either the diet OR the label.

So let’s just all relax about this. “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words should never hurt us.” Our own better health and improved appearance are their own rewards!

February 26, 2013 at 7:26 am
(19) Tiina says:

I like carb controlled…as in I control both the quantity and sources that I allow in my diet.

February 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm
(20) Woubbie says:

Low crap also says it well. :)

February 28, 2013 at 1:32 am
(21) crystalspin says:

I use “evidence-based low-carb” or “scientific carb-restricted” — but the good doctor’s point is now well-taken!

March 3, 2013 at 12:03 am
(22) Brenda says:

I just say low-carb, it’s simple and it clarifies that at least for me, it’s about the carb and not any other requirement. I’m not very strict; probably about a third of my daily calories are carb, hopefully not processed ones. But this is enough, with medication, to keep my type two diabetes in the okay range.

I probably would have had much better health now if I had dared to low-carb back when it was a new and controversial idea, but before I had transitioned from reactive hypoglycemia to diabetes. Now, I don’t personally know anyone who finds low-carb controversial at all. A number of my health conscious friends are also careful of their carbs.

March 3, 2013 at 9:46 am
(23) Jimmy Moore says:
March 15, 2013 at 1:55 am
(24) Greg Taunt says:

How about “Carb Conscious?” Simply meaning that we pay attention to the carbs in what we eat?

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