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The Starchy Truth About Carbs: How Modern Diets Skew Our Perception of a Vital Macronutrient

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

Unfortunately, the world has taught us that carbs are inherently bad. I thought this until my mid 20’s as well, avoiding pasta like the plague and feeling the onset of guilt before that first bite of pizza hit my taste buds. We have been taught that carbs make you fat; that bread makes you bloat and anything delicious is the enemy of your fitness efforts. This is a tricky subject.

The most recent mainstream diets based on zero or low carb intakes claim to force your body to burn fat for fuel when you eliminate carbohydrates as an energy source. They claim that fat is a more efficient fuel source, burns existing fat on your body, and spike your insulin response, making weight loss easy and effortless. Now yes, you may lose weight on a low carb diet, however it is not because of the carbs. You are most likely eating less processed foods that are higher in calories and have put yourself in a caloric deficit- meaning you are now burning more calories than you're eating. Another thing to consider is you most likely are retaining much less water (which is a natural, healthy bodily function by the way). Since your cells cannot hold as much water, naturally you will weigh less without that water.

Although low-carb fad diets are not inherently fool-proof, lowering your carbohydrate intake to give yourself less energy calories may be an effective way to lose weight. As long as your protein intake stays high enough to protect your body composition and skeletal muscle, you can theoretically lower either carbs or fat (energy sources) to lower your calories. There are pros and cons to both when considering which one to lower. According to Texas A&M University: Integration of Metabolism, the body first breaks down glucose or glycogen in carbohydrates for energy. When glucose is no longer available, the body turns to triacylglycerols in stored fat, and finally proteins in muscle fibers to keep energy levels up. This makes sense right? Take out the first option and the body theoretically moves onto the second. However before we start crediting these low-carb diets to be all they claim to be, it's so important to consider if this method is truly sustainable for your overall health for an extended period of time. I have been a competitive natural figure athlete for many years now, pushing my body to extremes for a few hours of stage time each year. I have experimented with all different approaches towards achieving an extreme aesthetic physique, some healthier and more sustainable than others regarding my nutrition. Through this trial and error I learned what it is like to carb-deplete my body to eliminate body fat and lean out to a temporary low body fat composition suitable for showcasing my muscle definition on stage. By nearly eliminating every form of carbohydrate from entering my body during the weeks immediately approaching a competition, I forced my body into survival mode so it was forced to burn fat to remain functioning. Although this process was highly supervised by certified coaches and monitored extensively it often times caused me to feel sick, sluggish, and so unlike my energized, healthy self. Here’s why: 1.) Carbs are found in so many natural food sources that are otherwise considered healthy. Remove carbs, and you are forced to turn to supplements to obtain the micronutrients your body craves. Fruit? Pure carbs. Dairy? Carb central. Whole grains? Not even. When removing almost all carbohydrates from your diet, you are also forced to removed many “healthy” food items that provide nutrients such as Vitamin C, folate, fiber and magnesium (proven in results from a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 57 (August 2003):947.) Apples and bananas have at least 26g carbs per serving, even after considering their fiber content, while raisins contain a whopping 79g per serving. A cup of plain yogurt has 11g -20g carbs per serving, however by omitting them you are also losing out on 12g+ of protein. It is important to remember that while omitting processed and excessive carbs from your diet can definitely help you shed some weight, it also impacts your ability to stay healthy by eating a whole foods diet.

2.) Low carb often means added fat and artificial sugar. Think about it: if sugars and carbs go hand in hand, how on earth can low carb chocolate, candy or sweet desserts exist? ARTIFICIALLY, that’s how. Take a look at the nutrition label to the right of “Low Carb, No Sugar Added Milk Chocolate Coconut Clusters”. While the carbs are low (still 21g but hey, that’s less than a piece of fruit) look at the other nutrients hyped up to make up for it: 14g of fat, 10g of saturated fat, and 80g of sodium! Now take a look at the ingredients: artificial flavors and sucralose. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener (commonly known as Splenda) that is chemically manipulated from sugar. There are debated studies trying to prove or disprove its negative effects on blood sugar and insulin levels, but we won’t get into that here. The point is, it’s artificial.

3.) Low carb means low energy and cognitive abilities. Example: When I was carb-depleting I would put my protein powder in the fridge, my egg whites in the pantry, and could rarely participate in a conversation without spacing out multiple times. In 2008 the psychology department at Tufts University proved that when dieters eliminate carbohydrates from their diet, “they performed more poorly on memory-based tasks than when they reduce calories, but maintain carbohydrates. When carbohydrates were reintroduced, cognition skills returned to normal.” The reason for this is because the brain obtains its energy to function when glucose is transported through the blood stream. The glycogen in carbs also keeps your blood-glucose levels at adequate levels to keep your body energized between meals according to our trusty ol’ Biochemistry textbook by Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L.New York: W H Freeman; 2002.) Simply put: no glucose, no energy.

4.) Low carbs also inhibit muscle growth. According to various European sports nutrition studies the majority of the body’s newly consumed glycogen is stored in skeletal muscle tissue, especially after strenuous activity, i.e. exercise or weightlifting. If you do not give your muscles glycogen to store, they will look “flat” and the tissues will take longer to repair (aka no or slowed muscle growth). This study is a heavy read, but very informative if you have further interest in the science behind carbohydrates and their importance to athleticism and muscle building. Based on this finding, those low-carb diets may help you lose weight, however if your goal is to build muscle or look toned and fit at the end of your weight loss, those pictures of fitness models representing the diets are not accurate depictions of your results. The whole reason many bodybuilders put on large amounts of weight and muscle before they start depleting their carb intake, is because it is assumed they will lose a portion of their muscle mass along with their fat loss. They most overcompensate beforehand. If you have very little muscle under fat to begin with, your muscles will look flat and soft when you reach your goal weight.

So unless your goal is to lose weight with a bland boring diet, expensive supplements and very little conversation, I suggest you steer clear of the No-Carb lifestyle. Leave the carb-depleting to the competitors and get fit the slow, energized, and healthy way. We agree that skipping the pastas, breads and snacks from a box are probably a good idea to give your body other energy-seeking options. However keep these healthy complex carbs (in this case, meaning unprocessed, high energy carbs) in your diet:

  • Sweet Potatoes: high in fiber, beta carotene and vitamins.

  • Chick Peas: provide 12g of fiber, lower bad cholesterol, and keep you fuller longer after eating.

  • Brown Rice or Quinoa: inexpensive per portion, a great source of fiber and promote long lasting energy.

  • Oats (we’re talking plain oats here, not the sugar-laden flavored ones): provide long lasting energy to keep you full and contain fiber called beta-glucan, which helps lower cholesterol.

  • Blueberries: while they don’t provide the highest amount of carbs, they are a great fruit source that is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also lower in sugar than other fruits such as bananas.

  • Chestnuts: these babies are surprisingly low in fat, yet high in complex carbs. They’re rich in vitamin C, folate, and monounsaturated fats like oleic acid.

  • Low Fat Plain Greek Yogurt: provides quick energy to fit into an active lifestyle or before a busy day, but it’s also very high in protein. Pick a plain variety to cut out sugar and additives, and add some fruit if you’re looking for additional carbs, or cinnamon and stevia for some guilt-free flavor.

What are some of your favorite recipes using healthy carbs to stay fit and energized? Have you tried a no-carb lifestyle with any side effects or success? What are some tips you can share about using carbs to maintain cognitive function and muscle mass? Post below, we’re all ears!

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