The Lowdown on Carbohydrates and Weight Loss: What does the Research Say?

by Peter Franks

Nowadays, it seems fashionable to hate on carbs. They are, after all, a convenient scapegoat for anyone who’s trying to lose weight. Granted, there are definitely certain carbohydrates you’d be better off avoiding if you’re trying to improve your health and drop excess weight. That said, let’s look at what carbohydrates are all about as well as the important role they play in the body – at any and every age.

KEY FACTS

  • Carbohydrates play a critical role in supplying the body with energy.
  • The major types of carbs include simple carbs and complex carbs.
  • Certain low-carb diets may cause rather quick weight loss, but the benefits from these kinds of diets are short-term
  • In order to achieve sustainable weight loss, the idea is to create a caloric deficit by sweating off calories more than you consume them.

 

Carbohydrates 101: the rundown

Now, let’s get back to science 101. Carbohydrates are simply molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Carbohydrates comprise one of the three critical macronutrients we consume; the others are fat and protein.

Moreover, carbohydrates can be further categorized into three major sources: sugars, starches, and fiber, which carbohydrates supply to provide your body with the energy it needs.

Carbohydrates are processed into glucose. Meanwhile, insulin delivers the glucose from the bloodstream to all cells, which the cells then use for immediate energy requirements or to store as glycogen or fat in the body.

The body eventually burns the glycogen it stores from the carbohydrates you consume. And, once the body’s glycogen reserves have been exhausted, the body turns to burn fat reserves instead.

Carbohydrates are classified into two major categories. You’ve most probably heard about simple carbohydrates, which are quickly processed by the body and converted into glucose or blood sugar. Simple carbs are the ones we find in foods like cookies, candy, cake, and a wide array of processed foods.

Simple carbs provide a quick jolt of energy but are less filling and contain less nutritional and fiber content.

On the other hand, complex carbs require more effort to digest. These are carbohydrates found in whole grains and vegetables, and they supply the body with a more sustainable form of energy – one that doesn’t have you fall asleep an hour after lunch.

 

Do I need to cut down on carbohydrate intake to lose weight?

If you’re trying to lose weight, then it’s more beneficial to create a caloric deficit – that is, to burn more calories than you take in – than to reduce carbohydrate intake altogether.

Low-carb diets may result in drastic weight loss in certain cases – but such diets tend to be hard, if not impossible, to sustain for a long period of time without causing any tangible side effects. Low-carb diets may be more satisfying than their low-fat counterparts, leading to the reduced need to consume more calories and a longer-lasting feeling of satiation.

Therefore, it is critical to choose whole food carbohydrate sources whenever going on a diet. These include your fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Processed foods are not looked upon favorably as they may contain ingredients that cause you to eat more, which runs in total opposition to your goal of losing weight.

What are the benefits of low-carb diets?

According to a 2019 OSU study, low-carb diets may help in short-term weight loss. Furthermore, they may also help reduce the impact of chronic health issues such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. It’s also known that low-carb diets may help you burn more calories.

All of that is all well and good – but do take note that some high-fat, low-carb diets may increase LDL cholesterol levels. The bad kind, if you were keeping score.

The three major types of low-carb diets explained

More than a few variants of low-carb diets have entered pop culture and have been around for decades. This includes the Atkins, Paleo, and Keto diet. While they vary in methods, each diet has the same goal: to reduce carbohydrate and starch intake while upping consumption of foods rich in protein and healthy fat.

That said, they do have slight differences in how they achieve the aforementioned goal. Let’s take a look at each as follows:

  • Ketogenic (Keto). Keto diets limit carb intake to a range of 20 to 50 grams per day. Moreover, keto diets allow and encourage dietary fat consumption. The principle is that by limiting carbohydrate and protein consumption, you induce a state of ketosis in the body, where it starts burning fat for energy.
  • Paleo. As its name implies, the paleo diet seeks to revive the dietary patterns of our paleolithic ancestors. This means eating a diet rich in lean protein sources (meat and fish), eggs, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Processed dairy, foods, and cereals, apart from added sugars, are often not allowed.
  • Atkins. The Atkins diet needs no introduction considering its popularity over the decades. In essence, the Atkins diet emphasizes ample intake of protein and fats while limiting carb intake. It’s pretty much the predecessor of today’s fashionable keto diet. The Atkins diet features four phases, wherein the last one allows you to reintroduce carbohydrates back into your diet. 

 

Conclusion

In the final accounting, there isn’t a single silver bullet of a diet that will serve as the definitive answer to long-term weight loss.

While studies support the notion that low-carb diets help you lose weight, the benefits are only short-term.

The important thing to keep in mind is to create a caloric deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn.

As carbohydrates are the primary energy source the body uses for fuel, starting off on a low-carb diet might show some side effects like mild gastrointestinal discomfort, headache, fatigue, or weakness – at least in the beginning.

Do remember that too many restrictions might deprive you of the nutrition your body needs, which may lead to nutrient deficiencies and gastrointestinal problems.

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