Cutting Carbs: How Far Should you Go?

carbs

By Meredith Sheldon

Meat, eggs and cheese are the only three foods Kelly Hogan eats.

The 37-year-old’s lifestyle is completely carbohydrate free and it has been for the last six years. Throughout her 11-year nutritional journey from a low-carb diet to a zero-carb diet, Hogan, who weighed 265 pounds at age 25, lost over 100 pounds.  

Even though other diets are not as extreme as Hogan’s, many people are cutting carbs from their daily diets. Twenty five percent of American adults are refraining from eating carbs, according to a recent study by Statista.

Is a no-carb or low-carb diet a healthy one? Carb-cutting can be beneficial if done right. It is possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle without eliminating vital nutrients and feeling hungry and miserable.

WHY OUR BODIES NEED CARBS

Carbohydrates should take up 45 to 60 percent of our daily caloric intake, according to the Dietary Reference Intakes published by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Carbs are an important source of energy and are our main source of fuel.

Carbohydrate consumption is needed for brain development and maturation. A 2015 study by the University of Chicago suggests that starches were vital in the rapid growth of the brain over the last million years.

The study focused on the popular Paleo diet, which consists of eating only fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats, fish, seafood, free-range eggs, nuts and seeds. This diet excludes starches. However, the study suggests that a true Paleo diet includes carbohydrates as this was a necessary source of energy for the brain and body during the Paleolithic era.

Carbohydrates are macronutrients, and, according to the University of Illinois McKinley Health Center, this substance is necessary for our body’s’ growth, metabolism and other functions.

SIDE EFFECTS OF LOW-CARB AND NO-CARB DIETING

Our bodies need carbs to function. But what happens if we aren’t getting enough nutrients from this necessary food group?  Well, even though low-carb diets show weight-loss results, they are mentally and physically draining, Hogan says. It can trigger withdrawal symptoms such as depression and moodiness.

Low-carb and no-carb lifestyles are hard to maintain because they cause stress, says obesity expert Elissa Epel in an article on Health. She says the stress of this diet produces high hormone levels, which lead to an increase in appetite and desire to binge. Epel is the Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Other common side effects of low-carb and no-carb dieting are leg cramps, reduced physical performance, headaches, brain fog, lethargy, constipation and heart palpitations, according to an article in the Diet Doctor.

Hogan felt these symptoms. After five years on the low-carb diet plan, Hogan says she lost weight, but felt miserable and craved carbs constantly.

“I was hungry for five years,” she says.

By switching from low-carb to zero-carb, Hogan says her cravings went away.

“If you keep a little bit of carbs, you never get fully un-addicted,” she says.  “I see no reason to keep myself on the edge.”

Now, she consumes as much meat and cheese until she feels full. Even though the zero-carb lifestyle cuts out the cravings, it can also cause initial weight gain and have similar side effects to low-carb restrictions. For the first six months of eating carb-free, Hogan says she gained 20 pounds.

Even though this diet shows weight loss results, is it maintainable in the long run? Dr. Allison Watts says restricting large food groups can be more harmful than helpful to one’s long-term health.

Dr. Watts participated in a research study called Project EAT at the University of Minnesota, which suggests that adolescents and young adults who endorse dieting gain more weight over time and are at higher risk for disordered eating.

“Successful diets are patterns of healthy eating that you enjoy and can stick with over the long term,” Dr. Watts says.

HEALTHY WAYS TO CUT CARBS

Carbohydrates are an important part of a daily diet, especially if an individual is highly active and needs energy. But, this does not mean that pizza, cookies and bread should be at the top of a grocery list. There are ways to maintain a healthy diet by eliminating unnecessary carbs and consuming healthy and nutritious carbs.

The amount of carbohydrates in one’s diet is less important than the type of carbohydrate, Dr. Watts says.  

She says it is best to limit lower quality carbohydrates like refined sugars and grains found in juice, white flour, and highly processed desserts and snacks. However, high quality carbohydrates from whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit give us the energy and fiber we need to think, be physically active and feel full.

According to an article in Everyday Health, analyzing the glycemic index of a food will help determine which carbs to keep and which to cut.

The glycemic index indicates how high blood sugar rises after eating a particular food. The lower the index, the healthier the carb is for the body. Carbs that are considered healthy are whole wheat bread, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots and most fruits, according to the American Diabetes Association.  

Another simple and healthy way to manage carbohydrates is to prepare meals from scratch, Dr. Watt says.

“Buying and cooking fresh, whole foods will naturally reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates that you eat,” she says.

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