Carbohydrates are a loaded topic in the world of fitness and nutrition.
As an athlete, I have had a dietician urge me to maintain a high-carb meal plan, a doctor counsel me to switch back and forth, and a coach tell me to drastically cut carbs and enter ketosis, all in the same week.
We will always find those who swear by one method or another, but the truth of it is, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to nutrition.
Understanding the different nutritional options available, as well as the health benefits that go along with them, can make the way we choose to fuel ourselves seem a bit more clear.
Consider this a resource to further educate yourself about different options and to help you find your ideal style of nutrition, rather than just “another diet.”
How Carbohydrates Work
While we often hear about “good carbs” and “bad carbs,” these are more accurately depicted as simple, and complex carbs.
Simple carbohydrates refer to simple sugars commonly found in refined sugar, or fruits.
These are typically the “sweet” carbs.
Complex carbohydrates are commonly known as starches and are what we more frequently think of when we hear things like, “carb loading.”
What carbs do for us that is so important, is they provide those simple sugars that insulin then moves to the cells where the sugars can be converted into energy.
Because complex carbs must be broken down into simple sugars, this process takes longer, which is why complex carbs tend to leave us feeling full longer.
What a Low-Carb Diet Looks Like
When we hear “cutting carbs,” it is easy for our minds to gravitate towards the bread, pasta, and more starchy foods.
Sometimes we forget about the fruits, vegetables, and sugary foods that are also high in carbs.
Common foods containing natural sources of carbohydrates include:
-Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
Other foods high in sugar, such as soda, low-fat candy, and fruit smoothies, can have more carbs than even a bowl of pasta!
So, a low-carb diet does not just mean cutting out the bread in our meals, but it is switching to other food groups entirely.
Low-carb diets typically consist of foods high in protein and fat, as well as non-starchy vegetables.
Some common foods of low-carb diets include:
-Fish and seafood
Cutting Carbs for Weight Loss
It is easy to equate low carb diets with low-calorie diets. This is not always the case.
In simpler terms, there can be more energy in fats than carbs, if that’s what our body is using as an energy source.
While one benefit of higher protein and fat intake is feeling fuller longer, this is not the main reason for weight loss.
Essentially, the goal of low carb diets is to lower insulin levels so that the body burns fat for energy.
The more extreme version of this is to train the body to utilize fat as the primary energy source, rather than the glucose from carbohydrates. This is more commonly known as entering ketosis.
By doing this, the dramatic decrease in carb intake, along with the more constant burning of fat, can promote more immediate weight loss.
Research tends to show that low-carb diets often lead to greater short-term weight loss than most low-fat diets, while most studies conclude that after 12 or more months, the benefits of low-carb diets for weight loss are not all that large.
While low-carb diets can help with initial weight loss, there are many other benefits to overall health that research shows.
Unlike certain vitamins and minerals that the body requires in order to live, there are actually no essential carbohydrates.
Some benefits of low-carb diets include preventing or improving serious health conditions such as:
-High blood pressure
These benefits derive from most diets that help you lose weight, improving overall health, but have been found consistently in ketogenic dieters.
Low-Carb Diet Vs. Ketogenic Diet
This is an extremely important differentiation!
There is a substantial difference between a low-carb diet and entering into a ketogenic diet.
Low-carb diets where one is cutting out certain types of carbs, or just cutting back on carbs in general, do tend to help people lose weight, but only if done consistently.
Ketogenic diets on the other hand generally only include about 20 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per day and tend to be a lot more rigid than just cutting out a few carbs here and there.
To remain in ketosis, where the body is using fat as the main energy source rather than the glucose from carbohydrates, one cannot consume many more grams of carbs than this without moving out of ketosis.
Generally, it is recommended to choose either a ketogenic diet, or just find a normal carb intake, and not bouncing between the two.
This is primarily because your metabolism needs to change drastically when switching your body’s primary energy source from glucose to fats.
Once the body realizes it does not have enough carbohydrates to sustain energy and must switch to fats, the body begins to go through withdrawals.
It is not uncommon for people trying to get into ketosis, to experience fatigue, headaches, nausea, and other flu-like systems, commonly referred to as the “Keto Flu.”
After being in ketosis for longer periods, many people report having a clearer mind, more energy, and consuming fewer calories over time.
Due to this stark contrast, it is much easier on the body to either be in ketosis, or on a normal carb diet, rather than teetering on entering ketosis as one might when on a low carb diet.
So if you are looking to cut carbs, a ketogenic diet is generally a good route to take.
Should You Be Cutting Carbs?
While there will be those who insist that cutting carbs is the absolute best thing we can do, it is important to remember to listen to our bodies.
What may be a successful approach in one person’s life, may be detrimental to another’s.
So, as we each strive to create our own ideal diet and lifestyle, work hard to educate yourself about different options, and find motivation in taking care of yourself.
When we do this, every gram of carbs, fat, or protein, can nourish us a bit better and be more of a joy, rather than just “another diet.”