Dieting and Weight Loss: Do You Need to Cut Carbs and Fat?

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

dietingDieting is everybody’s favorite topic. You have low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, high-fat, no-fat. And, then you’ve got flexible dieting, Atkins, Paleo, and South Beach. I’m sure there are some strategies I’ve forgotten, but it doesn’t matter because dieting doesn’t work. Seriously, they don’t.

Evidence suggests that although “dieting” may produce some short-term changes on the scale, most people get back to their starting weight or get heavier soon after completion. And, a lot of that is because popular and trendy eating fads are unsustainable and put no emphasis on macronutrient management.

Going low-carb or low-fat is not only unnecessary for weight or fat loss, but it’s counterproductive to your long-term goals. Cutting carbs and fat completely from a diet can be even more devastating to your long-term health and weight management because your body needs them to survive.

In fact, I bet if you walked up to some of the best beach bodies you see this summer and ask them what they eat, they’d say plenty of protein, moderate carbs, and fat. Some may even be high-carb and high-fat. I kid you not.

So, how is this possible if carbs and fats are supposed to be the enemy? Well, not all carbs and fats are created equal. Also, carbs and fats play essential roles in delivering nutrients, providing energy, and regulating hormones. The key to effective and sustainable weight loss, therefore, is managing your carb and fat intakes for measurable and sustainable results.

Are Carbs the Enemy When Dieting for Weight Loss?

When it comes to dieting for weight and fat loss, cutting carbs seems to be the number one rule on everybody’s list. But, it’s not necessarily effective. Healthy items like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and sweet potato are all carbohydrates that deliver nutrients your body needs to help lose weight and increase efficiency. Even the people with the leanest physiques eat carbohydrates every day.

Your body needs nutrient-dense carbohydrates for a few reasons. The first is that they provide energy to your cells. If you’re working out in the gym, going for walks, jogging, cycling or participating in other activities to help aid weight loss, you need energy. This energy, ideally, will come from carbohydrates.

Now you may be saying, “Hey! I want to use fat as my fuel source! Burning fat is the idea here!” And yes, you’re right; oxidizing fat cells is a good thing. But, it’s also a very painful and tiring process that’s both unsustainable and counterproductive.

By eating the right carbohydrates, and the right amount, you’ll still be burning fat, shedding the pounds you want, and feeling pretty good, too. At the lowest, you’ll want to get at about 50 to 100 grams of carbs per day, which is very low. But, if you’re making smart choices like green veggies and certain fruits like blueberries, you’ll do fine!

Carbohydrates are also your primary source of fiber. Fiber is essential for a healthy heart, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, nutrient absorption, microbial diversity and, of course, the passage of stool. It’s one of the most important things you can eat, and it’s only available in decent amounts in carbohydrate sources. And, if I were to list all the other nutrients you get from carbs, we’d be here all day.

So, why are carbs so negatively viewed in the world of dieting? The reason is that not all carbs are created equal. There’s no denying the fact that every gram of carbohydrate, whether it’s coming from brown rice, an apple, chocolate bar, or can of soda is worth four calories. What matters is how your body metabolizes carbohydrates, which depends on their source and makeup.

There are “good” sources of carbohydrates commonly called “complex” carbs, and “bad” ones called “simple” or “refined” carbs. Complex carbs are the ones found in items like sweet potatoes, whole grain oats, bread, brown rice, quinoa, and legumes. When you eat these items, the carbohydrates contained within them are absorbed slowly and do not cause blood sugar or insulin to spike. Instead, the carbs make their way to your cells and are generally not stored as fat (provided you don’t eat beyond daily caloric limitations).

When you eat simple carbs, blood sugar spikes quickly, insulin is released, and there is nowhere for the excess sugar to go. It is not absorbed properly and is often stored as fat, which leads to fat gain. Also, it can increase your risk of harmful conditions like type 2 diabetes.

Complex carbs and food items like vegetables and fruit when consumed in their whole form, are also great sources of slow-digesting carbs because of the presence of fiber, which thwarts insulin spikes. This benefit is lost when fruits and veggies are blended or juiced, so be sure to eat them whole for maximum benefit.

Is Fat the Enemy When Dieting for Weight Loss?

So, if there is all this value in carbs, fat must be the enemy, right? Nope. You need fat, too. In fact, you need fat more than carbohydrates.

Depending on what health agency or nutrition agency you look at, daily fat recommendations are anywhere between 20 and 30% of total calories. Fats are needed to regulate and produce hormones, restore certain tissues (primarily in the brain), improve heart health. They can even help stimulate weight and fat loss.

Fats are also a rich source of nutrition, depending on where they come from. Each gram of fat from an unhealthy fried potato chip or French fry is nine calories, which is no different than a gram of fat from a healthy source like almonds, avocados, walnuts, or omega-3. But, much like the carbs discussed earlier, there are different types of fats, and some are much better than others.

Healthy fats, like those found in almonds, walnuts, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, eggs, and fish (omega-3), have health benefits and are rich in a multitude of vitamins. On the other hand, over-consumption of saturated fats, trans fats, and omega-6 can have neutral or damaging effects on the body. Well, that’s not entirely true.

Omega-6 fats are inherently good for you. The problem is that they are far too common in the standard American diet, which causes inflammation. The recommended omega-6:omega-3 ratio for the Standard American Diet (SAD) is about 16:1, and it should be 4:1 max or better.

The best way to get your ratio in check is to leave the deep-fried stuff alone. Eat more healthy fats and lean meats, and incorporate more fish into your diet. If you don’t like fish, take an omega-3 supplement with at least 750 milligrams of EPA and 500 milligrams of DHA per serving.

You need healthy fats to lose weight effectively. Most good nutritionists will construct your diet by first establishing protein and fat requirements, then filling in the rest of the calories with healthy carbohydrates.

How to Maximize Health and Weight Loss

If all that talk about establishing calories got you nervous, don’t worry. It’s not overly important for people who want to get a better feel for how they’re eating. A really good way to think of it is to look at your hand.

At each meal, try to have a protein serving that’s about the size of your palm, a healthy carb serving that’s as big as your fist, and a fat serving that’s about as big as your thumb. Go nuts on green veggies. As far as I know, nobody ever tipped the scale with spinach, broccoli, or green beans.

Simply switching from white bread to whole grains, replacing a morning muffin or Danish in the morning with a bowl of whole grain oats and fruit, or swapping your white rice for brown is a great way to get started. Eating a handful of almonds and an apple instead of a chocolate bar during mid-morning snack can also make a big difference. In fact, by simply swapping out unhealthier choices for healthier carb and fat choices will likely lead to noticeable weight loss week to week.

Once you’ve made the adjustments and have established a healthy eating routine, you can get a little more advanced. At this point, you can establish your calorie requirements and how you’d like to distribute your macronutrients. You can figure out calories here.

Typically, a good place to start is with a 40% protein, 30% carb, and 30% fat macronutrient split. To accelerate fat loss, you can cut carbs between 50 and 150 grams per day, but don’t do it right off the bat. Instead, work your way down to this mark.

Best Carb and Fat Sources When Dieting

Incorporate these foods into your diet plan if you want to lose weight:

  • Oatmeal (unsweetened)
  • Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta, and bread alternatives
  • Sweet potato
  • Blueberries
  • Butternut squash
  • Apples
  • Peanut butter and other nut butters (natural)
  • Almonds, walnuts, and other nuts
  • Beans and legumes
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Salmon, tuna, mackerel (omega-3)
  • Avocado
  • Whole fruits

Sources:
Simopoulos, A., “Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases,” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, November 2006; 60(9): 502–507. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopha.2006.07.080.
Brehm, B. et al, “A Randomized Trial Comparing a Very Low Carbohydrate Diet and a Calorie-Restricted Low Fat Diet on Body Weight and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Healthy Women,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, April 1, 2003; 88(4): 1617-1623. doi: https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2002-021480.
Roussell, M., “Eat Fat to Burn More Fat,” Bodybuilding.com, February 23, 2017; https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/how-eating-more-fat-helps-you-lose-more-weight.html, last accessed May 17, 2017.
Anderson, J. et all, “Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2001; 74(5): 579-584. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/5/579.long, last accessed May 17, 2017.
McLeod, K., “Why do so many people regain weight after going on a diet?” The Washington Post, December 30, 2016; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/why-do-so-many-people-regain-weight-after-going-on-a-diet/2016/12/29/1fb99202-b58b-11e6-b8df-600bd9d38a02_story.html?utm_term=.364501df4edb, last accessed May 17, 2017.

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