What used to be fat is now carbs. The question arises nearly on a daily basis with almost all people everywhere questioning; are carbs good for you?
So the confusion continues with multiple diets capitalizing on the confusion, people’s health wavering over the idea and the insanity of our minds it creates.
I have to be honest, I’ve spent hours upon hours upon hours researching the subject and really trying to nail it down. But then I got fed up. I finally said enough and realized that this topic too is one that doesn’t have to be so confusing. In fact, it is quite simple, like all of nutrition.
We just have to clear our mind of the conflicting information. Understand how our body works. Realize that there has never nor will there ever be a “one-size-fits-all-approach” to health.
The only way you will ever achieve true and lasting health is to know your body, how it works, and how it feels. To be completely self-aware that you can step outside all of the information and just know or be able to fully trust and try to come up with a solution that works for you.
Unfortunately, it’s not a static thing. Our requirements, needs and nutrient profile will constantly change and evolve as we live life. As we get illness, change in age, become more efficient and even the changing seasons will all bring about changes to what your body needs.
That’s why I’ll say it again, the only way to get lasting health is through becoming self-aware. Having a base, a foundation to set all of the information on and build from there. Without this, you will crumble nearly as fast as it took you to get there. But don’t lose hope, it’s not difficult and instead it is freeing!
In this article I am going to lay the foundation on carbohydrates. What they do, if we need them and where to get them.
Let’s end the mass of mis-information and just get to the bottom. The bottom is always how our body functions (or the small percentage of how we know it to function).
What are carbs
Carbs, or carbohydrates are one of the three main nutrient groups that we consume. The other two are protein and fat all serving very different functions in our body but coming from equal importance.
Biologically speaking, carbohydrates are large molecules or macro-molecules containing hydrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms. Carbohydrates are typically stated as a saccharide, which means “sugar”.
Saccharides are divided into four groups or types including;
Monosaccharide – meaning one
Disaccharide – meaning two
Oligosaccharide – meaning 3-9
Polysaccharide – meaning up to or more than 10.
The greater the saccharide the more complex the carbohydrate is and the slower it is to digest. Generally the oligosaccharide and polysaccharide are the higher fiber carbohydrates.
Of course carbohydrates make up the majority of our food supply, including our sugary foods, thus why we tend to eat a large amount of them. Think natural kinds like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as refined carbs like candy, cookies, yogurt, pops and juice.
We will get more into good carbs and bad carbs later on, but for now, we need to know how our body uses them.
How carbs are used
Carbohydrates are used as an energy source for our body. There are arguments on whether it is the preferred source of if fat is. The conclusion I have made is that fat-is the preferred source in many of our daily activities and bodily functions but carbohydrates are equally important in other functions like our brain, red blood cells and hormonal flow.
Let’s break it down and understand your body on carbohydrates:
- Our Brain – There has been a thought that our brain uses about 120 grams of glucose per day and the preferred energy source is solely carbohydrates (compared to ketones which are produced by fat metabolism) and using about 60% carbs at resting rate. However, this research is mostly based on a males usage of glucose which tends to be much different from women creating even more confusion.
- My Take – Our brain still prefers glucose as a source of energy and thus should provide it over ketones (unless certain medical conditions arise). I don’t feel like 120 grams can be said across the board for all people and in fact would possibly be on the high side for most. However, individually and in 98% of the population I do believe we need to be eating enough carbohydrates for proper brain function.
- Our Muscles – Our muscles can function well on both carbohydrates and ketone bodies. Muscle also has the unique ability to store excess carbohydrates called glycogen that can be pulled from in time of need. Your muscles are essentially always ready to work at a moments notice.
- My Take – Our muscles, while able to use both actually function better off of ketones (fatty acid molecules) simply because it is a longer and more sustaining fuel source. Glucose is just a quick get up and go but doesn’t sustain you. Fatty acids are really the way to go.
- Fat Cells – Excess carbohydrates are stored in our fat cells for later use of energy in multiple ways. We’ll talk more later about how our body uses and breaks down energy but it really becomes a delicate balance of trying not to over consume carbohydrates that may potentially be stored in fat cells.
- Liver – This is your metabolic hub. The liver uses glucose for energy to process and metabolize everything we put into our bodies form the main macronutrients to medications, and just daily life toxins. It must filter and process everything. Without a good functioning liver, everything in our body really slows down and almost gets congested. The cleaner we eat, the less stress we put on our liver and the more efficiently it can do the job it was designed. On the other hand, the more toxins, chemicals and non-usable macronutrients we consume the more it has to process. Take care of your liver by respecting what you put in or on your body.How do we digest carbs?
Here’s the basics for how we digest carbs, and it all boils down to our hormonal flow. Remember, without a good and strong hormonal flow, our bodies communication signals, slows down leading to weight gain, fatigue and disease. Good working hormones are CRITICAL to the health of our body and should be our primary focus.
Before we get to the hormonal impact lets just talk about how a carbohydrate is broken down.
Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth, as all digestion does, with an enzyme called amylase that specifically helps to break down carbohydrates. Amylase is found in your saliva and thus why you begin salivating at the site of food.
Once you chew your food (an important component of carbohydrate digestion) it enters the stomach where stomach acid takes over and further breaks the food down before entering the small intestine.
Our body can only absorb simple monosaccharide molecules and so all carbs, complex and simple are broken down into the simplest form before entering the small intestine.
Once in the small intestine, absorption begins. The small intestine is where all absorption into the body occurs. Once carbohydrates enter the small intestine they are able to pass through the intestinal membrane and enter the blood stream. The non-absorbable form of carbohydrates, fiber, does not enter the bloodstream and instead passes through the small intestine into the large. The fibrous carbohydrates are partially digested by the intestinal bacteria and the remainder contributes to the bulk of our stools, which is critical thing for our digestive health.
But the glucose that does get absorbed, immediately goes to the liver where the liver distinguishes what goes out as energy to be used immediately, to be stored in muscle cells or be stored as body fat.
The mechanism for what is stored and what is burned boils down to the insulin load and how much energy (how high your metabolism is) your body needs per second. The higher your metabolism (the more muscle mass you have and the more efficient you are) the more carbohydrates you can handle without converting to body fat.
Whatever your body doesn’t need for immediate energy usage your liver packages through a process called lipogenesis to be converted to fatty acids or body fat for storage.
So again, how many carbohydrates your body can handle is directly proportionate to your metabolism or how much energy you burn at rest which generally boils down to the size of your body, your muscle mass and just body efficiency in general.
Carb count – how many you need
Technically our body has the ability to survive without carbs on other sources of energy like fatty acids and amino acids. BUT it does prefer carbohydrates for some functions and in fact is critical for longevity and lasting health for 98% of people.
Just how many you need is determined by a lot of things I call the carbohydrate threshold. This will again change with different life changes including static things like genetics, age, gender as well as lifestyle, activity level, injuries, disease status, seasonal pattern, etc.
Your carbohydrate threshold is a small window or range. The low number would be the critical amount to help protect your body long term and enhance hormonal flow. The max number is the threshold from weight maintenance to weight gain. Of course we can push our threshold lower into a weight loss mode but if we get too low with our carbohydrate count we can assure that this is going to have negative lasting affects on our hormones as well as adrenals. We will talk about this soon.
But once you’ve established a carbohydrate threshold, it holds pretty steady. However, the lower you drop your carbs, the lower your threshold goes and the less you will be able to handle on any day. The question still remains if and how long it would take to increase your carbohydrate threshold again.
So, carbohydrate balance comes from finding your own sweet spot and always being willing to adjust this. Which I will add again, is far easier for a man considering their hormonal flow is based off of 24 hours (as is all of our food recommendations) and a woman’s is based off a 28-day cycle.
Yes, this means that a woman’s carbohydrate intake could vary during the different phases of her cycle where a man’s can be the same day-to-day.
However, when we talk about the threshold, this can be seen based on a graph shown below. The threshold in which you eat for health or enough carbohydrates to provide essential life functions, but not enough to put you into a phase of weight gain.What I don’t want you to do with this chart is automatically think that if you go carb-free, because you see you could and would lose weight very quickly and believe it is the right thing for your body. I can assure you, while yes weight ‘results’ can be achieved I can promise that there is a bodily expense to that. So let’s uncover should you go low-carb or no-carb?
Low-carb and no carb diets
Confidently I can tell you no.
Unless you have a specific disease, like epilepsy or seizures (which research has shown that ketosis can be extremely beneficial in helping), have extreme blood sugar issues or have cancer I don’t recommend no-carb diets or even extremely low carbohydrate diets for anyone.
First, because it isn’t realistic as much as you tell yourself it is. It’s going to be hard to maintain long-term especially as food diets and fads consistently change every five to ten years. Long-term ketosis will go back to being a medical therapy and will filter out just as low-fat diets have.
But most importantly because our body needs carbohydrates to function at its prime long-term.
This is especially true for a woman as our hormones, specifically our thyroid requires carbohydrates (not ketones) to function properly and adequately. Again, this could be why most of all people in ketosis or on low-carbohydrates diets will statistically gain it all back after three years or less. Because our thyroid and our hormones simply can’t live like this long term.
But don’t believe me, believe the science.
Carbs and your thyroid
Your thyroid gland produces two hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
These two hormones are necessary for a wide range of bodily functions including, breathing, heart rate, the nervous system, body weight, temperature control, cholesterol levels and the menstrual cycle.
T3, the active thyroid hormone, is very sensitive to calorie and carbohydrate intake. If calorie or carb intake is too low, T3 levels drop and reverse T3 (rT3) levels increase.
Reverse T3 is a hormone that blocks the action of T3. Some studies have shown that ketogenic diets reduce T3 levels. One study even found that T3 levels dropped by 47% over two weeks in people consuming a no-carb diet.
In contrast, people consuming the same calories but at least 50 grams of carbs daily experienced no changes in T3 levels.
The bottom line, low T3 and high rT3 levels can slow your metabolism, resulting in symptoms such as weight gain, fatigue, lack of concentration, low mood and more. Basically, you need adequate energy and carbohydrate intake for a healthy thyroid.
Carbs and your hormones
What’s even more than that is across the board ketogentic diets or too-low carb diets can have a detrimental affect on all hormones across the board. Simply pu,t not eating enough carbohydrates can stress your body causing an increase in our stress hormone cortisol.
An increase in cortisol will decrease our sex hormones, especially testosterone (HELLO MEN), impair mood and cognitive function, cause muscle catabolism (break down muscle which is metabolically active) and suppress the immune function.
Research has consistently shown that people who exercise regularly need to eat enough carbs or their testosterone will fall while their cortisol levels rise. This is a sure-fire recipe for losing muscle and gaining fat.
In a study in Life Sciences, men who ate a high carbohydrate versus a low carbohydrate diet for 10 days had higher levels of testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin and lower levels of cortisol.
In 2010, researches considered the same question, this time in relation to intense exercise. This particular study had subjects eating the low carb diet and found a 43% drop in their testosterone to cortisol ratio. Meanwhile the control group had no change.
What is even worse…
I could continue filling you in on the negative hormonal consequences of not consuming enough carbohydrates. Simply put, while our muscles may function better on fatty acids it is proven through multiple other studies that our hormones and the axis that makes our hormones can not.
Sure your body may be able to keep up initially, our bodies are pretty amazing at adjusting and adapting, but just like you may compensate for an injury and feel pretty good, eventually that wears on your body and you develop a secondary injury just due to the compensation.
The same happens with our body, our hormones and how our body pulls energy. We can only withstand these no-carbohydrate and low-carbohydrate diets without experiencing something later on.
In particular in women, it can come out in multiple forms, all resulting in bad hormonal flow like:
- a stopped or irregular menstrual cycle
- lower fertility
- hypoglycemia and blood sugar swings
- more body fat when you do eat too many carbs
- loss of bone density
- chronic inflammation and chronic pain
- anxiety, depression and other mental health issues
- chronic fatigue and disrupted sleep
- a host of other chronic problems
In men, lets be honest lowered testosterone levels are going to affect everything about your manhood. So while you may appear to handle it better, be cautious.
What works for someone won’t work for someone else.
While it is true that low-carbohydrate and ketosis may work for some people. Long term it is still unknown. But what we do know is that as a medical therapy (the intended use) it can be beneficial.
Should you go low carb?
When you need more carbohydrates:
- If you are active, especially with a focus on frequent, high intensity based workouts.
- If you start having trouble recovering from your workouts.
- If your thyroid is underactive, even with a clean diet and support from medications.
- If you have adrenal fatigue.
- If you start to lose your period or have irregular cycles (pre-menopause).
- If you’ve been very low carb for an extended period of time.
- During pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
- When you are ill or have an injury.
When you need less carbohydrates:
- If you have a condition such as PCOS, fibroids or endometriosis.
- If you are dealing with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or yeast overgrowth.
- If you are insulin resistant or have diabetes.
- If you have a neurodegenerative disease.
- If you have certain forms of cancer.
But given that today, with this fad, 90% of people who tinker with the idea or have full blown jumped on the band wagon of low-carb and no-carb diets have done so for weight loss purposes, you have probably found quick success.
But again, I caution that just because you have found weight loss, doesn’t mean you have found health. Remember; You can’t lose weight to get healthy, you have to get healthy to lose weight!
That is the only way to make it lasting and my full belief after all of this research is that carbohydrates are intended for eating. They have a purpose. It may seem irrelevant to others but a purpose none the less. I don’t believe it is something to mess with and instead of fearing carbs, fearing a number on the scale and being so consumed with our body images we should become a group of people so consumed with the health of our body knowing that this is the only way to make it lasting.
The bottom line
Just like low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets didn’t work for most of us, it will soon come to the surface enough times that low-carbohydrate and high-fat doesn’t as well. Besides for the low percentage of people who can find benefit via medical therapies most people will also regret the decision to jump on this band wagon.
HEALTH is not a series of strict diets.
In fact, the root probably stems from a low self image of ourselves. A lack of purpose, of feeling wanted and needed, a need to control something. There are lots of reasons we do this but it really boils down to looking better for our own self image which is an unnecessary evil when it comes to health.
Health is so much more than food and eating. Yet when we talk about eating it has to be enjoyed.
Not something to be feared, to restrict, deprive or starve. Let us instead wrap our minds around the fact that food is essential. It is critical and it is healthier when you enjoy it.
You can’t get a body you love doing things you hate.
It won’t happen and you’re wasting precious seconds and minutes of your life worrying about things that will only pull you down in time. Don’t let your image, your body have that hold on you. End it today.
Believe that carbohdyrates are important. It’s not about binging on them but finding the right balance for your body in this moment and consistently being aware of that. It’s also about eating the right carbohydrates and in the right way. So a few last tips before we end this.
Good carbs verses bad carbs
This is pretty basic, our natural carbohydrates, the ones grown from the earth are going to be better than our refined carbohydrates. Choose carbohydrates that are vegetables, starchy vegetables, fruits and unprocessed grains; oats, brown rice, legumes, quinoa.
Steer clear of refined sugar and carbohydrate products like chips, crackers, cookies, desserts, breads, wheat products (or their gluten-free counterparts), pop and other refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, table sugar and artificial sweeteners. The reality is that fruits, and starchy vegetables contain so many properties that are essential for life. They have a positive hormonal impact and should not be feared.
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To me this isn’t an argument but rather just knowing the facts. It’s easy to believe everything we read but really it just comes down to your own experimentation and what you believe to be true based off of what you know about your body, don’t settle for something just for quick weight loss.
Only settle for true and lasting health and to me that means a balanced diet that does include carbohydrates coming from fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables and few grains. I know it goes “against the grain” but this is truth! Health is meant to be simple, we’re just making it too complex.
Most importantly, know your body. Trust your body and embrace it. And by all means, stop doing things you hate to get a body you love. It just doesn’t work like that. My friend you are worth health, do you believe it?