Low-carb diets have gone mainstream (again), as you may have already noticed through social media algorithms and Amazon’s rankings of trending cookbooks. In fact, the fever is approaching an all-time high, with low-carb cereals, brownies, and even pastries becoming Instagram darlings. Yet despite all these fun new foods making the rounds, it’s important to note that low-carb (like any eating plan) isn’t one-size-fits-all. “While low-carb diets continue to be popular, they are not for everyone,” says Melissa Mitri, M.S., R.D., a dietitian for Wellness Verge.
Not to mention, low-carb eating plans aren’t the single straight shot to a healthy weight. “Because they are restrictive and exclude many foods (particularly desirable comfort foods), low-carb diets tend to be unsustainable over a long period of time,” says dietitian Kristin Gillespie, M.S., R.D., L.D., C.N.S.C., an advisor for Exercise with Style. They may also be lacking in several nutrients, such as fiber. If you’re on the bandwagon but livin’ la vida low-carb just doesn’t seem to be jiving with your health goals, read up.
Those Who Should Always Avoid Low-Carb Diets
Despite the popularity of low-carb eating, there are certain groups of people who should steer clear of low-carb diets completely.
If you are diabetic or take glucose-lowering medications or insulin, it’s incredibly important that you consult with a doctor and a registered dietitian before embarking on a low-carb diet plan. “Not consuming enough carbohydrates can decrease your blood glucose excessively, which is considered a medical emergency,” Escobar says. (This is particularly crucial for those on insulin.)
2. Pregnant and Lactating Women
Not so fast, Mama! “Women who are pregnant or lactating should avoid carbohydrate-restricted diets,” says Gillespie. “These populations need adequate carbs to promote fetal growth and development.” A doctor and experienced dietitian can help you figure out how to best nourish yourself and your growing babe.
3. Women Who Are Trying to Conceive
Another group of individuals who should avoid low-carb diets are those attempting to get pregnant. “Carb-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide essential nutrients for mom and Baby,” says Mitri. Plus, as mentioned above, low-carb diets can disrupt the hormonal balance you need in order to conceive.
4. Very Active People
Lead a very active lifestyle or consider yourself an athlete? You might want to skip the low-carb diet. Since carbs are your body’s primary source of fuel for exercise, limiting them may lead to fatigue and poor performance, Mitri notes.
5. Anyone Recovering from an Eating Disorder
Counting carbs may prove particularly problematic for those who have grappled with disordered eating patterns. “If you have a negative relationship with your food or a history of an eating disorder, following a low-carb diet, which demonizes certain foods, can trigger unhealthy behaviors,” said Mitri.
Signs Low-Carb Isn’t Working For You
Don’t see yourself represented in one of the groups above but still aren’t sure about this low-carb thing? Look out for the following signs that low-carb isn’t working for you.
1. Your Energy Has Tanked
Feel like you’ve been hitting “snooze” more often since cutting back on the carbs? Since carbohydrates are our body’s primary (and preferred) source of energy, you might feel your feet dragging when you cut off that supply.
“The lack of carbohydrates can cause severe fatigue, which often starts early into the diet but can remain a struggle for the duration,” says Gillespie. You may feel this exhaustion both physically and mentally, whether it’s struggling to focus during a meeting or huffing and puffing up the stairs.
2. Your cravings are Intense (and Constant)
Bread and French fries and cake, oh my. When you go low-carb, these decadent treats might start calling (okay, screaming) your name.
“One sign a low-carb diet isn’t working for you is that you have major food cravings,” says Mitri. “If you find yourself constantly feeling unsatisfied after meals and craving carbs or sweets, low-carb is likely not a sustainable plan for you.”
Read More: How To Get Off The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
The reason behind the strong urge to dive face-first into a plate of cookies: Without a stream of carbohydrates (which your body breaks down into sugar), your blood sugar drops, which then signals your brain and stomach to eat and raise your blood sugar back to normal levels, Mitri explains. If your low-carb ways keep you from raising those levels quite enough, hunger and cravings can become constant.
3. You “cheat” or fall off the wagon often
When you just can’t resist those cravings and find yourself going all-in on whatever food you can get your hands on at night or on the weekends, well, consider it another red flag.
“If you break your low-carbohydrate diet at the end of the day or at the end of the week and overeat, it’s not working for you,” says dietitian Su-Nui Escobar, D.C.N., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A diet is not sustainable if you restrict yourself so much that by dinner time you forget about it and eat in excess.”
For example, if you start off every morning totally gung-ho about low-carb but find yourself filling your plate with the rice and cake your other family members are eating come dinner time, consider yourself warned.
This all-or-nothing mentality is a dead giveaway that you’re restricting yourself, Escobar says.
4. Working out is a struggle
Just like your phone needs a charger, your body needs carbs to power through your workouts. If you lose steam quickly during your training sessions or can’t maintain your usual performance or activity level, think twice about cutting those carbs.
“Carbs are an essential nutrient for exercise performance, as they provide the fuel needed to power us through workouts,” Mitri says. (This is especially true of higher-intensity workouts, FYI.) When you push too hard without enough carbs in the tank, you deplete your body’s reserves, bee-lining you straight towards fatigue and poor recovery, she explains.
“The right diet should fuel you and provide you with long-lasting energy, not leave you tired within minutes of getting your heart rate up,” she says. (Here’s more on six nutrients your body needs for energy.)
5. You go out of your way to avoid communal meals
Whether you’re actually breaking bread or just passing the casserole, eating with loved ones is supposed to be one of life’s greatest joys. If you find yourself avoiding (or at least wanting to avoid) meals with others, though, something isn’t right with your eating habits.
“We tend to think of carbs as comfort food and are generally found in social gatherings, so when they are restricted, it is much harder to go to social events,” says dietitian Brenda Peralta, R.D., a consultant for Sensible Digs.
A sustainable and balanced way of eating, though, allows you to enjoy time with your friends and family without fear of what you’ll be eating, Escobar adds. If sticking to your diet means sacrificing your social life, Houston…we have a problem.
6. your mood Is Off
Though you might not initially make the connection, mood changes are one of the biggest giveaways that eating low-carb isn’t working for you. “I had a client who is a professional soccer player. He wasn’t motivated to go to practice and was cranky throughout the day,” shared Peralta. “We increased his carb intake and his mood improved. If you feel down-in-the-dumps since switching up your diet, consider it a sign that low-carb isn’t working for you.
It’s true: Carbs really do make you happy. “The primary hormone affected during a low-carb diet is serotonin—commonly known as the ‘happy hormone,’” Peralta says. Because serotonin production depends on carbohydrates, people who go on low-carb diets may churn out less of the hormone and ultimately feel moody and down—and how sustainable is an eating pattern that actively impacts your happiness? Not very. (Bread and bagel lovers, you likely aren’t surprised to hear this.)
7. Your menstrual cycle Isn’t As Regular As Usual
For menstruating people, falling short on carbs can lead to more irregular cycles or missing periods altogether. “There are several reasons a low-carb diet can cause these irregularities, including nutrient deficiencies and overall insufficient macronutrient or calorie intake,” says Gillespie.
The result of insufficient nutrition: hormonal imbalances that disrupt the menstrual cycle, leading to menopausal symptoms and fertility issues.
You see, low-carb diets are associated with increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which has a domino effect that ultimately impacts a slew of other hormones, including gonadotropin-releasing hormone or GnRH (the hormone responsible for starting the menstrual cycle), luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, Gillespie says. Since all of these hormones work together to regulate the menstrual cycle, abnormal levels can cause it to go a little haywire.
How to Determine the Right Amount of Carbs for You
All of this info may leave you wondering: How many carbs do you really need to feel your best, then? If you think low-carb isn’t working for you, slightly upping your intake may be a game-changer.
Like most things in the nutrition realm, the amount of carbs you need to thrive depends on your personal health, activity level, and body. Generally, though, “a good guideline is to have between 40 and 60 percent of your total caloric intake come from carbohydrates,” says Escobar. If you eat roughly 2,000 calories per day, for example, 800-1,200 calories should come from carbohydrates. (That’s the equivalent of 200 to 300 grams of carbs.)
Read More: No, Low-Carb And Keto Are Not The Same Thing
Where within that spectrum your ideal intake lies can vary. “If you have diabetes, you would likely want to go on the lower end of that range,” Mitri says. “However, if you are a very active person, such as a long-distance runner, you will need more carbs for fuel.”
To calibrate your individual sweet spot, Gillespie recommended cutting carbs slowly and starting with refined and added sugars. “Once you’ve cut these unhealthier carbs, see how you’re feeling and reevaluate,” she suggests. “You might consider reducing further or stop there.” When in doubt, though, there’s truly no better option than enlisting a pro who can evaluate your unique needs and help you meet them in a way you enjoy. (You can sign up for a free consultation with one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s credentialed nutritionists here.)