Question: What’s the first thing you think about ditching when you’re looking to lose weight?
Carbs, right? I mean, the most popular diets out there right now—like Whole30, or the keto diet—focus on limiting carb intake, and they seem to yield pretty legit results. So it only makes sense that if you’re looking to lose weight, you’d think to nix carbs from your diet first.
But also, cutting carbs seems…really hard (pasta! bread! granola!). Luckily, nixing carbohydrates isn’t necessary for weight loss—in fact, most people can lose weight without cutting carbs drastically, says Christy Brissette, R.D., owner of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Chicago.
First, what exactly are carbs, and what do they do?
Carbohydrates are nutrients, and they’re the most important source of energy for your body, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Your digestive system converts carbs into glucose (a.k.a., sugar), which your body then uses for energy for your cells, tissues, and organs.
Carbs are also split into two different categories: simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs include dairy, fruits, and vegetables; while complex carbs include whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
Your body tends to digest simple carbs more quickly, while complex carbs provide a longer-lasting source of energy. But you do need both types of carbs for a balanced diet, BTW.
So, how many carbs should I be eating each day to lose weight?
Dietary guidelines recommend you get between 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, Brissette says. So if, for example, you’re eating 1,800 calories per day, that equates to 203 to 293 grams of carbs per day.
“Dropping carbs below this isn’t recommended for most people because it makes getting all of your vitamins and minerals each day far more challenging,” says Brissette.
With that in mind, you might have to make some modifications in order to find the sweet spot that works best for you and your weight-loss goals, says Liz Blom, R.D., a Minnesota-based nutrition and wellness coach.
She suggests getting about 45 percent of your daily calories from carbs if you’re trying to lose weight, and using a tool like MyFitnessPal to track your intake. If you don’t lose any weight after the first week, you can try going lower, says Blom. Conversely, if you start losing weight but begin to feel super sluggish, try upping your carbohydrate intake a bit and see how you feel and how your weight responds.
Still, you probably want to make sure your carbohydrate intake doesn’t surpass 65 percent of your daily calorie intake, says Blom. “This will leave less room for protein and healthy fat intake, which will support satiety (feeling full) and other weight-loss benefits,” she says.
The key to maintaining your carb control is to load up on wholesome varieties of carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and even dairy products, and keep your portions in check, says Blom. These healthy sources of carbs are also packed with fiber, which fills you up faster and curbs your appetite better than pasta and doughnuts.
Can you eat too few carbs?
The amount of carbs you need varies from person to person, Brissette says. Some people report feeling better on a lower-carb diet, while others feel exhausted and can’t function well. Carbohydrates are also known to boost athletic performance, especially at a high intensity.
“Athletes need carbohydrate-rich foods before training to store more glycogen in their muscles to fuel their working muscles. They also need a source of quick-burning carbs during intense exercise or endurance exercise, and more carbs after exercise to replenish and recover,” she says.
Also important: Eating too few carbs (under 100 grams a day) could possibly impact your memory, according to the Institute of Medicine per the USDA. Drastically slashing carbs may also have a impact on your mood, per Brissette.
“Carbs are your brain’s preferred energy source, and they boost the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that lifts your mood and makes you feel happy,” Brissette says. “That’s why low-carb diets are associated with a higher risk of depression.”
Rather than going right to a very low-carb diet such as the keto diet to lose weight, Brissette encourages her clients to start by emphasizing minimally processed complex carbs, reducing portion sizes, and increasing the amounts of non-starchy vegetables they’re eating.
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