The Low Carb Lowdown: Are You Sabotaging your Health and Performance?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been caught saying or thinking the sentence “I need to cut back on carbs.” This ideal has now reached the extreme of emerging low carbohydrate - and even no-carbohydrate - diets which are currently dominating the health and fitness industry. Many boast that low carb eating is the key to weight loss, sports performance, and healthy living. However, there are many disadvantages to a low carbohydrate approach that aren’t as commonly discussed. Pop some pasta on the stove and read onwards to work out whether low carb diets could be really doing you more harm than good.
Just quickly, what actually are carbohydrates?
Well I’m glad you asked. Technically speaking, carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibres that provide us with energy. They can be found in fruits, grains, vegetables, legumes and dairy products. They are also found in packaged foods such as soft drink, fruit juices, sugar, honey, lollies and baked goods. When digested, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars called glucose and fructose, which are readily broken down by the body and provide us with a ready-to-go fuel source for our brain and muscles.
Many carbohydrate foods contain valuable micronutrients including B and C vitamins for energy and immune function, calcium for bone health, and more. Most carbohydrate foods also often dietary fibre, which is the key to great gut health. Fibre keeps our digestive system working properly, and can also feed the good bacteria in our gut (sometimes referred to as our microbiome).
Lastly, carbohydrates are an important fuel source for exercise, especially high intensity exercise. Because they are readily broken down to provide fuel in the form of glucose, carbohydrates have been proven via multiple well designed research studies to greatly enhance exercise performance.
Then why all this fuss about low carbohydrate diets?
Low carbohydrate diets were founded on the principle that lowering carb intake would accelerate weight loss, by forcing our bodies to metabolise fat to provide fuel. Technically speaking, fat metabolism is unsustainable for high intensity exercise and leads to a drop in performance since fat metabolism is not as fast-acting as carbohydrate metabolism for fuel.
But yes, you’re right – your aunt’s neighbour’s second-cousin’s barista lost heaps of weight on a low carbohydrate diet. Low carbohydrate diets can sometimes cause rapid loss of up to 3kg in the first few days. However, this isn’t true fat loss. Just like a sponge, our bodies store water when we consume carbohydrates, meaning that cutting carbs usually results in a depletion of our body’s water stores – which looks like weight loss on the scales. Also, people on a low carbohydrate diet generally consume less processed or calorie-dense foods which can also produce weight loss benefits.
Unfortunately, with any diet, there’s always a “but”. Lower carbohydrate diets often come with lots of side effects.
· Poor gut health due to reduced fibre intake
· Increased fat intake, which has been shown to increase risk of heart disease
· Very low carbohydrate diets can cause headaches, fatigue, poor concentration, and (most importantly?) bad breath
· Low carbohydrate diets are BORING. Any unsustainable diet, a.k.a. a diet you don’t plan on following lifelong, almost guarantees weight regain. Food is not only there to fuel our body, but also to give us joy alongside social and emotional benefits
So how do I lose weight without following a low carbohydrate diet?
· Reduce your portion: Carbohydrates may play a role in weight gain as they are commonly over portioned – picture the size of a pasta dish or risotto dish at your local restaurant. For the average Australian, aim for carbohydrate to make up about ¼ of our meal, with another ¼ coming from protein, and half of our meal coming from vegetables.
· Get that balance: If you’re having a dish where you think you might overdo your ¼ of a plate portion, maybe follow up with a lower carbohydrate meal for your next main meal e.g. a meat and veggie stir fry, or vegetable omelette (provided this isn’t the pre-exercise or post exercise meal for a medium to high intensity training session).
· Get creative: If a lot of your go-to dishes are carb-heavy, think of some creative ways to reduce the carbohydrates in the place of more vegetables or protein. For example, you may transform the family-favourite Bolognese into a chilli con carne with a smaller serving of rice or wholegrain corn chips. Or you might cook half the pasta, and replace the remainder with zucchini noodles or black beans.
· Reduce nutrient-poor carbohydrates: Limit soft drinks, fruit juices, lollies and chocolates to small portions and special occasions. Read nutrition labels for added sugars (aim for <10g sugar per 100g), and gradually reduce added sugars in your tea/coffee over time.
· Choose high fibre carbohydrates: Carbohydrates that are high in fibre are sometimes referred to as low GI (or low glycaemic index). These foods are metabolised more slowly, meaning they provide longer lasting energy and are likely to keep us more full from a smaller serving. Look for wholegrain bread/pasta/rice, and incorporate more vegetables, legumes and fruit.