How Important are Carbs to Weight Loss?
“I could NEVER give up bread!” That’s often the first thing one hears (or says!) when discussing a low-carb eating plan. But do you have to? Here’s the skinny on how carbs impact weight loss and how you can incorporate the foods you love into your eating plan without sabotaging your weight – or your health.
What is a Carb?
Carbohydrates are a group of organic compounds composed of sugar, starch or cellulose (or any combination of these). They are primarily found in fruits, vegetables, grains and some dairy foods.
At one time, carbs were known as “starches.” Though some carbohydrates are starchy, “starches” in and of themselves are a category within the carbohydrate range – and the term is limiting, not to mention not fully accurate.
Indeed, carbs have gotten a bad rap in recent years for being no-nos in the dieting world. Ask anyone and he or she will tell you: carbs “pack on the pounds,” are “all sugar” and “cause diabetes.” True or not? Let’s explore.
Do Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes?
The short answer to this question is: all by themselves, and as a food macronutrient (fats, carbs and protiens are in the macronutrient category), no. But when we dig a little deeper, we can see how too many carbs – especially too many in one sitting, rather than distributed evenly throughout the day – can impact your weight.
When certain foods enter the bloodstream, insulin is produced in order to “clean them up” and transport them where the body needs them to go. Carbohydrates, which become sugar once broken down, are in that group. Unfortunately, a huge influx of carbs at one time mean a gigantic insulin release by comparison to a more rounded and sensible meal. The body may even overproduce insulin in its panic to clean up the glucose in your system. When that happens, two things occur:
1. More glucose is cleared away, faster than needed, which means a glucose dip – or “hypoglycemia.” You get shaky, you get foggy, you get tired – and your response is to want to eat something, often a carb-y something. This sets up a cycle of overeating for many people.
2. Over time, in defense against the constant over-demand for activity, the body’s insulin receptors begin to shut down, no longer allowing the insulin inside to do its cleanup job – and yes, this can be the precursor to Type II diabetes.
What About Hunger?
Another problem with too many carbs per sitting is that overall, carbohydrates stimulate hunger. That’s not a defect in carbs themselves and certainly not a defect in you; carbs are meant to stimulate hunger.
As little as just a hundred or so years ago, many, if not most, people around the globe experienced true hunger (sometimes, to starvation levels) at various times. Winter was a prime time for many western cultures to have periods of diminished food intake. In other areas of the globe, drought or famine conditions might occur either randomly or regularly.
Getting in many “quick-acting,” easily digestible macronutrients per sitting guarded against leaner times. And though the fiber in plants can not be digested by humans, the carbohydrates in these, as well as fruits and some dairy, were a quickly-digestible and storage-friendly source. Therefore, our bodies were designed to to keep eating them if we were in their presence, as signaled by our bodies once we put them into our mouths or sometimes, just being in the presence of (and smelling and seeing) them.
However, in most first-world nations, we no longer experience the leaner times to compensate for this instinct- and biology-driven stuffing. Instead, we have ready food sources not only of naturally occurring carbs (which are actually quite good for you!) which have been crafted in a very, very refined way to impact our bodies even faster than they would in their natural state.
This means natural carb-stimulated hunger is all the stronger a drive…and the cycle continues: stuff on foods that impact our insulin response into hyper-overdrive, overeat them due to their driving our hunger, experience a glucose plunge about 90 minutes later and be driven to stuff again in response.
Should I NEVER Eat Carbs Again?
Many diet experts believe the primary issue with the way we eat – and overeat – today is lacking moderation. Yes, moderation is easier said than done. But there are ways to enjoy your carbs without them turning around and sabotaging your health efforts.
Please note that the following ideas may not apply to you if you have already been diagnosed with Type II diabetes or insulin resistance. Please speak to your doctor before making these changes so she may discuss your condition with you.
- Pairing carbs with protein can help slow the insulin spike that occurs after eating. The total amount of each is individual, but a general rule of thumb is to eat half the amount of protein grams as carb grams (for example, 7 grams of protein to 14-15 grams of carbs) and to limit the total amount of carbs in each meal.
- Don’t eat larger amounts of carbs too close together. If you eat 30 grams now, then 40 grams thirty minutes later, your body is still in the thick of its insulin response and you are actually extending the total time that your body is required to “pump out” insulin.
- Though we’d love to tell you otherwise, your body does not necessarily treat “whole grains” differently from “white grains.” It’s the total amount of insulin required in response to the total amount of carbs that makes the difference to your hunger (and, if you’re diabetic, to your body’s reaction). So if you’re counting carb grams, don’t sneak in more “whole” grain carbs…insulin is still required to deal with them, just as if you’d bitten into a slice of Wonder bread.
- Fiber carbs are non-digestible by humans. Most experts believe this means they don’t impact your blood sugar the way carbs not present in fiber do. Ask your doctor whether you should count fiber grams or whether you can deduct these from your total count for the day.
- People react to different sugar sources in different ways. For example, your body may not be as impacted by fructose (found in fruit) as in lactose (found in milk). You may need to experiment to discover how your body reacts to each.
- If your doctor has asked that you monitor your blood sugar with a meter, do not skip this step simply because you’re lowering your carbs. Maintain the regimen your doctor has laid down for you.