Eating enough carbs has been a hot topic in the age of diets such as Keto and Whole 30. With many people following the idea that quality fat and protein reign supreme and carbs are the pesky cause of weight gain. However, are we ignoring the risk of not eating enough carbs in our daily diet? We’ve dived into the importance of carbs and why a low-carb diet might lead to some negative health side effects.
Why Are Carbohydrates Important?
So what are carbs anyway? Carbohydrates are sugar molecules that can be digested by the body to produce glucose. It includes all starches, sugars, and fibers that can be found in various food sources such as fruits, legumes, vegetables, grains, and dairy products.
In general, carbohydrates are often labeled as the main energy source for the human body. However, this is not exactly true. The human body is capable of deriving glucose from fat and protein. Though, it is most convenient and “cost-efficient” for the body to produce energy from carbohydrates. Unlike fat and protein, carbohydrates can be easily metabolized into glucose along the digestive tract and released into the bloodstream as immediate energy for other organs.
If there is an excess amount of glucose, it will be stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. According to the Iowa State University medical research, the average human body can conserve up to about 2,000 calories of glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles. Carbs will only be changed to fat for storing in the adipose tissues when the glycogen capacity reaches its maximum.
So, in short, carbs are your body’s primary fuel source. Only when carbs are eaten in excess will your body go through the trouble of storing that glycogen for a rainy day. You can thank the tactics of survivalist evolution for that one.
How Many Carbs Should You Be Eating?
According to the Dietary Guidelines, carbohydrates should make up 45-65 percent of your daily calories. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, about 900-1,300 calories should come from eating carbohydrates. This translates to about 225-325 grams of carbohydrates per day. And most of those carbs should come from healthy complex carbohydrate sources, we’ll talk more on that later.
If the above guidelines seem a little hard to follow you can also calculate your carbohydrate needs calorically. As depending on your daily calorie needs you can also understand your daily carbs needs. If you know how many calories you need each day, you can figure out how many grams of carbs you need:
- Start by determining your daily calorie need and divide that number in half. That’s how many calories should come from carbohydrates.
- Each gram of carbohydrate has four calories. Divide the number you got from the first step by four.
- The final number is equal to the number of carbohydrates in grams you need each day.
For example, a person who eats approximately 2,000 calories per day should take in about 250 grams of carbohydrates (2,000 divided by 2 = 1,000 and 1,000 divided by 4 = 250).
Simple Carbs Vs. Complex Carbs
Carbs are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar. There are four calories per gram of carbohydrate. You’ll often hear about “simple” carbs and “complex” carbs.
Simple carbohydrates (aka simple sugars) are broken down quickly by your body, and they have just one or two sugar molecules linked together. Honey (fructose and glucose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk (lactose) all contain simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs are what you want to cut back on.
Complex carbohydrates have more nutrients and take longer for your body to digest, so they help fill you up and don’t cause the same swings in blood sugars as simple carbs. Complex carbs are larger molecules than simple carbs, this means it takes our body longer to digest and absorb them. Grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables all contain complex carbohydrates. Many carb foods have a mix of carbohydrates; for example, fruit contains natural fruit sugar (fructose, a simple carb) as well as dietary fiber.
Foods that are mostly made up of simple carbohydrates, like candy, pastries and soda, provide an instant source of energy, but they are digested quickly and spike your blood sugar. This leads to the post-sugar crash you may be familiar with and feeling hungry again soon after.
Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down since their molecular structure is larger. The best ones also have plenty of fiber, which moves slowly through the digestive tract.
Lack of Carbohydrate Symptoms
Although everyone is different in their sensitivity to carbohydrates, there are a few tell-tale signs that your body could need a diet that is more carb-rich.
Psychical Symptoms of Low Carb Intake
Some of the symptoms of a low carb intake are probably familiar as most of them are associated with low blood sugar. These symptoms may also be common to those who are regularly active. This is because as your body exerts itself, it requires a higher amount of glycogen stores. So, if any of these symptoms occur in your daily life you may want to consider increasing the amount of carbs you eat.
A few of the common symptoms associated with a low intake of carbs are the following:
- Extreme hunger
- Shakiness of hands and legs
- Cold sweat
- Feeling weak
A March 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that a low-to-moderate intake of carbohydrates increases the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF), a common heart rhythm disorder. AF manifests as fatigue, dizziness, and palpitations and can lead to a stroke or heart attack. The authors concluded that doctors shouldn’t extensively recommend low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss.
Although the body of scientific research isn’t conclusive, a few studies indicate that the lack of carbohydrates in the diet may be linked to a higher risk of mortality. In a 2013 study featured in PLOS One, researchers reviewed investigations to determine the long-term effects of a low-carbohydrate diet. The results showed that, although the eating plan wasn’t linked to elevated heart risk, it was associated with a significantly raised risk of all-cause mortality.
Mental Symptoms of Low Carb Intake
We’ve probably all experienced irritability and mental fatigue after skipping a meal or forgetting to eat throughout the day. These everyday emotional hiccups are most likely caused by a dip in your body’s blood sugar. Carbohydrates have a direct impact on blood glucose (aka blood sugar levels). This is because the sugars in carbs turn into glucose through metabolic processes. As a result, our blood glucose levels begin to rise. When this begins to happen, beta cells in the pancreas sense the increase and release insulin.
So if you normally follow a diet that consists of eating regular carbs, suddenly eating a low-carb diet will most likely lead to some pesky and unpleasant swings in mood.
Some of the basic reactions to a low-carb diet are the following:
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Feeling irritable and anxious
While the studies published on the relationship between carbohydrates and mood are few, research has linked that links more serious mood changes to a low carb diet. Some researchers believe a low-carb diet may have an adverse effect on those who are prone to low moods. A study done by Oxford University in the U.K. reported that the “mood problem” with low-carb diets was measurable in women already fighting depression.
However, following a low-carb diet doesn’t automatically mean that your cognitive abilities will take a dive. In fact, a year-long study published in 2009 found no difference in cognitive functioning for subjects consuming either a low-carb weight loss diet or a high-carb weight loss diet. Both actually enjoyed improvements to working memory and speed of processing.
Effects of A Long Term Low Carb Diet
With low-carb diets being on the rise in the realm of health and fitness in recent years, there are increasing amounts of people eating little to no carbs for extended periods of time. The ultimate low-carbohydrate diet is the ketogenic diet, otherwise called the keto diet. It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate consumption to 5 to 10 percent of the daily calorie intake and getting most of the calories from fat and some protein.
At first, the body will utilize the stored glycogen in the liver. After the source is exhausted, the body will start to break down fat and muscle cells for energy source. In the process of turning fat into usable fuel, the liver will produce a large amount of ketone bodies that will be released into the bloodstream. This starvation mode is sometimes referred to as the ketogenic stage.
Under these circumstances, the brain will start to use the ketones as an energy source while curbing the hunger sensation. For dieters, this is when they experience rapid weight loss and fat loss. When this stage is prolonged, high amounts of ketone will be accumulated in the body (0.5-5 mM). Consequently, it may trigger a condition called nutritional ketosis. This is usually the time when dieters begin to experience various symptoms.
Over time, ketosis may result in dehydration, the altered chemical balance in the blood and perilously low blood sugar levels. Other long-term effects are unclear, but lack of fiber intake can cause constipation and nutritional deficiencies can result from low consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Because of health concerns that may stem from the keto diet, certain people shouldn’t attempt the diet. These include those with liver failure, pancreatitis, and disorders of fat metabolism, reports a March 2019 study published in StatPearls. So consult with your doctor before starting the diet.
Harvard Health Publishing recommends that instead of following an eating plan that severely restricts carbohydrates or other nutrients, you adopt a well-balanced healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meats and olive oil. An example of this type of eating is the Mediterranean diet.
Is A Low-Carb Diet Right For You?
Despite the bad press that carbs get, they are a cornerstone of daily nutrition. However, the amount and kinds of carbohydrates you should be eating is unique to you and what helps you feel your best. While you can never go wrong with a hearty serving of complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, black beans, or quinoa to supplement your diet, the way you process carbs may be different than the guidelines.
If you have noticed a marked improvement by axing out the carbs from your diet then that might be a cue from your body that you don’t need too many carbs in your daily nutrition. Though if you are experiencing long periods of mental or physical fatigue, irritability, or muscle weakness these may be a sign to consider adding more carbs to your diet.
What has your experience been like with carbs and what works best for you? We would love to hear your thoughts down in the comments!