Can you have your carbs and eat them too if you’re trying to lose weight? With all the low-carb diets to choose from, it might seem impossible. But experts say that’s just one of many misconceptions about carbohydrates.
In other words, she says, we need protein, fats, and carbs in our diet—and losing weight is just about finding the right balance for you. So let’s debunk a few of the most common myths about carbs.
Nutritionists agree—this one’s a biggie. “When you cut back on carbs, you could lose weight because you’ve cut out a large number of calories from your diet,” adds Vandana Sheth, R.D., a Los Angeles-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While it is true that you’ll notice a couple of pounds drop right off when you go low-carb, that’s really just water weight. In the longer-term, low-carb diets may not be the answer to real weight loss. “Low-carb and no-carb diets have not been shown to be more effective at weight loss than a balanced diet,” says Mendez.
The real problem with carbs is that we often don’t know what a portion should look like, so we eat way too much. Most of us should aim for 295 to 425 grams of carbs per day—with a slice of bread, for example, serving somewhere in the ballpark of 15 to 28 grams. “One typical meal can easily provide half of your daily carb allowance. A large blended coffee drink, for example, could add up to 94 grams of carbs,” says Sheth. Instead, spread carbs throughout the day to have a steady source of energy.
Another common pitfall is not balancing carbs with other foods that help you stay satisfied. “We know that carbs have an immediate effect on our blood sugar,” says Sheth, but adding other foods into the mix keeps blood sugar stable. So look at what’s missing from your plate. It should be about half non-starchy vegetables (like cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, spinach); one-quarter protein (meat, fish, poultry, soy); and one-quarter starchy carbs. “If you’re not pairing carbs with fat or protein, you won’t feel full,” says Mendez.
Bread and pasta are not the enemy. Again, it’s the portions and the type of grains you pick that destroy your weight-loss goals. One cup of cooked rice or pasta, for example, has about 45 grams of carbs. “Before you know it, a typical restaurant serving of pasta and garlic bread can get you in the ballpark of 75 or more grams of carbs,” says Sheth.
Mendez agrees. “A lot of people have a hard time pushing it aside and saying it’s too much,” she says. A few tips:
- If you’re eating out, ask your waiter to immediately wrap up half of your plate to-go when you order—that way it’s out of sight, out of mind.
- If pasta or rice is your main dish, skip the bread basket and bulk up your meal with a side of filling salad or vegetables.
- Whenever possible, try and pick a whole-grain option, which has more fiber so you feel fuller for longer.
- At the store, choose bread with at least three grams (and ideally five) of fiber per slice.
Nutritionists have one thought on this myth: Nope. “Depending upon the fiber content, carbs break down to sugar at a slower or faster pace,” says Sheth.
Get the right kind of carbs by cutting out as many processed and baked goods, sugary drinks, sweets, and added sugars (found in tons of packaged foods) as possible from your diet, since they’re all packed with empty calories. Instead, Mendez suggests choosing whole grains (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, ancient grains like quinoa and bulgur), starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, corn, and lentils), and fresh fruit. These have more fiber, which keeps your blood sugar from spiking and dropping—a side effect that will have you reaching for your next bite in no time flat.
Related: The Truth About Fiber
While it’s absolutely true that some carbs can cause indigestion and gas for some people, it’s simply not the case for many of us. If you have frequent bloating and gas, you could have a different food intolerance (like to dairy or soy), a medical condition like IBS, or you might be downing loads of another gas-causing food (in addition to beans, artificial sweeteners and fibers in sugar-free gum and energy bars are common culprits).
A true allergy to gluten (i.e., celiac disease) causes rashes, itching, vomiting, chronic (often bloody) diarrhea; an intolerance or sensitivity to any food can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. If you do think you’re intolerant to wheat—i.e., every time you have pasta or bread you feel sick or bloated—Mendez says you could try to eliminate it from your diet for four to six weeks. “See how you feel, then reintroduce it and see if you feel different,” she says.
Of course, nailing down exactly what’s causing symptoms on your own can be tough. “I wouldn’t write off wheat off right away. See a doctor and rule out other medical conditions that could be contributing to symptoms, then see a dietitian, who can help you keep a food and symptom diary to target foods you should eliminate,” says Mendez.
Just because your diet is low in carbs does not mean it’s healthy. Replacing all fat with bagels and pasta isn’t good for you—and cutting out carbs by eating nothing but bun-less double cheeseburgers isn’t healthy, either. Carbs are your body’s preferred source of energy; not having enough can make you feel sluggish and lead to brain fog, signs of low blood sugar, explains Mendez. Healthy carb-rich foods provide essential nutrients and vitamins like fiber, B vitamins, iron, and folate.
Ultimately, it comes down to finding the right balance of mostly whole and fresh foods. “The research is inconsistent, but the general consensus from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that a normal-carb diet is appropriate for most people,” says Mendez. That means getting about 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbs.
If you are planning to switch up your diet, instead of nixing carbs from the get-go you might have more success—and an ultimately more balanced diet—if you start by cutting unhealthy processed carbs and sugars and making lifestyle changes. “Tune into your body’s hunger and satiety cues, and don’t snack when you’re just tired or bored,” says Mendez. After a few weeks, check in with how you feel and how your weight loss is going. You might be surprised at how much weight drops off just by making a few small tweaks.