Feeling "hangry," the combination of hungry and angry, is what I hear a lot from patients who believe all carbs are evil, and that if you want to control your blood sugar or lose weight, they all have to go.
Strong studies point to carbohydrate restriction as a main treatment for type 2 diabetes, but it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Many of my patients on very low-carb diets can’t sustain them long term. Eventually, they re-gain their weight and their blood-sugar problems come back. Those angry months of deprivation weren’t worth it.
There’s a better way, which involves keeping some of the foods you love, and as a result, maintaining your sanity.
Any time you eat a carbohydrate, your body has to redirect the glucose from your bloodstream to your cells. It calls on your pancreas, where insulin lives, to get the job done.
Insulin’s role is to take the glucose and distribute it to your muscle and fat cells, where it’s either used for energy or stored for fat. When everything goes right, insulin is your friend. Eat too much or consume the wrong things and insulin becomes your enemy. Excess insulin circulating in your body may cause you to gain weight. Here’s how to do low-carb right.
1. Plan your meals around lean proteins and healthy fats.
The reason many people fail at low-carb diets is because they are buying foods like low-carb chips, bars and drinks. These options are not always nutrient dense. They can leave you with a lack of satisfaction, increased hunger and the dreaded rebound binge.
Instead, opt for real food. Find options that make you less hungry and more satisfied. Focusing on foods that are good sources of protein and healthy fats will help. A 2011 study found increased protein in the diet helped to satisfy hunger and promote weight loss. Choose protein options found in nature, like tofu, white meat poultry, fatty fish, eggs and beans. Also, add in more olive oil, full fat dairy, nuts and avocados as another hunger-suppressing tactic.
2. Change your meal pattern.
While what you eat makes a big difference in your health, blood-sugar control and weight, the timing of your meals may have just as equal of an impact.
A 2016 study demonstrated people who adhered to a restricted feeding approach (a pattern in which all your calories are front loaded in the morning and afternoon — with your last meal consumed in late afternoon) had less hunger. They also established a more efficient pattern of burning carbohydrates and fat.
Another similar approach would be to skip dinner all together. The theory? The body’s internal metabolism clock is most efficient earlier in the day and begins to run out of steam by evening. Another study found similar results. Researchers showed when individuals ate later in the day, the body responded with a negative alteration of fat metabolism that impacted weight gain. Therefore, to reduce pounds and increase your metabolism, you may need to change your meal timing.
3. Forget the cold turkey approach.
To function properly, the brain relies heavily on glucose. That’s why when you cut out carbohydrates (the source of glucose), your blood sugar can plummet. Your brain backfires in the form of headaches, fatigue and a lack of clear thinking. The whole purpose of a low-carb diet is to keep carbohydrates low — it’s not a no-carb diet.
To avoid these unpleasant side effects (including constipation), you’ll need to feed your brain the carbs it’s relying on, without going overboard. One way to do this is to focus mainly on carbohydrates that provide a good source of fiber, as well as protein and/or fat. Examples include bean-based chips and pasta options, sprouted whole grain breads, seed and nut-based crackers, quinoa and lentils. These carbs provide protein and plenty of fiber to keep you full.
4. Incorporate a fiber rule.
The reason fiber is the golden nugget of weight loss is because the body can’t digest it. It slows down the digestion process and helps your body absorb nutrients. This comes in handy when choosing which carbohydrates to fit into your plan. For every 10 grams of carbohydrate, aim for at least 4 grams or more of fiber.
5. Stay hydrated.
6. Create competition for fructose.
Many people cut out fruit when they are diagnosed with diabetes. After all, fruit is sugar. However, fruit also plays a role in supplying your entire body with free radical scavengers that reduce your risk of disease.
Consider pairing your fruits with proteins or fats. Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is easy to digest, however, the process slows down when fiber is attached. Protein and fat are also hard to digest. Therefore, when the fiber-rich apple has a tablespoon of almond butter spread on it, your body now has to worry about metabolizing fat, too, which is a good thing!
7. Listen to your body.
While you work, sleep and play, your body is taking care of its main priority: keeping you alive. One of the many mechanisms in which it does this is by telling you when to eat and when to stop eating. When your cells are depleted and looking for food, the stomach releases ghrelin to tell you to “fuel up.” When the tank is full, it releases leptin to tell you to stop. If you’re hungry, fill the cells, but don’t over fill. Ignoring ghrelin and starving yourself may lead to a desperate search for carbs later.
If you want to lose weight, or manage type 2 diabetes, you don’t have to cut out an entire food group. Opt for smarter carbs. Don’t eat more than you need. Lastly, fit in plenty of movement (planned or unplanned) throughout the day.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.