Dear Victim of Carb Fear,
PIzza. Donuts. Cake. Bread. These are the greasy images that flash in our mind when someone mentions “carbs.” And instantaneously, we feel temptation and guilt. How good they all sound, but oh, how bad they are. Everywhere you go, carbs seem to carry that negative connotation. Mainstream media loves to talk about how CARBS MAKE YOU FAT. The latest health crazes and diets are against them. A good number of doctors made famous by TV and internet want you to shun them. When you are constantly being told what NOT to eat, it is no small wonder that we feel helpless, confused, and guilt-laden when we try to do right but continue to feel like we are “falling off the wagon,” or in desperate need for a “cheat day.” Don’t we deserve to enjoy what we eat instead of fear it? As a dietitian, I’m here to clear up some confusion and tell you it’s possible. It is time to embrace nutritious carbs once again.
Lately I have had a lot of clients come to me fearful of carbohydrates, and attempting extremely low carb diet regimens for numerous reasons – high blood sugar, weight loss, high cholesterol levels. Sometimes their own doctors are the ones giving them this dietary advice. And they are coming to me because they are not seeing results and they naturally want to know why. They are often sad because they miss their favorite foods, or feeling miserable and lacking energy. And seeing them this way makes me sad too, because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Now before you give me that sideways look like I’m going to tell you all that refined sugar is OK to eat, hold your horses. Portions do matter. Carbohydrates are also not only sugar (which includes naturally occurring and added sugars), but they are made up of fiber and starches too. They don’t just make up those popular guilt-laden foods, they are naturally occurring in a huge part of our diet – vegetables, fruits, milk, and grains, a little in nuts, to name a few. So if carbs are as harmful as they sound, that would mean all those things would need to be eliminated – and we know that can’t be right.
Contradicting a lot of those popular diets out there, your diet should actually consist of anywhere from 45-65% carbohydrates according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. To many who have been attempting these severe low carb diets, that seems like a ton *cue sideways looks*. But think about it, the majority of our diet should be from nutrient-dense sources like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, all rich in beneficial fiber. We’ve been surviving off these things for thousands and thousands of years. And I don’t know many out there that will argue fiber isn’t good for you. It is HARD to make the majority of your diet from fat sources like many of these diets call for. While you may be trying to aim for healthy fats, that kind of diet is probably going to include an excess saturated fat sources too. This kind of diet can most certainly raise your cholesterol levels (fiber lowers cholesterol) and not to mention – be very unpleasant to your digestive system.
To go further, the Recommended Dietary Allowance for carbohydrates is 130 grams a day. This is the minimum recommended to maintain adequate nutritional status (like protecting against B vitamin deficiencies), and to provide enough fuel for your brain. Your noggin uses glucose, broken down from carbohydrates, as it’s fuel source. So if you’ve been irritable or forgetful on your current low-carb plan, this may be why. The quality of that 130 grams worth of carbohydrate does matter, and should be nutrient-dense carbs like grains, vegetables, and fruit instead of empty calorie ones containing refined flour and sugar. What happens when your body is deprived of carbohydrates for a long period? Your body finds a way to function by entering ketosis. The keto diet has been gaining popularity recently, and while it has shown to be promising in conditions such as epilepsy and for some, in weight loss, it should be done with extreme caution and is NOT recommended in many cases. There is limited study on the actual safety and effectiveness on this diet plan.
But what about those who have lost A LOT of weight on such and such low carb diet? That’s wonderful for them, and I support their efforts and hope they can maintain it without running into any problems. However, not one diet plan works for all, and that’s the problem with fad diets – they are not individualized based off what will be effective for you. For those who I find struggling with low carb dieting, I explain the following. Carbohydrates and stored in the form of glycogen in our bodies, in our muscles and in our liver. When muscle glycogen is depleted, you also lose a lot of water with it. So initially you will see a huge weight drop that can be mistaken for fat loss. Later, you may run into obstacles like an extreme lack of energy (carbs are our immediate fuel source), sometimes irritability and food cravings. The rate of weight loss slows down. You start missing your favorite foods and you might slide a little here and there. You can end up back at square one or even heavier than before, and you continue to feel guilt and failure when you eat carbs.
There have been studies done (like this one) evaluating low carb diets and weight loss, and many conclude results are obtained from overall calorie reduction, not necessarily because of carbohydrate reduction itself. A lot of people that force themselves on severely low carb diets end up eating less calories overall, mainly because of monotony. Their choices are severely limited. Or, they just cut out a lot of calorie-dense processed foods they were eating before, which always helps, but you can do that on a diet plan that includes carbs as well.
So even if you are still on the fence about carbs, ask yourself one very important question. Is my low carb diet plan going to be maintainable long-term? If you have any doubts, or are going to start missing your favorite foods too much, know that yo-yo dieting can be very harmful to your health and metabolism. We are only human. You are much better off incorporating a variety of foods and enjoying your favorites smartly and cutting back TOTAL calories rather than focusing on any one nutrition group alone.
What about my doctor telling me to cut carbs? Please don’t get me wrong. I have the upmost respect for doctors, and this doesn’t entail all doctors out there, but some of them received VERY LITTLE nutrition education in med school. They are a whiz with medicine, but not so much with food sometimes. The education they may have gotten might also be extremely outdated. I can see where they are coming from – portions matter and too many carbs WILL cause blood sugar problems, high triglycerides, and weight gain, but cutting them or severely restricting them isn’t the answer either, and can have very negative consequences. To name just one of many, dangerously low blood sugars for someone with diabetes (I’ve seen it happen). This is where I can help out. A registered dietitian’s job to stay up-to-date on the most current and SCIENTIFIC-BASED recommendations. We interpret information gained from credible studies to the general public. We have a responsibility to stand for science, even if it means not endorsing the latest fad or main-stream media hype. We find a plan that is safe but effective for you and any medical background you may have.
Now if you’re wondering how many carbs you should be eating, I can help you here too. This Tuesday, April 18th at 7pm Central I am having my first live webinar: Carbohydrate Counting Made Easy. This is an essential (but easier than it sounds) tool to help you manage portions, whether it is for blood sugar management in diabetes, or if you’re working on weight control. It will also keep you on track to make sure that noggin of yours is getting enough energy, and prevent any nutritional deficiencies. You can easily register here. I hope to see you there!
A dietitian who wants you to enjoy carbs again