If you’ve ever tried cutting down on carbs, either for the keto diet or another low-carb but high-fat diet or high-protein nutrition plan, you probably know more about carbs—and how they affect your body—than any nutritionist could ever teach you.
How they affect your mood, cravings, energy levels, and workouts are a few of the practical things you might uncover. You might also discover the huge but subtle role carbs play in your emotional regulation and response to stress, cravings, and relationship with food in general.
Carbs affect all of us a little differently, but we can also learn about the role they play in health from the bread/cracker/pasta plights of others. Here are three essential things you need to know about carbs—from people who have eliminated them from their diet completely.
1. Carbs are what provide you with quick, usable energy.
Like protein, carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. But the calories in carbs are more rapidly metabolized than those found in fats and proteins. Carbs almost immediately get transformed into glucose in your body, which fuels your cells and provides a quick hit of energy. If you’ve ever been suffering from a 3 p.m. slump and made it through with the help of a cookie or sugar-filled coffee drinks, you’ve seen this in action.
Carbs provide quick, usable energy, so it won’t come as a huge surprise that you often lose energy when you cut them out of your diet. As Rufus, a 27-year-old an avid gym-goer explained, “As someone whose workouts typically focus on increasing strength, I’ve definitely noticed a dip in my energy output while in ketosis, especially in the beginning as my body gets acclimated.”
This can be temporary or happen just occasionally, or, you can feel like your body never actually adjusts to the low-carb fitness life. As Rufus explains: “My body simply performs better when it’s been fed carbs: I recover faster, require less rest time, and see more linear strength gains.”
2. Cutting carbs is a reliable way to lose weight.
While it’s always best to focus on changing your long-term habits to maintain a healthy weight, if you’re an athlete like Jake—a 28-year-old former college rower—who needed to lose a few pounds to meet a weight qualification for a race, cutting carbs is the way to go. “I was surprised how reliably it worked,” says Jake. “If I didn’t fall off the plan, I definitely saw the results. To hit an aggressive goal weight, cutting carbs is the way to go,” he continues.
He did, however, worry about maintaining the weight loss after the diet was over. And his worries aren’t unfounded; the majority of people who lose weight gain it back.
There is, however, research suggesting that if you’ve already lost weight, a low-carb diet is more effective at helping you keep it off than a moderate- or high-carb diet.
3. Cutting carbs is hard. Really hard.
If you’ve ever tried to cut out carbs, you probably don’t need an article to tell you that reducing or eliminating carbohydrates is really, really difficult. When Sabine, 31, took the keto diet for a spin, she found it extremely difficult, especially because I felt it was very hard to get in enough diverse veggies and fruit,” she says. She stuck with the keto diet for three months, but says she “ended up eating too much cheese and meat.” And for her goals, that defeated the purpose of the nutrition plan altogether.
Rachel, a 26-year-old editor, did a 3-month candida diet that was essentially keto. “For the first two weeks, I felt like I was going through sugar and carb withdrawal; I was so cranky, tired, and lethargic,” she says. She completed the program, but went back to eating carbs in moderation. As she explains it: “I find that if I have some healthy carbs — like sweet potato of quinoa — in the morning and at lunch, I’m my happiest, most energized self.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about the right amount of carbohydrates to include in your diet. But experimenting with them through different eating plans is a good way to identify the best ratios between protein, fat, carbohydrates for your unique physiology.
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