Dieting these days seems to be focused around one thing: carbs. From Atkins to keto, cutting carbohydrates or eliminating them entirely is often touted as the best and fastest way to lose weight, drop fat, and feel better.
But that’s not exactly true, says Rachel Zimmerman, R.D., a registered dietitian at Indiana University Hospital at IU Health. “Carbs have gotten such a bad reputation recently with all the low-carb, crash diets out there, but carbs are an important part of our daily nutrient intakes—they are what our brains run on,” she says.
The research backs her up. When it comes to weight loss, it may be less about limiting a certain food group and more about finding a way of eating you enjoy and can sustain, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers divided participants into four groups and assigned each group a diet with varying amounts of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. After six months, every group had lost a similar amount of weight whether they were eating one-third of their calories from carbs or two-thirds. The results held steady even after two years, with all groups showing similar rates of weight-loss maintenance.
A separate study, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that while participants on low-carb plans lost more weight at the beginning than those on higher-carb plans, after one year it had all evened out. Weight loss, it seems, is more about creating a calorie deficit, and however you want to do that is fine, as long as you can stick with it.
That’s all well and good in the lab, but in the real world, how do you find a way to limit your calories that doesn’t totally suck? We asked five carb-loving ladies how they lost weight while still enjoying their favorite starches.
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“I basically follow a clean-eating plan: I eat strictly ‘God-made’ food (anything whole and unprocessed) for two days and then allow myself some ‘man-made’ food (processed or treats) on the third day,” explains Lisa M., of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I’ve learned that if I completely deny myself a food, I will end up bingeing on it at some point, so this two-days-on, one-day-off plan has allowed me to eat the foods I enjoy (including carbs!) while still losing 100 pounds.”
What the experts say: Lisa’s got the right idea by mostly choosing whole, unprocessed carbs, Goodson says. “Instead of cutting carbs, try cleaning them up and choosing things like oats, quinoa, couscous, brown rice and sweet potatoes,” she says. “The fiber will keep you satisfied for longer, craving less junky carbs.” And having the occasional treat is just fine as long as the majority of the time you’re making healthy choices, she adds.
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After having three babies Megan H., of Ridgecrest, California, says she was ready to focus on herself and get back in shape. She says she started by hiring a personal trainer, but would go home from her workouts starving and eat back all the calories she’d just burned. So after two months of seeing little progress, she decided to add in calorie restriction, tracking her calories using the MyFitnessPal app. “I don’t refrain from eating anything, but I definitely eat less of it,” she says. “I have a major sweet tooth for baked goods and no carbs would just make me sad.” Fortunately, with calorie counting, she can both lose weight and still eat some carbs. This simple math has helped her lose 40 pounds.
What the experts say: Macros matter, but calories are always going to be the bottom-line of weight loss, Zimmerman says. You have to consume fewer calories per day than you burn to lose weight.
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