The Right Way To Do Carbs

Don’t drop that bread just yet! You’re going to want to read this first!


Headaches, dizzy spells, unsustainable weight loss: if you’ve ever tried the Atkins diet or another low-carb diet plan with extremely high protein consumption, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I think we’ve all been bitten by the “must-lose-weight quickly” bug at some point in time (myself included), but there are a few important things you should know before you commit to a second stab at a low-carb journey. Follow me as we navigate through the somewhat confusing world of carb intake, and hunt for the Goldilocks-perfect portion: not too many, not too few, but just the right amount to keep the weight off and your body happy.

A Love Affair With Carbohydrates

Our bodies love carbs, and not just because they are delicious. Our brains run on glucose, meaning you may feel sluggish, tired, or distracted during a low-carb period because your brain relies on glucose for fuel. If there is an insufficient amount of glucose for your brain to metabolize, then it won’t operate properly. That being said, your body is very good at ensuring it can continue to function, so it will begin to create glucose from other non-carbohydrate sources, such as protein and fat. This process is called “gluconeogenesis,” and it has a high energy cost.

Essentially, gluconeogenesis means that your body will break down fats and amino acids, transporting them to the liver to create glucose, before shuttling them back to your brain and muscles to be used for energy. The bad news: this process uses three times the energy that it ultimately creates. Breaking down more protein or fat for a smaller amount of glucose is the premise behind a low-carb diet. The assumption is that your body will need to convert more fat over a shorter period of time, causing you to lose weight quickly. In theory this plan makes a lot of sense, but in actual execution it encounters some serious hurdles.

Solving The Science

Your metabolism is a multifaceted process with several stages occurring simultaneously, and when your body is busy creating glucose, it only adds to the demand on your system. You may think that’s good news — it must mean more energy burned, right? Well, sort of. There is a common precursor for both glucose production and energy breakdown. And when your brain is sending signals that it needs glucose, the glucose production pathway will win. With fewer carbs available to be broken down into energy, your body will turn to fat and protein to create glucose, and this is where the problem comes in. Your body’s lack of carbs means that you’re unable to efficiently facilitate the breakdown of those nutrients, and what’s worse, it could potentially lead to fat storage as a result of excess nutrients. This is especially true if you are engaging in long bouts of exercise without adequate carb consumption.

A ramped-up exercise routine will deplete your glycogen stores faster due to an increased need for energy, which may also reduce your endurance. However, if you’re consuming at least 100 grams of carbohydrates (some researchers have suggested that 120 grams is the optimal amount), you may be able to avoid this trap and continue on to weight-l0ss success.

Be warned, however, that this number is merely an advised minimum. If you engage in prolonged endurance activities, your carb requirements are going to go up if your system is expected to sustain its performance. If you’re only going low-carb for a couple of days, your body is unlikely to be harmed. If you’re considering going low-carb for a lengthier period of time, however, you might want to consider carb cycling, which has been shown to be an effective method for fat loss.

By Jenevieve Roper, MS

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