I’ve been working in the field of nutrition for over seven years and almost every one of my clients has expressed a belief that carbs make them “fat.” In fact, many of my clients are surprised when I create a meal plan for them that includes 6-10 servings of starchy carbohydrate per day. “My body can’t handle that much bread,” is a common sentiment.
I’d like to take some time to explain why our bodies not only “handle” these carbohydrates but need them to function optimally.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients (macro meaning large; nutrients meaning…well…nutrients). Mirriam-Webster more clearly defines macronutrients as “a substance essential in large amounts to the growth and health of an animal.” Even from simple definition we can conclude that we need a hefty portion of carbs to maintain health. But why? During normal digestion and absorption, carbohydrates are broken down into simple molecules of sugar called glucose. Glucose is the sugar that circulates our bloodstream and deposits energy into every living cell of our body. To give you a sense of how significant glucose is, it may help to know that the human body contains approximately 37 trillion cells. That means the carbohydrate you consume has a lot of work to do once it passes through your stomach.
Given the urgency and importance of its duties, it’s not surprising that carbohydrates are digested quickly compared to the other macronutrients (fat and protein). In fact, simple carbohydrates (juice, table sugar, candy, white pasta/bread/rice) can be digested and absorbed into the blood stream to supply energy 5-10 minutes after ingestion. More complex carbohydrates (whole grain bread, oatmeal, some fruits and starchy vegetables) may take a bit longer (15-30 minutes) as their digestion and absorption is often slowed by other nutrients such as fiber.
Whole versus White?
Something else I often hear in the great carb debate is that white (or refined) grains are some of the worst things we can eat. Truth is, there are better options. Whole grains such as wild rice or oatmeal are rich in fiber and other nutrients that are often lost in the refining process. So when you’re consuming refined grains, you aren’t getting every last bit of nutrition that nature has to offer. But that doesn’t make it “bad,” it just makes it, well, “less good.” I tell my clients, “If you have a choice, choose whole grain. If you don’t have a choice, choose whole grain next time. But don’t forego carbohydrates just because whole grain isn’t an option.” White bread/pasta/rice still provides the essential carbohydrate needed to fuel our bodies.
And not only is it our bodies that carbs fuel, but our mind as well. When carbohydrate is metabolized into glucose, one of it’s primary jobs is to provide our brain with the energy required for decision making, critical thinking, emotion and mood regulation and neurotransmission. In fact, the brain consumes approximately 20% of our resting energy expenditure (the amount of Calories we burn in a state of complete physical and mental rest), all of which comes from glucose. Without adequate carbohydrate ingestion, our blood sugar levels are insufficient to supply glucose to the brain and normal brain function is sacrificed.
Other consequences of inadequate carbohydrate intake include dizziness, shakiness and lightheadedness, low energy and concentration, increased cravings for high-sugar/high-fat foods, impaired appetite, inadequate total energy intake including vitamin and mineral deficiencies and the list goes on…and on.
The truth behind the low-carb weight loss
So if carbohydrates are so important, why is everyone avoiding them? The low-carb diet philosophy began years ago–long before Dr. Atkins or Southbeach and certainly before the Paleo epidemic. Humans require 45-65% of their total energy from carbohydrates and many Americans meet or exceed that quota on a daily basis. If we cut out an entire group of macronutrients (remember, there are only 3 of them–carbs, fats, proteins) we will inevitably eat less total calories. Less total calories=weight loss. Also keep in mind, however, weight loss does NOT = fat loss.
Much of the initial weight lost during a low-carb diet attempt is from water. Our bodies have a certain amount of carbohydrate molecules stored in our liver and other organs and tissues. This storage form of carbohydrate is called glycogen. Glucose and glycogen molecules are what is referred to as hydrophilic. Simply stated, these sugar molecules really like water molecules and water molecules have the same affinity for sugar. It’s a love story really— wherever sugar goes, water will follow. So if the sugar leaves our body (or our glucose and glycogen is depleted), the water goes with it. We become dehydrated. Not good. Because our bodies consist of 55-60% water, you can imagine how much weight can be lost simply by our cells drying up.
And as you can imagine, as soon as carbohydrate is re-introduced into the diet, even in it’s most “whole” and “healthy” form, the water molecules will follow and this constant cycle of dehydration and rehydration can result in significant physical and emotional stress (kind of like a bad relationship).
“Just tell me what to do!”
So what’s the answer? How can we have it all? How do we consume carbohydrate to optimize energy utilization AND maintain a healthy weight? The answer, though cliche and not nearly as sexy (or easy!) as the Paleo diet, is moderation. As I said previously, we need 45-65% of our Calories from carbohydrate. But that’s it. Many Americans consume more calories than their bodies need and much of that excess comes from carbohydrate. Instead of blaming an entire food group and committing mass carbicide, consider the whole picture. Could you reduce your total intake and limit the amount of “fun food” you choose such as cakes, cookies, pastries and chips. In their place can you include more filling and nutrient dense options such as fruit, vegetables, whole grain crackers, nuts and avacado? Can you plan your meals in advance to include ALL the nutrients you need so that when it comes time to fuel your body, you’re prepared with satisfying and wholesome options?
We’ve become a society with food prejudices. An attitude that it is easier to just avoid, limit, or wipe out entire food groups from our diet rather than learning how to include them all and allow them to work together synergistically as they were designed to do.
The Real Carb Story
The Real Carb Story is simple. We need them. We need a lot of them and from a variety of sources. We need carbohydrate from whole grains such as wheat, oat, rice, barley and quinoa. We need carbohydrate from vegetables and legumes such as potatoes, corn, peas and beans. We need carbohydrate from fruit and low fat dairy such as milk and yogurt. We need carbohydrate at nearly every meal, every 3-5 hours, every day, to keep our bodies functioning properly.
So enjoy the carbohydrates you eat. When consumed consistently and moderately throughout the day and in combination with the other macronutrients (which I will discuss in the coming weeks) they provide your body with essential energy and nutrition and, No!, they are not making you fat.