Low-Carb to Lose Weight?

There are a lot of questions arounds carbs these days.  Just like the demonizing of fat in the 80s, many people now think that the only way to lose weight is to cut back on carbs.  

However, this is generally not the best answer.  Most people don’t need to avoid carbs to achieve their ideal weight and best health.  What is more important is to make sure you’re getting the right kind of carbs.  In fact, most of us do best eating a moderate amount of good quality carbs.  This includes whole grains (if tolerated), fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans.  

In addition, when participating in a high intensity activity like CrossFit, getting adequate carbs will help most people exercise harder and recover better.  This will optimize your progress so you can hit more PRs and one-rep maxes, and of course we want that!

Some people may argue that avoiding carbs in the extreme has helped them lose weight quickly.  This is true in some cases, however, while avoiding carbs may facilitate rapid weight loss initially, it is often not practical, or necessary, for long-term success in most people.  

The main problem with extreme carb reduction is that over time it costs our body.  Most of us require a moderate level of carbohydrates to function at our best.  Especially if you work out! If you exercise regularly at a high intensity (like a CrossFit workout), restricting your carb intake too drastically can lead to a number of issues.  These issues include things like decreased thyroid output, increased cortisol output, decreased testosterone, impaired thinking, and muscle catabolism.  In other words your metabolism can slow down, you get stressed out, you feel crummy, and you have trouble building muscle or even lose muscle.  This is not something most CrossFitters want!  The worst problem is though, that you may not even lose that much weight in the long term. 

Many people see an initial drastic weight loss on very low carb diets which leads them to believe they have successfully lost fat.  However, most of this immediate weight loss is water and glycogen (a form of sugar stored in our muscles and liver for energy which helps us perform high intensity exercise).  Research has actually shown that in the long term there are not many differences between low-carb diets and other diets in terms of weight loss.  

So, if low-carb isn’t the best way to lose weight, what is?  Well, everyone is different, however, recent research has shown that a big “secret” to some of these low-carb diets is actually higher protein intake. Many lower carb diets are often higher protein diets as well.  When people were put on diets with a higher protein intake, whether it was low carb or moderate carb, they generally lost the same amount of weight.  So, it wasn’t that the carbs were lower, or the fat was lower, the main deciding factor in weight loss was the higher protein.  Not only that, but in one study people who ate a higher protein diet with moderate carbs actually lost a little bit more weight than those who ate the same amount of protein but were on a low carb diet.  Also, the people on the moderate carb diet reported significantly better mood and were better able to better maintain or increase muscle mass.

Overall, for most us the answer is not an extreme or super strict diet of any type.  Restrictions almost never work.  You should not take your nutrition to the extreme if your main goals are to be healthy, feel good, and perform well at the gym.  A moderate diet containing foods you like that fit with your life is the only sustainable method. Generally, this means a reasonable amount of lean protein, good quality carbs, and healthy fats.  Since each of us is unique, it may take some experimenting to find what works best for you, but in the end the most sustainable method is to keep it simple.  Don’t overly restrict your foods or food types, eat whole foods and avoid processed foods, and keep track of how you look, feel, and perform during your workouts.  By doing this you can create a sustainable diet that you can maintain for life.

Many people have trouble finding the right balance for them. If you want some help figuring out what works best for you, come talk to us!  We would love to help! We offer nutrition plans independent of our CrossFit and Personal Training packages. Check them out here.