Keto, paleo, Atkins, low-carb, no-carb. Anyone who’s been paying attention to trends in health and fitness, or the social media accounts of certain influencers, will be familiar with these diets. They vary in terms of intent and execution, but all achieve a reduction in carbohydrate consumption.
If you think of nutrition in balancing an equation, it makes sense to focus on carbs. This food group provides the most immediate energy returns. Decrease the supply of carbs, and your body starts to draw more upon its long-term energy reserves, particularly fat. It’s something many people find desirable.
But are carbs really all that bad for our health? What can you use as a guide for determining your overall carb consumption?
Carbs’ bad rap
Modern diets include a disproportionate amount of processed, sugary foods. Soft drinks and sweet snacks seem to always be within our reach. They present a temptation that’s hard to resist while being a convenient villain in the struggle for better health.
The underlying mechanisms and functions have different adverse effects. Excessive sugar and starch start to form acid in the mouth, dissolving enamel and eventually requiring dental implant surgery. As we digest those carbs, the excess leads to elevated blood sugar levels. We gain weight, suffer impaired metabolism, and are at risk for cardiovascular disease.
By association with these excesses, carbs gain a bad reputation. It certainly makes sense for people to cut down on sugary treats if they are guilty of over-indulging. But carbs may only be part of the problem. There are good and bad carbs, and cutting both altogether might not be the ideal solution.
Eliminating carbs from your diet might work for you. However, it’s only an effective solution if it’s sustainable in the long term. Many people have attempted to follow no-carb or keto and witnessed some weight loss. But they eventually gained it back after failing to stick to the diet and returning to old habits.
Rather than going for the extreme, all-or-nothing approach, you can try a more moderate take on a low-carb diet. Start by recognizing which foods contain processed sugars and simple carbs. Pasta, bread, cookies, and crackers all use flour, but those made using nut flour are more acceptable. Likewise, most dairy contains lactose, except for products like plain yogurt or sour cream, and should be consumed in moderation,
You can continue to add carbs to your diet in complex form. The key here is to recognize that it’s not just raw energy content that matters. Foods have to be nutrient-dense as well.
Beans and legumes are high in starch and contain lots of protein and fiber, and essential trace minerals. Whole grains such as wild rice or quinoa are also excellent sources of fiber and nutrients. And if you must have bread, try one that’s made with sprouted grain. The sprouting process lowers carb content while retaining the whole grain’s nutrient profile or even increasing its amino acids.
Conduct your own experiment
Above all, however, we need to recognize something that has become increasingly true of today’s health and wellness industry. Nutritional guidelines are too contradictory and confusing for the general population to derive any universally applicable benefit.
This is a problem because most people aren’t expert nutritionists, nor do we have access to such advice. We rely on science to tell us things like how much carbs we should consume, but it can’t provide those answers.
Scientific studies need to be rigorous. They must control everything except for one variable and monitor a sizable sample population over time. Those requirements make it difficult to derive anything except a close association between certain factors. In the end, as people say so often, your mileage may vary.
That doesn’t mean you’re helpless to figure things out. In fact, the best solution would be embracing this process. Take ownership of the situation and conduct your own scientific studies on yourself.
Within 2-3 weeks of adhering to a no-carb diet, you can determine if your health improves and get a good idea of your tolerance for such extreme measures. Then you can scale it back and add complex carbs to your diet to see how things change.
If you’re satisfied with the results and comfortable with the diet that gets you there, you can work on other factors. You can start changing your exercise routines, sleep patterns, or the people you socialize with. Find out what works for you and what you can sustain, and you won’t have to make a radical change in your diet.