Carbs are complicated. Some swear by keto to drop pounds. Others don’t cut any carbs at all and focus on clean eating instead. The conversation around carbs is confusing, to say the least. If your goal is to lose weight, sculpt a stronger body, or increase your vitality, is it necessary to cut carbs? And how can you leverage them to reach your personal health goals?
Today, I, a Registered Dietitian will settle the score on carbs for good, and help you understand whether cutting or embracing carbs is best for weight loss.
Carbs are a macronutrient (one of the three main sources by which the body obtains energy). Carbs are made up of three components—fiber, starch, and sugar—and can either be simple or complex.
Simple carbs are the ones that are simple for our bodies to break down and are found in foods like table sugar and syrups. Complex carbs have higher fiber, contain more nutrients, and take longer for our bodies to digest. They’re found in foods like beans, oats, quinoa, barley, and sweet potatoes.
While some types of simple carbs can cause health problems (like obesity, heart disease, liver disease, and depression) healthy carbs (like veggies, fruits, and beans) can reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Healthy carbs are essential to keeping your body on track and functioning properly. Without any carbs, our bodies wouldn’t receive the fiber it needs for long-term health. Complex carbohydrates are also an important source of critical nutrients, like calcium, iron, and B vitamins.
Since carbs are found in such a diverse array of foods (some very healthy and some extremely unhealthy), claims about carbs as a whole tend to be off the mark. Eating carbs in excess (if you eat more than your body needs) or regularly eating unhealthy carbs (like refined flour, sugar, and soda) can cause weight gain.
The truth is, we need carbs in order to lose weight. Fiber, for example, is one type of carbohydrate that’s critical for weight loss. In addition to weight control, fiber helps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
If you’re eating the right amount of healthy carbs (like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and chickpeas) you’ll actually experience more energy, better digestion, and easier long-term control over your weight.
The typical American eats more than 250 grams of carbs per day. That’s about 50 grams too many. A typical healthy diet will consist of 45-60% carbs depending on the individual’s energy needs and health goals (45% is my personal sweet spot).
But, here’s the real kicker. Most of those 250 grams of carbs Americans eat daily are the simple kind (from food like white bread, added sugar, snacks, and pasta).
So, not only are we eating too many carbs in the first place, we’re also eating way too many simple carbs. As a result, cutting carbs can help most people lose weight because they’re starting out with extremely imbalanced macronutrients for overall health and weight maintenance.
Cutting your carb intake to near nothing would be very difficult and potentially dangerous. Even the top promoters of the keto diet don’t think limiting carbs is sustainable.
“I don’t recommend people follow strict ketogenic diets for their life,” says Dr. Axe. “I recommend 30 to 90-day periods, and after that moving into more of a ‘cycling’ phase, where you can cycle in and out of keto.”
The key to long-term health and fitness is finding the right carbs, not avoiding them altogether. While low-carb diets might bring quick results, they’re a bad decision for long-term weight and health maintenance.
While carb cycling, you’ll intentionally alternate your carb intake throughout the week. This method gives your body limited breaks from carbs, allowing your body to burn fat as fuel and increase weight loss without damaging your overall health or limiting the nutrition you need to thrive.
During higher carb days, you allow your body to refuel its muscle glycogen stores (Bonus! This will improve your workout performance!). On lower-carb days, you’ll allow your body to switch back to burning fat as its main source of energy instead of carbs.
If you plan on completing a heavy workout session on Monday and Tuesday, you could eat low carbs on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, moderate carbs on Fridays and Saturdays, and high carbs on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Here are a few reasons you’ll love carb-cycling:
Once you learn more about carb-cycling, it’s the no-brainer solution to our carb conundrum. Hop over to my article on it and check out the menu examples I provide to start carb-cycling this week!
If you’re in the carb-cut club, you may be thinking about carbs the wrong way. Carbs are an essential macronutrient, meaning that we need carbs to perform at our best. In fact, specific organs, like your brain, need glucose (from carbs) in order to function properly!
Carbs take a lot of crap, but they’re critical for healthy weight loss and your long-term health. Low-carb diets can be helpful in the short term to lose weight, improve blood sugar levels, and lower blood pressure. However, continuous and extreme carb restriction in the long term has been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other complications.
So give carbs a little credit. Healthy carb-heavy foods are our friends. Try carb-cycling to leverage carbs the right way and lose weight too.