Should You Cut Carbs for Weight Loss? An In-Depth Look at the Evidence
Carbs have long been viewed as an enemy to weight loss, but if you know which carbs to eat, and how often to consume them, research has shown they can actually help you shed some pounds.
According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that was designed to examine the effects of a low-carbohydrate diet compared with a low-fat diet, after a year the 59 participants in the low-carb group had greater decreases in weight than those in the low-fat group. The low-carb dieters also had less fat mass but greater increases in HDL ("good") cholesterol than those on the low-fat diet. However, other studies, such as one conducted by Stanford researchers and published earlier this year, have found no discernable difference between low-fat diets and low-carb diets.
While it remains to be seen if one diet is actually healthier than the other, the health benefits associated with at least cutting back on carbs are indisputable. For starters, eating fewer carbs automatically reduces the number of calories you're consuming on a daily basis, which forces your body to burn fat stored around your midsection for energy, rather than the sugars it takes from carbs. Going easy on the carbs also cuts your risk for diabetes since simple carbs are made of simple sugars. A carb cutback may also flatten your belly since you are now filling your body with more protein, fat, and other nutrients. And that's just the beginning.
But since it's unrealistic (and unhealthy) to cut carbs out of your diet completely, we've put together a guide for how you can eat carbs and still lose weight. Keep reading for more info!
How many carbs should you eat a day?
If you're looking to whittle your middle, it's important to closely monitor the number of carbs you eat per day.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbs should make up 45-65 percent of your daily calorie intake, which is why the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases has identified a low-carb diet as one where less than 45 percent of your calories are carbs.
If you're consuming 2,000 calories a day and looking to try out a low-carb diet, that means you should be eating less than 225 grams of carbs daily, or roughly 45 grams of carbs per meal if you're eating three large meals and two snacks a day.
Jim White, RD, ASCM and owner of Jim White Fitness Nutrition Studios, takes it a step further and defines a low-carb diet as one that consists of less than 125 grams of carbs a day. Still, it's also important to remember that ideal carb intake can vary from person to person since factors such as age, gender, and level of physical activity all impact the number of carbs you should eat in order to promote weight loss.
While paying attention to the number of carbs you're consuming is crucial, White is also an advocate for taking note of how cutting back on carbs makes you feel. In other words, the goal is to hit a sweet spot of fuel that leaves you energetic, not sluggish. "A lot of people drop their carbs but also drop other macronutrients such as protein and fat," White explains to Eat This, Not That! "This can cause many deficiencies, slow down metabolism, and decrease energy levels impacting overall health."
What kinds of carbs should you eat to lose weight?
Even though a certain amount of carbs are permitted on a low-carb diet and can still be eaten if you want to lose weight, the kinds of carbs you eat matters almost as much as how many carbs you consume. Generally speaking, stick to complex carbs to shed pounds since they are better at keeping your blood sugar in check.
In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity that compared a diet rich in almonds to one packed with complex carbs, those in the almond-heavy group lost more weight than their complex carb crazy counterparts over a 24-week period, but the complex carb eaters still experienced a decrease in body weight beyond the weight loss observed during long-term pharmacological interventions.
Complex carbs are found in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, and are referred to as "dietary starches" that steadily release energy. These carbs are likely so successful as it relates to weight loss because many of them are also excellent sources of satiating fiber and/or protein. Specific examples of complex carbs include…
- Whole grain bread
In fact, whole grains are such a star that researchers at Tufts University discovered that those who ate three or more servings of whole grains per day had 10 percent less belly fat than those who ate the same amount of calories from refined, white carbs.
And what kinds of carbs should you avoid to lose weight?
If complex carbs (in moderation) are your weight loss allies than their less complicated counterparts are your enemies. Simple carbs, as they are called, (such as soda and white bread) can spike blood sugar and accelerate hunger pangs, meaning they are more associated with weight gain as opposed to weight loss.
To use carbs to your advantage (and to lose weight in the process) monitor your daily carb intake carefully, and favor complex carbs over the simple ones.
Why not give up all carbs?
Though giving up carbs entirely may seem like the ideal solution, they are your body's preferred source of energy. In other words, you need a certain amount of them to survive and thrive. Giving up carbs cold turkey means you'll also be missing out on other important nutrients such as belly-blasting fiber, and it also means you'll have less energy to engage in healthy activities such as exercise. If you've been following a low-carb diet, see if you're exhibiting any of these signs you're not eating enough carbs.
Even though low-carb diets can be associated with weight loss, no-carb diets can lead to weight gain. How exactly does that work, you ask? If there's an absence of carbs in your diet you'll likely fill the void by eating too much fat and protein. Both macronutrients, though beneficial to your overall health, still have calories. Fat, in particular, has 9 calories per gram, explains White, which is nearly double the 4 calories per gram of carbs and protein.
Last but certainly not least, a complete lack of carbs has an adverse and destabilizing effect on your blood sugar, which has been shown to lead to weight gain. When you eat food, your body breaks the digestible carbs down for energy, which causes your blood sugar levels to rise and your pancreas to produce insulin. However, when your blood sugar is low, the body begins to crave high-sugar junk foods in order to replenish its energy stores.
According to researchers in India, balancing your blood sugar may even prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes. To keep your blood sugar in check, try combining a complex carb with a protein and a little healthy fat. For more healthy snacks that will keep the weight off without denying you crucial carbs, take a look at this list of the best low carb snacks!