Dieters often get confused about whether they should count carbohydrates or count calories to lose weight. Certainly, there is no shortage of controversy in medical and fitness communities about the benefits of restricting carbohydrates versus the benefits of restricting calories. The debate often plays out in the media, leaving consumers baffled.
For example, the publication of a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association supporting the use of a low-carbohydrate diet for weight maintenance inspired an editorial debate among physicians and researchers in that same medical journal for several months after it was published. Newscasts across the country carried the story along with conflicting commentary about which type of calories cause more harm: 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."
Should I Count Carbs to Lose Weight?
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:
- 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.
- 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 often have little nutritional value. If you can replace them with better carbohydrate choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll decease your intake of carbs, increase your intake of fiber and other important nutrients and feel less hungry throughout the day.
- 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 dieters who consume more protein are able to maintain an improved metabolism over time.
- More healthy fats. A lower carbohydrate diet will also give you room in 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.
- Improved medical conditions. Some medical conditions require that you count carbohydrates. The Diabetes Diet, for example, requires that you limit the number of carbs that you consume at every meal to 30-45 grams.
How Much Carbohydrate Should I Consume?
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 between 45% and 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrate. Guidelines from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics state that regular exercisers should consume between 2.3 and 5.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight depending on the amount and intensity of training.
Remember that counting carbohydrates does not necessarily mean restricting carbohydrates. A low carbohydrate diet is not necessarily the best diet for you. The best diet for you is a diet that you can stick to. For some people that is a low carbohydrate diet. But regardless of which diet you choose, counting carbs and making better carbohydrate choices will help you to improve the quality of your diet and your health over time.
George A. Bray, MD . " Diet and Exercise for Weight Loss ." Journal of the American Medical Association June 27, 2012.
Russell J de Souza, George A Bray,Vincent J Carey, Kevin D Hall, Meryl S LeBoff, Catherine M Loria, Nancy M Laranjo, Frank M Sacks, Steven R Smith. "" Effects of 4 weight-loss diets differing in fat, protein, and carbohydrate on fat mass, lean mass, visceral adipose tissue, and hepatic fat: results from the POUNDS LOST trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition January 18, 2012.
Cara B. Ebbeling, PhD; Janis F. Swain, MS, RD; Henry A. Feldman, PhD; William W. Wong, PhD; David L. Hachey, PhD; Erica Garcia-Lago, BA; David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD. " Effects of Dietary Composition on Energy Expenditure During Weight-Loss Maintenance." Journal of the American Medical Association June 27, 2012.
Karl J. Kaiyala, PhD. "Dietary Composition During Weight-Loss Maintenance ." Journal of the American Medical Association September 19, 2012.
David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD; Cara B. Ebbeling, PhD; Henry A. Feldman, PhD. "Dietary Composition During Weight-Loss Maintenance-Reply." Journal of the American Medical Association September 19, 2012.
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