Should You Avoid Carbs To Improve Your Health And Lose Weight?
Our relationship status with carbohydrates is complicated. We love them a lot, but are constantly at battle with them. They can be so good for us, but have a dark side that we can't seem to get enough of. Though, carbohydrates are healthy and an important part of our diet when used correctly. You can even lose fat while eating carbs. Let's set the record straight and put an end to blaming carbs for many of our health and weight issues.
What Actually Is A Carbohydrate?
Carbs are one of three macronutrients (others being fat and protein) and are variations of linked sugar molecules.
Simple carbs are sugars and flours (and any food that contains them) that digest quickly and provide quick bursts of energy (helpful if you're about to do an intense workout). This means that they don't keep you full for long so you'll be hungry soon after eating. They increase your blood sugar more than any other food, and surprisingly, increase your cholesterol levels too. Overeating these carbs repeatedly leads to a number of health consequences.
Complex carbs are starches. These take longer to break down and digest, so they'll help keep you full and won't increase your blood sugar as dramatically. They're found in starchy vegetables, beans, whole grains and some fruits.
Fiber is more difficult for your body to digest (some types pass through your digestive system without being digested or absorbed). Fiber doesn't increase blood sugar, and actually helps lower your cholesterol levels while keeping you feeling full the longest of the carbs. It also fuels healthy bacteria in your intestines, which supports your gut health as well as your immune system and health for the rest of your body.
It's important to understand the quality of carbohydrates too. Natural forms of carbs, like beans, whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruits are nutrient dense and healthy. Refined and processed carbs, like sweet beverages, flavored yogurt, cereal and of course candy and baked goods, are dense in simple carbohydrates and lack nutrients, complex carbs and fiber. This is the dark side of carbs, that coincidentally are the hardest to limit in our life and have discipline with.
Benefits Of Healthy Carbs
All plant based foods contain some form of carbohydrates, but are also dense with a variety of micronutrients that calm inflammation, fight cancer and prevent disease. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, which pack an abundance of healing super powers.
Healthy carbohydrates provide more complex carbs and fiber, which digest slowly to give you sustained energy, rather than a quick energy burst followed by fatigue (and hanger).
Dieting and restriction takes a major toll on your mental health and wellbeing and adds on more stress (life is stressful enough). Restriction also leads to overeating and less control around food. The best approach to eating healthy is one that doesn't feel stressful and allows you to actually enjoy eating. It's true that we should all limit (not eliminate) refined and processed carbs, especially added sugars, but healthy carbs are fair game to enjoy.
Surprisingly, eating too many simple sugars leads to low blood sugar. This is because what goes up must come down. When you're blood increases, your body reacts by lowering it proportionally, and fast. This sudden decrease makes you feel hungry, tired, moody and crave more carbs (which perpetuates the cycle). When you eat healthy carbs that have little sugar and more complex carbs and fiber, you'll edperience stable blood sugar and less low blood sugar effects.
When you stabilize your blood sugar and prevent frequent spikes, your body can enter fat burning mode more easily. This is a sustainable way to lose weight because you won't be depriving yourself of major foods and nutrients. This can help you feel more satisfied, which reduces cravings and improves motivation and ultimately helps you have more control around food.
Health Effects Of Restricting Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for gut bacteria. A diet high in sugar creates an unhealthy balance where more irritating organisms dominate, while fiber and starches fuel health promoting organisms to dominate. When you restrict healthy carbs, you risk an unhealthy gut balance. Also, without enough fiber, your digestive motility decreases, which results in gas, bloating, constipation and stomach pains.
Because you get so many important nutrients and energy from carbohydrate foods, your body craves them intensely in their absence. We often crave the most satisfying types of foods when our body needs specific nutrients. These foods make us feel comfort and pleasure and motivate us to eat, and ideally fulfill the deficit. This is why you might crave sweets or bread when you need energy, or a burger when you need iron. When you eat a variety of carbohydrates through the week, you'll experience less cravings because your body won't feel deprived.
Your body is smart and adapts to certain conditions. When you restrict carbs, your metabolism adjusts to function without as much incoming energy. It achieves this by slowing your metabolism down. At first you'll lose weight on a carb restricted diet because you lose water retention. You may continue to lose weight because of inevitable calorie restriction, not simply from eating less carbs. People who follow a low carb diet often plateau with weight loss, and find that they gain weight back faster.
I (obviously) don't recommend for anyone to eliminate and restrict healthy carbohydrates long term. A low carb diet can be helpful in the short term to reduce water retention (fast way to ‘lose weight’ and feel lean) and as a way to jump start healthier eating habits.
It's most important to choose from a variety of healthy carbohydrates most of the time, which include beans, whole grain, starchy vegetables and fruits. There can be room for less healthy carbs in the diet like bread and sweets. I actually encourage indulging a couple times a week (for most people)! I recommend reading the ingredient list to make sure you choose minimally processed/high quality foods that don't have an insensibly long list of ingredients or unnecessary additives (preservatives, coloring, flavor enhancers) and to use portions.