Low carb diets often promise rapid, significant fat loss without much of the work associated with other diet plans. If you’re struggling with your weight, it is easy to be tempted by these plans; however, with a closer look, you will likely find this is not the best way to go about losing weight. Low carb diets, like any other weight loss plan, will only work if the calories you consume are less than the calories you burn. Since most people like to eat carbohydrates, the chances a low carb diet will work over the long run are pretty low. If carbs are part of your normal, everyday diet, there is a better way.
Why are Low Carb Diets Popular?
The proponents of low carb diets argue that these plans do not require measuring food, counting calories, or anything other than avoiding carbohydrates. While the specific number of carbs “allowed” differ from plan to plan, the majority of them severely restrict carbs to under 25-50 grams (the equivalent of 2 apples). In reality, as with any diet (and low carb is no exception) if calories consumed are higher than calories burned, you will gain weight no matter how low your carbs are.
The keto diet, when done as prescribed, puts followers in ketosis, which is a state in which insulin is suppressed super low and fat is turned in ketones, which are then used as fuel. In order to work, protein (which can also cause an insulin spike) must also be kept low in order to stay in ketosis. To do this properly, it requires at least as much work as a more balanced diet which includes carbohydrates.
The Atkins diet differs from the keto diet in that with Atkins, carbs are raised over the course of the plan, whereas they stay low in keto.
The low carb high fat diet (LCHF) is essentially the same as a proper keto diet. However, again, it is excess calories, not carbs per se, that cause weight gain.
How Many Carbs Do I Really Need to Lose Weight?
There is no simple answer to this question – in fact, the amount of carbs you need to lose fat is likely going to be different than the amount of carbs your coworker, training partner, best friend or whomever, needs to lose fat.
Two people can have identical body compositions and activity levels, yet due to individual metabolic variations, one may be able to eat twice as many carbs as the other and still lose fat. This, naturally, can be very frustrating for some people. The only way to know for sure the proper amount of carbs you should eat to lose fat is to experiment and find what works best for you.
If you have diabetes, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, you will likely feel better eating a more moderate carbohydrate, higher (healthy) fat and protein diet. Because you feel better you will be more likely to stick with it in the long run. If you feel better eating higher amounts of carbs and are still able to lose body fat (and control blood sugar), then by all means do so. Below are some very general guidelines for fat loss, but remember that everyone is different and certain “carb-sensitive” people may need to severely limit carbs in order to lose fat. In addition, the amount of protein and fat in your diet will also influence the amount of carbs you should be eating per day.
Use these as starting points and adjust based on your response:
- Sedentary individuals with insulin resistance: 50-150 grams per day
- Otherwise healthy people looking to lose fat who engage in high intensity exercise: 1-3 grams per pound of body weight (along with 1-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight and 30-40 grams of healthy fat per day)
I recommend starting at the upper end and carefully tracking your intake. If your weight is not coming down appropriately (1-2 pounds per week), then begin reducing your carb intake until it does. Again though, if you feel sluggish or tired eating that much (or that little) carbohydrate, then adjust accordingly.
Most importantly, use common sense, work with someone who knows what they are talking about, and listen to your body.
Good carbs vs. Bad carbs
First off, everything is relative. If you’re stranded on a deserted island and your only food option is high fructose corn syrup, it is a good carb, as the alternative is starving to death. On the other side, if you’re allergic to kale, that is a bad carb no matter how nutritious it may be. In our practice, we are careful to differentiate nutritious food from healthy, or good food. Good food is food that allows you to be lean and happy. Nutritious food has nutrients in it. They may, but don’t have to be, the same thing.
Certain sources of carbohydrates are better at blunting hunger than others. Vegetables and many fruits, with high water and fiber content, contribute to feeling full without providing significant amounts of calories. Other foods, specifically processed carbs like white bread, pasta and sugary candy and cereals pack a strong calorie punch and will likely leave you feeling hungry soon after eating them.
Again, though, there is a huge amount of variability from person to person and you must experiment to see which carbs you react well to and which you’d do well avoiding. If you’re lean and happy, and your blood work looks good, then whatever carbs you’re eating, even if they are mostly potato bread and candy, are healthy choices.
In order to lose weight, you need to eat fewer CALORIES than you burn. Reducing carbs is one way to reduce calories, and this works for many people, but the only way to know if it will work for you it through experimentation. Like most things in life, moderation works better than severe restriction or elimination. If you want to reduce carbs as a means to reduce calories, first figure out where your carb intake is currently, and then reduced it in a way that disrupts your life as little as possible.