Why Cutting Carbs From Your Diet Is A Bad Move
Ask someone how to lose weight quickly, and chances are, they’ll respond with “cut out carbs.” The reason behind that is the fact that cutting out carbs does cause fast weight loss. But that doesn’t mean fat loss, and cutting out carbs could be causing your health some harm. Fitness expert James Anderson tells us everything we need to know.
There’s no two ways about it, if you get rid of all the bread, pasta and potatoes from your diet, that scale will go down. Add so-called junk food to that restricted list, and the losses will be even greater. If you take it to the extremes of banning even “healthy carbs” like fruits and certain vegetables too, then you’ll drop kilos at a rate of knots.
Hey presto – all of a sudden you’re a weight loss guru.
If only it were that simple, though. You see, while cutting down on carbohydrates (or carbs) does usually bring about weight loss, this doesn’t necessarily mean fat loss. And no carbs can cost you your good mood and high energy levels.
While there may be instances where you need to cut down your carbs, there should never be any reason to take them out completely. Low-carb diets typically aren’t sustainable, and cutting them could actually end up making you gain fat.
Let’s look at why.
What are carbs?
We all know what foods contain carbs, but few of us actually know what carbs are – that is, one of the three main macronutrients, the other two being protein and fat.
Your body uses carbohydrates as its main source of readily available energy. It can use protein and fat to make fuel, but this process takes far longer and is much less efficient. In other words, your muscles, organs and brain love the stuff.
When you eat carbs, they’re either used (more or less) immediately for energy, or they’re stored as glycogen in your muscle cells and liver.
Why a low-carb diet might seem like its working
Ninety-five per cent of us will have tried cutting carbs before, and within this 95%, almost all of us will have seen weight loss in the first week or so*. While this seems epic, don’t get carried away – because weight loss isn’t always fat loss.
Creating a calorie deficit causes weight loss, not the fact you’re not eating carbs.
When you cut carbs from your diet, your body turns to its stored carbohydrates (the glycogen in the muscles and liver we mentioned earlier). At any one time, you can have as much as 500 grams of stored glycogen, and each gram of glycogen holds around three grams of water with it. This means if your body has to use up all its glycogen for energy because you’re not eating carbs, you can lose up to two kilos (0.5 kilos from glycogen and 1.5 kilos from water) within a few days. But this is not fat loss.
Additionally, the general public eat a crap-tonne of carbs! Think about it – your typical breakfast might include toast, cereals or OJ, with sandwiches, wraps or bagels at lunch, plus sugary coffees, chocolate bars and fruit throughout the day, then some kind of starch with dinner. That’s a lot of carbohydrates.
By suddenly cutting these out, you’ll put yourself into a calorie deficit where you’re consuming fewer calories than you burn – and it’s creating a calorie deficit that causes weight loss, not the fact you’re not eating carbs.
*not an actual statistic, obviously.
The perils of swapping bread and potatoes for butter and pistachios
Most people who cut carbs replace their starches and sugars with low-carb vegetables and proteins. That’s great. What’s not so great is when a low-carb diet turns into a high-fat diet because you’re swapping out your starches for high-fat foods such as coconut oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and full-fat cheese.
it’s surprisingly easy to gain fat when going low-carb, plus you’ll feel tired, irritable and hungry.
While there’s nothing wrong with these foods per se, fats are far more calorie dense than carbs (containing nine calories per gram, whereas carbs have four calories per gram). So swapping out carbs for fats can be an incredibly easy way to reverse a calorie deficit and turn it into a surplus, undoing any work.
Two slices of bread, 100 grams of cereal, a medium sweet potato, a banana and a flapjack bar come in at 800 calories altogether. But the same calories from fats is a much smaller volume of food. In fact, 100 grams of mixed nuts and 1 and-a-half tablespoons of olive oil is all you’ll get for the same 800 calories.
The mistake many low carbers make is to drastically ramp up their fat intake, and while it’s true you can eat a little more fat if you’re cutting carbs, it’s much easier to over-eat fat than carbs. And if you go into a surplus of calories, you’ll gain fat.
When you add in the fact that you’ll feel like crap for the first week or two of going low carb, and that low-carb diets are insanely difficult to stick to long-term, it’s safe to say that such a drastic approach is not a good one.
Why carbs are crucial
You can survive without any carbs in your diet, but there’s a difference between survival and getting amazing results.
If you want to lose fat optimally, maintain your strength and energy, and lose weight and keep it off, carbs are critical. That doesn’t mean you can stuff your face with muesli, chips and spaghetti though. You need the right amount of carbs – and preferably at the right times.
How much should you be eating?
Your carb intake should be based on your activity level, as carbs are your main source of energy, the more active you are, the more you need. The best way to do this is to base your carbs off your total calorie intake.
For weight loss, men need roughly 24 to 30 calories per kilo of bodyweight per day, while women need 22 to 26 calories per kilo. The more active you are, the higher your multiplier, so guys training hard four or more times per week for instance should go for 28 to 30 calories per kilo. Within that, you can tweak your carbs to your total calorie intake.
While no food should ever be banned completely, it makes sense to choose more nutrient-dense carbs and ones that are higher in fibre – so whole-grains like brown rice and quinoa – as well as white and sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables. These should make up at least 80% of your carb intake, then you can have 20% leeway for more junk-style carbs.
And when’s the best time to eat carbs?
Carbs can be eaten at any time, but for optimal results, eat most around your workouts. Before training they’ll be used for energy so you get a better session, and post-workout they aid recovery.
Carbs: your new best friend
You will lose weight on a low-carb diet (at least in the first few days, which includes a large portion of water). But that alone doesn’t make this the best dieting approach. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy to gain fat when going low-carb, plus you’ll feel tired, irritable and hungry, all of which mean a low-carb diet isn’t only unnecessary, but potentially damaging to your long-term health and fat loss too.
Instead of looking at carbs as bad, see them as a macronutrient that needs manipulating depending on your goals and activity levels. Are you on the go all the time, training hard virtually every day and looking to get stronger and build muscle? Then get those carbs up.
Are you on a fat loss quest, a little on the lighter side, and maybe not so active day-to-day? You can still eat carbs, you just may want to ease back on them slightly.
As always, the extreme approach doesn’t work. What works is a method that’s based on you – your goals, your body type, and your preferences. Now go have a sandwich!
James Anderson has combined over 10 years’ experience as a personal trainer with a background in NLP coaching and a couple of near-death experiences to develop a very unique outlook on life. As a result he speaks, presents and writes no-BS content in the hope that he can help others find their long-term personal health and happiness solution. He is the founder of Sydney-based female group training program PHAT Fit. Find him on Instagram or Facebook.