Losing weight may be one of the most frustrating challenges you can face, mostly because there is not one simple diet that works perfectly for everyone. Fitness enthusiasts and the naturally thin will tell you to just burn up more calories than you take in, but unless you resort to a very-low-calorie diet, which is basically medically supervised starvation, even this formula might not add up to quick and sustainable weight loss.
Counting calories is helpful, but being mindful of what kinds of calories you are taking in is even better. Losing weight by avoiding starchy, sugary carbs generally works for everyone, but if you are not careful about reintroducing carbohydrates, those extra pounds can sneak right back on.
Know Your Carbohydrates
Before you can go back to including carbohydrates as part of a healthy eating plan, it is important to understand the different types so that you can make smart choices in maintaining your weight loss. Carbohydrates come in several forms, but the two most basic kinds are sugars and starches, explain the experts at Texas A&M University.
Simple sugars exist naturally in fruits and vegetables, which also contain vitamins, minerals and in many cases, powerful antioxidants. While the sugars in fruits and vegetables are quickly and easily digested for energy, the nutrients support the functioning of your body. For example, the iron in spinach supports production of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body.
Antioxidants fight free radicals, which are byproducts of your body's normal metabolic functions such as breathing and digesting foods. They also develop due to exposure to environmental toxins such as air pollution and cigarette smoke. Free radicals are like the moss that can grow on damp cement, coating your cells, making you look older and even changing the DNA. Antioxidants scrub your cells clean of free radicals.
Complex carbohydrates are found in beans, whole-grain breads and pastas, legumes and peas. These foods also contain fiber which slows down your digestion, letting you feel satisfied and full longer than simple carbs do.
Where people get in trouble and start gaining weight on a low-carb diet is when they do not choose fruits and vegetables or complex carbohydrates for their carb allowance. Instead, they eat sugary, starchy items such as the processed flour and refined sugar found in white pasta, bleached rice, cookies, cakes, pastries, chips, sodas and fruit juices that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
These are considered "bad" carbohydrates because they get digested quickly and cause a dramatic rise, triggering your pancreas to send out insulin. When your blood sugar levels drop, your energy flags and your brain may send out hunger signals, which can lead to overeating or, even worse, reaching for another sugary, starchy snack. This contributes to weight gain and can also send you down the path that leads to Type 2 diabetes, as well as increasing your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Read more: List of Good and Bad Carbs
Understand Your Low-Carb Diet
Not all low-carb diets are created the same, so before you can start adding carbs back into your diet, you need to understand exactly why you were avoiding them in the first place. The most extreme diet, and one that is not recommended, is a zero-carb program, according to the nutrition experts at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eating only meats and fat not only deprives your body of essential nutrients, but you won't be getting any fiber, which is necessary for healthy elimination.
The Atkins diet is the grandparent of all low-carb diets. The purpose is to achieve a state of ketosis, where your body is burning stored fat. This is accomplished by taking in very low amounts of carbs and then gradually adding them back in. Adding in starchy, processed carbs rather than complex carbohydrates will throw your level of ketosis out of whack, which explains why some people are gaining weight on Atkins.
The paleo diet, keto diet and Whole30 are all more or less variations on the Atkins Diet, though the latter two are not intended to be long-term lifestyle choices. Paleo limits grains but allows dairy, so the carbs can still pile up. Keto is very low carb, limiting you to 50 or even only 20 grams of carbohydrates per day.
This eliminates everything but lean proteins, fats and nonstarchy vegetables, which means you are missing out on micronutrients and fiber. Whole30 eliminates sugar of all kinds, which means you cannot have starchy carbs like white rice, pasta and potatoes. If you add back the wrong kind of carbs, you may undo your weight loss.
Your best choices for a low-carb diet that will allow you to occasionally increase your intake of carbohydrates are the South Beach diet and especially the Mediterranean diet. South Beach is definitely a weight loss system, while the Mediterranean diet is a way of eating for life.
South Beach starts you out on a very low-carb regimen, then gradually adds back complex carbohydrates. The final third of this program is maintenance, so you could actually follow this phase as a lifestyle choice. South Beach, like Atkins, offers prepackaged meals, shakes and snacks, but you are better off using fresh, whole foods so that you can control the sodium levels as well as the quality of the ingredients.
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on eliminating saturated fats from your diet rather than limiting carbohydrates. Saturated fats found in animal products, such as beef, bacon and full-fat dairy, can raise the levels of low-density lipoproteins or LDLs in your bloodstream. This "bad cholesterol" can clog your arteries.
Unsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, lower your levels of LDLs and raise your levels of high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, which sponge up the bad cholesterol, helping to lessen your risk of developing high blood pressure, stroke and certain types of cancer.
The Mediterranean Diet is the easiest to follow and the one that is best for your heart health. Avocados, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, nuts, olive oil and seeds provide the fats in this diet, which also includes fresh fruits and vegetables and small amounts of whole grains.
The key to maintaining weight loss achieved through following any low-carb diet plan is to add carbs in slowly and to make sure that you are only adding those that come from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Read more: Ketones & Low-Carb Diets
Eating Carbs After Keto or Atkins
Switching from a low-calorie to a low-carb diet may sometimes cause a small weight gain because suddenly being able to eat things like bacon and cheese can allow your calorie count to get out of hand. Switching from low carbs to a more rounded diet can also cause a few pounds to creep back on if you are not careful about what kind of carbs you are eating.
The first thing to do when reintroducing carbs back into your life is to sit down and create a workable plan, advises registered dietitian Shoshana Pritzker in an article on the subject in Shape Magazine. It is easier to make smart choices if you have everything you need on hand.
If you have cleared your kitchen of all sugary, starchy, processed carbs, don't bring any back into the house. If you want a cookie, go to a bakery or the bakery section of your supermarket and buy one, and only one. Most supermarket bakeries will even give you one as a sample.
Get familiar with portion sizes. It only takes 500 extra calories per day to add on one pound of fat per week. Five hundred may seem like a lot of calories, but all it takes is 100 extra calories per meal and a pair of 100-calorie snacks. Add in a glass of wine with dinner, and you have taken in over 500 extra calories for that day.
Be especially aware of portion size when it comes to starchy foods, such as pasta and rice, because of the effect that simple carbs have on your body.
Choose the right kind of carbs. You don't have to give them up forever if you are smart about the kinds of carbohydrates you are eating. Choose whole-grain breads and pastas. You can also find pasta made with chickpeas.
Craving chips? Toss chickpeas and pieces of kale with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them at 400 F for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are crisp. This offers all of the salty crunch of a potato chip without the empty calories.
If you want something sweet, reach for fruit or make a smoothie. Nonfat or low-fat yogurt with berries and granola can satisfy a yen for ice cream. Try substituting grated cauliflower for white rice and spaghetti squash or spiralized zoodles for pasta.
The best way to keep tabs on how your body responds to carbohydrates, according to diet expert Dr. Kellyann, is to reintroduce them very slowly, making sure to key in on how they make you feel. Start with 50 grams of carbohydrates per day and work up to 75 or 100 per day.
Pay special attention to any bloating, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog or other symptoms that may indicate a gluten sensitivity. Monitor how your energy levels respond to starchy, sugary carbs, though eliminating them from your diet entirely is your best choice.
If you simply cannot imagine a world without white-flour pasta, use it as a side dish rather then the main course. At least half of your dinner plate should be covered with vegetables, and choosing ones that are different colors is even better. The largest portion on the remaining half of your plate should be lean protein, with a small portion of pasta, rice or potato taking up the rest. This way you can enjoy your favorites without having to give up your leaner body.
Weigh yourself once every week, and take your measurements once per month. If you see the number on the scale go up by more than 5 pounds or you are suddenly gaining inches where you are not building muscle, cut back on the amount of carbohydrates you are eating until you get back to where you want to be.
Read more: A Complete Guide to Complex Carbohydrates
- Texas A&M University: Good Carbohydrates Versus the Bad
- Shape Magazine: How to Safely and Effectively Come Off the Keto Diet
- Dr. Kellyann: 5 Strategies for Reintroducing Carbs
- Everyday Health: 10 Popular Low-Carb Diets, and Their Pros and Cons
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Staying Away From Fad Diets