If you’ve ever cut carbs to lose weight, you may have noticed that doing so can make you feel moody, irritable, and ready to pull a Cookie Monster at any second. That’s because carbs aren’t just an essential part of a well-balanced diet—they play an important role in how you feel as well, says Toronto-based registered dietitian Micah Grobman.
Fortunately, you can cut carbs to shed pounds without turning into Cruella de Vil.
Here’s exactly how to pull it off.
Why Cutting Carbs Makes You Grouchy
When you hear the word carb, the first thing that comes to mind is probably refined carbs like bread, pasta, and cookies. Since they’re heavily processed and contain higher levels of calories, sodium, sugar, and fat, these are usually the first foods to go when someone decides to cut carbs. “An unexpected result of reducing the amount of refined carbs in your diet is that total calories consumed will typically be cut as well,” says Rebecca Lewis, R.D., in-house dietitian at HelloFresh. “This creates a calorie gap that may lead to weight loss, but also disrupts the powerful effects of our hunger- and mood-regulating hormones.”
When you eat too many carbs and starches on the regular, the pancreas is forced to pump out extra insulin to try and compensate for all the extra carbs, and over time, chronically high insulin levels can develop, says Linda Anegawa, M.D., board-certified internist at Hawaii Pacific Health 360 Weight Management Center. Cutting carbs cold turkey means there’s suddenly an overload of insulin in the blood. This can lead to physical changes, such as headaches and shakiness, and emotional changes, such as irritability and depression.
Furthermore, the brain uses more energy from calories than any other organ in the body—and its preferred fuel source is carbs. When we eat carbs, a hormonal effect is triggered that shuttles tryptophan into the brain (an amino acid commonly associated with turkey), says Grobman. Tryptophan is then converted into serotonin, a mood-boosting neurotransmitter that can also suppress appetite and impact digestion. Less carbs means less serotonin, increased moodiness, and an uptick in cravings.
If the brain is starved of this essential macronutrient, our hormones will do everything they can to get us to eat carbs and refuel, says Lewis. (Hence the mad cravings.) And when we fight these signals, a cascade of hormones—like adrenaline and cortisol—are released, which create anxiety and stress in our bodies. “If we ignore the hunger further, a neurotransmitter called neuropeptide Y is released that increases feelings of aggression and anger, as well as stronger cravings that last longer and feel impossible to ignore,” says Lewis. Enter hanger, and a general hatred of the universe.
How to Cut Carbs (Without Losing Your Cool)
“The brain requires roughly 130 grams of carbs on a daily basis to function,” says Grobman, so if you want to keep your emotions in check while trimming your waistline, here’s where to focus your attention as you slash carbs off the menu:
1. Take Baby Steps
“Dramatic and rapid dietary changes (like ghosting carbs) are difficult to sustain and often come with unpleasant side effects,” says Edwina Clark, R.D., head of nutrition and wellness for Yummly. Sure, the best place to start is to cut foods that contain empty carbs, but doing so gradually can minimize side effects and give your body time to adjust. You can start by skipping the sugar in your coffee or limiting sweet treats to twice a week.
2. Choose The Right Carbs
Make every carb serving you indulge in count by choosing high-fiber carbs like wild rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, and—you guessed it—fruits and veggies. “Fiber is what slows down the digestive process and allows the body to deal with the foods we eat more efficiently,” says Lewis. “In turn, fiber helps to prevent blood sugar spikes, which reduces cravings and increases satiety.” The result: MIA mood swings.
3. And Spread Them Out
Instead of saving your carb intake for one meal or snack, enjoy small amounts throughout the day to give your brain a steady supply of glucose and keep your mood consistent, says Clark. Aim for half-cup portions per meal, or portions roughly the size of your fist, says Grobman.
4. Eat More Foods That Contain Tryptophan
Since a reduction in carbs can lead to a reduction in tryptophan, increasing the number of foods you’re eating that contain this handy amino acid can help stabilize your mood by giving your brain the doses of serotonin it needs, says John Salerno, M.D., board-certified family physician and founder of The Salerno Center in New York. Adding more cheese and turkey to your roster, for example, may do wonders for your mood.