Carbs are one very misunderstood food group. They have been demonised endlessly by many dieting cults. They have been getting a bad rap for far too long. Let’s dispel some myths and find out why carbs while dieting are actually a good idea.
Carbs aren’t just bread and pasta. Sugar, fruit, rice, vegetables, legumes, wheat products, soy and dairy products, all contain carbs. There are nutrient dense and high fibre carbs, as well as nutrient poor carbs that aren’t as great at filling you up. Trying to avoid all carbs or even all sugar is not a very good approach to fat loss, especially if you want to maintain performance in the gym and promote lean muscle.
I’ve tried low carb diets before. I don’t mean try like – “I cut out bread and pasta for 3 days” …it started with cutting out all sugar. Any product that had sugar in it and even fruit. I’d also cut out dairy. But that didn’t take it far enough… according to crossfit and several books I’d read – paleo was the next progression. So I did a paleo challenge after being tricked into thinking it was optimal. I did this for a little over 6 months. I was moody, sleepy, couldn’t sleep more than 3 hours in a row, and the worst part – my weight hadn’t budged at all despite all my suffering. This was one of the most upsetting and miserable times of my life. I wish someone told me that this diet was hurting my fitness performance and there was a better way.
I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I avoided going out or seeing friends as I was embarrassed that I trained so hard and ate so strictly keto/paleo yet felt fat in all my clothes. I looked puffy and no better, if not worse than when I wasn’t training or dieting. I was so overwhelmed with negative emotions. I had been bamboozled by the “calories don’t count, just cut carbs” crowd.
I know people say don’t get your fitness advice from the internet. But I had tried reading books from known low carb zealots like Gary Taubes and paleo pushers that want to sell you on their ideology. I was conned into thinking this was legit nutrition advice. This was when instagram started being a thing. As I started to follow people with good physiques, I saw the hashtag #IIFYM (if it fits your macros) appearing frequently. I saw girls just like me enjoying carbs including froyo, icecream, bread, sugar, rice and pasta. They were getting leaner and making significant progress. The foods I was led to believe were inherently fattening. I began looking through the IIFYM hashtags and found that it wasn’t just a one off or a black sheep. Girls and guys all over were getting impressive results by including carbs and tracking macros.
When I began to track I realised the advice “eat fat to lose fat” was total horseshit. Everyone that had claimed calories don’t matter didn’t really have sound nutrition knowledge. I was getting adequate protein, but totally exceeding my calorie needs by added fats. The thing with fats is, you can be having small amounts here and there and overeating calories effortlessly. The low carb high fat FAD was screwing me over and the lack of carbs left me constantly hungry. Even adding a seemingly small amount of coconut oil or butter can add hundreds of calories to your meal without making you much fuller.
The only reason high fat low carb works is because you are cutting out an entire food group and so this means your food choices are very limited. You can’t eat out as much, and most tasty foods that are high in both fat and carbs are off the table (eg icecream, donuts, pizza, cake, cookies). This tends to work if you have a lot of weight to lose or are transitioning from an extremely unhealthy diet. But if you are a relatively small female like myself, or someone who wants a better than average physique, this is not a good strategy. People are tricked into thinking that it was carbs that were the problem rather than overall calories.
Can you lose weight on a low carb high fat diet? Yes. But you can also lose weight on a low fat high carb diet. People who tell you that carbs are the culprit of modern day obesity and the root of all evil are ignorant or liars.
If someone says you don’t need carbs, or you shouldn’t have them as they are bad for your health, don’t be fooled. As humans we tend to attribute our results to the thing we are focusing on, rather than seeing that there are many variables at play. For example if you start doing a Herbascam daily meal replacement with some “liver cleanse” pills, you may think they magically help you lose weight. In reality you are just cutting calories from your diet which you can do without overpriced products with false advertising.
So why should you care about carbs and overall calories?
What you measure you can manage. If you start out dieting by tracking the numbers, instead of starving yourself, you can eat close to maintenance while still losing weight. This means eating the most you can while still losing fat. Knowing your numbers means knowing you are eating towards your goal. I don’t know about you, but if I’m putting my time and efforts into losing weight, I don’t want to be wasting time wondering if my approach will work or not. I want the proven methods so I can be sure I am on the right track. Dieting shouldn’t be a guessing game. If you are simply cutting out a food group you may be under or over eating on any given day which means you don’t know whether you are eating towards your goal or not. Going too low on calories tends to make you moody, low energy and more likely to fail.
According to precision nutrition’s article on low carb diets:
“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 might slow, your stress hormones go up and your muscle-building hormones go down” (Precision Nutrition, 2017).
As someone who is trying to lead an active and healthy lifestyle, low carbs was disastrous for me. I experienced constant fatigue and never slept more than 3 hours without waking up, the loss of my period, anxiety and drastic mood swings, and worst of all the loss of motivation for any daily activity.
I remember clearly the day when I said “fuck this shit” and added carbs in the form of low fat icecream into my diet. That week I began to see the scale drop for what seemed like the first time in years. I was actually in disbelief that I could eat something with sugar in it and still drop weight. What was even better than the scale dropping was losing inches off my measurements and my clothes becoming loose.
Sleep plays a huge role in overall health and fat loss. Having plenty of carbs in my last meal before bed helped me sleep like a baby, and ended an extended period of sleep deprivation due to a low carb diet. Significantly improved sleep led to decreased hunger and cravings, increased mood and energy, and increased will to live. This made dieting and transforming my body easier than ever before.
Not only do you not have to avoid carbs, but doing so is not going to give you a better or healthier body in the long run. I don’t want anyone else to have to suffer through the same failures as I did before seeing that there is a superior and more enjoyable way. Choosing nutrient dense carbs like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc. Enjoy more refined carbs like sweets and processed wheat/soy products in moderation.
Here is an example of what my daily diet looks like now:
Breakfast: OVERNIGHT OATS
Oats, sliced banana, sliced strawberries, protein powder, chia seeds
Lunch: BAKED LEMON PEPPER WHITE FISH + SALAD
Fish fillet seasoned & baked, sweet potato mixed lettuce with roast pumpkin & pumpkin seeds
Dinner: BBQ STEAK
Grilled steak, grilled zucchini and homemade baked fries
Dessert: ICE CREAM
1 scoop low fat ice cream with 1 toast poptart
Snack: EDAMAME 200g
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Precision Nutrition. (2017). Carb controversy: Why low-carb diets have got it all wrong. | Precision Nutrition. [online] Available at: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/low-carb-diets [Accessed 8 Aug. 2017].