- Kenyans seeking leaner physiques, ways to reduce their appetites and to ward off lifestyle diseases are turning to no carbs diets.
- Do you have to stop eating ugali, chapati and rice to lose weight? Experts weigh in.
From counting calories, doing blood tests to determine which foods best work with someone’s body, drinking juiced vegetables to getting rid of carbohydrates, diet trends are evolving daily.
And Kenyans seeking leaner physiques, ways to reduce their appetites and to ward off lifestyle diseases are turning to them.
But is tracking calories in carbohydrates or stopping to eat ugali, bread or chapati worthwhile?
Nduku Jones, a mother-of-two, is among the many Kenyans who are trying the no-carbs challenge. For her, she says, it was to tame her “crazy appetite.” “I love eating good food,” says the 37-year-old.
While scrolling through TikTok, she came across the 75-day hard challenge, a fitness and nutritional challenge created by Andy Frisella, an American, who owns a supplement company. She joined the strict diet. Among the rules were avoiding certain foods, working out twice daily and drinking a gallon of water daily for 75 days straight. If you missed following one rule, you would forfeit the days and start all over again.
“The challenge was just what I needed to look like the woman I want to be,” she says.
Her ideal woman at 60 and 70 years old, is healthy and aging gracefully.
For the challenge, Nduku adopted a no-wheat diet to reduce her carbohydrate intake. She stopped eating foods made from wheat — no bread, pasta, pizza, cake and her favourite, chapatis.
When people are thinking about weight loss, the first food item that is taken off the plate is carbohydrates and with good reason. For a long time, low-fat diets have been fronted as the best way to deal with excess weight.
However, health studies now suggest that diets high in sugar promote the development of obesity. But where does this excess sugar come from? Excess carbohydrates, experts say.
The obsession with carbs as a culprit has led to the development in technologies that are allowing real-time monitoring of sugar levels. The drive behind such innovations is not just for people to look good but to help them realise in real-time the impact of their lifestyles on their bodies.
Dr Daniel Katambo, the founder of Klinic Reversa, in Nairobi, and a physician says every day, he sits across people who narrate to him how their efforts to lose weight have left them with eggs on their faces.
When he encourages his patients to reduce their carbohydrate intake, he is met with questioning eyes asking, ‘without carbs, where will I get energy from?’
So why do these diets fail?
“There are two reasons why diets fail. One is because people don’t have the correct information. Carbohydrates are a source of energy but they are not the body’s only source of energy,” Dr Katambo explains.
“Our bodies can derive energy from both healthy fats and proteins,” he says.
Dr Gitahi Theuri, a human physiologist at Human Performance Laboratory at Kenyatta University, adds that carbs are metabolised to glucose which produces energy.
For an athlete, he or she needs this. For the non-athlete, repeated exposure to large quantities of carbs leads to an excess glucose supply, leading to metabolic disorders like Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Besides not being the only source of energy, carbs are also not the best source of energy.
“The average Kenyan vividly recalls being taught that carbs give us energy. That is true. But we seem to have extrapolated this to mean that they are the only source of energy, therefore deprivation of this is seen as a recipe for low energy or no energy, which is not the case. Carbs are not a physiological need. Abstaining from them will not impair function nor cause a disease or disorder,” he says.
Expensive fuel for the body
This has been the thinking of many Kenyans who do not want to lack energy hence filling their plates with rice or ugali or potatoes.
Carbohydrates, Dr Theuri adds, are an expensive source of fuel for the body. Using the analogy of oil exploration, he explains that there are places where after investing a lot of resources, we find only a little oil. That is carbohydrates for us. The body wastes a lot of resources trying to metabolise carbs yet the output is very low.
“From one molecule of glucose from carbs we get 38 ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and it costs 15 enzymes. From one molecule of glucose from fat, we derive 146 ATP at a cost of five enzymes. This just demonstrates that carbs are neither the only source nor the richest source of energy,” Dr Theuri explains.
The second reason why diets fail is that people get their information from Dr Google, social media and quacks.
“A visit to an untrained person will lead to disappointing results because they’ll put you on a diet you don’t like. This will prove unsustainable. Weight loss and maintenance requires a lifestyle change and you can’t assimilate a lifestyle change you dislike,” Dr Katambo says.
But is a low carb diet advisable for weight loss, and is it sustainable? To understand the concept of the low-carb diet, we must first understand what carbohydrates are and their functions.
Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. When consumed, the body breaks it down to glucose, which the body uses for its daily activities. Rising levels of glucose in the body prompt the production of insulin which converts excess glucose to glycogen and then further to fat for storage.
When the body needs a quick boost of energy and you are not eating, it begins to burn stored energy starting with glycogen. Once the glycogen stock is exhausted, it begins to burn the stored fat.
The goal of weight loss is to burn excess stored fat for fuel. As long the insulin levels in the body are high, the storage signal of insulin prevents the body from using the stored fat as energy. This is what makes a low-carb diet, one where consumption of carbs is less than 100-130 grammes per day, effective. It can be as low as 30-40 grammes in a keto diet.
“Decreasing carbohydrates in the diet leads to lower insulin levels causing the body burning stored fat for energy which leads to weight loss,” Dr Katambo explains.
Such a diet requires lowering intake of carbohydrates such as grains, fruit, milk, nuts, seeds, legumes such as beans, lentils, peas among others.
It worked for Nduku too during the 75-day challenge. Weighing 83.7 kilos when she started on June 26, 2021, when it was done and dusted on September 9, 2021, she was lighter by eight kilos.
Once the body begins burning fat, it goes into ketosis.
“This is a state where there is a high concentration of ketones in the blood on account of the body metabolising fat for energy in the absence of carbs,” says Dr Theuri.
It is important to note that a low-carb diet must be combined with increased consumption of healthy fats, proteins and vegetables. Healthy fats can be found in avocados, olives, coconuts and some nuts.
A diet devoid of proteins and fat is disastrous because there are some macronutrients the body cannot produce by itself and gets them from proteins and vegetables.
For example, a low carb diet breakfast can contain mixed vegetables, avocado, two eggs and tea. A lunch plate can carry steak or chicken and lots of vegetables and water and for dinner chicken salad with some olive oil.
The good thing with eating more proteins, research shows, help speed up metabolism and keep you feeling full longer, reducing your desire to eat big portions of rice or ugali.
Higher protein intakes also help main muscle mass as one reduces weight.
At the beginning of such a lifestyle, one should expect carb flu (carbs withdrawal symptoms) that include headaches, tiredness for up to six weeks, muscle cramps, flatters, constipation and bloating. This can be softened by increasing vegetable and water intake and resting until your body acclimatises.
Life with fewer carbs and calories is possible because it does not affect fertility or breastfeeding, a common myth.
With obesity being a weighty issue in healthcare professionals’ minds, can tracking our carbs improve our health in the long run?
“Most importantly, one must define why they want to lose weight. Is it to fit in a dress? Reverse diabetes? Lose weight once and for all? With a properly crafted why, then your health care provider will able to design for you a strategy that works,” Dr Katambo says.
Dr Theuri cautions that excess fat weight or obesity is not caused exclusively by consumption of excess carbohydrates. It can also be due to some underlying conditions like menopause, thyroid or pituitary disorders among others.
Working with a health care provider cannot be understated.
“Why not rule out all the possible causes of your excess weight, zero in all the different moving parts with the assistance of your primary healthcare provider and then draw up a sustainable strategy,” he says.