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Should you cut carbs for weight loss

The popularity of the keto diet, which drastically cuts carbs, raises the question of whether you should cut carbs for weight loss. The reality is, it’s not that simple. Reaching a healthier or more comfortable weight is actually pretty complicated and it involves much more than what you eat—though that’s a big part of it. To manage your weight over time, you also need to learn other health-promoting skills, like coping with stress and emotional eating and getting in touch with your body so you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satiated. There are other factors, too, like how much support you have at home and whether your family members or housemates are willing to adopt healthier behaviors rather than just cheering you on. But for now, we’ll focus on carbs, what they are, and whether you should cut carbs to lose weight.

What are carbs?

A lot of people think of bread and pasta when they think of carbs, but carbs come in many forms and some are more healthful than others. It’s true that bread and pasta contain carbs, but pulses (beans, legumes, and peas), yogurt and milk, fruit, veggies, and whole grains (such as oats, quinoa, and corn) all contain varying degrees of carbohydrates. A very low-carb diet, like the keto diet limits all of these foods—not just bread, bagels, and desserts. This can make a very low carb diet hard to maintain over time since it often means you’re eating differently from others—whether at home or when you’re at a work event or socializing with friends. A shared pizza is off the table, and you might have very limited options when dining out (think: chicken or fish and some veggies).

What the evidence shows about low carb dieting

It’s true that you can lose weight on a very low carb diet, and it’s also true that the initial weight loss may be faster than another, more moderate approach. However, studies suggest that over time, the amount of weight you lose on a low carb diet is similar to the amount you lose on a less restrictive plan.[1] In one study, when both low fat and low carb dieters were told to focus on the quality of their food—prioritizing whole and minimally processed food over very processed fare—both groups lost a similar amount of weight, suggesting that focusing on quality is a good strategy. A recent scientific statement from the National Lipid Association concluded that after six months, there’s no benefit to a low carb diet compared to a higher carb one, and that the higher carb diet is healthier in the long run. Adherence to low carb diets is also lower than adherence to other methods, so a low carb diet may be harder to follow over time. In the end, whether you should drastically cut carbs for weight loss depends on how likely you are to want to follow this plan for the rest of your life. This is true no matter what method you choose to take care of your weight; you’ve got be willing to follow the method for the duration of time.

Do carbs make you gain weight?

Remember that weight management is pretty complicated, but it definitely doesn't boil down to one food group. In terms of carbs, it depends on the type you choose (for example, white bread vs whole wheat), the amount you're eating (for example, 1/2 cup of whole grain pasta vs. 2-3 cups), and what your overall healthy habits look like. But getting back to carbs, it’s true that if you’re eating large portions of less healthy carbs, like a big everything bagel for breakfast, a sandwich made with white bread for lunch, and a hearty plate of pasta for dinner, you’re probably eating in excess of your needs and you're filling up on foods that may promote weight gain. However, if you’re including wholesome versions of carbs in amounts that are more in line with your body’s needs, carbs won’t promote weight gain.

One new study actually showed this. It was designed to compare a low carb diet to a high carb one in a very tightly controlled setting among adults. People were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of either a plant-based low fat diet, which provided about 75% of their calories from carbs or an animal-based, keto diet, which provided about 10% of their calories from carbs. Participants switched from one diet to the other so every person spent two weeks on each of the two diets. Both groups lost a similar amount of weight over the duration of the study, and as you might expect, the keto dieters lost it a little more quickly. But here’s the thing: The results showed that people ate an average of 700 fewer calories when eating the plant-based, high carb diet compared to the keto diet, suggesting it was easier to fill up on fewer calories—something that would benefit long-term weight loss, even though these people weren’t actively trying to lose weight. The researchers suggested that the fiber-rich plant-based foods provided this benefit.[2]

So, should you cut carbs for weight loss?

In a nutshell, if you’re looking to reach a healthier and more comfortable weight, you should pick a plan that matches what you like to eat. There are no magic bullets for weight loss. If you can’t dream of a week without pasta or pizza, then cutting carbs for weight loss is probably not a good long-term strategy.

If you want to continue eating carbs, consider limiting overly processed carbs, such as white bread and desserts. Another study found that when people were allowed to fill up on either a whole foods diet or a processed foods diet, they ate faster and more on the processed foods diet.[3] This was another tightly controlled, two-week study, and participants also switched diets. When eating processed foods for a couple of weeks, they gained an average of two pounds; when eating whole foods for a couple of weeks, they lost that amount of weight.

It’s also worth mentioning that studies link consumption of wholesome carbs with healthier and longer lives.[4] A mix of higher-fiber, plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, pulses (beans and legumes), nuts, and seeds, are the cornerstone of diets that promote a longer life with fewer chronic diseases.

At the end of the day, whether you should cut carbs for weight loss comes down to your preferences. Many of my clients have tried cutting carbs to lose weight, but they feel better and get more joy and satisfaction from eating when they include them in a healthy way. That means mostly choosing the healthier ones and matching portion sizes to your needs.

If you need help reaching a healthier or more comfortable weight and sorting through carb confusion, schedule a call to learn more about my programs. You can also sign up for a FREE trial of my Healthy Eatsmeal plan. A three day meal plan can make it less overwhelming to get on the right track with your goals and you don’t even need a credit card to sign up so give it a try!

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