So you want to lose weight. You hear from a friend — or a website, or a magazine, or an Instagram influencer — that the quickest way to do that is to eat fewer carbs.
Fired up, you charge into your kitchen, banishing everything sugary, bready, starchy, or grainy to the trash. You even deep-six every apple, banana, and berry you can find, because yes, fruits have carbs, too. From now on, it’s low-carb leafy greens and chicken breasts, all day, every day.
Two days later, though, reality hits. Mealtimes aren’t fun. Your stomach hurts. You’d rather skip a meal than face another giant bowl of greens and chicken. You’re lethargic, grouchy — and hungry as hell.
What’s going on?
You fell into the biggest dieting trap of them all: going the all-or-nothing route.
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Should You Follow a Low-Carb Diet?
Low-carb diets are definitely having their time in the spotlight. And in very specific circumstances — like if you need to look lean for a photoshoot, a wedding, or some other one-day event — you may have some success with an extreme diet, such as low-carb, low-calorie, or some other approach.
But these restrictive diets are never sustainable — nor are they meant to be. “It’s silly to say ‘I’m never going to have another piece of chocolate candy,'” says Denis Faye, M.S., Openfit’s executive director of nutrition. “That’s not realistic.” Not to mention not fun.
And despite what you may have read or heard, no single food or nutrient is responsible for weight loss or weight gain. “There are no magical macronutrients,” says Faye — and there aren’t evil ones, either.
Ultimately, it’s much more effective to take a longer-term, more moderate approach to your diet than to blame all your dietary woes on a single food group — especially one as essential to our health, survival, and well-being as carbohydrates.
What Does Low-Carb Mean, Anyway?
Though there’s no consensus definition for “low-carb,” most low-carb diets limit daily carb intake to 50 to 150 grams per day. In extreme cases like the ketogenic diet, you may be allotted as few as 30 grams per day.
For reference, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbs make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calorie intake. For people on a 2,000-calorie diet, that works out to about 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates per day. What does that look like as food? You can enjoy four slices of wheat bread, one cup of pasta, one cup of brown rice, a medium banana, a cup of mashed potatoes, one ear of corn, and a hamburger bun, all for about 260 grams of carbs!
The Pros and Cons of Cutting Carbs
Whatever carb recommendation you follow, carbohydrates are important for basic health. So what happens when you limit carbs? And why do carb-cutters often experience issues with focusing, mood swings, and other struggles? Here’s a look at the upsides and downfalls of low-carb diets.
Pros of cutting carbs
In the short-term, you probably will lose weight on a low-carb diet — perhaps more than you might on other types of diet. Studies have found that low-carb diets may cause more weight loss than low-fat diets. However, this is mostly a short-term deal. Other reviews have found there was no statistical difference in the amount of weight lost after 12 months between low-carb and low-calorie diets.
So if you’re looking to drop weight for a short amount of time, low-carb eating may get you there. But you’ll probably pay a price for those lost pounds…
Cons of cutting carbs
Excessive carbohydrate and caloric restriction can lead to grouchiness, brain fog, and an increase in stress hormones, says Faye — especially when you walk by your local pizza joint. But carb-cutting can have a number of uniquely undesirable side effects — some physiological, some psychological.
Eating lots of sugar can increase serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that regulates mood and appetite. “Serotonin is connected to addiction,” says Faye. If you cut your sugar intake to zero you may suffer withdrawal — resulting in still more cravings, and more moodiness.
As for the psychological effects, many of us are brought up associating processed and high-sugar carbohydrates like ice cream, pizza, and cake with celebrations and other positive memories. As a result, these foods can have a powerful emotional hold on us as well. For those people, cutting out “treat” foods completely can feel like a serious loss.
So you may be a few pounds lighter if you go seriously low-carb — but there’s a good chance you’ll also be grouchy, hungry, and depressed. That may be tolerable in the short term, but in the long term? Not so much.
How to Cut Carbs Sensibly
Start by cutting back on obvious junk. If you’re trying to lose weight, calorie-dense, high-sugar treats — desserts, sugary snacks, or regular sodas and soft drinks — are the first things you should cut back on.
But don’t panic: You don’t have to cut these foods out entirely. “Most people should be able to eat about three ‘treats’ per week,” Faye says.
Recalling his own successful weight-loss efforts decades ago, Faye adds, “I used to eat super clean all week, then at the end of the week, I’d have cookie Friday. It was awesome.” So go ahead and indulge now and then — and then go back to eating sensibly.
As for starchy forms of carbs — pasta, bread, potatoes and the like — Faye considers them “yellow light” foods: nutritious, but easy to overeat.
If you’re concerned about carbs in fruits and vegetables… don’t be. Unless you have a 12-banana-a-day habit, you don’t need to worry about limiting these nutritionally dense foods.
With this approach, you’ll comfortably hit the 130-gram per day minimum for carbs without overdoing it — and you won’t have to worry about losing your mind.