Can I Eat Carbs On A Calorie Deficit?


After years of dieting and consuming health information you can develop this belief that you should avoid carbs. In this article I will cover everything you need to know about carbs and should you be eating them on a calorie deficit.

Can I eat carbs on a calorie deficit?

As a general rule, you can eat carbs on a calorie deficit. The primary outcome of a short-term and long-term calorie deficit is to improve body composition and lower fat body mass, which can be achieved independently of the macronutrient composition in the diet.

In other words, as long as you are in the calorie deficit ,you can get lean.

Can You Be Thin And Eat Carbs?

In general, you can be thin and eat carbs. Getting thin is a matter of fat loss. Fat loss depends on the calorie deficit only, independently of the type of diet or macronutrient consumption. As long as the negative energy balance is reached, you can get thin.

Low-carb diets are associated with the robust health benefits. No doubt.

Every scientific article you read on, it is crystal clear that reducing carbs can improve:

  • Central nervous system

It is been shown that low-carb diets have a neuroprotective effect on the way our body uses energy.

And that nutritional ketosis can improve physical and cognitive performance (source).

  • Impact on heart

Nutritional ketosis shifts fuel metabolism from glucose oxidation to more energy-efficient fuel (ketone bodies) and improves myocardial efficiency and function, which in itself is cardioprotective (source).

  • Weight loss

By far, there are several research papers that shows low-carb diet, and especially keto approaches, impact rapid weight loss. 

Of course, initial weight loss id due to water loss.

But the further you stick with ketosis, the more results you get (source).

I get that.

No doubt there are evidence that low-carb approach is effective. In fact, it is been used in the bodybuilding community for decades.

But here’s the thing.

The same results you can get from any diet.

As long as you’re on the calorie deficit.

More on that later.

Do Carbs Matter In A Caloric Deficit?

As a whole, carbs don’t matter in a calorie deficit. Lowering cabs can improve insulin sensitivity, lower body fat, extend health span and lifespan. However, the key element responsible for health benefits is a restriction of calorie intake, not the absence of carbohydrates.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re doing keto, plant-based, carnivore, or the zone.

They all work, as long as you stick to it.

A study done by Christopher D Gardner from Stanford Prevention Research Center compared 4 weight-loss popular diets that really represent radically different approaches to carbohydrate intake and their effect on weight loss and metabolic health.

All groups had similar calorie intake and physical activity for 12 months:

The Atkins Diet

  • Weight loss −6.3 kg to −3.1 kg
  • Body fat percentage -2.9 (on average)

The Zone Diet

  • Weight loss −2.8 kg to −0.4 kg
  • Body fat percentage -1.3 (on average)

The LEARN Diet

  • Weight loss −3.6 kg to −0.8 kg
  • Body fat percentage -1 (on average)

The Ornish Diet

  • Weight loss −3.8 kg to −1.3 kg
  • Body fat percentage -1.5 (on average)

After 12 months, every single group improved their lipid profile, fasting glucose, and blood pressure (source).

So what does this tell us?

It simply means that regardless of what method you use (with or without carbs) as long as you restrict calorie intake for an extended period of time, you will get the results.

The key phrase here is “extended period of time”

Which means you need to find a approach that is sustainable and realistic to do long-term.

So you need to ask yourself.

Is it realistic that you won’t eat carbs for the next 6-12 months?

Because if it’s not, then keep in mind that you can still do it while eating carbs.

Should You Avoid Carbs When Cutting?

In general, you shouldn’t avoid carbs when cutting. In the short term, cutting carbs can lead to improved body composition and lower body weight. However, in the long-term, cutting carbs can create more cravings for food you like and increase your stress levels.

A decade ago losing weight was all about the calories in versus calories out.

See your trainer.

Get the diet.

And start counting calories.

But.

In the recent years, the field of science and biochemistry has exploded.

Today we know that neuroscience, psychology and nutrition goes hand in hand.

We know that:

  • Food restrain creates anxiety
  • Emotions affect our eating behaviors
  • Food is used to soothe and escape from painful feelings
  • Food can be as addictive as smoking or gambling
  • Our social environment influence what and how much we eat
  • Negative self-talk retards our stress tolerance

So watch this.

The longer you restrain yourself from foods that you really like, just because someone said that this food is “bad”, the more you build up the foundation for emotional and impulsive eating.

If you like carbs.

But your believe you cannot have them.

Because someone says so.

Then sooner or later you can breakdown.

And binge.

So with knowing that you can still get great results, despite having carbs, why would someone avoid them?

Should I Cut Calories Or Carbs?

In general, when being in a calorie deficit you should cut on calories. Cutting on calories will create a negative energy balance, despite what you eat. High-fiber vegetables, fruits, and low-glycemic-index carbs lead to higher satiety and better sleep, which is necessary during calorie restriction.

You have different types of carbs.

  • Simple carbs

Like cakes, pretzels, doughnuts, and candies are usually filled with simple carbs.

Sugars.

Which is not great.

Because all “digestion” work has been already done.

The processing strip off any starch, fiber and water out from food.

So all this sugar will go immediately to your blood.

  • Complex carbs

Like potatoes, fruits, veggies, grains, beans, legumes.

Those foods have complex carbs.

Apart from sugar, they also have starch, soluble and non-soluble fiber, water, and a laundry list of minerals, vitamins, polyphenols, and phytochemicals.

Which makes your digestion work harder and burn more calorie in the process.

Plus, you release sugar much slower comparing to the simple sugars.

So in case you wonder.

It’s OK to eat carbs.

But complex carbs.

What Happens When You Eat Mostly Carbs?

When you eat mostly carbs for the long-term, it can lead to higher body fat percentage, chronically high insulin levels, and poor insulin sensitivity. However, with a high amount of lean muscle mass, high-carb diets can lead to long-duration endurance performance.

This means that following an intelligently designed high-carb diet, with adequate physical activity can be helpful if your goal is to perform in a long-distance endurance type of sports.

Short-term high-carb diets are also used in a carb-cycling approach to reduce body weight.

After months of being on a low-carb diet or low-calorie diet, it is not uncommon to hit the weight loss plateau.

  • Resting metabolic rate drops
  • Thyroid malfunction
  • Reproductive hormone changes
  • Sleep disruptions

So cycling the high-carb days, with general calorie deficit can not only help to continue losing weight.

But it can also make sure you stay away from the problems of long-term dieting.

Does It Matter What You Eat If You Have A Calorie Deficit?

In general, it does matter what you eat if you have a calorie deficit. During a hypocaloric diet, the best foods to eat are high-protein, high-fiber, and high with water. Those foods lower the appetite, increase satiety, increase energy expenditure, and lower stress levels.

Lower appetite.

High satiety.

Lower stress.

This is the recipe for long-term and sustainable results.

Because there is nothing worse during the calorie deficit like eating foods that won’t fill you up.

So you feel hungry again.

Or stressing out from cravings for food that you think you cannot have.

So you will go much further along the line when you include foods that have:

  • Proteins (meats, eggs, fish, beans, legumes)
  • Fiber (potatoes, whole grains, veggies)
  • Water (fruits)

In case you want to know more about how to feel less hungry while doing calorie deficit, check out my article 5 Ways To Be In A Calorie Deficit Without Being Hungry.

Can You Eat Carbs And Still Lose Belly Fat?

You can eat carbs and still lose belly fat. Increased intake of starchy carbohydrates that contain soluble and non-soluble fibers improves glycemia, improves insulin sensitivity, increases postprandial satiety, lowers hunger signals, and can improve gastrointestinal motility.

Eat less food.

Say bye to the belly fat.

But eating less food means you may feel a little bit hungry. The good news is that starchy carbs like potatoes or legumes suppress your appetite and lower hunger levels.

So having choosing your carbs based on the satiety index will help you eat less food, without even trying.

What Are The Healthiest Carbohydrates To Eat?

Here is the list of the best carbs to eat while being in a calorie deficit, so you won’t feel at that hungry.

  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Apples
  • Baked beans
  • Brown pasta
  • Oranges
  • Grapes

Can I Eat High Carbs and Still Lose Weight?

In general, you can eat high carbs and still lose weight. Eating high carbs on occasion, or cycling high-carb days with low-carb days can increase your testosterone, lower cortisol levels, improve sleep patterns, and increase resting energy expenditure.

But this doesn’t mean eating tacos and burritos.

You can stick to the carbs, as long as they are low-glycemic and have high-fiber content.

You want to stay away from processed carbs.

How Many Carbs Should I Eat In a Calorie Deficit?

As a general rule, you should eat between 100 to 200 grams of carbs in a calorie deficit, depending on your gender, age, and physical activity.

  • For sedentary people, 2.5 g – 3.5 g of carbs per kg of body weight.
  • For physically active people, 3.5 g – 4.5 g of carbs per kg of body weight.

Is 200 Carbs a Day Too Much?

200 carbs a day is too much for sedentary people.

For physically active people eating 200 grams of carbs, strategically around your workout times, can improve your muscle protein synthesis and lower muscle protein breakdown.

Should I Be Going Over Carbs But Under Calories?

Going over carbs but under calories can boost your performance and improve your body composition, especially for physically active people. Going over carbs in a calorie deficit helps with energy levels, and improves recovery by replacing the glycogen stores after a workout.

The best time to have carbs while you’re on calorie deficit is during the workout.

Carbs with leucine.

During your workout, you sip on a high-carb drink.

Your insulin goes up.

At the same time, you drink leucine (BCAA).

Insulin binds to leucine, and together with glucose takes a ride into the muscles.

Your glycogen is replaced before you even shower.

Which means you minimize muscle protein breakdown.

And maximize gains.

When when you go over your carbs.

Conclusion

Eating carbs during calorie deficit isn’t bad thing.

The most importan factor is to distuinguish the difference between simple carbs and complex carbs and its impact on the health, and body composition.

Complex carbs needs a cascade of digestion steps to be done to extract glucose.

Simple carbs all works has been done already (which is not what you want).

So keep that in mind.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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