5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Cut Carbs
… And what you should do instead!
Me saying “you shouldn’t cut carbs” is like diet heresy, and it can be an emotional subject. Low-carb diets are wildly popular for a reason – under short-term conditions, they can quickly help someone lose weight and improve biomarkers of health like blood sugar or lipid levels. But they’re far from a panacea, and many studies show that people have a hard time sticking with low-carb diets long-term.
As someone who was formerly overweight myself, I understand why there’s a tendency to pin a lot of dietary blame on carbohydrates (as well as sugar). Most of the foods that we think of as “addictive” are rich in carbohydrates. Then, throw in a few bestselling books like “Grain Brain,” “The Case Against Sugar,” or “The Obesity Code,” and it’s very easy to see why we would start to turn on carbohydrates as the root of our dietary ills – fear-mongering books like these confirm our anxieties and give us a life preserver to latch onto if we’re struggling with weight (or pre-diabetes).
But personally, I have reservations about low-carb diets, and it’s not how I coach my clients. I can think of many reasons why you shouldn’t cut carbs! While it’s true that people have varying levels of insulin sensitivity (and that some people will be able to tolerate a higher-carbohydrate diet better than others), the truth is that the variations aren’t as big as people think. With the right approach, my experience is that people who thought they “couldn’t” eat carbs actually can.
In this post, I’m going to give you 5 science-backed reasons why you shouldn’t cut carbs, and some tips to maximize the benefits of carbohydrates in your diet. Most of all, I hope this post helps you to improve your relationship with food, reduces your anxiety, and empowers you to feel confident in your eating choices!
Reason #1 – Carbs (or sugar) isn’t as addictive as you think it is.
The truth is that many of the foods that are easy to overeat are carbs combined with something else. For example, pasta is is not a “straight” carbohydrate – it’s usually combined with oil/butter, cheese, and salt. Pastries are not pure carbohydrate either – they’re sweetened with sugar and combined with fat and salt.
This is a concept called “hyperpalatability” – a super-enticing, high-calorie combination of starch, fat, sugar, and salt that is hard to stop eating. When something is hyperpalatable, we tend to overconsume it, often eating hundreds more calories than we realize before we feel full.
Foods without these combinations are more filling, and it’s easier to stop sooner. If we eat a carbohydrate like brown rice, or a sugar like a piece of fruit, we’re not going to experience that same “buzz” of wanting more.
It really helps to become more discerning about food combinations, and to build awareness of how our appetites are affected by hyperpalatable foods and how food are processed. This is much more effective for long-term health than lumping all of these foods together as “carbs.”
While hyperpalatable foods aren’t bad foods to be completely avoided, it’s smart to set up situations to help prevent overeating, and to make sure that most of our carbohydrate intake are whole foods that help us tap into our natural appetite regulation. Even carbs like bread (especially higher-fiber, more complex whole-grain breads) can be part of a healthy diet that helps us feel full and aid in weight loss.
Which leads me to my next point…
Reason #2 – Cutting carbs often means cutting fiber, and that’s not a good idea.
Fiber is incredibly important for heart health, optimal digestion, and appetite regulation. Plus, the high fiber content of complex carbohydrates plays a key role in keeping blood sugar in a healthy zone.
Most Americans eat 10-15 grams of fiber per day. The goal, however, should be 25-38 grams per day.
High-fiber sources of carbohydrates include:
- Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains
- Whole-grain products (like pasta or bread) that are at least 3-4 grams of fiber per serving
- Beans and chickpeas (and bean products)
- Lentils (and lentil products)
- Edamame (and edamame products)
- Pears, apples, and other fruits with skins
- Strawberries, raspberries, and other berries
- Sweet potatoes and potatoes (with skins on)
If you can manage to eat 5-10 grams of fiber per meal and 3-5 grams per snack, it’s amazing how much your appetite (and your blood-sugar) will regulate itself thanks to the slow-burning power of fiber, even if you’re taking in more carbohydrates than you have in the past when you’re trying to “diet.”
In fact, I have had amazing client results from focusing almost exclusively on protein and fiber intake – in one group program that I ran, we didn’t track calories or even try to lose weight, but the women who ate more than 25 grams of fiber a day lost weight unintentionally.
Reason #3 – You can improve your insulin sensitivity with exercise.
While this may seem like it’s coming from left field since we’re talking about diet, physical activity is an important part of the conversation. Low-carb diets are seen as a powerful tool for improving insulin sensitivity (and they are, to be fair), but there are long-term health (and hormonal) concerns with indefinitely consuming a high-fat diet and eating less than 20-50 grams of carbohydrates per day.
On the other hand, physical activity is also extremely effective for improving insulin sensitivity and regulating blood sugar, and it doesn’t require you to make such an extreme change to your entire lifestyle. Plus, the more you exercise, the more you shouldn’t cut carbs – we need 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of vigorous exercise.
To be clear, I am not disputing that low-carb diets can rapidly improve someone’s health. In fact, a low-carb diet may have a healthy place in someone’s journey as a “first line” treatment to quickly get someone out of metabolic trouble. But in my opinion, the best implementation of a low-carb diet would be to generate these fast results, then layer in more high-fiber carbohydrates and more exercise as weight is lost and fitness improves.
When I work with clients, I’m always thinking about what will help them to maintain their results and keep them as healthy as possible. Focusing on exercise as the primary method of regulating blood sugar is a more long-term, health-promoting strategy than trying to keep carbs super-low forever.
If you have trouble staying consistent with exercise, check out my blog post, “Making Exercise Habits Stick.“
Reason #4 – If you’re overeating carbohydrates (which is entirely possible), you can just decrease them, not eliminate them.
This is that black-and-white thinking that plagues that wellness and weight loss industry – if doing a little of something is good, then doing more must be better. But the truth is that just a small change in your approach could reap huge benefits. You shouldn’t cut carbs out entirely if you can just reduce them.
For example, if you’re eating 300 grams of carbohydrates per day (and you’re not highly active), then reducing to 150 grams by cutting portion sizes in half is going to have a radical effect on your body. You will probably lose weight, feel better, and see improved health biomarkers. But you can still eat carbohydrates!
Doing small things like…
- Measuring carbohydrate portions (1/2 cup cooked if you’re less active, 1 cup if you’re more active)
- Always combining carbohydrates with protein
- Being more aware of snacking and grazing (consolidating food intake into more observable, “formal” meals and snacks) so you’re better able to keep track of how much you’re eating
- Reducing or eliminating caloric beverages like juice or sweetened coffee drinks
- Eating smaller portions of carbohydrates at restaurants, parties, etc.
… can all dramatically help to reduce unnecessary carbohydrates and sugar from your day, keeping them at healthier, more manageable levels for your blood sugar.
I highly recommend these habits for most of my clients, because insulin resistance is real! Just because I say “you shouldn’t cut carbs” doesn’t mean that some modification isn’t necessary, particularly as insulin sensitivity might wane with aging. It can simply be more gentle than complete elimination.
Reason #5 – Low-carb dieting has low sustainability because it’s not flexible for real life.
Like I said earlier in this post, I’m laser-focused on sustainability – the habits, strategies, and lifestyle changes that help my clients maintain their results without feeling like dieting is a full-time job.
In that spirit, one of the reasons I don’t love low-carb dieting is that it takes a lot of attention, and it falls apart easily.
Of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who maintain their low-carb diets for a long time and in a variety of situations. I’m just saying that the research shows that this isn’t the norm, and that it’s more typical that people struggle to stick with it.
Going on and off diets can unfortunately contribute to the stress and shame associated with trying unsuccessfully to lose weight (or keep it off). Getting stuck in that negative mental tailspin is often what tanks someone’s health, because they give up.
So doesn’t it make more sense to choose dietary approaches that work in many situations, are more inclusive of life events, and don’t have such harsh boundaries?
With my clients, I don’t focus so much on total carbohydrate intake or net carbs. Instead, I find it more helpful to focus proactive, positive strategies where the goal is to have more of something, like…
- Centering your meals around protein
- Choosing more high-fiber foods
- Eating more anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables
- Cooking more at home
… And then if you have cake at your kid’s party or pizza at a restaurant, you’re not going “off” your diet. You’re not messing up. You can also take these skills with you on vacation, or make them work for you in a busy work week.
The best thing you can do for your blood sugar, your metabolism, your mental health, and your overall physical wellness is not to go on and off diets. Gradual changes that add up to good results are a much better behavioral investment, and this will look different for each individual, because our struggles are unique.
If you’re interested in having a conversation about your personal health and weight loss goals, get in touch.