The low-carb diet trend is still going strong. Almost every one of my clients has done some variation of Whole30 or Paleo, tried to go ketogenic, or for a throwback, done South Beach or Atkins. They seem to work for a while, but they’re not sustainable. What good is it to shun carbs during the week, only to end up binging on pasta or cookies over the weekend? From a nutrition (and life) perspective, it’s not possible to completely cut carbs out of your diet. Here’s why you need to keep some carbs, and how to lower your intake the healthy way.
YOU CAN’T COMPLETELY “CUT” CARBS
We talk about carbohydrates as if they were a food group, but in fact, they aren’t. Carbs are one of the three macronutrients, along with protein and fat, and most foods are made up of a mix of all three. Carbs are found naturally in a wide variety of foods, everything from fruits and vegetables to grains, legumes, and dairy. They’re also added to processed and refined foods in the form of sugar, in sweets, candy, soda, and so much more. But there’s a big difference, and foods that contain carbs in natural form contribute essential fiber and key vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
YOUR BODY NEEDS CARBS (REALLY!)
Even if you could “cut” carbs out of your diet, you wouldn’t want to! Carbs are an essential nutrient—you can’t survive without them. Not only are carbs necessary to keep you alive, they have a variety of vital functions.
- Carbs Provide Energy! Carbs are your body’s favorite fuel. They’re digested and broken down into glucose, which feeds every single cell in your body, especially your brain. Glucose is what helps your muscles do everything, from getting out of bed to walking, running, and hitting those reps at the gym.
- Carbs Keep Your Gut Happy. Did you know that fiber is a type of carbohydrate? Yes, and you need it for normal digestion. It helps you avoid constipation and diarrhea, and reduces your risk of colon cancer. Additionally, prebiotics are a particular type of fiber, which ferment and provide food for the good bacteria living in your gut.
- Carbs Protect Your Heart. There’s a reason why oats top the list of heart-healthy foods.Fiber-rich carbs, like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes can help lower cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease.
- Carbs Keep You Full. If more energy, a happy gut, and a healthy heart weren’t enough to convince you, maybe the promise of weight loss will. High-fiber carbs digest more slowly, which means you’ll stay full for longer, and can help you lose weight.
BUT WAIT, DON’T CARBS MAKE YOU FAT?
No. Seriously, no! It’s the myth that won’t go away. Carbs alone aren’t the problem—the sticky issue is with ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately, most of the carbs in the standard American diet come from sugary drinks and refined grains, associated with weight gain and chronic diseases. Considering the large number of people in the US who are overweight or pre-diabetic, cutting back on huge servings of soda, pizza, and subs won’t hurt. But whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes have all been linked to better weight control. And long-term studies show that low-carb diets don’t lead to more weight loss compared to moderate diets.
A HEALTHIER APPROACH TO A LOW-CARB LIFESTYLE
Instead of worrying about cutting carbs completely, consider setting a more realistic goal to go lower carb. Focus on eating the right portions of the right kinds of carbs, and timing them evenly throughout the day. If you’re tracking your macros, aim for about 45 percent of your total calories coming from carbs, and not going below 130 grams of carbs per day is recommended—this is the minimum amount your brain needs. What does a lower-carb plan look like in terms of real food? Following the dietary guidelines is a good strategy: Get your good carbs from 2 pieces of fresh fruit, 3 cups of veggies, 2 cups of low-fat dairy, ¼ cup of beans or lentils, and 4 to 8 servings of grains, at least half of which should be whole grains. So you could be digging into overnight oats with fresh fruit for breakfast, a kale salad with crispy chickpeas for lunch, and brown rice sushi bowls for dinner, with a plain, nonfat latte, a piece of fruit, and a bag of veggies for snacks. Not so crazy or restrictive, right? Healthy carbs are delicious, and you don’t need to eat huge servings to make your whole diet more satisfying and sustainable. Because that’s the secret: the best healthy eating plan is one you can follow for life—not just a few weeks or months.