They get a bit of a bad rap from a huge section of the fitness community.
It seems like, if you asked a random person on the street to name the one macronutrient that’s the root cause of the obesity epidemic, they’d pick the poor old carbohydrate.
That’s because of the widely spread (and massively incorrect) mantra that carbs are bad, and they should be limited if fat loss is your goal.
What is A Low-Carb Diet & What Does it Involve?
A low-carb diet doesn’t necessarily mean a zero carb diet, rather it means limiting your carb intake. The definition of what constitutes low carb varies depending on who you talk to, but if you want to put a number on it, the general consensus seems to be that a low-carb diet as one that contains less than 130 grams of carbs per day. (Though you’ll often see 100-150 grams cited.)
What Can You Eat?
No foods are banned, but higher carb foods are clearly going to be limited.
That means you’ll be cutting back pretty severely on bread, pasta, rice, chocolate bars and sweet foods, desserts, potatoes, and even higher carb fruits like bananas and dried fruit.
What Would a Typical Day Look Like?
- Egg and egg white omelette with low-fat cheese, cooked with peppers, mushrooms and onion, with a low-carb fruit salad on the side. (Melon, grapefruit, berries, and so on.)
- Big salad with mixed leaves, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, pickles, and a protein source such as chicken, turkey or tuna. Depending on the carb limit you set, you could also add some beans to this, or have a low-carb wrap and a piece of fruit.
- Oily fish or fatty meat (sirloin steak, pork chops, salmon, trout, etc.) served with mixed greens and a low-carb root vegetable, such as baked butternut squash, or roasted rutabaga, turnip or carrot.
You could add some sort of low-carb dessert too, such as Greek yoghurt with walnuts, or protein fluff/ sludge with berries.
- Low-carb protein bars
- Nuts and seeds
- Celery and carrot sticks with hummus or cottage cheese
- Low-sugar yoghurts
- Deli meat
- Boiled eggs
- Beef jerky
- Protein shakes
Seeing as carbs make up the majority of the calories the average person consumes on a daily basis, limiting your carb intake is an easy way to cut back on calories.
It’s this decrease in calories that’s really responsible for the weight loss on a low-carb diet, not necessarily the lack of carbs.
Additionally, when going low-carb, most people increase their intake of protein and fibre, which can have a big impact on satiety and fat loss.
By eating more meat, fish, low-fat dairy and vegetables, you feel much fuller, and these also have a positive impact on TEF (Thermic Effect of Food – i.e. your metabolic rate) meaning a higher-protein, higher-fibre diet is almost certainly better than a diet low in both.
The main drawback is the fact that carbs themselves are not evil.
Adopting the mind-set of believing carbs are bad can cause you to develop a seriously unhealthy relationship with food, and makes socialising and eating out a lot more difficult, as there aren’t too many low-carb options on your average restaurant menu.
Not just that, but if you’re not used to a low-carb diet, your energy levels will plummet.
Carbs are your body’s main source of energy, and while it’s true that they’re not “essential” as your body can make energy from fat and protein, they are by far and away the most efficient way to fuel up.
Cut carbs, and you’ll experience fatigue, lethargy and a dip in performance.
On that note, carbs are key if you care about your training.
Under no circumstances should anyone concerned with maintaining maximum strength in the gym and maximum muscle mass jump headfirst into a low-carb diet.
Plus, you can still get fat on a low-carb diet.
Sure, you might cut your calories by omitting starches and sugars, but if you replace these with a load of calories from almonds, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados and peanut butter, you’ll still gain bodyweight if you’re in a calorie surplus.
Should You Do a Low-Carb Diet?
Carb intake is individual.
We’ve got two things to consider –
- Your dieting history, your weight, your goals and your training schedule.
- Your personal preferences.
I’d always advise keeping carbs as high as possible with a flexible diet, while still making sure you consume enough protein and fat.
That said, if you’re pretty light and lean already, or want to lose fat and only train a couple of times a week and have a sedentary job, you may have to cut carbs to levels that would constitute “low-carb.”
Someone who needs to drop down to 1,400 calories per day, for instance, probably won’t have a very high carb intake once protein and fat needs are met.
Hey – you might also just enjoy eating low-carb.
Perhaps you’d much rather get your calories from whole eggs, smoked salmon, butter and cream than from bagels, rice and oatmeal.
If so – great!
That’s the beauty of flexible dieting – you can tweak your macros to suit what you’ll find easiest to stick to.
The bottom line is that carbs certainly aren’t bad, and actually, cutting them too low will likely make you weaker, lack energy and lose muscle mass.
Unless your preference is strongly in favour of a low-carb approach, keep your cereals, your sandwiches and your sweet potato in there – just make sure they fit your macros.