Common advice given when it comes to losing weight and getting shredded is "cut the carbs and up the cardio."
Many a fad diet (paleo, keto, Atkins, etc.) have followed this recipe.
But the truth is, that following a diet that all but eliminates carbohydrates is not sustainable.
Sure, it’ll lead to rapid weight loss (that’s largely due to a decrease in water weight via glycogen depletion), but it’s not practical or sustainable long term. Plus, ultra-low carb diets also may not be the best for performance depending on what you’re training preference is.
Today, we look at whether or not you should cut carbs to get shredded.
Let’s get started!
All Carbs Are Not Created Equal
If you listen to certain camps in the fitness and nutrition arena, carbohydrates are nothing but insulin-spiking, blood sugar-skyrocketing, body fat-promoting ne’er do wells that wreck your body composition and metabolic health.
Thankfully, this extremist view isn’t shared by all in the fitness community, especially those who understand how actual human physiology works, and how the type of carbohydrates you consume (as well as the amount you consume) impact health and physique goals.
You see, not all carbohydrates are the same.
Sure, in the end, all carbohydrates (regardless of the form they are first found in) are broken down into simple sugars like glucose and fructose -- the primary source of energy for our cells.
However, saying anything along the lines of “all carbs just turn into sugar” is overly reductionist and lacks a greater understanding of nutrition.
The degree to which a food is processed, and what other foods it is eaten in combination with, can significantly impact its effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.
For example, eating a bag full of pretzels will have a profoundly different impact on blood sugar levels than eating a serving or two of berries.
The big difference between these two is that one contains a fiber matrix, and one does not.
Fruit also contains copious amounts of essential vitamins and minerals as well as water, while pretzels are essentially a salty version of refined flour.
Processing foods strips away most of the fiber matrix as well as many of the beneficial micronutrients naturally occurring in the foods.
As such, the bulk of everyone’s diet should consist of minimally-processed, whole foods.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t have the occasional sweet treat, far from it.
But, those processed treats should be just that...temporary indulgences, not the everyday norm.
Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand...
Do I Need to Cut Carbs to Lose Weight?
Despite what you may have read, carbohydrates are not the reason you can’t lose weight or get shredded.
Nor are they the reason that a significant portion of the population are overweight or obese.
One need look no further than the fact that multiple studies have shown that low-carb diets are no better than higher carb, lower fat diets are in terms of fat loss.[1,2,3,4,5,6]
More importantly, cutting carbs from your diet may actually be worse for muscle preservation.
The reason that carbs do not need to be cut in order to lose weight or get shredded are numerous:
- Carbohydrates are protein-sparing, meaning they limit muscle protein breakdown
- Carbohydrates allow you to push harder during training (especially for high-intensity exercise like HIIT, sprinting, and strength training)
- Carbohydrates support muscle and strength building
- Carbohydrates can boost mood and reduce central fatigue
- Carbohydrates also raise insulin levels, which confers its own anti-catabolic benefits and help lower levels of the catabolic stress hormone, cortisol.
Moreover, it’s actually harder for the body to store excess carbohydrate as body fat due to having to perform de novo lipogenesis.
However, seeing as you are dieting, you’ll be in a calorie deficit and your body won’t be in a fat storing mode. When faced with energy restriction, the body prioritizes calories and uses anything and everything thrown its way to sustain performance, functionality, and life.
Now, this isn’t to say that low-carb diets aren’t or can’t be effective.
They certainly can be. It’s just that they aren’t more effective than a protein and calorie-matched higher carb, lower fat diet.
Furthermore, low-carb diets may be necessary in certain cases (or more beneficial), such as those who are obese, diabetic, and/or sedentary.
Which Diet is Best to Lose Weight and Get Shredded?
At the end of the day, both low-carb and high-carb diets can be effective for weight loss. The main thing to focus on is that you are:
- Consuming enough protein each day (1-1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight)
- Following a reduced-calorie diet
- Lifting heavy weights several times per week
- Perform cardio (*as needed to create/maintain a negative energy balance, but not mandatory for weight loss)
When it comes to deciding whether to follow a low-carb or high-carb diet, it really is a matter of personal preference.
Some individuals experience greater satiety and less hunger during the day while following a high fat, low carb diet.
Others feel lethargic and have trouble pushing hard in their workouts due to low glycogen levels.
For these individuals, adopting a higher carb, lower fat diet may be a better approach for weight loss.
At the end of the day, the diet that works best for weight loss is highly individual, in terms of whether you should cut carbs or not.
If you do decide to keep carbohydrates in your diet, make sure to focus on those carbohydrates that are minimally processed and micronutrient rich, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Occasional indulgences of refined carbohydrates are fine, just so long as they aren’t making up the majority of your carbohydrate intake. Furthermore, the more processed a food is, the more sugar and fat (i.e. more calories) and less fiber it has, which makes it less filling, and thereby making it harder to stick to your diet plan.
- Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion. The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018;319(7):667–679. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245
- "Ketogenic Low-carbohydrate Diets Have No Metabolic Advantage over Nonketogenic Low-carbohydrate Diets." OUP Academic, 1 May 2006, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/83/5/1055/4649481.
- "Low-Fat Vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Weight Loss in Overweight Adults." The JAMA Network | Home of JAMA and the Specialty Journals of the American Medical Association, 20 Feb. 2018, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2673150.
- Naude CE, Schoonees A, Senekal M, Young T, Garner P, Volmink J. Low carbohydrate versus isoenergetic balanced diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2018 Jul 2;13(7):e0200284]. PLoS One. 2014;9(7):e100652. Published 2014 Jul 9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100652
- Nordmann AJ, Nordmann A, Briel M, et al. Effects of Low-Carbohydrate vs Low-Fat Diets on Weight Loss and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Arch Intern Med.2006;166(3):285–293. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.3.285
- Hall KD, Guo J. Obesity Energetics: Body Weight Regulation and the Effects of Diet Composition. Gastroenterology. 2017;152(7):1718–1727.e3. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2017.01.052
- "Evidence-based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20.