This isn’t a confessional or a Dear Abby response, and when I say alone, I don’t mean by myself in a dark room watching TV. I mean without the addition of fat or protein… but please read on.
Carbohydrates have been vilified in the weight loss world since the end of the low fat diet era. It was almost like one day someone woke up and realized, when people stop eating fat, they get, well, really fat. About that same time the Atkins diet was on the rise and someone else was trying to make a few million (perhaps billion) dollars by figuring out a quick way to send every house wife in America to the health food store to purchase a wonder food called “protein powder”. This left the industry needing to find another reason to blame for everyone getting fat. In terms of macronutrients: carbohydrates were the only one left. So began the era of low carbohydrate dieting.
Now let’s get real for a minute. Who wants to live forever without pizza, pasta, bread, fruit or the countless other wonderful foods that have higher amounts of carbohydrates? When I was a young child unless a food was white and fully carbohydrate, there was no chance of me eating it. When I say white I mean: mashed potatoes, noodles (with parmesan), bread, macaroni and cheese (you are right, that is yellow), and frozen waffles. I have had a love affair with carbohydrates my entire life. I promise you, it is not about to end here and now.
As a nutrition professional what I understand now is that there really are two ways to alter your diet to induce weight loss: lower your calories OR lower your carbohydrates. The problem with these two approaches is that in most cases they are not long lasting and sustainable. Since this is the case people enjoy weight loss for a season, and then when diet habits change back over time, the weight comes back with a vengeance. Hence, Americas billion dollar industry feeding our yo-yo dieting habits.
The answer to losing weight over time and keeping it off lies not in a simplistic caloric restriction or carbohydrate restriction which are very near sighted and proven not to last. Rather the focus needs to be in speeding up your metabolism. It also lies within telling your body through hormone signals that you don’t need to store fat right now; instead you can tap your fat stores consistently when you need more energy.
Carbs are not the enemy. However, eating carbs alone is the enemy of weight loss. Let me explain why. When you eat carbohydrates alone your stomach empties it’s contents faster into your small intestine where most absorption happens. Let’s call this mostly carb meal white bread and jelly. This type of meal allows for very fast use of these carbs. In all of evolutionary time, this is a good thing, when needing to run from predators or catch a beast for dinner. However, in modern times with very processed food this makes for a huge up surge in blood sugar levels. Blood sugar is not a bad thing, but a huge spike in it is. The spike leads your pancreas to excrete a huge amount of insulin to combat the large surge. And insulin tells the rest of the cells in your body to absorb the sugar floating around in your blood. This is what it is supposed to do, however it also tells certain portions of your body to store energy as fat. When it is STORING energy as fat it is of necessity not utilizing fat for energy.
Now consider if you instead of having toast with jelly chose to have toast with peanut butter or a slice of deli meat on it. The fat and protein from the peanut butter or deli meat make your stomach do some extra work as it empties it’s contents. It blunts the effect of a quick raise in blood sugar. This slower increase over time allows your pancreas to produce less insulin. Your body still gets all the necessary signals for it to absorb blood sugar for energy, but it doesn’t send out the entire arsenal of insulin tipping the threshold and making it so your body doesn’t respond by storing fat.
This may seem like a super scientific explanation, but if you think about it you may realize there are many things you eat regularly that don’t have the added combo of protein and/or fat. Something as simple as a piece of fruit.
Carbs are not the enemy, eating carbohydrates alone will cause you to store fat, making it more difficult to lose weight. Eating simple carbohydrates and very highly refined and processed carbohydrates will do the same thing. Think about the difference in the look of a whole grain bread vs. a white bread. You can see the difference with your eyes, believe me your intestines, pancreas and liver can see the difference too. The fiber helps in slowing down the digestion and the added protein and fat from a whole grain provides the added benefit of slowing absorption.
There are foods that have high carb and high fat levels which some of you may be reasoning are still going to be okay to eat. These are foods like tortilla chips, potato chips, donuts. You are thinking, come on there is fat to slow the process down and blunt the blood sugar response. You are right, but they are still providing you little to know benefit in terms of nutrients. You are getting a whole lot of calories without any vitamins and fiber. Say no to these foods more often than you say yes. And join me in not eating carbohydrates alone. Have a handful of peanuts when you eat a piece of fruit, grab a piece of cheese if you are about to have a slice of toast, instead of eating spaghetti marinara add some meatballs to the mix.
Caitlin Johnson is a dietitian, wife, lover of ice cream, chef wannabe, California-girl, Christian, liver eating, "food-avore."
110 N McClelland Street
Santa Maria, California 93454
Hours: Tues and Thurs 10-5 PST