Which Is Better: Reduce Carbs Gradually or All at Once?

Photo © Karen Struthers

Question: Which is better -- to reduce carbs gradually, or all at once?

How do we find the right amount of carbohydrate for our bodies? There are two main approaches, which I will call the "gradual reduction" approach, and the "start low and add" approach.

Answer: Many people (including the American Diabetes Association) prefer the one-step-at-a-time" gradual reduction approach, and there is a fairly good reason for this.

It has been shown that people are more able to make permanent changes if those changes are small. Then, when the new habit has been formed, another small step can be taken.

Another reason to avoid eliminating too much carbohydrate at once is that some unpleasant symptoms can occur in the first few days as the body is adjusting to using fat for energy rather than carbohydrate. For help, see:

On the other hand, the approach favored by popular diet books featuring low-carb approaches such as the Atkins and South Beach diets is to reduce carbohydrate a lot at the beginning, and then gradually raise the amount of carb until negative effects occur, such as: weight loss slows, blood glucose control lessens, blood pressure rises, cravings return, etc.

The main negative of this are that there is a large change in eating to get used to all at once. But to my mind, the following positive factors can outweigh the negatives:

1. Positive benefits of low-carb eating are experienced in fairly short order (usually by the end of the first week). This not only provides motivation to continue, but gives clear markers to know when things are slipping.

This is true for information from home monitoring (blood glucose, blood pressure, weight), and also for commonly-reported benefits such as improvements in energy levels, mental focus, and reduction in food cravings.

2. To many people, it's demoralizing to find out that they didn't cut enough carb out of their diet to get the benefits they were looking for, and that yet more "deprivation" is called for. When you do it the "start low" way, you get to ADD food options as time goes on, which is a much more welcome change.

Whichever way you choose, there will be adjustments needed to find the right amount of carbohydrate for you. When you find it, though, the rewards can be life-altering.

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