Carbs don’t have to be the enemy!

Carbs have gotten a bad rap over the past 20 years. In the early 2000s, Atkins and South Beach touted the importance of eliminating large groups of carbs. In the 2010s, Paelo and Keto broke into mainstream culture. Numerous studies tout the health benefits of a low-carb lifestyle and many people swear that their lives are changed because of their new way of eating. The trouble is we don’t live in a low-carb world. Following these diets long-term is hard. Like really, really hard. Unless you live in a bubble or have surrounded by others who swear by this lifestyle, you cannot sustain these diets long-term. Many see their weights yo-yo as they go on and off these diets. I plan to do a post about low-carb diets, but today’s post is for the rest of us that isn’t ready to give up carbs all together.

Let’s start with some basics. Carbohydrates are starches that can be broken into various sugars for us to use for energy – glucose, galactose and fructose. ALL carbs are broken into sugar. Many foods contain some carbs, even if you think of them as being “carb-free.” Carbohydrates are essential for life. Our brains and red blood cells require glucose to function. The rest of our body generally prefers glucose but can use other fuel if needed.

Whenever we eat carbs, our bodies sense it in the mouth and initiate a response to release insulin (see my diabetes post to learn more about insulin – This triggers a cascade to prepare the cells in our bodies to pick up the sugar that is coming. This is normal and totally appropriate.

So why does everyone and their brother talk about how bad carbs and insulin are for us? The trouble is the type and amount of carbs we are eating and what they are doing to our bodies.

  1. When we eat high-glycemic load foods we trigger an exaggerated insulin response. Too much insulin overtime has been linked with fat deposition and weight gain.  Most notably, central (waist) fat gain which is linked with something called metabolic syndrome. This is in-turn linked with high blood pressure, stroke risk, coronary artery disease and heart attacks and high cholesterol. It’s also why so many people start a diet (which usually doesn’t turn out well long-term).
  2. For many people, eating carbs can be addictive. Studies have found that eating carbohydrates can release dopamine, which is the same chemical released when someone addicted to something has that item they are addicted to. The more they eat, the more they need. This is especially problematic because too many carbs and excess weight are risk factors for #1 above.
  3. Insulin surges are linked with cravings. If we eat higher carb items earlier in the day it is harder to stay away from carbs as the day goes on. This is because our taste buds are programmed to want sugar. For whatever reason, sleeping seems to reset this a bit but as soon as we start eating for the day the cravings can start again. It’s much easier to stay on track if you start on track.

One approach is choosing low-glycemic index foods whenever possible. So what is a low-glycemic index food? This is something with more complex carbohydrates that take time to digest. The slower carbs digest, the more gradual the rise in insulin levels. This has been linked with fewer cravings, more stable blood sugars and improved insulin sensitivity (less risk of diabetes and associated metabolic conditions). Below is a picture of insulin spikes with low-vs-high glycemic index foods:

Image result for glycemic index insulin spike picture

As you can see, not only do high glycemic index foods cause a peak in insulin and glucose levels, but also deep valleys. These in-turn can cause cravings and severe symptoms from low-glucose levels. I believe the graph above will be variable by each person. If you took a group of 5 people who ate a ripe banana and scone, they might all have a different response to the same glycemic load. One person might have an exaggerated response (even more than the red lines) while another might have a lesser response than the red line. Studies have been mixed with the effects or benefits low- vs – high-glycemic index foods. My opinion is that it is likely high individualized and that is why some studies who benefit while others show no difference.

The key thing is this – lower glycemic index foods WILL result in a lesser glucose spike and lesser insulin spike. Period. In addition, eating non-carb foods (proteins, fats and nondigestable fibers) will decrease how quickly any food is absorbed and will help mimic a low-glycemic index response. So in a perfect world, you’d eat a minimally ripe banana with a piece of whole grain wheat bread with a nut butter and an egg, The bread, nut butter and egg will decrease how rapidly the glucose in your blood spikes from the banana. 

My hypothesis is that there are some people who are programmed to desire carbs. This might be you if you –

  • Can’t stop yourself midway through a carb-food even if you are full
  • Turn to sweets or carbs when stressed
  • Crave sweets throughout the day after you have your first sweet item
  • Eat carbs when offered, even if they are full
  • Struggle with binge eating

If you identify with the items above, you could benefit from a few interventions.

First, seeing a dietitian or counselor that specializes in intuitive eating could help you tremendously. Once you realize the effects of various foods on your body and begin listening to hunger/satiety cues, you will notice a huge shift if how you feel and what you want to eat.

Next, you would benefits from trying a low-glycemic index diet. You can see an example of these foods in the document titled “Low-glycemic Index Diet” here in my google drive –

Lastly, you may benefit from trying a carb elimination or low-carb diet. Some people have told me that when they realize their eating has gotten out of control, doing a brief phase of carb elimination has helped them reset. They typically do a 2 to 4 week elimination and then gradually introduce carbohydrates back into their diets while eating intuitively and paying attention o which foods they can tolerate and which they can’t. I am not a fan of “diets” but I agree that doing this reset could be helpful for the right person. IF you do this, you MUST give yourself grace. Any negative self-talk because you feel you are failing is not allowed! Not everyone can just simply eliminate foods from their diet and it is important to remember that there are bigger survival forces at play in your body that make this more difficult for some. If this is you, do NOT do an elimination diet. Circle back to the first point above and see a dietitian or counselor who specializes in this area and work with them to regain control over your diet.

What is your view on carbohydrates? Do you follow a low carb diet or are you a carb lover for life? Do you feel addicted to carbs; if so, how do you manage it?

Please leave your comments below!

Also, a few other posts I’ve done on diabetes and carbohydrates

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