Most of us have adopted a low carb lifestyle for health reasons and have had tremendous success, both with weight loss and reversing diseases of modern civilization. When we first start out, the weight loss and energy we feel from reducing our carb intake keeps us motivated. Once we’ve reached our goals, it can be tricky trying to navigate adding carbs back into our diets without completely going off the rails.
Carbohydrates are addictive. You may have experienced something called a “carb creep” in the past. This happens when we start to relax a little bit and re-introduce foods we’ve been avoiding. Our brain gets excited about the quick and easy source of energy and makes us crave it. Some of us stop counting carbs altogether and actually start gaining weight.
If you are considering adding more carbs to your diet, ask yourself the following questions first:
- What are your goals? If you are still trying to lose weight, your carb limit will be lower than that of someone who is simply trying to maintain. If you’re still trying to lose weight, but are happy to go about it slowly, you may be able to eat more carbs and still see benefits.
- How do you feel? Some people – especially women – genuinely feel better and have more energy when they have carbs in their diet. If you find your energy lagging or your mood taking a nosedive, you may want to explore adding certain carbs back in.
- Are you in a healthy position right now? By this, I don’t mean what the scale says; I mean what your mind is telling you. If you were addicted to carbs and sugars in the past, you may find it difficult to add more carbs back into your diet without completely falling off the wagon. It’s amazing how quickly we start craving carbs again once they’re reintroduced. If you don’t feel strong enough to resist cravings, right now might not be the best time to add them back in. Be honest with yourself about this; your motivations greatly determine your long-term success.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the low carb lifestyle; different people have different levels of carbohydrate tolerance. You are going to have to experiment on yourself to find a limit that works for you. There are a few different factors to take into consideration as you begin this phase:
- Age: As we age, our metabolism slows and we are more prone to gaining weight and struggling with weight loss. Some people lose the ability to digest certain carbohydrates altogether. Your carb limit will be lower than it was when you were younger.
- Gender: Men can generally tolerate more carbs, without weight gain, but women report feeling better with more carbs.
- Physical Activity: If you are sedentary, your carb limit will be much lower than that of someone who is always moving. You may be able to handle more carbs if you eat them after a workout.
- Hormonal Issues: Hormonal imbalances change the way your body reacts to carbs. For example, low levels of progesterone and estrogen dominance can cause weight gain and make you more sensitive to sugar. Women may find that their personal carb limit changes at different times during their cycle.
- Medications: Some medications, such as birth control pills, affect how our bodies react to carbs by changing the levels of hormones in our bodies. Other medications actually list “diabetes” and “insulin resistance” in the possible side effects. Research any medication you’re taking and talk to your doctor about how it could be affecting you.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
Increasing your consumption of spinach is very different from eating cake. You should be able to eat as many green leafy vegetables as you want without worrying too much about cravings or weight gain. Carbs that contain sugar, or that are high on the glycemic index (like fruit and grains), are another story. It’s best to choose grain-free, whole food carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes and carrots) at the beginning as these are less likely to cause cravings.
Chances are, right now you know exactly how many carbs you eat on a daily basis. When you’re ready to add more, try limiting yourself to 5-10 grams extra per day for an entire week. If you have lost weight at the end of the week, you can try increasing the amount by another 5-10 grams the following week. As you reach your carb threshold, your weight loss will slow or stop altogether. Pay attention to how your body responds and how you feel mentally. If you reach a point where you are experiencing weight gain, or you don’t feel very good, you know you’ve exceeded your carb limit. Track your progress and don’t forget to write things down as you eat them. It’s amazing how quickly we can forget about a handful of chips we’ve eaten – and how quickly those carbs can add up and stop weight loss.
Try to limit yourself to adding one food back per week. This can help you discover trigger foods – things that lead to cravings, overeating, and weight gain. Once you find your personal carb limit, you should be able to control your weight by either eating fewer carbs, increasing your activity, or a combination of both.