Macronutrients are the essential nutrients your body needs in large amounts to function. There are three types of macronutrients: protein, fats and carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are used for energy, or glucose. Fats are also used for energy after they are broken into fatty acids. Protein can also be used for energy in the absence of adequate carbohydrate and fat, but the main job of protein is to help with making hormones, muscle and other proteins. For a complete diet, you need adequate amounts of all three.
Some people find that diets that emphasize certain macronutrients over the others — such as the Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet (keto diet) — help them keep in line with their goals and achieve results quicker, but it’s important to remember that all macronutrients are essential. You still need all three in your diet. People who are trying to lose weight often have a “fear” of carbohydrates, as many carbs are starchy carbs with a tendency to be calorie-dense, and consuming extra calories can cause weight gain.
However, carbs are a necessary part of your diet and shouldn’t be cut out of any diet completely. The key is to focus on the carbohydrates that are nutrient-rich and fiber-rich — the complex carbs.
According to a 2017 study titled “Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrate Dietary Patterns and the Global Overweight and Obesity Pandemic” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, complex carbohydrates are low-processed foods made with whole cereals and vegetables that contain the fiber found naturally in the food. When on a low-carb diet, this is the type of carbs you want to eat.
Complex carbohydrates have low glycemic indexes. The glycemic index (GI) is a way of ranking carbohydrate-containing foods based on how slowly or quickly they are digested by the body and how they increase blood glucose levels over a period of time. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion have a higher glycaemic index. These high GI carbohydrates release their glucose into the blood quickly. Carbohydrates that break down slowly release glucose gradually into the bloodstream have low glycaemic indexes. The blood glucose response is slower and flatter. Low GI foods may help with feeling full, due to prolonged digestion.
According to a GI guide published by Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, a GI of 55 or less is considered “low GI.” A GI of 56-69 is “moderate GI” and a GI of 70 or higher is “high GI.”
Some examples of complex carbs with low GI that you might want to include in your diet are beans, fruit, whole grains, oats, nuts, legumes and lentils. If you’re dieting for weight loss, these “good carbs” will help you stay full as you reduce your caloric intake. Not only are low GI complex carbohydrates typically high-fiber and contain vitamins and minerals, they take longer to digest so they also have less of an immediate impact on blood sugar, causing it to rise more slowly. If you’re someone who needs to manage blood sugar levels, complex carbs are the smarter, safer choice. Simple carbs can lead to faster rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion from the pancreas, which can have negative health effects. Complex carbs are also key for people watching their cholesterol, as the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of excess fats and carbohydrates in your diet.
If the goal is to lose belly fat, you should strive to avoid refined carbs. A refined carb is a carbohydrate that has been stripped of its bran, grams of fiber and nutrients. Some refined carbs include white bread, white rice, rolls, pizza crust, sugar, candy, pastas, pastries, muffins, sweet desserts and many breakfast cereals. The 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health notes that refined carbohydrate-based diet is one of the leading causes of unhealthy weight gains and is associated with the onset of the Metabolic Syndrome, which tends to raise the risk of developing several diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases.
A study titled “Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?” published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also states that refined carbs can cause metabolic damage to the body — especially among people who are overweight or predominantly sedentary. Numerous epidemiologic studies have found that higher intake of refined carbohydrates is also associated with greater risk of type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease. (Higher consumption of whole grains, on the other hand, actually protects against these conditions.)
Researchers note that unfortunately most carbohydrates in Western diets are highly processed. The obesity epidemic coupled with overeating and the growing intake of refined carbohydrates have created a “perfect storm” for the development of cardiometabolic disorders. For this reason, the study authors suggest that reducing refined carbohydrate intake should be a top public health priority.
Maintaining a balanced diet with unsaturated fats, healthy sources of protein and “good carbs” is key for losing weight. Avoiding the refined carbohydrates listed above and replacing them with whole grains can help you lose body fat — especially that stubborn belly fat.
Swapping out refined carbs will allow you to get the health benefits of complex carbs and leave with you with a higher degree of satiety. You’ll probably even consume fewer calories by eating a complex carb instead of its refined carb counterpart.
According to a list from Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, easy swaps include:
Instead of white rice, eat quinoa, brown rice, barley, buckwheat or wheat berries
Instead of pasta made from refined flour, eat whole grain pasta, chickpea pasta, other bean-based pasta or whole wheat couscous
Instead of cakes, cookies, pies and other low-nutrient sweet treats, eat fresh or frozen fruit
Instead of sugary breakfast cereals, eat oatmeal
Instead of sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, fruit drinks, punches or sweet teas, drink water with fresh fruit like lemon for added flavor
Instead of french fries or other fried potato snacks like chips, eat a small sweet potato with the skin
Instead of ice cream, eat a blended frozen banana with cocoa powder
Some other easy swap ideas include:
Instead of spaghetti, eat zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash
Instead of mashed potatoes, eat cauliflower mash
Instead of white flour wraps or tortillas, use big pieces of lettuce as lettuce wraps
Instead of croutons, eat nuts, seeds or roasted chickpeas
Instead of white burger buns, cut up portobello mushrooms to use as “buns”
Instead of white flour, use almond flour
As mentioned above, it’s important to get proper amounts of all of the macronutrients — carbs included.
If you want to watch your carbs or start a low-carb diet but don’t know where to begin, Gainful is here to help you do it healthfully. Our protein powders are custom-made to fit your diet and lifestyle, so if you’re looking to cut down on carbs, our nutritionists take this into account when creating your personalized blend. We’ll make sure your blend has the grams of carbs that work specifically for you and your diet plan, whether you’re going on a short-term diet or making a full lifestyle change.
Each Gainful subscriber also has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian. Your R.D. is there to answer any questions you may have about carbs, your macronutrient breakdown, prioritizing protein and healthy fats, food swaps — anything related to your wellness journey.
You can always turn to Gainful as a trusted nutrition resource.