In defense of the carbohydrate
Right around the turn of the century our culture entered a low carb craze.
With the trend came messages: Carbs are bad. They make you fat. And sick. You should limit them. Or, better yet, avoid them all together.
As a nutritionist and avid food lover, I have concerns about this. I also have concerns for my clients – who might think it’s “good” to go “no or low carb” – only to experience consequences that ultimately do not work in their favor (increased cravings and overeating). They then blame themselves, chalking it up to a personality flaw, when in actuality they are experiencing the inevitable backlashes of such a diet.
More on that in just a moment.
I’d like to first step back and look at the bigger picture of the low carb craze itself. Let’s say I was writing this fifteen or twenty years ago. Carbohydrates wouldn’t be the topic of discussion. Nope. We’d be talking about an entirely different topic.
Fat is bad. You shouldn’t eat fat. Fat makes you fat.
Shelves at the grocery store would be filled with low-fat this and no-fat that, and you wouldn’t see a low-carb product in sight. Headlines and articles would instill fear of fat, connecting it to heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and blood pressure. Pasta, potatoes, and rice, as long as they were prepared low-fat, were praised as excellent choices.
And now it is fat’s cousin, the carbohydrate, who is to blame. Current food philosophies, such as sugar abstinence, Paleo, Whole 30, and Grain Brain warn its followers of the effects of the carbohydrate, even in its whole form. These days, the craze is a multi-billion dollar business and a top selling book title.
Before I go on defending one of the more important nutrients, I’d like to share two things. First, for those of you with medical conditions who have been advised to go no/low carb, I have you on my mind and will address this topic at the end.
Second, it’s important to note that I’m not writing this to you today as a hasty suggestion to eat anything and everything. It may sound that way to some, especially for those who tend to overeat carbs and attempt to avoid them for that very reason. I’d like to make it clear that today’s defense of the carb is not a suggestion to mindlessly stuff, binge, or jump on the “screw it” plan. That’s not going to make you, me, or anyone for that matter, feel very good.
I’m simply writing this to you today to say caution.
Caution a culture that demonizes sugar and carbs, hooks you on bandwagons and products, and then changes the game on you. One day it’s skinny jeans, the next day bellbottoms. Pink is the new black. Coconut oil is out and avocado is in. Fat is out. No wait! Fat is back. Carbs are out. (And as of late we are seeing trends pushing carbs back in and protein out…who can keep up?!)
Caution the fads, the ever-changing fads. Caution what’s popular and trending. Be incredulous with studies, experts, or philosophies that suggest the extreme.
If restricting carbs doesn’t feel extreme to you, well, I’m here to tell you that it is.
How do I know it’s extreme? Because I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of minds and bodies, including my own, resist the trend.
I’ve seen the psychological consequences it causes. As soon as we say we need to limit a food is the minute we want more of it. The minute we feel the food is going to go away (with self-imposed rules) is the minute we feel like we need to get it all in while we can. In short, “low” or “no” backlashes into "now" and “more of.”
I’ve also seen the biological consequences it causes. When we limit carbohydrates we are denying a fundamental need of our body. As a result we experience increased cravings and decreased energy levels. We create a low level satisfaction with food and improve our chances for “biological overeating” (A form of non-emotional hunger that occurs at the cellular level. I'll provide a few examples in the coming paragraphs).
Including carbohydrates in our food repertoire is our biological destiny.
It’s our design, like it or not. The body requires a particular biological environment in order for it to feel complete at a cellular level. When the body doesn’t get what it needs, it doesn’t just forget about it. There are side effects.
Regardless of what the headlines read today, feeding yourself all three macronutrients is a prerequisite for any eater who wants to feel satisfied, decrease food preoccupation, and eat and move on with her day. (Yes, low-fat has it’s own set of consequences, just like low-protein does, too.)
(I’d like to reiterate macro, meaning big, or as I like to say, very important. As many of you know, there are only three macronutrients – protein, fat, and carbohydrates – and the body takes it very seriously if there is a deficiency in one or more of these departments. In other words, the body cannot be fooled if it does not receive what it is designed to receive.)
Here are a few examples. Note that person A experiences biological or psychological backlashes to a low or no carb diet. Keep in mind there are emotional and spiritual hungers that will also impact our food intake. For now, we are addressing the biological and psychological.
Person A avoids carbs all day long, thinking they are “bad,” and goes home and overeats them when no one is looking. Person B eats carbs with the intention of others watching and does not feel the need to abuse them when she’s alone.
Person A eats protein and vegetables for dinner, skipping the carb on her plate, and doesn’t feel as satisfied as she’d like. She then circles the kitchen cupboards an hour later for something more, frustrated by her “lack of willpower.” Person B eats a “complete meal” including rice next to her protein and vegetables and feels more satisfied and content for the evening.
Person A works hard all week to stay off carbs, but because carbs are everywhere, she eventually “falls off the wagon.” She beats herself up and her negative internal environment translates to “screw it, I can’t stick with anything” and she enters episodes of comfort eating. Person B has intentionally been eating a complete macronutrient profile, adding carbs into her diet that feel safe. She feels more complete because she ismore complete on a cellular level.
There is no “rule” on how much or what type of carb to eat. All bodies are different and will ask for a different carb profile. Some bodies will feel more satisfied with more carbs and some bodies will feel more satisfied with less carbs. This is the beauty of the human body.
Everybody will need to experiment what will work best for them, keeping in mind the macroconditions in which we all live.
So stick the sweet potato next to the protein and vegetables. Have an English muffin, hole or half – your prerogative – next to your eggs. Eat oatmeal (and feel especially complete when you add some protein to it…nut butter anyone?) Put rice or pasta in the soup. Eat dessert.
Tasting it, allowing it, and enjoying it.
You are complete.
PS: For those who have been advised to limit carbohydrates due to a medical condition, I haven’t forgotten about you. I still defend the carbohydrate on your plate for reasons described above – even if you have high blood glucose levels. We still need the carb to help us feel satisfied, decrease our cravings, and have a complete eating experience. If you’re in this boat, I encourage you consider the other foods you are pairing your carbs with and the quality of the carb you eat, versus engaging in avoidance or restriction which your health provider or bookshelves might suggest.