The Case For Carbohydrates

I went to the University Health Center one August afternoon because I was feeling dizzy. Being a nutrition student, I knew that I didn’t eat enough and that the dizziness was likely a consequence of my low blood sugar and dehydration.

“What did you eat today?” the nurse asked.

I managed to communicate that I had a yogurt, a granola bar, bread and a banana over the course of the day. I wasn’t exactly proud of the way the day went nutritionally, but there I was.

“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of carbs… carbs aren’t so good,” she said.

What alarmed me more than feeling faint was the fact that a nurse – and one at my university! – didn’t understand the vital role that carbohydrates play in a balanced diet.

Whether by means of the Atkins diet, which kicked off in 1972, to the increasingly popular Ketogenic diet, the dangerous and inaccurate message that carbohydrates don’t deserve a place at the table has been spreading for years. Diet culture has done a great job convincing society that eliminating carbohydrates is the key to weight loss and health.

However, science says just the opposite.

Ironically, eliminating carbohydrates causes you to crave them even more. The reason for this is more than a Pandora’s box effect; it’s due to biology.

Since carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred source of fuel, we are biologically programmed to consume them. The mechanism for regulating this is by means of a chemical called neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY fluctuates with carbohydrate levels and stimulates carbohydrate cravings, according to Intuitive Eating by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

When our carbohydrate levels are adequate, NPY levels are low, and cravings are kept in check. However, when we don’t have enough carbohydrates, NPY levels skyrocket, which causes us to strongly crave carbohydrates, according to Intuitive Eating. High NPY levels can result in you eating even more carbohydrates than you would have had you not gone low-carb, thereby making weight loss much more difficult.

So, if you find yourself craving bread and pasta to a new intensity upon starting the Keto diet, it’s NPY talking, not your lack of willpower (hello late night binge…). In fact, you should be concerned if you’re not craving carbohydrates.

You’re probably still thinking about your friend who lost all of that weight so quickly by going low-carb.

Any type of restriction can lead to a rapid initial weight loss, and cutting out the entire carbohydrate food group is certainly restricting. Paying closer attention to what you eat – no matter what eating plan you’re following –  can also facilitate weight loss. However, a thinner body isn’t necessarily a healthier body, especially when someone isn’t eating balanced meals.

When you restrict carbohydrates, your body will need to find alternative ways to fuel itself, since it will be in a starvation state due to its preferred energy source not being as available. After depleting energy stores in the liver, your body will burn fat for energy, according to Intuitive Eating.

And this isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Burning fat causes molecules called ketone bodies to enter the bloodstream, a condition known as ketosis. Only half of the brain is able to utilize ketone bodies for fuel; the rest will need to use protein for energy, which it will get through compromising the integrity of your muscles, Intuitive Eating explains.

So, by going low-carb for a sustained period, your body will literally be ripping itself apart to survive. 

Though ketone bodies are flushed from the body in urine (that’s how you “lost” those 2-3 pounds during the first week of your low-carb diet), in some cases, ketosis can lead to ketoacidosis, a condition characterized by dangerously high levels of ketones in the blood. A 2018 study reviewed in the Journal of Investigative Medicine described several cases where this happened.

Ketoacidosis can disturb the body’s acid-base system and cause heart attacks, kidney failure and fluid buildup in the brain, according to a Consumer Reports article published in February. Those following low-carb diets are also more likely to develop a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, according to a recent Chinese study.

A diet that restricts your intake to 1200 calories – the amount recommended by many low-carb diets and for a sedentary 4-year-old, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans – will slow your metabolism. This is why many dieters gain even more than their starting weights after completing diets.

Even if you’re not convinced by the science, consider this practical perspective:

Eating healthfully should be enjoyable, safe, satisfying and fun. Going low-carb can cause you to spend too much time focused on your food instead of on other things that matter to you (see this article for more on that idea).

You can better achieve your nutrition goals by following a pattern of eating that includes carbohydrates rather than one that eliminates them, so why put yourself through that trouble?

By eating healthful carbohydrates in moderate amounts, you will have an easier time making nutritious choices the next time you eat, which will make it easier to manage your portions, which, in turn, will help with weight management.

It is recommended to fill one-quarter of your plate with whole grains at each meal, as per the United States Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate graphic. Some examples of whole grains include brown rice, whole grain bread, quinoa and oatmeal. Other carbohydrate sources include sweet potatoes, squash, beans and lentils.

I know that the sweet nurse who told me that everything would be fine if I chilled in the air conditioning and drank Gatorade meant well. I just wish she knew that the 20-ounce bottle she handed me contained over 30 carbohydrates that were working to help me feel better.

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