Diets come and go, but the idea that carbs are bad for you remains a mainstay. Yet, despite their less than stellar reputation, carbs aren’t the enemy; they give you energy, fuel your body, and—contrary to popular belief—can help you lose weight (and keep it off).
In fact, if you’ve ever felt awful on the Atkins diet or more ‘bleh’ than usual, it could be because you’re not eating enough of them (or the right kind). Carbs should comprise 50-60 percent of your daily calories, but in today’s society, it’s easier than ever to miss the mark.
Below, find three professionals’ top tells that you’re not eating enough carbs.
Eating the Right Carbs
PSA: Just like fats, there are good and bad carbs that affect the way we feel. Ilana Muhlstein, registered dietitian and co-creator of the 2B Mindset™ explains, “Carbohydrates are broken down into three types: sugar, starches, and fiber. Sugars and starches simply all convert to sugars, which spike and drop our blood sugar and energy levels. Fiber, thankfully, is the third category of carbs that helps mend this blood sugar spike to give us more sustained and controlled energy that our brains and muscles can utilize efficiently.” Meaning, if you’re not eating enough fiber, those spikes and drops could be trouble for your energy and overall health.
There is a quick trick to make sure that you’re getting enough good carbs. Verify that there is at least one gram of fiber for every ten grams of total carbohydrates; the more, the merrier. Some great fiber-filled carbohydrates (or “FFCs”) are barley, oats, wild rice, lentils, fruits, and starchy vegetables. Carbs that don’t contain any fiber, like white rice, bread, pasta, and candy, don’t have the same health benefits. We can do with less of those.
“You could be eating a high carb diet containing lots of fiber-less fruit juice, crackers, bread, and candy, and still be showing some signs that you aren’t getting enough good-for-you carbs, like whole grains, fruits, beans, legumes, and starchy vegetables,” Muhlstein notes. Now that we’ve got that explained, check the following symptoms to gauge if you’re not eating enough of the right carbs.
Eating the right carbs will help fuel your workouts. Check out these workouts from Aaptiv and listen to samples here.
Carbs are a major source of energy; in fact, they’re the main energy source of a human diet. “If you aren’t eating enough [carbs] during the day, you will have a hard time getting through your day, and certainly [it will] make it difficult to get through a workout,” says Muhlstein. This is especially important for those who perform physical activity for two reasons. The carbs that you eat can be immediately burned up for energy, and they can also be stored as glycogen. This glycogen becomes an energy store that’s immediately accessible for later exercise (aka carbo-loading). If you work out and don’t replenish these stores, you’ll experience “hitting a wall,” or run out of the energy available to your body—hence, exhaustion.
Feeling mentally tired is another result of not including enough carbs in your diet. So, you may find that you’re having trouble concentrating or staying on task. “Your brain relies on carbohydrates for energy. If you’re not getting enough carbs in your diet, your brain power will suffer and that midday crash might hit you hard,” advises Samantha Hass, a registered dietitian at F-Factor.
Your immunity is down.
If you’ve never heard of the “carb flu,” you might mistake it for what it sounds like. While it isn’t the flu, per se—and is definitely not the flu brought on by carbs—it is a series of flu-like symptoms that you can get if you aren’t eating enough carbs. Headaches, fogginess, dizziness, throbbing pain, and inflammation are all possible. The fogginess, for one, is a result of a lack of glucose getting to the brain. “Your brain depends on glucose from carbs as its main fuel—it takes up only two percent of your body weight, but uses 20 percent of available glucose,” explains Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, and creator of Nutrition by Carrie. When your brain isn’t getting enough glucose, you’ll crave “fast,” sugary carbs. This will result in yet another crash.
Other ill effects are brought on by not getting enough fermentable carbs into our gut. “Our beneficial gut microbes rely on fermentable carbohydrates to survive and thrive, and those carbs come from whole grains, legumes, and many fruits and vegetables. If we want to be healthy, it’s essential that we nurture our gut microbes with good food from quality carbs,” Dennett says.
You’re struggling to lose weight.
While many people blame weight gain on carbs, they really aren’t at fault. Eating excess calories, regardless of which macronutrient they come from, is what causes true weight gain. In fact, cutting back on carbs is likely to have less of an effect on weight loss than cutting back on fat. Hass breaks it down by explaining, “Fat has more than double the calories per gram than protein and carbs, [and] some protein sources are high in fat and therefore extremely caloric. If you are replacing carbs with high-fat protein and fat you may end up consuming more calories and therefore gain weight.”
Dennett agrees, reinforcing how important it is to pay attention to what you reduce and replace in your diet, especially when it comes to low-carb or low-fat plans. Instead of eliminating carbohydrates altogether, focus on eating high-fiber carbs and enough protein; this should keep you satisfied and your weight stable.
You have poor digestion.
We’ve gone into detail about how a lack of fiber can really stall your digestion, but it turns out that a lack of carbs can be the start of this domino effect. “If you’re not eating many carbs, you’re not eating much fiber, either,” Dennett connects, referring back to high-fiber carbohydrates. “This can lead to bloating, constipation, and other digestive distress.” In short, too little carbohydrates means too little fiber. This has the ability to mess up your system.
Both Dennett and Hass recommend 30-35 grams of fiber—ideally from high-fiber carbohydrates—a day. Muhlstein notes that not only is this good for weight loss, but also for keeping your immune system strong. A two-for-one? We’ll take it.
Getting moody when you’re hungry is no joke. Hello, hanger. But were you aware that it could be a sign that you’re not getting enough carbs? “Carbohydrates play a role in the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin,” Muhlstein points out. “Between the low blood sugar causing fogginess and exhaustion, and a potential decline in serotonin production, you wouldn’t be a blast to hang out with.” As the effects of too few carbs add up, a dip in serotonin wouldn’t exactly be pleasant. On top of that, without enough glucose, your basic brain functions (like memory) will begin to falter; this could easily lead to anger and frustration. Eating good quality carbs—like fruits, vegetables, and grains—is key to avoiding these unwelcome effects.
You have bad breath.
Perhaps the least expected symptom is that eating too few carbs can result in bad breath. “This was a common issue for followers of the Atkins diet back in the day,” Hass starts. “Your body uses carbs for energy. When your diet is lacking in carbs it starts burning fat as fuel, producing ketones. Acetone, one of the ketones, causes your breath to smell like nail polish remover.” Shudder. No amount of breath mints can make up for this result.
Consider this an excuse to add more carbs to your daily diet. As long as you’re careful about what kinds of carbs you’re ingesting, you can enjoy a diet full of them.
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