It’s the question every gal with a weight loss goal wants to know: am I still allowed to eat carbs? (At least, that’s what I always wanted to know.)
The short answer? A resounding YES! Although research has shown that a low carb diet can help weight loss, for the vast majority of the population they don’t work long term. The best diet for long term weight loss is one that feels sustainable, which usually means it doesn’t restrict food groups.
What are carbohydrates & why does my body need them?
Think of carbohydrates like the fuel for your gas tank. They give us energy!
(I mean, technically speaking a carbohydrate is a biomolecule made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen which ... but anyway, we won’t go into it today.)
Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are a “macronutrient”.
I guess you could say it’s like a “bulk” food group comprising a LOT of different foods that contain certain beneficial nutrients.
You need a good balance of all three micronutrients – carbs, fat, and protein – for optimum health.
This is because trying to focus on eating All the Things to eat a balanced diet would be a hard gig. If we take a capsicum, for example – it contains vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, and vitamin E.
These vitamins are known as “micronutrients” – any kind of individual nutrient that the body needs in smaller amounts.
If we just focused on trying to eat enough of these micronutrients in all their forms, it’d be a full time job.
Macronutrients tend to look at the “overall big picture” of the food, and these are the foods we need in large amounts to stay healthy.
If you focus on simply getting enough carbohydrates, fats, and protein, it’s likely you’ll be consuming enough of the right foods to keep your body healthy.
This is because a focus on eating enough of each macronutrient (in a whole food form) will typically ensure that you’re getting enough of those micronutrients as a byproduct anyway.
Carbohydrates can be divided into two categories: complex carbs and simple carbs.
Complex carbs are found in things like vegetables and wholegrains. They’re digested slowly, so they won’t cause a rapid spike in blood sugar (which we’ll talk more about in a sec).
Because they’re digested slowly, you’ll feel fuller for longer after eating them.
Complex carbs are also full of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Fibre in particular is important for gut health and just your overall health in general. It keeps your poo regular and lowers your risk of preventable disease.
Simple carbs are found in fruits, table sugar, honey, fruit juice, and sweets. These are absorbed quickly into the blood stream, which causes your blood sugar to spike rapidly.
This is great if you need a quick hit of energy – my husband takes a bag of jelly snakes on an endurance dirtbike ride.
This is why no food is bad! Every food has a purpose!
BUUUUT too many simple carbs in your diet, which cause those dramatic spikes in blood sugar, over a period of time increase your risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other preventable illnesses.
So it’s good to focus on eating those wholegrain/vegetable based carb varieties more often than simple carbs.
Carbohydrates, when broken down into glycogen, are the body’s most readily available source of fuel.
Your body is well aware of this fact so it always has plenty of glycogen to hand. In fact, it can store up to 2000 calories’ worth of glycogen in the liver and muscles if it doesn’t immediately need all those carbs for energy.
However, once it maxes out those stores, your body just starts storing excess carbs as fat.
BUT if you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will start burning protein for fuel instead.
And this is no bueno, because you DON’T want all that precious protein to be used for energy. You need it for making big strong muscles!
This is why it’s important, especially if you have any gains goals, to NOT skimp out on carbs in your diet.
But also (more importantly) relying on protein as a fuel source puts just a LOT of strain on your kidneys and you ... you really need your kidneys, so burning them out ain’t such a great idea.
Carbs are also important for brain function and mood (which is why you feel like such a steaming hot mess on a low carb diet).
If you have any sort of weight loss, health or fitness goal, make sure the majority of your carb sources are complex carbs, so you have plenty of energy throughout the day, feel full & satiated, get plenty of fibre and keep your blood sugar stable.
These benefits won’t just help with weight loss, but your body will feel much healthier overall!
The origins of the “low carb diet”
Once upon a time in Diet Land, everybody blamed dietary fat as the reason for obesity and chronic disease.
Everyone was obsessed with eating low fat foods, which understandably tasted terrible and flavourless, so food companies started pumping them full of sugar to make them taste better.
So people were buying “low fat this” and “skim that” and “97% fat free” but girths were still increasing, people were still keeling over from heart attacks, legs were going green from diabetes, and then even childhood obesity became a thing.
Then people learned that too much sugar was the culprit, and suddenly everyone was walking around trembling with terror at the thought of accidentally eating a potato, people started loading up on bacon and eggs and butter and ... just everybody became really, really confused.
Okay, so let’s step back into reality for a second. Low carb diets have been a thing as far back as776 BC when Olympic athletes consumed high protein low carb diets. Since then, it’s drifted in and out of vogue, with diets like:
The ketogenic diet: This diet began in 1921 to treat children’s epilepsy.
The cabbage soup diet: A 1950s diet which required you to eat nothing but cabbage soup for seven days. Pee-yew!
The drinking man’s diet: A diet which restricted carbs to 60 g a day, had you eating high amounts of protein and required drinking alcohol every day. (I mean, I just can’t with Diet Culture sometimes.)
Atkins Diet: This is what most people think of when they think ‘low carb’. This diet began in the 1970s and restricted carbs to less than 5 g a day.
The South Beach Diet: Another low carb diet I’ve tried in the past. This one has you drastically cutting carbs for a period of time, then gradually reintroducing them.
So cutting your carbs isn’t a new fad at all! It’s been around for centuries.
But listen, just because something’s been done for centuries, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Why a low carb diet may not be right for you if you’re trying to lose weight
There are DEFINITELY studies which show that low carb diets can be effective for weight loss. BUUUT if you look at the results over a LONG period of time, they’re not more effective than any other method.
A high fibre diet, on the other hand, has been shown time and again to be effective for weight loss.
It’s also just better for you. Low fibre diets are strongly scientifically linked to bowel cancer – I mean, no thanks.
Plus, carbs are EVERYWHERE. They’re even in spinach!
Restricting SO many different food groups just so you don’t eat carbs will only deplete you of important vitamins and minerals your body needs to stay healthy.
And you’ll feel terrible. Trust me.
Without that fibre and bulk in your diet from carbs (they’re just so filling), you’re going to have a hard time feeling full and satisfied.
As someone who’s tried low carb diets LOTS of times in the past (convinced the problem was just me and my willpower), low carb diets give you brain fog, deplete your concentration, make you cranky, and you’ll always feel like you’re just about to come down with the flu.
(This is actually known as keto flu and it’s a real thing.)
As your body starts scraping the bottom of the barrel for glycogen stores, guess where it turns next?
Protein, which is found in your muscle.
Guess what your body has to do to get to that protein?
Yup, it has to break that muscle down.
That’s literally the opposite result you’re going for if you want sustainable weight loss (which I’m guessing you do), because you want to be avoiding losing muscle at all costs.
Also, without glycogen (your body’s primary source of fuel), your workouts (and just having the energy to get through your day) will become a LOT harder, making you want to move around a lot less.
(Which is also something you kind of have to do more of if you want to lose weight.)
And finally, there’s the sustainability factor.
Look, when it comes to getting healthy and fit and/or losing weight, the aim of the game is to choose a method that’s going to be sustainable long term.
The reason for this is that temporary solutions typically cause temporary results.
And I’m guessing you want this to be a more permanent lifestyle change, right?
Cutting carbs in the short term might be doable, but long term? Trust me, it’s REALLY tough.
Like, borderline not feasible for most people long term.
Eating out and socialising can make you feel deprived, or guilty if you splurge, and it can mess up your relationship with food long term.
Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve spent the better part of adulthood terrified of carbs and it is just not worth it.
How much carbs should I eat if I’m trying to lose weight?
So hopefully I’ve convinced you to keep carbs around and not ditch them ... but how much of them do you need?
The answer varies.
The Institute of Medicine recommends most adults eat 130 g of carbohydrates every day.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend your daily carb intake sits at between 45-65% of your total calories.
So if we assume, say, a 50% benchmark, and you’re eating 1600 calories a day (not a number I recommend generally, this is just as an example), you should be aiming for 800 calories a day worth of carbohydrates.
Because there are 4 calories to every gram of carbs, this equals roughly 200 g of carbohydrates a day.
What are the best carbs to eat for weight loss?
Remember, there are NO good or bad foods. Food is just food!
There are only foods which will help with weight loss/fitness and foods that don’t, or might even undo your goals if you eat too much of them.
When it comes to carbs, typically speaking, the more “complex carbs” you choose, the closer you’ll align to your fitness goals.
Here’s why complex carbs are usually recommended for weight loss and optimum health:
They keep your blood sugar stable, which regulates your appetite, energy levels and lowers your risk of diabetes
They're high in fibre: so they'll keep you fuller for longer, reduce overeating, and most importantly of all, keep you regular and prevent certain cancers
They're full of important micronutrients like folate, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and vitamin E.
But there are also some simple carbs that you should still include as part of your diet, because they have lots of other nutrients and health benefits. These include:-
Fruit: Even though it's high in simple carbohydrates & sugar, fruit is FULL of micronutrients, fibre, and goodness, so don't avoid it - do your best to eat at least a serve a day.
Dairy: Dairy has simple carbohydrates in the form of lactose BUT it's high in calcium, vitamins and so many other important nutrients. Unless you have a particular intolerance, it's not a good idea to cut out any food groups without talking to a registered dietitian. And if you're worried you might be lactose intolerant, talk to your doctor.
Listen, the day you stop being afraid of eating carbs is the day the second half of your life begins.
Carbohydrates are a VERY important macronutrient, and we need to eat lots of them as part of a balanced diet to stay healthy.
Whilst low carb diets are nothing new, they often cycle back around as the latest fad to help with weight loss. But in reality, science has shown that long term they aren’t any better for weight loss, and may even have negative health consequences for the general population.
By knowing how many carbohydrates to eat for your personal goals, and choosing mostly complex, wholegrain, fruit and vegetable sources of carbohydrates, you can have your bowl of pasta ... and lose weight too.
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