I remember when I first heard this statement from my dietitian; I looked at her as if she’d just told me humans grow antlers. It was an absurd statement. Everybody knows carbs make you fat, right? That’s what the health and fitness industry shouts at us every day.
It’s a lie.
The truth is: carbs don’t make you fat. Carbohydrates are your body’s number one source for fuel and energy. Whether in the form of simple sugars (found in fruits, vegetables, table sugar, honey, etc.) or in more complex forms (such as whole grains, pastas, potatoes, etc.), carbohydrates are specifically needed for brain and body function (including at the cellular level).
Cutting carbs from your diet is dangerous and counterproductive for weight management. The sugar cravings we’re told to control and replace with “healthier” foods, like kale or carrots, are not a result of your body being “addicted” to sugar. The craving for sugar is a biological signal from your body that it needs fuel. The more you cut carbs, the stronger the cravings will become. And the more you ignore those signals, the lower your blood sugar drops and you become weak, shaky, fatigued, irritable, dizzy, and nauseous. Over time living with consistently low blood sugar takes a toll on your body causing poor sleep, moodiness, chronic headaches, and stress on your heart. Not to mention cutting carbohydrates from your diet causes dysfunction of your metabolism. As your body tries to function with a lack of fuel, the metabolism slows to a crawl in order to preserve energy. Over time your body goes into survival or “deprivation” mode. This means your body will shut down or reduce crucial body functions, like hormone function, digestion, and blood circulation so it can send what little energy it is getting to the heart and brain.
By the way, if you “give in” to a craving after restricting for so long, it’s hard to hear or feel when your body signals that is has had enough of whatever you are eating. Have you ever been so thirsty that you chug a trough of water without breathing, refill your cup several times, and then a few minutes later feel like a swollen water balloon? You drink too much too fast giving your body zero chance to process and turn off the “thirsty” signal, leaving you sloshing around and peeing the excess the rest of the day. The same principle applies to food. When you deprive your body of any nutrient, especially sugar, you’re likely to over-eat the amount your body actually needs, thus causing discomfort and digestive upset… and lots of guilt or shame.
Your body needs ALL nutrients, especially carbohydrates. One of the most vital things I learned in eating disorder recovery is the importance of variety over “balance.” Our culture is strict about “eating a balanced diet,” yet it also encourages cutting carbs, fats, and calories (such a confusing and contradictory message!) However, when you eat a diet filled with a variety of fruits, veggies, grains, sweets, dairy, proteins and fat in a variety of different forms, balance naturally happens. You don’t even have to think or wonder about whether your diet is balanced or not.
How do you know if you are eating a good variety? Your body will absolutely tell you. Focus in on what sounds good. Does a salad really sound good or does it sound like the “healthier choice” over the burrito? If the burrito sounds better, honor your body’s request. Are you really not hungry or are you just trying to ignore the hunger because you’ve “already had those calories”? If you’re hungry, you need to eat and eat what sounds good.
Your body won’t ever ask you to eat more than it needs of any nutrient, including carbohydrates. Carbs don’t make you fat, so tune in and enjoy.