Reducing Carbs Gradually on a Low-Carb Diet

Carbs
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If you’re considering starting a low-carb diet, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is how to reduce your carb intake. Depending on the plan you pick, there are two schools of thought: you can reduce carbs gradually or all at once.

While there are several different low-carb diet plans to choose from, they all generally fall into two main approaches to reducing carbs. In the first approach, you’ll reduce your carb intake a little at a time over a period of weeks or months. In the second approach, you’ll drastically reduce your carb intake at the beginning, adding carbs back in over time until you reach a level that works well for you.

Each method has pros and cons. Making the right choice for your body and goals will depend on a number of factors you’ll want to consider, such as your unique metabolism, carbohydrate requirements, and activity level. When you know the advantages and disadvantages of each approach to reducing carbs, you can make an informed choice about which is best for you.

Reducing Carbs Gradually

When starting a low-carb diet, many people choose to cut carbs in a series of steps. The average low-carb diet is generally defined as being less than 130 grams of carbohydrate per day—no more than 26% of your total daily intake.

For very low-carb diets like the Keto diet, you may eventually get down to a daily intake of carbs that’s less than 10% of your total diet (between 20-50 grams of carbs per day).

Once you've established your ultimate carb goal, you can begin working out the specifics of cutting back.

For example, if you’re currently eating around 200 grams of carbs per day, and would like to get down to around 130 grams, start by taking a close look at your diet and figure out where the majority of your carbs are coming from.

You may be able to make some immediate changes, such as cutting out soda, that will reduce your carb intake fairly easily. Other changes, like eating smaller portions of high-carb foods or swapping out those foods for low-carb alternatives, may require a little more planning.

Having an arsenal of low-carb recipes and stocking your pantry with low-carb ingredients will help, especially in the beginning when you're trying to establish new eating patterns.

Con: Slow Results

The first week on a low-carb diet can be especially challenging because your body needs time to adjust to using fat for energy rather than carbohydrates.

As you continue making changes slowly, your progress may feel “stop and start” at times.

For example, if you hit a weight loss plateau you may experience frustration and a loss of motivation until you're able to break through it.

Pro: Smaller Changes

Many groups that advocate using low-carb diets to treat health conditions, including the American Diabetes Association, prefer the "one-step-at-a-time" approach to cutting carbs.

While there are several advantages to the method, the most often cited is quite simple: research has shown that when people make small changes to their lifestyle over time (rather than a major, immediate, change) they’re more likely to stick.

Pro: Time to Adjust

Making a permanent change in your life, whether diet-related or not, is often more manageable when it’s small and gives you time to adjust.

Once you've formed a new habit, it'll get easier to keep taking steps toward your goal by building on your previous success.

Pro: Fewer Side Effects

Another reason to avoid eliminating all at once is that there can be some unpleasant symptoms in the first few days to weeks of restricting carbs. Some side effects of "carb withdrawal" or "carb crash" include:

  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Jitteriness or shakiness
  • Irritability or crankiness
  • A general feeling of being "off" or not like yourself

The side effects aren’t just physical, they can also affect your mood, which in turn can make it harder to stay motivated.

Reducing Carbs Drastically

Some low-carb diet plans advocate making an immediate, drastic change right at the beginning. The Atkins and South Beach diets significantly reduce carbohydrate in the beginning, then gradually raise the number of carbs until your body’s “carb equilibrium” is reached.

There are a few signs that will help you know when you've surpassed that point, including experiencing a weight loss plateau, less control over blood glucose levels, elevated blood pressure, and food cravings.

Con: Major Change

The primary drawback of reducing all at once as opposed to over time is the need to make an immediate and major change to your eating habits— changes which often require adjustments in your lifestyle, too.

While some people may be comfortable and even motivated by making such a big change right at the start, depending on your current lifestyle, personal preferences, and needs, you may not find the approach appealing or sustainable.

Pro: Fast Results

The positive benefits of low-carb eating are experienced in fairly short order and usually by the end of the first week. This not only provides you with the motivation to continue but gives you clear markers indicating when it may be time to make another change.

Pro: Increased Motivation

If you’re using home monitoring, such as checking your blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and tracking weight loss, it can be motivating to see progress soon after making a major change.

In addition to the positive feedback from the objective information you’ve gathered, you’ll also likely experience some subjective changes in the early weeks. You may feel you have improved energy levels, better mental focus, and fewer food cravings.

Pro: Adding Carbs

If you’re incrementally lowering your carb intake over time, you run the risk of feeling demoralized when more and more reduction is required to see results. Having to constantly eliminate foods from your diet can leave you feeling deprived.

However, if you approach your low-carb diet plan by making a drastic reduction to start, then add back carbs as time goes on, it may have a more positive effect on your psyche. Over time, you might find this approach makes it easier to stay committed to the changes you're making.

A Word From Verywell

Whichever way you choose to approach starting a low-carb diet, try not to get discouraged if you need to make adjustments along the way. While your diet plan will be your roadmap to meeting your goals, let your body be your guide. Pay attention to how you feel and check in regularly to ensure you’re giving your body the nourishment it needs.

If you start with one approach and find it’s not working for you, don’t be afraid to try something different or even start over. Once you find the path that’s best for your body and mind, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the benefits of a positive lifestyle change.

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