If I hear one more person say, “I’m giving up carbs.” I might scream.
Sadly, I hear this at least once a week (sometimes more like daily) from my friends, family and clients I work with. What do they all have in common? They’re females. While I do from time to time have a male co-worker or client mention low-carb or ask about Keto, it’s still rare.
Low carb, Keto, whatever you want to call it, removing an entire food group from your diet without an allergy or severe intolerance does not make sense. Like I mentioned, I hear this more from my girlfriends than anyone. A fellow runner, one of my Emory tennis gals, the women in my life who are juggling careers, chasing kids (usually multiple little ones), active, intelligent women. I should have written this article long ago, and while I constantly encourage (straight up chide) my circle of friends, family and clients hopefully this will have an even further reach.
Let’s break down what carbohydrates are, why you need them and starve off some of the nutritional myths associated with them.
I think it’s also important to mention that for those living with Celiac disease (a gluten allergy) that population should continue to avoid carbohydrates that contain gluten. Gluten is of course found in many things we consume that we know as carbohydrates, especially processed. If you’ve heard someone say: “I’m giving up gluten” or “Carbs make me bloat,” this is very different from a diagnosis or someone living with Celiac disease. Lots of things can cause bloating (hello fiber, that’s normal). It’s estimated that a very small percentage of the U.S. population has Celiac disease (around 1 percent).
While food intolerances are also real and can cause discomfort, only a small percentage is also living with a gluten intolerance (around 6 percent). To take it one step further, a report published in PubMed (U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health) in 2015 that out of a group of nearly 400 patients complaining of gluten-related symptoms, nearly 90 percent of those DID NOT suffer from Celiac disease, a wheat allergy or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. So, for the other at least 90 percent of us there is no real reason to avoid gluten or purchase overpriced (often with more sugar than its non-gluten free counterpart) gluten-free products.
What exactly are carbohydrates? Carbs are one of three macronutrients (the other two being fat and protein) that we need in our diets. Carbs are the body’s main source (broken down into glucose) of energy and the brain’s only source of energy.
Carbohydrates are either simple or complex. Complex carbs are found in good-for-you sources like sweet potatoes, oatmeal or brown rice. It takes your body longer to break down complex carbohydrates, leaving you feeling satisfied and energized for a longer period of time.
Simple carbs are found in things like your morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles, soft drinks or a chocolate chip cookie and broken down quickly by your body. This might help you understand why 30 minutes after a bowl of Frosted Flakes you’re not only hungry again but might experience that “sugar crash.”
Carbohydrates are categorized as sugars, starch and fiber. Sugars are either naturally occurring (like in good-for-you fruit, or dairy) or added which can be in everything from ketchup to a Hershey’s bar. Starches can be starchy veggies like peas and corn, or grains. Grains are either whole or refined. Now which sounds better for you? Something whole or something refined? Whole grains contain the entire grain, making it a much healthier choice. Fiber is the part of plant food that your body can’t break down.
I encourage you to strive to obtain your daily servings by eating a variety of plants, whole grains, nuts and beans, not a supplement. They keep your brain and body energized. Been on a low-carb kick/diet and just felt like you were in a fog? Couldn’t think straight? Like I mentioned above, glucose is your brain’s only source of energy. Your body converts the carbohydrates you supply into glucose, which in turn fuels your brain.
Have you ever attempted a workout and just felt sluggish, lacked motivation, just straight up tired? Chances are your body is looking for some fuel. Either under-nourishing or not eating the right things to prepare for your workout are the culprits. Remember, carbs equal energy. If you don’t have long before your workout (aren’t we all scrambling to get to a class or the gym?), try sticking with a snack that is simple and carb-based (remember, simple equals broken down quicker but not a candy bar) like dried fruit (my favorite morning pre-run fuel is a couple dates or dried apricots dipped in almond butter), a piece of whole wheat toast with a smear of almond butter or peanut butter and a drizzle of honey, Greek yogurt or a granola bar (look for one that has less than 10 grams of sugar per bar).
Fiber is your friend. We’ve talked about this before. Many people who follow a low-carb or Keto diet have a hard time getting the fiber they need to help keeps things moving (you get the picture). Fiber does so much more for your body than keep you regular. It can help lower cholesterol and fight off both diabetes and heart disease. Oats, beans, popcorn, sweet potatoes and dark chocolate (yes, please) are high in fiber and carbs.
Carbs (along with any other one food group) are not responsible for making you fat. To make it as simple as possible, it really comes down to calories in versus calories out. Did you use/burn more than you consumed? Your body doesn’t know if those 200 calories came from organic unsalted almonds or a doughnut. This is NOT meant to encourage you to always pick the doughnut. To give up carbs completely doesn’t just mean swapping out your bun for lettuce when you order a hamburger, but also fruits and veggies (one of my big issues with Keto). You would have a hard time winning an argument with a Registered Dietician or Nutritionist that fruit and veggies are bad for you and should be restricted or even eliminated from your diet.
Carbohydrates are nourishing, provide energy, a host of healthy vitamins and minerals, and fuel both our mental and physical workouts (an intense work project or running without carbs is a no go for me). A baked sweet potato, fresh summer strawberries, quinoa, oatmeal and yes even the occasional delicious homemade cookie or Peggy Ann’s blueberry doughnut are not only good for your body but also your soul.