Low carbohydrate diets are still hugely popular, with many of us considering a low carb approach as almost essential if we want to lose weight and stay healthy. There are various reasons for this, such as the current trend of avoiding all grains and grain based products, particularly those that are gluten-based, the recent demonization of sugar, and of course the ever-popular movement toward a Paleolithic diet, a way of eating that resembles the way that our cave man ancestors might have eaten. But is this movement away from carbohydrates warranted and should we all limiting or excluding them from our diet?
There are many reasons that people might adopt a low carb approach to nutrition, some of which are related to specific personal circumstances. The right balance of nutrients is important to all of us, but for those of us who are coeliac or diabetic example, we need to be far more mindful of the type and quantity of carbohydrates that we include in our diet, as the wrong balance could have serious implications for our health. In both of these cases, particularly with that of diabetes, a more moderate approach to carbs is probably essential for health. This will be true for sedentary people also, where a low or moderate approach to carbs will likely work well.
We need to be careful when talking about low carb diets because we will all have a different interpretation of what constitutes a low carb diet. According to The National Diet and Nutrition survey of UK adults, the average daily carbohydrate consumption was 252g for men and 198g for women, neither of which would be considered low carb by most people standards. As a general rule, and this will depend on your individual circumstances, a low carb diet might be considered as one with less than 100g per day and a very low carb diet would be one with less than 50g per day - both of which are some way below the quoted average.
Low carb diets often work because serve as a simple way to reduce overall calories. If we take our average male carbohydrate intake of 252g as above and we reduce it to 100g, we have reduced our carb intake by 152g per day. There are four calories (kcal) in a gram of carbohydrate, so we have effectively created a daily overall calorie deficit of 608kcal, which is certainly enough to elicit significant fat loss, especially if we are exercising. It is worth noting that we could have done this with protein also, given that the calorie load per gram is the same for protein as it is for carbohydrates, and that it is not necessarily the cutting of carbs per se that has caused us to lose weight, but rather the reduction of overall calories.
If our goal is fat loss, being in a calorie deficit is important, but calories are the same regardless of food group and my view is that we would do better not to exclude any particular food group, unless we specifically need to, and we should instead manipulate our calories, according to our requirements, across all of the major food groups. Rather than simply cutting out carbs for example, we could slightly reduce our protein, fat and carb intake to create an overall calorie deficit. In this way, we create the deficit that we need, but we do not run the risk of being deficient in certain vitamins, minerals and of course the very often forgotten, but hugely important, fibre, that come with carb-based foods - which I think is a much better proposition if our goal is sustainability and long term health. Not to mention that it would be much easier psychologically, with no restriction or elimination of any particular food.
There is a time and place for low carb diets, but if you want to significantly increase your fitness or improve your physique, you will benefit from including carbohydrates in your diet. It is very common for people who exercise regularly and who have followed a low carb diet for a prolonged period of time to report low energy, poor sleep, impaired recovery and eventually, apathy towards training. If you exercise frequently you need carbs to fuel your training and to help you recover. I am not suggesting that we should be getting carbohydrates from refined or processed sources, but we need to be getting the right carbs in the right amounts if we want to look and feel our best.
It is important to understand also that not all carbs are created equal. I am a proponent of carbohydrates for those of us who exercise regularly, but with the occasional exception, I think we should get these from natural sources, predominantly from vegetables and fruits, but also from things such as rice, oats, quinoa, other whole grains and legumes, according to our specific tolerance. These foods bring with them vitamins, minerals and fibre, all of which are hugely important for health, and would be devoid from many refined and highly processed carbohydrate alternatives, such as many breakfast cereals, many breads, pastries, chocolate bars, soft drinks and so on. Carbs are important, but the quality matters also.
When and if we do chose to reduce carbs, such as at the beginning of a fat loss programme for example, we should not do so for too long and we should look to gradually increase them back into our diet as soon as we can. It is also important to increase calorie intake from either protein or fat so as not to simply create too significant a calorie restriction, which will see energy levels dip, and is very unlikely to work long term. This is where more advanced strategies such a carb cycling come into play, where we can manipulate our food groups, within the same overall calorie framework, to use carbs in particular to our advantage.
The answer is not simply to cut carbs. You need to ensure that you are getting your required nutrients, within your overall calorie requirements, given your specific circumstances, to meet your personal goals. If you have specific reasons to cuts carbs then you should. If you are sedentary then you will very likely benefit from a lower carb approach also. But for those of us who are active and who have specific health, fitness and aesthetic goals, carbohydrates are hugely beneficial, in the right amounts.
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