It’s the new trend in diets. All of the headlines tout that you must eat low carb if you are going to lose weight, lose belly fat and improve your gut health. For the thirty years before that low-fat was all the rage. Supposedly we’ve learned our lesson, switched gears and decided fat is good and carbs are bad. Now people are adding butter to their coffee and cutting the carbs. Yuck!
Is that the way to go? Are we headed right back into the same debacle as low fat?
What is a Carbohydrate and What Does it Do?
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches and fiber found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products that serve as the primary source of energy for the central nervous system and working muscles 1. All plant-based foods contain them to some degree or another. The only way to get them is to eat them, your body cannot produce them on its own.
When you eat foods containing carbohydrates your body breaks it down to form glucose, a form of sugar, that is easily absorbed through the small intestine. The pancreas releases insulin to carry the glucose through your system and stabilize the blood sugar so that your body can use the glucose for energy. When glucose enters your bloodstream your body switches off burning fat and begins burning glucose. 2 3.
What Happens If You Eat Too Many Carbohydrates?
Your body can only store so much glucose at any given time. Excess gets stored in the liver for use when you aren’t eating and the rest is turned into fat. If you consume more carbohydrates while your glucose levels are already high a second surge of insulin is produced. This is where the problems start.
The extra dose of insulin creates an overdose effect. Over time constant exposure to insulin overdose leads to insulin sensitivity weakening the bodies capacity to process glucose. When glucose can’t be processed for energy you are left feeling drained and hungry. That’s right, you eat more and more but you can’t get the energy you need. Lethargy and overeating ensues.
The more this happens the worse it gets. Constant high blood sugar causes your blood pressure to elevate, uric acid levels rise, you run higher risks of developing heart disease and diabetes due to the strain and the list goes on 4 5 .
I got it, I should eat low carb. Maybe, maybe not.
What Happens When Your Carbohydrate Intake is Too Low
Too many carbs isn’t great but neither is too few. When you reduce your intake your body has to resort to stored energy to keep moving. The first stop for reserves will be to burn body fat. Yeah! But there’s a catch. There are certain body functions that can only operate from carbohydrates. Distress signals emerge when your blood sugar drops too low alerting you of the problem. You will experience low energy, headaches, brain fog and your mood is shot.
To compensate your body releases ketones, a fat byproduct, which is toxic in large amounts. To reduce toxicity your kidneys work harder to flush them out. A higher than normal protein intake creates additional byproducts putting even more strain on your kidneys 3. Over time the damage accumulates and becomes permanent.
Whoops, maybe low carbohydrate intake isn’t such a good thing.
What Does ‘Eat Low Carb’ Mean?
The problem with the term ‘eat low carb’ is that it isn’t quantified. According to the National Institute of Health between 45-65% of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates 7. Wait a second, did you just say half of my calories? Why yes, yes I did just say that.
Depending on your perspective, if you are half-glass-empty or half-glass-full determines how you interpret if that is high or low. Some of you might be saying, “wow that’s really high!” Others might be saying, “whatever that’s pretty low.”
But wait, there’s more. How you fill the 45-65% carbohydrate quota matters.
The Type of Carbohydrate Matters
I get it, carbohydrates are necessary nutrients for our overall health, we need them to survive. It’s also true that too many of those buggers running around your body is not such a good thing. Yet somehow they should fill half of our calories. How do we do that without going into fat storage overload?
When you eat foods that your body has to work to digest you slow the rate of digestion and absorption. This slow down is enough of a buffer to steady the release of insulin and give you a chance to burn off all that energy before it gets stored as fat.
When you eat carbohydrate based foods that the body can digest and absorb quickly all that wiggle room disappears. Your body really doesn’t like this type of fast energy. It kind of freaks out. So to deal with the problem not only does it store the excess as fat it shoves it away as quickly as it can in the nearest location. Guess where that is, your belly 9!
How to Tell Good Carbs from Bad Carbs
How can you tell the difference between slow absorbing and fast absorbing carbohydrates? That’s the easy part. You see mother nature had your back when she grew those carbohydrates, she put a built-in natural buffer system in the form of fiber. Fiber slows the rate of digestion and absorption creating a safety net 10.
We can use broccoli as an example. 68% of the calories in broccoli come from carbohydrates. Oh my god! Broccoli is a carb! Don’t go throwing out all of your fruits and veggies just yet.
Broccoli is also high in fiber. The slow rate of digestion results in a more gradual, and tolerable, rise in blood sugar 11. Have you ever heard of someone getting fat off of broccoli?
What happens if you take the broccoli and break it apart, mash it up and pull out the pulp? You destroy the fiber and make it easier for your body to get straight to the sugar. You increase the absorption rate.
The more processing steps applied the worse it gets. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 12 this fast absorption can become an addiction! Their research indicates it also triggers parts of your brain associated with pleasure, reward and addiction. Talk about a double whammy.
How to Choose
If it doesn’t look anything like the plant that it was when you eat it chances are it is now in the fast absorption rate category, even if it wasn’t there when it was whole. If it somewhat resembles but has parts missing (like removing the germ from wheat) it will also be in the faster absorbing category. Maybe all that juicing isn’t such a good idea.
White sugar derives from the sugar cane plant. By the time it gets to your table it doesn’t look anything like the plant it was. All of the steps we take to extract the white sugar from the cane makes it fast and easy for our body to rapidly turn to glucose. All of the buffers are removed. To make matters worse removing all of the fiber makes it easier to eat. You can eat large quantities quickly without feeling overly full. Top it off with triggering sensations of pleasure and reward and its no wonder we love those dozen donuts so much.
This is also true of white flour. We remove the germ, mill it, refine it and by the time we use it to make bread it doesn’t resemble its former appearance in any way. It was slow absorbing but now its a glucose nightmare.
The best way to get your carbohydrate boost for the day is to get the majority of your carbohydrate calories from whole foods that still resemble the way they grew in mother nature. Choose fruits and vegetables that have higher fiber and vitamin content over those that are higher in starch and lower fiber.
Does that mean you should never eat refined carbs? I love ice cream and a life without it just seems sad. Deprivation typically always has the reverse effect of what it was trying to create so eliminating these foods entirely isn’t realistic. The idea is to seek balance by getting most of your carbohydrates from the whole foods and only a little from the insulin junkie kind.
Should You Eat Low Carb?
Whether you define it as low, normal or high 45-65% is a pretty wide range and gives you plenty of wiggle room to determine your appropriate carbohydrate level. The choice to sway closer to 45 or 65 percent is truly a personal decision. Some need more and some need less depending on activity level, how you tolerate carbohydrates, cultural traditions and your own personal preferences.
Try different levels for yourself to find what feels right and pay attention to how your body responds. If you find yourself feeling low in energy, getting cranky or having difficulty concentrating reach for whole fruits and veggies first. No diet plan should leave you feeling hungry, sick, tired or put your health at risk. You can achieve your personal goals eating healthy food that leaves you feeling happy and healthy.