Whether it was cookies or candy, frozen or fried, or chocolate or crackers, I’m willing to bet that there was no shortage of carbohydrates in most of our holiday-season diets. The start of the new year often coincides with the end of the overindulgence and the start of…dieting season. Low-carbohydrate diets have been a popular weight-loss option for decades and come in all kinds of different styles, with Paleo and keto being some of the most well-known variations.
We’ve written about the basics of carbohydrates before (and made this video), but in this article we lay out exactly what your diet may be missing if you drastically cut back on carbs.
What’s a Carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are typically our body’s main source of energy, which comes in the form of glucose. Energy from glucose is used by our body to support everything from digestion and absorption to cell growth and repair, as well as physical activity. Carbohydrates consist of both simple sugars – like table sugar and sugars found in fruit and dairy products – and more complex carbohydrates, which are formed when simple sugars link up together to make long chains. These chains are then broken down into glucose during digestion. Carbs are found naturally in plants like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, as well as animal products like milk and cheese.
What Might I Miss Out on While Following a Low-Carb Diet?
- Fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Even though it’s a type of carbohydrate, it doesn’t get broken down into glucose and it doesn’t provide calories. Instead, it passes through the gastrointestinal tract undigested and reaches the large intestine mostly intact, while providing health benefits along the way. Fiber is a key part of good gut and bowel health because it promotes proper digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals. It can also help to prevent intestinal issues like constipation. It may lower total and LDL cholesterol and blood pressure as part of a healthy diet, may reduce risk for certain types of cancer, and can improve blood sugar control. Finally, fiber can help with weight control because most fibrous foods are nutrient-dense and help keep you fuller for longer.
- B vitamins. There are eight members of the B vitamin family, which are sometimes collectively called “B-complex”. Each B vitamin has different roles in the body, but generally all of them work to support energy production and proper metabolism. They’re found in carbohydrate-rich foods like dairy products and legumes as well as seafood, poultry and eggs. Breakfast cereals are a top source of B vitamins, since they’re fortified to include them. While we can get B vitamins from non-carbohydrate sources like meats and fish, restricting any one part of our diet means that we’re less likely to get the amounts that we need. This means that people on very low-carbohydrate diets may need to take a multivitamin to make sure that they’re covering their nutrient bases.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral that’s important for many reasons: it helps regulate muscle and nerve function, maintain healthy blood sugar and blood pressure, and it is involved in making protein, bone and DNA. It’s found naturally in foods like legumes, whole grains, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals – all foods that are carbohydrate-rich. If a person is following a low-carb diet, it’s critical to get magnesium from other sources like green, leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
- Energy. Carbohydrates are one of three main sources of energy for our bodies, the other two being fats and protein. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommend getting 45 percent to 65 percent of your total calories from carbohydrates. Significantly cutting back on carbs means that much more energy needs to come from fat and protein in order to maintain body weight. In fact, a reduction in overall calorie intake is one major reason that following a low-carb diet – or a low-fat diet, or really any kind of restrictive diet – can lead to weight loss. Sometimes lowering calorie intake can be a good thing because cutting back on sweets and sugary drinks is important for those who are trying to improve their health. But severely limiting carbohydrate intake can also lead to unwelcome side effects like sluggishness, headaches and muscle cramps.
- A healthy relationship with food. Going all-in on a low-carb diet doesn’t automatically lay the groundwork for healthy long-term habits, like maintaining a consistent eating pattern, eating in moderation, and eating a wide variety of food from all food groups. Additionally, if you’re severely limiting a particular food group, you may find yourself dissatisfied with what you’re eating, which could leave you feeling unhappy long after your meal is over. If you’re interested in improving the healthfulness of your diet, try making small changes to your diet over time.
Going low-carb might sound like a great solution to overdoing it after the holiday season. While some have found success with it in the short-term, it’s not without dietary consequences. Rather than restricting all food sources of carbohydrates, focus on eating nutrient-dense foods that are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals – like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and dairy. Eating fewer sugary sweets, sodas and snacks will also help increase the nutrient density of your diet. A well-rounded eating pattern can and should include a mix of all types of foods!