Carb controversy: Why low-carb diets aren’t the best bet always….

Ask almost anyone what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on the carbs.” As a trainer, I’ve heard it hundreds of times. I’ve talked in previous articles on the importance of protein, but I thought that the poor carbohydrate gets such a bad rap, that it would be good to talk about the importance and benefits to carbs in your diet.

While the low carb movement has waxed and waned in popularity since the Atkins revival of the late 90s and early 2000s, most folks now assume that carbohydrates are inherently fattening.

Health-conscious diners order bunless hamburgers, skip the baked potato side dish, and send the bread basket back to the kitchen. (Or don’t, and feel guilty about it.)

In the past few years, I’ll bet you’ve heard (or thought) at least one of the following:

  • Carbs spike your blood sugar and insulin, which slathers on the body fat.
  • Carbs, especially sugar and grains, cause inflammation.
  • Carbs are not an essential part of the diet like fat and protein.

Seems simple and logical. Which is the problem.

These simplistic statements about “good foods” and “bad foods” ignore biological complexity and the bigger picture.

Let’s look closer.

Do carbs increase insulin levels?

Yes, they do.

Does increased insulin after meals lead to fat gain?


(Insulin’s actually a satiety hormone — in other words, it makes you feel full — so the idea that on its own it leads to fat gain doesn’t make sense.)

Are carbs really inflammatory?

That depends. Are we talking about processed corn syrup? Probably.

But if we’re talking about whole grains, not really. (yes, there are exceptions to this but as a general rule, no)

Are carbs less important than protein, fat, and the many micronutrients that contribute to our health?

Well, if you’re talking about processed carbs, the answer is a resounding yes.

But if you’re talking about whole, minimally processed carbs, that’s a different story.

Can a low-carb diet work to help people lose weight?

Of course it can.

Is it because it is low in carbs?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Can eating an appropriate amount of carbs actually help you look, feel and perform your best?

You bet it can.

The problem with not eating carbs

As a weight loss strategy, cutting carbs (while reducing the total number of calories) clearly works pretty well for some people. If it didn’t, then Atkins would have never been popular in the first place.

Here’s the thing, though: Carb reduction costs us.

You see, most of us require some level of carbohydrates to function at our best over the long term.

Sure, we can cut carbs temporarily if we need to lose weight quickly. But for most of us, keeping carbs too low for too long can have disastrous consequences.

This is especially true for those of us who work out.

If you’re sedentary, your carb needs are lower. So you might be able to get away with more restriction.

But if you like to exercise regularly and enthusiastically, restricting your carb intake too drastically can lead to:

  • decreased thyroid output
  • increased cortisol output
  • decreased testosterone
  • impaired mood and cognitive function
  • muscle catabolism
  • suppressed immune function.

In other words: Your metabolism slows, your stress hormones go up and your muscle-building hormones go down.

You feel lousy, spaced-out, sluggish, cranky… and maybe even sick.

Most irritating of all: You probably don’t even lose that much weight in the long term.

Next week I will talk a little more on the effects that a long term low carb diet have on the impact of our health.Bottom line:  Carbs really are not the nasty little devils they are made out to be.

-Rachel aka Feathers   NASM CPT    Coach Team TNT

Rachel Ridge Fitness