Carbohydrates have long now become the enemy in todays’ “constantly-needing-to-lose weight society”. It’s true that obesity, on one hand, is on the rise, but so are eating disorders, on the other. A large percentage of the population is trying to control their weight, for the better or worse, in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
Significant amounts of research have been carried out around different types of diets, all with very interesting results. One needs to do a significant amount of reading to be able to understand the role of carbohydrates, how they affect our weight and how their intake can be modified to achieve healthy changes in body composition.
One thing that needs to be pointed out is that carbs are not an enemy! In fact, it is recommended that about 40-65% of our daily energy intake should come from carbohydrates.
Why? The reasons are more than a few.
Carbs are the main energy source for your body
You really do need carbs (“more” of the “healthier” ones, i.e. food in its non-processed form, and less of the sugary “less healthier” ones. Everyone with a healthy dose of common sense can find a balance between these two)! Your body depends on carbs to function properly. During digestion, starches and sugars are broken down, absorbed into our bloodstream and then enter our body’s cells in the form of glucose with the help of insulin. Glucose is used for energy and fuels all of your activities. Extra glucose is stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for later use, or is converted to fat. Carbs protect our muscles because they are the first source of energy for our body; without it, protein from our muscles will be used meaning that our body will effectively eat its own muscle! The secret to maintaining a healthy body is not to eliminate carbs, rather to know how much and what kind of carbs to eat. Whole grains, fruits, and veggies aren’t an optional part of your eating plan. What is optional, is how much you consume as well as the total value of your caloric intake over a day, a week or a month, depending on your goals and activity levels.
Carbs protect you against disease
Vegetables, pulses and whole grain varieties of starchy foods are all good sources of fibre, which is an important part of a healthy diet. Fibre promotes good bowel health, reduces the risk of constipation and has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and thus your risk of cardiovascular disease. People who eat more whole grains (think brown rice, quinoa, pulses) have lower LDL cholesterol and higher “good” HDL cholesterol. Eating enough fibre is also associated with a lower risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Carbohydrates contain fewer calories per gram than fat. Moreover, their bulk and fiber content help you feel fuller on fewer calories. Eating plenty of pulses, grains, vegetables and fruit can help you maintain a healthy weight. Contrary to what many low-carb diets claim, very few studies show that a diet rich in carbs leads to weight gain. In fact, in many studies comparing vegans to meat-eaters to vegetarians to pesco-vegetarians to semi-vegeterians, vegan diets (i.e. diets where people don’t eat any fish, red meat or other animal products such as eggs in their diet) proved to be by far the best for weight loss. As long as the amount of calories being ingested is neither too low or too high to sustain a healthy weight.
Carbs help boost your mood
Carbohydrates contain tryptophan, which helps produce the feel-good hormone serotonin in your brain. “Without enough tryptophan—and therefore serotonin—you’re more likely to get depressed and have sleeping difficulties,” researchers say. In a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who followed a very low carbohydrate diet for a year—which allowed only 20 to 40 grams of carbs daily (!!!), about the amount in just 1⁄2 cup of rice plus one piece of bread (!!!!)—experienced more depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a low-fat, high-carb diet that focused on low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruit and beans. Your mental health is in danger when you go on crazy diets, that’s for sure.
Carbs help your brain work better
This one is important: your brain needs carbs to function properly. Why? Because your brain runs on glucose, which you get from carbs. If neurotransmitters in your brain don’t have enough glucose, your ablity to learn, think and remember things will decrease. You don’t want your working memory and visuospatial skills to falter, do you? Whether you are sat in a desk or play sports in a high level, you need to keep yourself functioning properly. Lots more of “the crazy stuff” happens to your brain when you cut off carbs.
And people, let’s admit it: carbs are delicious. If you banish them from your diet or reduce them significantly, you’re more tempted to binge later as well as develop a non-healthy relationship with food in the long-term. This is no strategy to get you anywhere close to feeling good about yourself.
Now, when it comes to weight loss, eating fewer carbs is essential, but don’t go and reduce them too much or, alas, eliminate them. If you are relatively lean, you probably have good insulin sensitivity and you should be able to lose weight just by slightly reducing your overall calorie intake and exercising. Don’t try to accelerate your weight loss by restricting your calories too much. Finding balance without restricting is the key, so go slow and steady. If, on the other hand, you have poor insulin sensitivity (e.g. a lot of fat centred around your midsection), you might be better off shifting the carbs in your diet away from grains and more towards vegetables, fruit and protein.
– Eating a balanced diet, combining carbs with protein and healthy fats is the best way to maintaining a healthy body.
– If you have been restricting carbs from your diet in order to be slim, you need to get them back in your life if you are ever to achieve health and mental sanity.
– Carbs need to be making up 40-65% of your daily caloric intake. If you feel like you have an unhealthy relationship with consuming carbs, consult a doctor or nutritionist in order to discuss your goals with him and get an idea of how much that is.
– Don’t obsess over the grams of carbs you’re eating per day, how many calories you’re burning with exercise or the number on the scale. Don’t go on low carb diets or any other fad diets. You are hurting your body and putting your mental sanity at risk. Eating disorders are on the rise and they may well start by going on a diet and getting crazy ideas about what you should or shouldn’t eat.
– Go for fiber rich vegetables, fruit, whole grains and pulses, which are full of nutrients and vitamins to nourish your body. Limit foods with added sugar and refined grains which are low in nutritional value and packed with calories.
– Listen to your body: paying attention to what your body says is the most powerful tool to find balance.
– Love your body. Treat it well with nutritious meals. Don’t punish it by restricting food or excessive exercise.
If you have trouble finding the sweet spot where you feel your best (physically AND mentally – which, by the way, has nothing to do with achieving a certain percentage of body fat or any of your appearance goals), don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional 😉