I struggle with carbohydrates constantly. When I go full Paleo for months and strike carbs from every plate and pantry, I am usually at my skinniest. But inevitably I fall back to deep carb cravings—I have lower energy, I drink more coffee, and that’s when I start eating carbs again. Ultimately, I land in the “gluten free” trap and think I have license to eat anything with those words stamped on the package. But guess what: gluten free doesn’t mean carb free (more on my 3 months gluten free experiment later).
Because a food is not paleo friendly or keto diet approved, should it be banished? Sometimes when dining out with my friends, the bread basket has of course been banished from the table, and I feel like if I ask to keep the bread I’ll be bread shamed (yeah—that’s a thing), so I’ll order a side of fries or a side of rice. This is the horror that ensues: am I eating carbs? Seriously? Well yes, I am, after a roller coaster of carb starving and then fueling.
I reached out to get some expert advice: what’s with the carb-o-coaster? How can it be avoided? Could a regular dosage of carbs actually keep my diet more steady, maintain my energy levels, and keep me sane? Here’s what a few of the CB experts have to say.
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BASICS: WHAT’S A CARB?
As Rachel McAdams famously asked in Mean Girls: “Is butter a carb?” Well, obviously it’s not. But defining carbs is important; they’re not all bad. As health coach Amina Al Tai tells us, “Carbohydrates are macronutrients along with protein and fat, and do have a role in a balanced and healthy lifestyle.” In fact, carbohydrates are considered a main fuel source and support the brain and nervous system by supplying them with the necessary glucose they need to function. More specifically, they’re the sugars, starches and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends we eat 135 grams per day. However, other institutions suggest that number is unique to everyone based on age, gender and lifestyle.
Though a lot of diet plans often implicate carbs as the main source of weight gain, Amina reminds us, “it’s unhealthy processed carbohydrates that are to blame, not carbs in general, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
CARBS & WEIGHT LOSS
Yes, people lose weight on low-carb diets. But eliminating carbohydrates altogether is not the right path to long-term weight loss. There are two things to think about here: 1) You need to eliminate the wrong carbs, not the right ones. 2) Starving yourself of carbohydrates has many negative impacts on your body.
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Nutritionist Dana James notes that food marketed as “low-carb” and “gluten-free” often use fat as the filler. For example, “low-carb, gluten-free bread is made with almond flour or coconut flour with about the same amount of calories, which still count,” she says. “I’ve worked with various women whom I’ve told to add carbs back into their diet to stimulate fat loss because they’ve been carb-deprived for months!”
Says Health Coach Amina Al-Tai, “Weight loss can often be the result of water loss, and can even be attributed to muscle loss, which is common on very low carb diets. Weight can return easily and in greater quantity than before if you pick a diet that is not sustainable. Eating low-carb often means that you’re over-eating protein and fat to compensate—which isn’t healthy either. It’s all about balance.”
The main reason you want to avoid all processed carbohydrates is because it removes much of the dietary fiber, and this is an important part of a healthy diet.
DON’T FALL INTO THE GLUTEN-FREE TRAP
I recently went gluten free, primarily for the sake of beauty (more on that later). But it’s easy to fall into the gluten-free trap. Bread made with coconut flour and chickpea flour is still bread, and it’s still calories. “If you eat too much bread, pasta, cereal, and bagels, you are likely to gain weight,” says James (even if it’s gluten-free), “excess carbs do ultimately convert to fat.”