Trying to lose weight is complicated. The issues preventing weight loss can be physical, emotional, psychological, stress-related and hormonal. There are so many facets to the weight-gain and weight-loss journey, and every person’s journey is their own. Therefore, each patient needs their own treatment plan to lose weight.
But in the end, regardless of what’s causing your weight gain, if you consume fewer calories than you burn off, you will lose weight. It’s just simple math. One of the most efficient ways to do that, and one of the most physiologically appropriate ways to do that, is by cutting carbohydrates from your diet.
What Is a Carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are essentially sugar molecules that come in two forms: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are multiple, different sugar molecules strung together; a simple or refined carbohydrate is a single sugar molecule. All carbs get digested into sugar, and digestion starts in your mouth.
Carbs are a great source of instant energy. They cause a release of insulin from your pancreas. That insulin attaches to the sugar in your bloodstream and takes it into the muscle where it can be used for energy. Insulin essentially allows your body to absorb the sugar and use it. But if you don't use it all, it gets stored in your liver as glycogen or ultimately as fat on your body.
When you take in fewer carbs, you make less insulin. When you take in more carbs, your body releases more insulin. The more insulin that's circulating through your bloodstream, the more sugar gets absorbed into your body. Over time, however, carbs can stress your insulin by constantly forcing your body to make more to get the same job done. You get more insulin floating around in your in bloodstream looking for sugar, which causes sugar cravings. Insulin is also inflammatory, so it helps you hold on to extra body fat.
When you reduce carbohydrates in your diet, your insulin levels go down, which instantly increases energy and reduces sugar cravings, and eventually leads to weight loss.
Are Low-Carb Diets Better than No-Carb Diets?
I don’t recommend cutting carbohydrates completely from your diet. Your body needs carbohydrates. Your brain and your heart preferentially use carbohydrates for energy.
Some very low-carb diets work for weight loss initially because insulin essentially goes down to zero. They also result in consuming less calories. When you're eating foods containing only protein and fat, you can only eat so much of them, so you end up eating a lower-calorie diet.
The absolutely no-carb diets also work upfront, but they are really difficult to sustain. They dramatically limit the number of foods you can eat, and it’s difficult to avoid foods with no carbs. A no-carb diet can also leave you feeling sluggish over time, mostly because your brain and heart rely on carbohydrates for an energy source.
Following a low-carb diet helps to control insulin production and because it’s lower in carbs, it will automatically be lower in calories. I prefer the low-carb diets with about 30 percent of calories from carbohydrates versus the average American diet, which is closer to about 60 percent carbs. If you get one-third of your calories from carbs, you’re eating a fairly low-carb diet that will dramatically reduce insulin levels and control your insulin response.
To break it down further, if you’re eating 1,500 calories a day, a third of that is 500 calories from carbohydrates. One gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories, so you can consume 125 grams of carbohydrates a day. If you are eating 1,200 calories a day, you can consume 400 calories from carbs or 100 grams of carbs.
How Do I Find Carbs in My Diet?
To cut carbohydrates, you first need to know where to find them in your diet. Begin by looking for starches and sweets. The starchy foods are almost all carbohydrates. Many tend to be low in nutrients, so I recommend cutting them out completely. The five big starchy foods are: white bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and corn.
Be aware that whole wheat or whole grain products still contain carbohydrates that your body digests as sugar molecules. I always caution patients to be aware that eating a whole grain product doesn’t mean they’re not eating carbohydrates. They are, they’re just getting a slightly lower immediate insulin response than if they were eating a refined carbohydrate. Read food labels when shopping for whole-wheat products, and make sure the first ingredient is whole wheat or whole wheat flour. If the label lists “enriched wheat flour,” you’re still getting a refined carbohydrate that’s absorbed in your system immediately as sugar.
Sweets are another big culprit. Everybody knows sugar is in things like candy, cakes and pies. You should also avoid sugary sweet beverages, breakfast cereals, and salty and crunchy snacks like pretzels, chips and crackers. Fruit can also be tricky. Some fruits are better than others, and it’s best to choose the low-glycemic index fruits, or ones that don’t create an insulin response. Berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, are always safe. Bananas, some citrus fruits, and melons can cause problems.
Fruit is also healthy. I don’t want to tell people they can’t eat fruit. I recommend eating fruit with a protein source so it slows down the absorption of the fruit sugar in your system and helps to avoid that big insulin response.
Should I Count Calories and Exercise?
The number of calories you need each day depends on your energy expenditure. It’s going to fall somewhere in the range of 1,200 to 1,800 calories a day.
To determine the number of calories you’re consuming, you must read food labels, measure portions and count everything, including how many grams of protein, fat and carbs are in the food you are eating. Initially you need to get scientific about how to count the calories, but in the end it’s all about measuring portion sizes and reading those food labels to find out how many calories you’re taking in.
How much exercise you’re getting also plays a big role in your daily expenditure of calories. However, it’s a smaller contributor to weight loss than calorie restriction. If you can only focus on one thing at a time, focus initially on restricting calories in your diet, mostly by cutting carbs.
Exercise increases energy expenditure and metabolism, and it also helps with insulin resistance. It’s the strongest insulin sensitizer we have, so the more you exercise, the less insulin your body’s going to have to make to keep your sugar under control.
Exercise is absolutely an integral part of weight loss. Most recommendations suggest 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, five days a week. To get a good metabolic boost and a positive insulin effect, I think you need to exercise for an hour, five days a week. If you can work that in and make it a lifetime habit, you will be successful in your weight-loss journey.
If you’re trying to lose weight and have questions about how to cut carbohydrates from your diet, come see me at Olp Family Medicine in Carmel and together we can personalize a weight-loss plan just for you.