Diet trends ebb and flow, so as dietitians, over the years, we hear it all. The hated macronutrient du jour seems to be carbohydrates (or haven't you heard?). "Carbs are the enemy" is a statement I remember hearing my optometrist (i.e. non-qualified medical professional) say when I was a budding RD. We've all heard this one before, right? How many of you have lived your lives by this diatribe? This message, along with the many others that support the "Down With Carbs" rhetoric, is not only inaccurate, but downright harmful. First, let's get into the basics.
Carbohydrates are one of the three major macronutrients (that is, a nutrient required in large quantities throughout each day, responsible for providing our bodies with energy. The other two are fat and protein). Carbs are what most of our bodies' tissues prefer to use for energy, and for our brains and red blood cells, it is the only exclusive energy source they can use. Carbohydrates do not turn into body fat more quickly than the other macronutrients, which is a common myth. As with all macronutrients, the body uses what it needs (which is a lot), and stores the rest as body fat -- an incredible evolutionary feat that makes the human body efficient and intelligent.
Carbohydrates can be found in bread, crackers, sweets, cereal or oatmeal, rice, pasta and other grains, as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn. There are also carbohydrates in milk, beans, and fruit. Additionally, any food made from these food items will contain carbohydrates. Think: potato chips, corn puffs, baked goods. For those of you familiar with my "no foods are bad foods" approach, this next sentence will not come as a surprise. None of these sources is a "good" or "bad" source of carbohydrates. They are different, but none is better than another. Simple carbohydrates are smaller molecules that are used and broken down more quickly. This is very helpful in situations where we are needing quick energy. Complex carbohydrates are larger molecules, so take a while to break down. This is helpful when we need more long lasting energy. Most meals will contain both, but sometimes you'll get just one -- and that's TOTALLY OK.
How Much Do We Need?
As with all nutrients, each body is vastly different. However, most people will need about 45-65% of their overall energy needs to be met by carbohydrates. This is to ensure your brain and body are fully fueled, not looking to slow down bodily systems (like brain and heart function, among many others) in order to keep things moving and lively. To put this in more practical terms, every meal and snack should contain some source of carbohydrates. At meals, I always recommend a grain or starchy vegetable as a source of carbohydrate (i.e. not using fruit as your carb). Not only do grains provide necessary nutrients that our bodies require, but this is a great way to start exposing yourself to a vital nutrient that is usually at the top of most peoples' fear foods lists.
"But I'm addicted to sugar..."
This is a common notion I'm hearing more and more these days. All research thus far points to food addiction not being a thing in the same sense the addiction to drugs and alcohol exists. This is not to say that your experience of your relationship to food being like an addiction is not valid. However, what research (supported by anecdotal experience) shows us is that this sense of addiction only exists in the context of restriction. This differs from, say, addiction to heroin. For the drug addict, abstinence can often increase ability to stay away for good. For the alleged food addict, abstinence increases the body's sense of awareness when it comes to food. This sets the individual up to be highly susceptible to, not only consume, but over-consume, as soon as their avoided food becomes available to them. This is your body's response to a perceived starvation, or even the threat of restriction. That threat can sound a lot like "I'll start my diet on Monday" or "don't have more than X number of cookies". With food, exposing yourself to the food more, or even just opening yourself up to permission to eat the food, causes this feeling of addiction to simply go away.
How Can I Start Giving My Body What It Needs?
Start by trying to include a carbohydrate source at each meal or snack. And be incredibly patient with yourself. Because of this restrict/binge pendulum swing (look for a post on that later), you might find it so hard, or almost impossible to open a bag of chips without finishing them. This is a great opportunity to practice trusting your body. Trust that it is just trying to get its fill. Today, your body might just need the whole bag; this won't be the case forever. Once your body starts to trust that it gets to have chips any time it needs them, you'll find you don't need quite as much to feel satisfied. Until then, resist the urge to pull the pendulum back to the restrict position, as this is what keeps the cycle going.
I want to hear from those of you walking this path. Comment and let me know -- what helps you avoid restricting when it's oh-so-tempting? What do you wish someone would have shared with you when you first started out?