The carb-free mantra is preached by diet gurus, top nutritionists and that guy who hogs the bench. But are they right? Christian Finn, founder of muscleevo.net, explores the science.
As hundreds of diet plans are happy to tell you, cutting carbs out of your life completely is the fastest way to get rid of fat. That’s because if you open up a nutrition textbook, you’ll read about essential fatty acids, essential amino acids and essential micronutrients. But you won’t find anything about essential carbohydrates.
As long as you’re supplying it with essential fats, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water, your body will keep working. That’s because it can’t make this stuff by itself. But your body can make glucose, which is what carbohydrate is made up of, from protein. So it doesn’t need to be provided by your diet.
But the fact that it’s possible to live off fat and protein doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to do so. There’s a big difference between the type of diet you can survive on, and the type of diet you will thrive on. Rather than take a “one size fits all” approach to nutrition, it’s far better to adjust your carbohydrate intake based on how active you are, as well as the type of activity you’re doing.
If you’re obese and want to lose weight without tracking macros, weighing every meal or hitting the gym, restricting carbs has a number of benefits. Firstly, low-carb diets tend to be protein rich. It’s the most satiating nutrient, killing appetite far faster then either carbohydrate or fat.
Some people also find that certain carbohydrate-rich foods trigger cravings and the start of a junk food binge that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days; allow yourself one packet of crisps and suddenly you find yourself the wrong side of two tubes of Pringles. Avoiding these trigger foods can make it a lot easier to stick to a healthy diet. Put simply, shifting to a low-carbohydrate diet helps a lot of people lose weight simply because they eat fewer calories.
But even then, cutting back on carbs doesn’t mean that you need to swear off them completely. Provided it puts you in an energy deficit, a ketogenic diet, one high in fat and protein, but with barely any carbs, works just fine for fat loss. But it’s no better than a diet where you get 30-40% of your total calories from carbs.
Researchers from Arizona State University compared two different diets over a 6-week period. One was ketogenic; less than 10% of the total calories came from carbohydrate. The second diet was higher in carbohydrate (40% of total calories) and lower in fat (30% of total calories). Protein intake was almost identical in both groups. Subjects in both groups lost fat. But there was no significant difference in the amount of fat lost. Food for thought if you’re considering the irritability and fatigue that comes with the first week of a complete carb cleanse.
When setting up your diet, you also need to factor in the type and amount of training you do, as carbohydrate plays an important part in both the preparation for and recovery from intense exercise. If you are trying to gain weight, it is very difficult to prevent weight loss, let alone gain weight, on a strict ketogenic diet.
If your main goal is to lose fat, then cutting back on your carbohydrate intake is a step in the right direction. But there’s no reason to avoid it completely. Like a good suit, your carbohydrate intake should be tailored in such a way that it’s the right fit for you.
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