Should You Count Carbs to Lose Weight?

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Are you considering counting carbs to lose weight? People often get confused about whether they should count carbohydrates, count fat or count calories to lose weight. Certainly, there is no shortage of controversy in medical and fitness communities about which method is best. The debate often plays out in the media, leaving consumers baffled.

Confusion About Counting Carbs

If you want to lose weight, which method should you choose? An important article in the Journal of the American Medical Association supports the use of a low-carbohydrate diet for weight maintenance. But after it was published, it inspired a strong debate among physicians and researchers. It seems that no one can agree about which type of calories cause greater harm to your waistline: fat or carbohydrate.

So where does that leave a smart consumer? A recent issue of the American College of Sports Medicine's Fit Society Page summed up a reasonable bottom line. In an article about the value of low-carb diets, they wrote,

"Several large-scale studies have compared popular weight loss diets head-to-head, and none of the diets emerged as the clear winner. This may be partly due to the fact that although people adhere carefully to the restrictions initially, they digress toward old eating habits over time. The boring conclusion is that the people who adhere most closely to the diet recommendations are most successful in their weight loss, regardless of which diet they follow."

More recent research suggests that although there may not be a significant difference in weight loss outcomes when compared over a period of 12 months or longer, there may be differences in outcomes related to cardiometabolic health during the weight loss process.

For example, a low-fat calorie-controlled diet produces a greater reduction in LDL cholesterol levels as compared to a low-carbohydrate diet. But a low-carbohydrate calorie-controlled diets produces greater reductions in triglycerides and greater increases in HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) than a low fat diet.

It is also important to remember that there are other eating plans that can support weight loss. For example, people can lose weight on the DASH diet or on the Mediterranean diet even though these eating plans are not specifically designed for weight loss.

Counting Carbs for Weight Loss

If you are trying to lose weight, regardless of which diet plan you choose, watching your carbohydrate intake can be helpful for several reasons. Benefits of counting carbs include:

  • The overall decrease in calories. Most of us eat a diet that is primarily made up of carbs. If you decrease the intake of your most significant source of calories, you will decrease your caloric intake overall. Decreasing carbohydrate intake is one of the easiest ways to decrease the amount of food you eat.
  • Increased consumption of more nutrient dense calories: By becoming aware of what foods contain carbohydrates and whether or not they are quality carbohydrates, you can improve your nutrient intake. For example, instead of eating a bowl of pasta, make whole grain pasta your side dish and fill the rest of your plate up with vegetables and protein like chicken or fish. Decreasing your portion of carbohydrates and changing the source allows you to increase your fiber (which is filling), reduce sugar, all while lowering your overall calorie intake.
  • Healthier overall diet. A typical American diet includes more than enough white bread, processed crackers and cookies, soft drinks, juices, coffee drinks, and sweetened teas. These foods contain little fiber, vitamins, or minerals. If you can replace them with better carbohydrate choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll decrease your intake of carbs, increase your intake of fiber and other important nutrients and feel less hungry throughout the day. In fact, the USDA recommends that we make half of our grains whole grains.
  • Increased protein intake. When you limit the number of calories you consume from carbohydrates you make room in a calorie-controlled diet for energy from other sources. That means that if you decrease your carb intake, you can increase your protein intake without increasing your overall calorie consumption. Lean protein will help you to build and maintain muscle and some recent studies have shown that people who consume more protein are able to maintain an improved metabolism.
  • More healthy fats. A lower carbohydrate diet will also give you room in the calorie-controlled diet to include more fat. Why would fat make your diet healthier? Some fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, help your body to function more effectively and may contribute to a decreased risk of heart disease. Fats are also satiating and they help us to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Improved medical conditions. Some medical conditions require that you count carbohydrates. For example, a person with diabetes may need to count exact amounts of carbohydrates to match insulin needs or they may need to follow a consistent modified carbohydrate diet to manage their blood sugar. Blood sugar is directly impacted by carbohydrate intake because when carbohydrates are metabolized they turn into sugar or glucose.​

The Best Carb Count for Weight Loss

So how many carbs should you consume for weight loss? The answer to this question depends on your activity level and your size.

According to the Dietary Reference Intakes of the Institute of Medicine, you should consume between 45% and 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrate. Guidelines from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics state that regular cardiovascular exercisers should consume 60% of calories from carbohydrates, although recommendations range from 6–10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to 510 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Remember that counting carbohydrate does not necessarily mean restricting carbohydrates. A low carbohydrate eating plan is not necessarily the program for you. The best meal plan for you is one that you can stick to. For some people, that is a low carbohydrate plan. But regardless of which one you choose, counting carbs and making better carbohydrate choices will help you to improve the quality of your overall nutrition and your health over time.

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Article Sources
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  2. Carbone JW, Pasiakos SM. Dietary protein and muscle mass: Translating science to application and health benefitNutrients. 2019;11(5):1136. Published 2019 May 22. doi:10.3390/nu11051136

  3. Pesta DH, Samuel VT. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014;11(1):53. Published 2014 Nov 19. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-11-53

  4. White, JIm, RDN, ACSM EX-P. Carbohydrates — The Top-Tier Macronutrient for Sports. Today’s Dietitian

    Vol. 21, No. 6, P. 32. June 2019

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