We’ve heard it time and time again. “Eat a low-carb diet and you’ll lose weight!” The #WarOnCarbs has taken over social media and news cycles alike, but is it correct? Not necessarily. I’ll explain below.
Why did the #WarOnCarbs begin?
Weight loss is a serious issue in the world today, and people want something to blame for it. Carbs became an easy target as soon as people realized that a reduction in carbs led to a significant weight loss in the short term. In the long term however, the results are nearly identical (1). This means that there are no significant differences in weight loss between a low or high carb diet long term.
So a drop in carbs will help me lose weight faster?
Yes and no. A drop in carbs causes an immediate drop in body weight, but not body fat! Your muscles store carbs as glycogen, which is used for energy when you exercise. If you don’t eat enough carbs you will be unable to replenish your glycogen stores. The drop in weight is mostly from water, as you carry almost 3 grams of water for each gram of glycogen (2)! If you’re trying to make a specific weight class, depleting glycogen works wonders. However, it does not lead to a decrease in body fat! In fact, you may actually end up gaining weight because this glycogen depletion can leave you feeling exhausted, leading to you exercising less and burning fewer calories.
You’re saying that eating carbs can help me lose weight?
To an extent, yes. Unprocessed, fibrous, complex carbohydrates carbs are extremely helpful for weight loss. Unprocessed carbs are not generally considered to be energy dense. This means that they take up a lot of space in your stomach, but contain just small amounts of calories! On top of this, fiber passes through the stomach undigested, meaning it will make you feel full without retaining any of the calories (3). Complex carbohydrates are optimal because their slower digestion rate will keep you feeling fuller, longer. They are also lower G.I. meaning they will cause less insulin to be released, which is important as insulin can stimulate fat storage (4).
Shouldn’t I eat more carbs then?
Not necessarily. Your weight loss should come from a reduction in total calories. This may mean a substantial drop in carb intake, or you may have to drop your fat and protein. Additionally, while lower G.I. carbs do not stimulate as great of an insulin release as higher G.I. carbs, some insulin is still released. It should be noted however that additional fat cannot be stored if there are no excess calories in the body. Therefore, creating a caloric deficit is the most important factor for weight loss. Overall, there are many factors influencing weight loss, but carbs alone are not to blame.
The Final Verdict
I’m not saying that low-carb diets don’t work. There are many phenomenal low carb diets out there that will cause substantial weight loss. I will even use them myself from time to time. The issue, however, is that many of these diets are not sustainable for most people. Ketogenic diets are a whole other discussion as the body creates ketones (essentially a fourth macronutrient to run on) in the absence of carbs. A full ketogenic diet is difficult to maintain long-term as carbs can be tough to avoid. Other low carb diets may leave people feeling tired, causing them to stop exercising as frequently or intensely. If you are able to maintain a caloric deficit while on a low-carb diet and still have energy, by all means, do it! At the end of the day, it comes down to two things: creating a caloric deficit via exercise and some caloric restriction, and most importantly how you feel. Do the diet you enjoy most, but remember that carbs aren’t evil!