Q: Can I eat carbs and still lose weight?

A: While eating fewer carbs is essential for optimal weight loss, you don't need to completely eliminate carbs from your diet. The amount of carbs that you should be eating is based to two things: 1) How much weight you need to lose and 2) Where on your body you need to lose the weight.

When people talk about cutting carbs or eating a low-carbohydrate diet, the Atkins Diet or a ketogenic diet approach often come to mind (which conjures up images of bacon, grease, and spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar-not the epitome of good health). But there's a lot of room in the carb-cutting spectrum between what the average person eats (the daily recommended value for adults is 300g carbohydrates) and the extremely low-carb ketogenic diet (usually less than 50g carbohydrates per day). Diets aren't one size fits all, and different levels of carbohydrate intakes work best for different people. There's even research to prove it.

In one study from Tufts University, subjects followed one of two calorie-restricted diets for 18 months:

Group 1: A traditional higher-carbohydrate, low-fat diet

Group 2: A moderately carbohydrate-reduced diet similar to The Zone (40 percent total calories from carbohydrates with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables over grains).

What was so interesting about this study was that after 18 months, both groups of dieters lost the same amount of weight, regardless of which plan they followed.

The researchers then dug a little deeper into each participant's physiology, focusing specifically on insulin sensitivity (a measure of how well your body accepts and distributes carbs). They found that people with poor insulin sensitivity (i.e. their bodies were not as good at dealing with carbs) lost more weight on the Zone-type diet than on the low-fat diet, while those with good insulin sensitivity lost weight on either diet.

What Does This Mean for You?

If you are relatively lean, you probably have good insulin sensitivity and you should be able to lose weight by just reducing your overall calorie intake (and exercising). If you want to accelerate your weight loss, you're going to need to restrict your carbohydrates a little more aggressively.

How Can You Tell If You Have Poor Insulin Sensitivity?

Body fat that is centered around your midsection is an easily identifiable red flag. If this is you, you need to shift the carbs in your diet away from grains and more towards vegetables, fruits, and some protein for best weight-loss results. This will reduce the total carbohydrates in your diet while also decreasing the amount of faster-acting carbohydrates, which mimics the carbohydrate-restricted diet used in the above study.

As your weight loss begins to plateau, shift more of your carbs towards fruits and vegetables and away from grains and starches. You'll see the scale start to move in the right direction again.

The Bottom Line

It's not about eliminating all carbohydrates from your diet but instead restricting carbs to the level that makes you feel best and lose the most weight. If you have trouble finding your sweet spot, talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with a nutritionist who can help you determine the best strategy for your body.