“I hate you! You make me feel bad about myself! You’re such a….carb!”
If the word ‘carb’ carries a negative connotation for you, drawing up anxiety, frustration or shame, you’re not alone. Large-scale consumer research shows that roughly 25% of Americans are currently dieting. And low-carb, high-protein diets are among the most popular.
Before I explain why carbohydrates play a hugely important role in our diets, let’s examine why we’ve grown to detest the marvelous macronutrients in the first place:
1. Processed carbohydrate-rich foods, like cakes, cookies, candy, white bread and chips, are easy to overeat. (And trust me, commercial food makers know this.) Many are also low in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.
2. Overeating any food routinely causes the body to store excess energy as fat. So just as the dieting industry advised us to cut fat from our high-fat diets in the 90s, it advises us to cut carbs from our high-calorie, high-carb diets for weight control nowadays. Americans spend over $45 billion dollars on dieting each year. So it’s no surprise that messages of “low-carb” are widespread throughout the media.
Think about it. Why would an industry that profits on our inability to reach or maintain a healthy body weight promote a technique that works long-term? Hmm…
Low-Carb Diet Risks
Low-carb diets often trigger initial weight loss, in the form of water weight—not fat loss, or as a result of consuming fewer calories. Like other diets, low-carb diets have an extremely low long-term success rate. More often, they lead to weight gain, binge eating behaviors, and a significantly increased risk for obesity and obesity-related health problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer and heart disease.
Low-carb diets are typically high in protein and fat. Eating excessive amounts of protein or fat needs leads to weight gain. High-protein, low-carb diets also tend to lack fiber, which increases your risk for constipation, diverticulitis and other digestive problems.
Limiting carbs interferes with brain function. This is why psychologists have coined the term “Atkins attitude,” which refers to increased anger, frustration and depression among low-carb dieters, according to Judith Wurtman, the director of the Women’s Health Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Carbohydrates are the body’s and brain’s main fuel source. We need sufficient amounts to exercise, build and use muscles, think properly and sleep well.
Carbs and the Brain
After we eat carbohydrates, they enter our bloodstream in the form of glucose. Because the brain doesn’t store glucose, it requires a steady supply from food. Once in the brain, glucose allows the brain to produce feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, which promotes positive moods. Carbohydrates also enhance memory skills…
In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, senior citizens were given a meal of cereal, milk and fruit juice for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they showed significantly better memory function compared to senior citizens who did not consume the carbohydrate-rich meal.
Carbs and Muscles
Contrary to popular belief, amping up our protein intake and skimping on carbs does not facilitate muscle growth or toning. Our muscles rely on glycogen for fuel—a form of sugar that derives from carbohydrates. While building muscle, our protein needs bump up to 15 to 20 percent of our diets, according to the American Dietetic Association. No benefits have been shown by consuming more. Avoiding carbs, on the other hand, promotes early workout fatigue and lean tissue loss.
Healthy Carbs and Weight Control
Nutritious carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are top sources of fiber. Fiber promotes fullness between meals and guards against obesity-related health risks. So it’s no surprise that many studies have linked diets rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables with positive, lasting weight control.
Simple Ways to Get the Most From Carbs
Choose whole over processed most of the time. For optimum health, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a report based on loads of research and dietary expert insight, recommends eating at least three 1-oz servings of whole grains daily and making sure that at least half of your starches consist of whole grains.
Color your plates. (No, not with M&Ms…) Unlike added sugars, sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and other whole foods have a beneficial impact on blood sugar levels and overall health. To meet your basic vitamin and mineral needs, the ADA recommends eating at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. For even more benefits, like a lowered risk for chronic disease, aim for 9+ collective servings.
Balance your plates. One super easy way to eat a great balance of nutrients is the “plate method.” Fill half of your plate with fruits and/or veggies, one-quarter with a lean protein source, like beans, fish or yogurt, and one-quarter with a complex starch, like whole grain bread, pasta or rice. Then add a bit of healthy fat. Healthy fat sources include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish.
Enjoy treats in moderation. Cutting out all refined foods works for some people. But if you adore brownies, french fries, white bread or other low-nutrient foods, incorporating moderate amounts into your diet can stave off feelings of deprivation. To take your treat foods a nutritious step further, prepare them with whole ingredients. Make whole grain cookies and breads. Top your favorite ice cream with fresh berries. Or swap French fries out for baked sweet potatoes “fries.”
Some of my favorite, super-nutritious carbohydrate sources:
Fresh and frozen fruit
Fresh and frozen vegetables
Sweet potatoes, yams and squash
Beans and lentils
100% whole grain breads and tortillas (such as Ezekial brand)
Air-popped popcorn, seasoned with natural herbs
Oatmeal cookies with raisins or dark chocolate chips
100% whole grain cereals (such as Kashi)
Whole grain pasta (whole wheat, brown rice or spelt)
Old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal
Whole grain veggie pizza
Fruit-topped whole grain pancakes
Greek or organic/all-natural yogurt
So spill it! Are carbs your friends or enemies? What are you favorite sources? Any goals I can support you toward? I can’t wait to hear from you.