Updated: Sep 2
Two years ago while first researching weight-loss options, something I kept coming across was cutting out carbs. I read claim after claim that restricting your carbohydrate intake a crazy amount will essentially turn your body into a fat-burning machine. I have to admit… this seems appealing when you need to lose weight which is exactly why I fell for it and ended up on the keto diet.
Because carbohydrates are your body’s primary energy source, when you remove them from your diet, your body burns protein and fat* in order to function. But guess what? Neither fat nor protein are adequate long-term energy sources and using them can put your body at risk for some serious health issues.
When fats are used as an energy source for the body, ketones are created in the liver and then released (hence where keto got its name). Ketones are slightly acidic in nature and over time, can build up in the blood, raising bodily pH, and consequently altering the function of organs such as the kidneys and liver. Misusing protein as energy also slowly degrades your body as it's needed for the creation and maintenance of cells. Utilizing it for energy prevents important tissues, such as muscle, from being built or repaired.
We also find tons of important micronutrients in carbs such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and vitamin Bs like folate. Google some of these nutrient’s functions!
They. Do. Important. Stuff.
What else are you missing out on by removing fruits and starchy vegetables from your diet? Immune boosting phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals)! Although not required to keep us alive, phytonutrients can vastly improve our health. There are over 25,000 different ones and most can be categorized into a certain color. For example, we find beta cryptothanxin in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Getting a variety of phytonutrients will help you maximize their benefits, which is why it is so important to #eattherainbow.
Phytonutrients have some amazing benefits; to name a few:
Decreasing risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease
Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits
Anti-aging effects on the skin
Preventing substances in our food from becoming carcinogens
Hormone regulation; specifically, estrogen and insulin
Pages upon pages could be written on phytonutrients and their benefits to the human body but, I’ll stop with those. You get the point. They’re amazing.
But in case you haven’t ascertained this yet, our body NEEDS carbs. When you hear “carbohydrates”, you might automatically think about cheesecake and high blood sugar, but, like anything else, all carbs are NOT created equal. So, no, by "you need carbs" I don't mean that your body is going to shut down if you don't eat muffins or texas toast everyday. There are two different types of carbohydrates and you should ideally be getting about 90% of your daily carbohydrate intake from only one of them: complex carbs.
Simple carbs (aka refined carbs) are quickly broken down by our bodies for energy while complex carbs digest much slower. Why is this important? After we consume carbohydrates, they’re stored in the body for a brief amount of time ready to supply us with energy but, when they don’t get used, we convert them into body fat. The faster a carb is digested, the faster it causes weight gain.
So, while you have little chance of using the simple carbs from a soda or plate of spaghetti before they turn to body fat, complex carb’s longer digestion time allows you to completely burn them off which is what makes them best for weight loss!
What Simple Carbs Should You Avoid?
Refined sugar: made from sugar beets, corn, and sugar cane. Used in corn syrups, confectioners sugar, and table sugar (both white and brown). Found in soda, fruit juice, candy, cereals, regular yogurt, desserts, etc. and they end in -ose on nutrition labels.
A great way to be sure you're not consuming these is to choose foods with 0g of added sugar. Sugar is toxic to every single type of tissue in our bodies and has been proven to be as addictive as street drugs. Hence why it's put in almost everything now from packaged chips to fast food. I'll be creating a post soon covering sugars in detail and their effects on the body.
White flour is another simple carbohydrate that quickly turns to fat in the body. It's used in muffins, cookies, pastries, most bread, pretzels, pasta, crackers, and baked goods. If not listed as "white flour", it may be referred to as "wheat flour", "enriched flour", or "enriched wheat flour" on nutrition labels - not to be confused with whole wheat flour.
White rice is also a simple carbohydrate and although potatoes are complex carbs in nature, you should opt for ones with a lower glycemic index, such as sweet potatoes, to prevent blood sugar spikes.
Choosing Complex Carbs
If you read my first blog post (click here to find it) then you’ll remember me covering the importance of whole grains. Whole grains are the most superior form of complex carbohydrates. They still contain their nutrients and fiber, unlike refined (processed) grains, so they digest even slower and keep blood sugar stable.
How to Find Whole-Grain Foods
The Whole Grains council has created a stamp for foods which makes finding whole grain options so much easier! For products that do not have this stamp, you can always read the ingredients list, however, this may not be as simple.
You can trust any items clearly stating 100% whole wheat or whole grain but be cautious of foods using the term “whole grain” without context as they may only contain diminutive amounts of whole grains. For example, a box reading “cereal made with whole grains” may actually be 90-95% refined and only 5-10% whole grains.
This week I will be uploading a new digital download covering the complex carbs that should be included in your daily diet as well as the simple and refined carbs best avoided or limited. It can be easily printed out or saved on your phone and will include a cheat sheet for all terms used on ingredient lists because, well, let's face it: reading those labels can be really confusing at first!
As always, balance and moderation are key when it comes to healthy eating. Carbohydrates fuel our bodies and should be included in our daily diets. Just make sure to choose complex carbs as often as possible, eat whole fruits and vegetables, and stick to the correct portion sizes.
* the keto diet's claim of "burning fat" in place of carbs is referring to the fats you consume from your diet; not body fat