pasta with sauce in the plate

How often should you have carbs?

I was recently speaking with someone who reminded me of a diet myth about how often we should have carbs: you can only have carbs at one meal per day. I think many of us subconsciously follow this rule. In fact, I actually recently caught myself thinking, “I had a bagel for breakfast so we shouldn’t have pasta for dinner.” I caught myself – WHY NOT? Who said we can only have carbs one meal per day? Is there any legitimacy to this?

This diet rule arose out of the low-carb and keto diet craze. And it stems from this belief that carbs are bad for you and cause weight gain. Surprise, surprise, like most diet rules, there is no science to back this one up.

You can have carbs for every meal of the day if you want.

  1. Carbs don’t cause weight gain. There is no single food that causes weight gain. Weight gain is a product of calorie excess and other complicating factors such as hormonal status.
  2. Carbs are not bad for you. Our bodies need carbohydrates and are designed to run on them. It’s our body’s preferred fuel source. In fact, our brain is extremely dependent on carbs for its fuel. Our bodies are not designed to burn fat as our primary fuel source – ketosis is a survival mechanism.
  3. Carbs are nutritious. Different carbohydrates contain important nutrients and, if we’re restricting our carb intake dramatically, we could be missing out on that nutrition. Take fiber as a prime example.
  4. Eating for enjoyment is important. We, as humans, eat for many reasons. Enjoyment being among them and just as legitimate as every other reason to eat. If you’re not enjoying what you eat, you’re not going to be satisfied by it. And when that happens, you’re probably going to continue to eat more as you seek out that satisfaction. This can lead us to feel frustrated and out of control around food.

For more information about low carb diets, check out this blog post.

baguette bakery blur bread

Why Low-Carb Diets Don’t Work

  • Low carb diets don’t work for effective, lasting weight loss
  • They come with several side effects

The 80s-90s had the low-fat craze and the 2000s have the low-carb craze. Proponents of low-carb and ketogenic diets proclaim their remarkable ability to help you lose weight fast, but, when really looked at, those claims simply don’t hold water.

About Low-Carb Diets

There have been a number of iterations on low-carb diets over the years – from the Atkins Diet to South Beach to the latest craze, ketogenic diets. The basic premise of them is that consuming carbohydrates makes you gain weight and so, if you cut down on carbs, you’ll lose weight. These diets range in their approach from only making certain “types” of carbs off-limits to limiting your overall carb intake in order to achieve ketosis, a state in which your body relies on fat for energy rather than glucose.

The Problems with Low-Carb Diets

How Low-Carb Weight Loss Works

Nearly everyone who has done a low-carb diet says: 1. they plateaued at a certain point and couldn’t get the scale to budge from there, and 2. once they started eating carbs again they gained all their weight back and then some.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like an effective diet to me.

In fact, numerous scientific studies have shown that low-carb and ketogenic diets are no more effective at creating weight loss than any other diet out there. In other words, just like any other diet on the market, it works for a short time but then, inevitably, you will regain the weight you lost.

So why is this?

One of the things that people love about low-carb diets is that they see a big drop in their weight very quickly. To understand why that is, we need a little science lesson.

Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. When we eat, our body breaks down our food into smaller chemical units, including glucose. Of that glucose, what we immediately need gets used for energy and what we don’t need immediately, gets stored in our body for later in the form of glycogen. Here’s the clincher: for every gram of glycogen stored in our body, 3-4 grams of water is stored with it.

And so, when we restrict or eliminate carbs, our bodies burn through our glycogen stores, releasing that water which then passes out of our body. What does this mean? That exciting weight loss that happens when you start a low-carb diet is just water weight. Hence weight loss quickly slows down on low-carb diets and you will regain weight as soon as you start eating carbs again. This also contributes to that plateau effect I mentioned earlier.

What about the rest of the weight loss?

After that initial drop in water weight, the rest of the weight loss from low carb diets comes from the same source as any other diet: calorie deficit. That’s right, carbs don’t make you gain weight.

By removing or restricting an entire macronutrient from your diet, you are consuming fewer calories without even thinking about it.

And it follows that, once you start to each carbs again, you will come out of that calorie deficit and regain the weight you lost. This also explains the plateauing that many low-carbers experience: our bodies adapt to calorie restriction by slowing down our metabolism. Calorie restriction to our bodies is famine and starvation, so they compensate to try to keep up alive by becoming more efficient with less fuel – as happens with any other low-calorie diet.

Sustainability

Think back to a time you wanted something and someone told you that you couldn’t have it. How did you react?

You wanted it even more, right?

That is how our bodies respond to restriction and deprivation as well. Remember that your body is designed to keep you alive. When you start restricting its energy source through calorie and carb restriction, it panics that it doesn’t have what it needs to keep you alive. And so it mobilizes every tactic it has to compel you to find and consume food. You think about food. You crave certain foods. Smelling food makes you salivate. Your stomach grumbles and aches. You find it harder and harder to resist.

And so we can only hold out on restrictive diets for so long. And then when we go back to our old eating habits. It’s just not effective strategy in the long-term.

Side Effects of Low Carb Diets

Many people don’t realize there are some unpleasant side effects that come with low-carb diets.

You may have heard of “keto fog” referring to a feeling of absentmindedness or difficulty focusing while on a low-carb diet. This occurs because glucose is your brain’s preferred fuel source and it does not burn fat for fuel efficiently. If you deprive your brain of its most efficient fuel, it’s not going to work as well.

Many low-carb dieters also report fatigue and crankiness. The former is also related to the lack of an efficient fuel source for your body. And the latter, well…have you ever had a carbohydrate? They’re delicious. I’d be cranky without them, too.

There are also concerns about the long-term health effects of low-carb and ketogenic diets.

The state of ketosis is, in fact, a survival mechanism to keep our vital processes going during periods of famine. The human body is not designed to exist in ketosis for any extended period of time. Thus, many health professionals are concerned about the long-term effects this may have on our health. This is a focus on ongoing study.

Finally, studies have shown a link between ketogenic diets and cardiovascular disease. Low carb diets’ focus on fat consumption runs contrary to decades of medical science demonstrating the adverse effects of high saturated fat consumption on our heart health. We simply don’t need all that much in our diet and should not consume high amounts of it.

What You Need to Know about Low Carb Diets

Long story short, low-carb diets are not effective means of lasting weight loss and come with a number of risks that don’t outweigh the benefits. They’re just another fad.

The Skinny on Fat

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Fat is a very confusing topic for a lot of people and for really good reason. In the 80s and 90s, we were inundated with messaging that fat is bad for you and the source of the American obesity epidemic and chronic illnesses. However, in recent years, it’s come to light that fat isn’t the evil we once were told it was and that sugar is actually a bigger problem (in spite of the sugar industry’s relentless lobbying efforts). But, it seems that some have taken advantage of this change in the tides and have taken the fat message in the opposite direction, creating diets that claim that eating lots of fat is healthy and will help you lose weight. And then there are the different kinds of fat with vague names that make it hard to keep them straight – saturated, unsaturated, trans, omega-3s, polyunsaturated, omega-6s…it’s dizzying. In this post, I’m hoping to clear things up for you.

Saturated Fats

Before we can talk about good fats vs. bad fats, we should cover what their names mean.

The dietary units we call “fats” are actually fatty acids which are made up, in part, by a chain of carbon atoms. When every carbon atom in the chain is bonded to a hydrogen atom, it is called a saturated fat. I remember this by thinking of the hydrogen as saturating the fat like water saturates a sponge so that every bit of the sponge is soaked.

Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature – so foods like butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter – these are saturated fats.

Saturated fats are often thought of as unhealthy fats, but that is not necessarily the case. Here is where it gets a little complicated: within the saturated fats category, there are short, medium, and long chain saturated fats. There is an important role in our diets for short and medium chain saturated fats: they help stabilize our cell membranes, help us convert Omega-3 fatty acids into usable forms, have antimicrobial properties, and have anti-inflammatory properties. Coconut oil falls into the medium chain category and that is the root of what makes it a healthy fat option. The health concerns come from overconsumption of the long chain saturated fats, such as animal fats, dairy fats, and cocoa butter. These are the fats whose excess consumption is linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. They also are higher in calories and are stored in our adipose, or fat, tissue. Unsurprisingly, Americans in general eat too much of the long chain saturated fats and not enough of the short and medium chain ones.

So what does this mean the fat in your diet should look like? This means eating lean cuts of meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), low-fat dairy products, and minimizing our consumption of things like butter. When it comes to the short and medium chain saturated fats, they do play an important role in our diet, but we don’t need to be eating a lot of them to derive the benefits and it’s important to remember that fat is a calorie-dense food. Therefore, moderation really is the key.

Unsaturated Fats

Since we now know that saturated fats have all of their carbon atoms paired with hydrogen atoms, we can guess that unsaturated fats have one or more carbon atoms not paired with a hydrogen atom. Instead, those unpaired carbon atoms form double bonds with the carbon atoms next to them. This chemical structure makes unsaturated fats less stable than saturated fats so they are liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fats are olive oil, flax seed oil, and fish oil. These are fats that are more vulnerable to going rancid and becoming carcinogenic when cooked to temperatures too high.

Unsaturated fats play very, very important roles in our diet, including: brain development and energy, maintaining healthy body tissues and skin, regulating our hormones, assisting in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and cushioning our organs. These are very healthy fats that we should consume regularly.

Within the unsaturated fat category, there are two types: monounsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon atoms while polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds between carbon atoms.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s fall into the polyunsaturated fats category and are often considered the healthiest fat. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish, like wild salmon, flax seeds, and Omega-3 eggs. While Omega-3s are found in plant sources such as flax seeds, it’s important to note that the form those fats take in plants are not a form that the human body can readily use (ALA). This means that our bodies must first convert them into usable forms (EPA & DHA) before they can be used. Unfortunately, after that conversion occurs, our bodies’ absorption rate of those fats is less than 5%, so it’s more efficient to consume Omega-3s from fish sources than plant sources.

The health benefits of consuming Omega-3s include: building healthy brain cells, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease, lowering the rate of certain cancers, elevating our mood, and improving our learning, attention, and vision. In general, we Americans do not eat enough Omega-3s.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are also a form of polyunsaturated fat that are very good for us. They play a critical role in our brain function and normal growth and development, among other roles. They are found in vegetable oils, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, edamame, and sunflower seeds. In general, Americans consume plenty of Omega-6s. The ideal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3s in our diet is 2:1.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are the bad fats. These are fats that do not occur naturally; rather, they are created by taking an unsaturated fat and adding hydrogen molecules to it, a process called hydrogenation. This was a profit move by the food industry in the early 1900s to stabilize vegetable oils so they would have a longer shelf life (the invention of Crisco). Trans fats have become very common place in prepackaged foods these days although there is a perception that they have fallen out of favor since the backlash against them. However, this is the food industry being sneaky. Legally, if a food contains less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving, they can put “0 grams trans fat” or “trans fat free” on a food package label. The lesson here: you can’t trust what the front of a package says. Instead, what you need to do to determine whether a food contains trans fats is to look in the ingredients list for the word “hydrogenated.” Hydrogenated oils are trans fats.

There are a number of compelling reasons to avoid trans fats: their consumption has been linked with low birth weights, high blood sugar, increased LDL (“bad” cholesterol), a decrease in nutrition density levels, a decrease in visual acuity, a decrease in Omega-3 levels in the brain (which we now know play a critical role in brain function), and a decrease in HDL (“good” cholesterol).

What About the Keto Diet?

The recent rage in fad diets has been putting your body into a state of ketosis by decreasing our carbohydrate consumption to very low levels and increasing our fat consumption to force our body to burn fat for energy. There are a number of problems with this diet craze.

For one, our bodies don’t burn fat for energy anywhere near as efficiently as they burn carbohydrates for energy. So by cutting our bodies primary fuel source drastically, we are depriving ourselves of the energy we need. Many on keto diets will experience low energy levels and mood levels because of this.

Secondly, you can overdo it with fat. The saying “too much of a good thing” really applies here. Yes, fat plays an important role in our diets but eating too much saturated fats (long chain), for example, can increase your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Furthermore, on high-fat diets such as this, you can’t be just indiscriminately eating loads of fats. The healthiest way to to eat is to focus on fish and plant sources of food. You want the majority of the fats you eat to be unsaturated, particularly polyunsaturated. Cutting carbs and eating loads of meat and butter and dairy may help you lose weight for a little while but it can have negative long-term health effects.

Finally, and perhaps more practically, this diet is not sustainable. Keto dieters may lose weight for a period, but they will crave carbohydrates and will swing back in the other direction and gain that weight back. This is simply what happens with deprivation in humans. This can contribute to a pattern of yo-yo dieting which has been shown to contribute to a slower metabolism over time and higher weights.

Bottom Line

When it comes to fats, high fat or low fat isn’t answer. Right fat is the answer. If your focus is on eating healthy fats, omega-3s, omega-6s, and other unsaturated fats like olive oil with a balanced diet, then you are eating a right fat diet, supplying your body with the fats you need without negative health impacts.

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