Many years ago, low fat was all the rage. People thought that consuming dietary fat would make us fat and unhealthy, so there was a boom in low-fat products. I mean, you are what you eat, and most of us don’t want to be ‘fat’ — in that sense, it would be logical to avoid eating fat.
Thankfully, science happened, and people started realizing that dietary fat isn’t exactly the culprit.
The industry needed something new to blame for our worsening health and ballooning weight, and carbohydrates became the chosen one. Nowadays, it’s common to read and hear the advice to avoid carbs if you want to improve your health or lower your weight.
But are carbs really as bad as the media has painted? And does going low-carb really help with weight loss? Let’s find out.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Actually, many types of food contain carbohydrates. The obvious, common ones are your grains and starchy foods, such as rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, etc.
Sugary or flour-based goods like cakes, cookies and pizzas contain a high amount of carbs as well.
Other foods that are high in carbs, but not necessarily thought of as ‘carbs’ are your fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes.
Reality is, so many types of food contain carbs. Even dairy (milk, yogurt, ice cream) contain carbs! So you can imagine if you had to say no to carbs, you’d be saying no to a lot of food.
But Everyone Says That Carbs Are Bad! (They’re Actually Not)
If we had to summarize it into one statement, it would be
“No, carbohydrates are not bad.”
Carbs are our bodies’ main and preferred source of energy. People who are very physically active, such as endurance athletes, thrive on a high carbohydrate diet because of the physical demand that they place on their bodies. They need the energy, and they need that energy quick, so they can’t afford to eat an inadequate amount of carbs.
However, many regular, sedentary folks like you and I, may also be consuming a high-carbohydrate diet (not by choice).
Carbs are a cheap and economical way to fill our bellies, and they also tend to be the high profit margin items for food companies.
If you take a look around you, carbs are EVERYWHERE. Many dishes in restaurants and eateries are high in carbohydrates (and measly amounts of anything else), and convenience snacks such as biscuits and crackers are not any different.
The issue isn’t that carbs are bad for our health or that it makes us fat. The issue is we may be consuming too much of it, especially the kinds that are highly processed.
Compared to the average diet of yesteryear, our overall calorie intake has become higher, and calories from carbs have been growing disproportionately compared to other food groups such as lean protein and vegetables. Once again, we have to emphasize — carbs are not bad, we’re just eating too much of them.
My Friend Lost Weight on a Low-Carb Diet! Should I Go Low-Carb Too?
Low carbohydrate diets did not gain popularity without any reason, though. One of the reasons is that many people have found weight loss success when going on a low-carb diet.
However, simply thinking that “carbs make us fat” and “avoiding carbs can help me lose weight” is an oversimplification of what’s really happening. Here are a few factors:
1. Calorie Deficit
For any diet to work for weight loss, it simply has to create a calorie deficit — meaning, you have to consume fewer calories than what your body is burning.
So if you’ve been eating 2500 calories a day and maintaining your weight, any diet that results in you eating 2000 calories a day will cause you to lose weight eventually. The reverse is also true for weight gain.
This is no exception with low-carb diets. People who have successfully lost weight on a low-carb diet may simply be consuming fewer calories than before, or they may just be losing water weight.
2. Water Weight
Losing weight very quickly in the initial period of starting a low-carb diet is a very common sign of the body losing water weight. Carbohydrates actually encourage your body to retain water, which means a diet high in carbs results in significant water retention. For every gram of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) by the body, 3 to 4 grams of water is stored as well.
You can imagine that when you stop eating, or drastically reduce carbs, it depletes these stores, and a lot of water weight is coming off. Moral of the story is, don’t be too happy when you see the number on the weighing scale dip down after a week of dieting!
3. Making Healthier Choices
Previously we mentioned how we are consuming a little too much carbs as it’s such a cheap and convenient belly filler. A lot of these carb sources are refined or highly processed, which are not the most nutritious choices.
The truth is, having a “low-carb mindset” eliminates a lot of unhealthy (or not so nutritious) foods from our diet. Switching to low-carb can force us to make healthier choices, which helps with weight loss.
For example, saying ‘no’ to white bread means you have to fill your stomach with something else, and when you go low-carb, you don’t have too many choices apart from healthy veggies or lean protein. Veggies and lean protein are generally more satiating compared to carbs (the refined ones that most of us consume), which means they help to keep our stomachs full and satisfied for a longer period of time.
Less hungry means less snacking and lower calorie intake → weight loss!
What Do We Recommend?
For most of us, there’s no harm (there might even be benefits) to reducing our carbohydrate intake in the form of foods like rice, pasta, bread and cakes. However, that’s not because these foods are bad, just that we’re overeating them out of convenience.
There’s definitely no need, though, to cut out carbs completely, even to the extent of eliminating foods like fruits because they are high in carbs in the form of its natural sugar.
If the focus is weight loss, just know that ANY diet can work equally well, be it low-fat or low-carb. But we do not recommend going on ANY kind of exclusionary diets (cutting out a food group completely), as you may be missing out on certain nutrients that your body needs.
No individual food group is the enemy, over-consumption is.