Carbohydrates have had a rough couple of years with more people shifting to very low-carb diets like keto. Maybe you've seen a lot of success by eating fewer carbs, or maybe you notice that you're not feeling that great right now. Could it be that you actually need to add more carbs to your diet?
First, let's remember that carbs can be simple (like foods made with white flour or added sugar) or complex (like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains). Simple carbs are digested more rapidly and produce a greater rise in blood sugar, while complex carbs are absorbed more slowly and generally have a lesser effect on blood sugar levels.
Simple carbs — sodas, candy, processed snack foods — "are the types of carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain, inflammation, fatigue, mood swings and chronic illness," dietitian Nichole Dandrea-Russert, RDN, author of The Fiber Effect: Stop Counting Calories and Start Counting Fiber for Better Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The opposite is true: Complex carbs that are high in fiber can help with weight management, lower inflammation and better your long-term health, she says.
Which is why lumping together all types of carbs and trying to restrict them as a whole may have some downstream effects on your health that you didn't expect. Here are six signs that you're not eating enough carbs — and how to invite healthy, complex carbs back in:
1. Your BMs Aren't Regular
There, we said it. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables (including starchy veggies) provide fiber that keeps your digestive system moving to keep your bowel movements on a regular schedule.
"Lack of fiber has also been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, many health care professionals recommend fiber to prevent or relieve symptoms of IBS," Dandrea-Russert says.
Symptoms of IBS include abdominal cramping, bloating and constipation and/or diarrhea, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
2. You're Hungry All the Time
Maybe you're just having an extra-snacky day. But if you're still hungry after eating a meal, you may need more carbs on your plate.
"Not consuming enough carbohydrates can trigger the hunger hormone ghrelin, whereas balanced meals with carbohydrates, protein and fat can help to regulate hunger hormones," Dandrea-Russert says.
3. You Snack at Night
When you restrict yourself during the day, you may find that your body asks — or demands — what it's been missing later at night.
"I notice in my own practice that when people restrict carbohydrate-rich foods with plenty of fiber throughout the day, they seem to have more food cravings at night," Dandrea-Russert says.
If you fill up throughout the day with balanced meals and snacks with well-planned complex carbs, you may be less likely to reach for nighttime snacks (which tend to be not well-planned and lean more toward chips, ice cream or sugary cereal).
4. You’re Irritable
The gut microbiome, which is made up of trillions of bacteria, is pretty fascinating when it comes to your health. What you might not realize is that this microbiome (which is influenced by your diet) also plays a role in regulating mood neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA, Dandrea-Russert says.
Complex carbs stimulate the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, so you may be missing out on this natural mood regulator, she says. Plus, restricting both calories and carbohydrates can place stress on the body, negatively affecting your mood
Fortunately, Dandrea-Russert says, you can turn things around quickly.
"Your body can start creating new gut microbiota in as little as 24 hours just by changing what you eat," she says. Focus on fiber-rich foods, particularly those that are sources of prebiotics, which act as the food for healthy gut bacteria. These include bananas, apples, leeks, oats and sweet potatoes.
5. Your Physical and Mental Energy Are Low
Carbohydrates are your body's preferred fuel source, Dandrea-Russert says, and they're a particularly efficient way to give your body the glucose it needs for energy, for both everyday tasks and exercise.
It's not just your muscles that benefit, though. These foods give your brain the fuel it needs to crush the day's tasks ahead. If your blood sugar gets too low, which can happen if you actively restrict your diet, it may be tough to focus and concentrate, she says. (You might find that your thoughts are consumed with what and when you're going to eat for your next meal or snack. That's a powerful indicator that your body is missing something.)
6. Your Sleep Is Off
Finding it tough to snooze?
"One study found that eating less fiber, more saturated fat and more sugar is associated with lighter, less restorative and more disrupted sleep," Dandrea-Russert says.
This was a small study (published January 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine), so results need to be verified in larger trials, but given how important sleep is for good health, this is one promising benefit of eating more healthy carbs.
So, How Much Carbs Should You Be Eating?
The right number is different for everyone. But if you're currently restricting carbohydrates and don't feel your best, it's worth it to consider increasing your intake.
Dandrea-Russert recommends that her clients focus on fiber intake, aiming for 30 to 40 grams per day. This should come from whole, plant-based foods like fruits and veggies.
The other benefit to counting fiber is that it's far less laborious than counting carbs, encourages you to add — not subtract — something to your diet, which can be a more positive head space to be in, and helps guide you toward the better-for-you sources of carbs.