Carbs Don't Suck.
What they are; how they work; and why you shouldn't kick them out of your diet.
Ask almost anyone trying to drop a few pounds, and they'll say their plan of action is to “cut the carbs” or “no white stuff”. It becomes almost a cure-all solution.
With diets like the (still) popular Atkins and the (now) trendy Keto and all of the products to support them, it's no surprise. These diets work--that's why they're so popular. But I’m here to tell you the BIG secret about why those diets work and what they all have in common...are you ready?...it's groundbreaking...they restrict calories.
That’s literally it.
Here is a simple mantra to think about when breaking down your diet and goals -
Quantity of food = Weight (gain or lost)
Quality of food = Body composition (if quantity is held in check) **see GI foods below**
By adopting these diets, you're reducing overall calories by restricting major macronutrients: carbs, fat or protein. Long-term research shows little-to-no difference in efficacy between high- versus low-carb diets in sustained weight loss. Total calorie intake is the key factor.
In an earlier, two-part blog (part 1 here, part 2 here), I explored the the importance of protein and why you shouldn't start your weight loss journey with a protein-restricting diet. So that leaves us with cutting the carbs or the fat. Today, I'm going to be a champion for carbs...I love mashed potatoes and baked goods just as much as the next guy...so let's dig in.
What exactly is a Carb?
Carbohydrates or “Carbs” are essentially comprised of sugar, starch and/or fiber; they are broken down and converted to glucose, which is the body’s preferred source of energy, in digestion.
Carbohydrates assist with maintaining a productive digestive tract (fiber), provide healthy bacteria for the gut, and are loaded with vitamins and minerals including large doses of B vitamins (great for energy conversion) along with zinc, magnesium and iron. From an energy (or caloric) standpoint, carbs contain roughly 4 calories per gram; protein matches that rate and fats come in at 9 calories per gram. With all that said, it's hard to imagine why we would ever want to cut carbs--they sound awesome, right?
Well, the reason carbs are often the first "cut" in a diet is because not all carbs are created equal in terms of nutrition value. Many are low fiber and high sugar; and these tend to be the most popular. So it's critical to use the GI (Glycemic Index) when considering carbs. Created in 1981 by Dr. David Jenkins to measure how fast a carbohydrate is absorbed, resulting in the rise of blood sugar. The higher the reading, the quicker the absorbency. Low GI foods are known as “whole” or “complete” carbohydrates while High GI foods are referred to as “refined”, “simple” or “bad” carbs.
Here are some examples of Low GI carbs :
Potatoes (regular or sweet)
Whole Grains (quinoa, bulger, buckwheat, rice, including whole wheat breads and pastas)
veggies (broccoli, lettuce, peas, etc)
Examples of High GI carbs include:
Donuts, cakes and cookies
**hint...usually the more raw and whole the food, it tends to be lower on the GI rating...**
Why Carbs Belong in Your Diet
Look, dropping the carbs for a week or two will result in an initial weight drop, but cutting carbs will cost you. We need carbohydrates to function at an optimal level.
The amount needed varies based on age, gender, physical activity level, and medical conditions. Let's talk quickly about the physical activity piece for a minute. In order to lose weight, an increase in physical activity is needed to create a caloric deficit.
As you progress--becoming more "fit"--the harder the workout must become, requiring more and more energy to push the new work capacities. When exercising harder while also restricting carbs, you'll experience decreased testosterone (which is key in aiding muscle growth and support), thyroid function (metabolism “regulator”), muscle catabolisim, and increased cortisol output (these last two are not preferred for body composition improvement). All of which are not ideal for creating an environment for keeping lean mass while dropping body weight.
Think "Lean and Mean" vs. "Skinny Fat"...Which do you prefer?
Plus, the brain fog and overall moodiness side effects of a low-carb intake makes you someone NOBODY wants to be around. Basically, for most of us to feel and preform at an optimal level, we need carbs. It's simple. If after reading all of this you still want to cut the carbs, you can. Just focus on cutting out the higher GI carbs. How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Carbs
Your first step would be to start logging your food consumption. Every bit you take.
How many grams of carbs are you eating each day? If you're eating more than 2-3grams per pound of body weight per day, it's safe to say you could benefit from cutting back a bit.
With that said, if you're consistently eating that many carbs, then any sort of carb cut will result in a quick, visible change. But will that last? What happens when you start adding those carbs back into your diet?
The key is to start small.
Substitute lean protein for your normal carby foods; or for an even easier transition, pick out a Low GI carb from the lislt above. Also, keep in mind the importance of portion size. You should only eat as many carbs as the size of your fist/palm. This should be plenty to work with. Additionally, eat your higher carb meals around your workout. This is when they will be best utilized for fuel and recovery. You'll want to gradually decrease your caloric intake over time as your body adjusts.
It's not going to be an easy transition, and it's not for everyone. For many, carbs are a part of life and critical both socially and culturally.
So before you make the choice to completely overhaul your diet and “cut the carbs”, take a closer look and be real with yourself whether it's something you can keep up for a long period of time? If the answer is no, then I suggest finding an alternate path for sustained weight loss and most importantly, maintenance.
In the mean time, Could you pass the bread, please?
Brinkworth GD, et al. Long-term Effects of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood and Cognitive Function. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(20):1873-1880