The 'C' Word

There is a definite misconception in some spheres of the Paleo world as well as with those discussing the Paleo diet, on social media and in conventional wisdom circles. It is concerning how some people are using the word 'carbs'.

I enjoy talking about carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and the nuances of how to balance them in a healthy diet.  I am a food and nutrition freak; of course I love to talk about that stuff. 

You may have realized I have also delved into discussing sugar and flour (which, of course, qualify as 'carbs') and how they are not supportive of your health. They are pro-inflammatory, addictive, raise insulin levels, and make it really hard to lose weight. 
To be clear, I like talking about 'carbs', just really struggle with the use of the work 'carbs'. My reasoning is simple: people use it imprecisely, and in so doing, they make the landscape of what to eat and what not to eat, what we do eat and do not eat when following the Paleo lifestyle, much more confusing for everyone. 

When people bandy about the term 'carbs', they are usually referring to things like cookies, bread, pasta, muffins, desserts, chips, and French fries. It is true!  These foods consist largely of carbohydrates (or highly refined carbohydrates and man-made, processed fats). If these were the only foods that consisted mainly of carbohydrates, 'carbs' would, in my opinion, be a perfectly legitimate abbreviation for these foods.  We know, however, that this is definitely not the case!

The fact is that many of the foods we all should be eating at every single day consist primarily of carbohydrates. This includes all vegetables (from leafy greens to starchy tubers) and fruits. Although most foods contain a little of all 3 macronutrients, those found in plants are comprised predominantly of carbohydrates.

Sweet potatoes and yams have a lot of carbohydrates, as do parsnips, turnips and celeriac, which are my favorite side lightly seasoned and roasted. Carrots, apples, butternut squash, and strawberries - I could go on but I think you get the idea. Some of the healthiest, most delicious foods in the world are composed mostly of carbohydrates. When people use the word 'carbs' like it is a dirty word, or watch me avoid sugar and flour and then comment 'Oh, so you don't eat carbs,' it drives me nuts. (No pun intended. I love nuts, too, but, although they contain some carbohydrate, they are mostly protein and fat do not form a part of this conversation.) Of course I eat carbs!! Following a Paleo diet means I choose not to eat highly processed food-like substances including sugar and flour. 

Vegetables, roots, tubers and fruits in their whole form, are some of the healthiest foods you can eat. They have vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. They provide a clean, nutrient dense source of energy. They fight cancer and reduce depression and anxiety. They have antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and keep you looking and feeling young. The clincher, though, is that you have to eat them as nature intended: with the fiber intact

It is important to differentiate between the refined carbohydrates that those following a Paleo diet want to avoid (including sugar, flour, corn starch, processed grain products and the like) and the natural, whole carbohydrates you want to include for their nutrition and fiber contents (including roots, tubers and seasonal fruits). This, to me, is why the word 'carbs' makes no sense. If that concept is eliminated from the vocabulary, Paleo enthusiasts can incorporate and enjoy these wonderful and tasty foods into their diets without fear or hesitation.     

Most experts, from Paleo supporters to those promoting a vegan diet agree on the foods that need to be eliminated from modern diets.  Those foods, of course, are refined carbohydrates.  However, low-carbohydrate diets are really popular right now, especially among paleo dieters.

There is some justification for this ideology. Low-carbohydrate diets can be therapeutic. They often help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels. People who suffer from epilepsy, diabetes, certain types of cancer, chronic migraines, and chronic infections also often benefit from going low carb.  For healthy, strong individuals, diets too low in carbohydrate can become problematic, depending on your unique make up including your genes, health, and health history.

People often end up following a diet too low in carbohydrates and this, in turn can lead away from the healthy lifestyle that following the Paleo diet can so easily create. 

If you are wondering whether your carbohydrate intake is too low for your lifestyle, I have compiled a list of a few tell-tale signs you may need to include a few more of them into your daily regime.

  1. You are tired

Lack of energy, losing your breath after short spurts of every day movement (like climbing stairs) or general fatigue could all be signs you need to add some carbohydrates to your meals.

Carbohydrates provide fuel for your body. They are immediately available for energy on demand. If you do not eat carbohydrates, your body always has to manufacture glucose. If you have been eating too few carbohydrates for too long, your body may tire of producing its own glucose.

  1. You struggle through your work outs.

Carbohydrates get stored in the muscles as glycogen, which the body burns while exercising. This is why athletes often 'carb load' before a big event.

If you exercise often but your glycogen stores are too low, you may not be able to perform your best. At minimum athletes should keep their glycogen stores kept adequately restored. This can be done by replenishing carbohydrates after a tough workout and/or making sure to eat at least 150 g of nutrient dense carbohydrates on heavy work out days.

  1. You cannot gain or maintain muscle mass.

Your body will resist developing muscle unless it has adequate carbohydrate and protein supplies post-work out. An ideal post-workout meal is 3 parts carbohydrate to   1 part protein.

Refueling as soon as possible after a workout can help, but muscle repair occurs in the days following a tough workout, thus requiring consistent carbohydrate consumption.

  1. You feel cold often.

A low carbohydrate diet can cause hypothyroidism, or at least symptoms of hypothyroidism. Glucose is necessary for the body to make T3 out of T4. T3 is the form of thyroid hormone that actually delivers energy (which is heat) to cells.

Women in particular are known for feeling cold all of the time, and hypothyroidism can play a significant role in this. Being cold is one symptom of hypothyroidism. Brittle hair and nails, thin eyebrows, and difficulty with weight loss are some other symptoms. Eating a diet too low in carbohydrate diet could be a reason you are struggling with these symptoms, and consuming more may be a part of your solution.

  1. Stalled weight loss.

Thyroid hormone is absolutely crucial for weight loss. Since thyroid functioning can be impaired by a low carbohydrate diet, sometimes a prolonged low carbohydrate diet can begin to stall or even reverse weight loss.

When insufficient carbohydrates are consumed the stress (adrenal) glands can become overly active. With high levels of stress hormone in the body, fat burning molecules work less efficiently.

  1. Stress.

Carbohydrates are necessary for supporting the adrenal (stress) glands. Without adequate carbohydrate intake, the adrenal glands have to work harder to try and maintain adequate glucose levels. When this happens, stress hormone levels rise even higher.

Bear in mind that a diet too high in carbohydrates can also cause the adrenal glands to overwork. The solution is balance. A balanced diet can help keep stress hormone levels in check.

Carbohydrates also help the body produce serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter. Adequate consumption of good carbohydrates can support feeling calmer in times of stress.

  1. Lack of sleep.

In addition to being calming, serotonin also helps people sleep. Carbohydrates consumed in the evening have been shown to support more restful sleep.

The main part of the reason 'carbs' have such a bad name is that a lot of these foods are genuinely bad for you: breads, cereals, pastas, pastries, and other processed foods can all be harmful to your health. The most important part of being healthy is the quality of the food you eat. Choose to not eat these food-like substances, and add some good carbs to your plate. These include sweet and starchy vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips,squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, rutabaga, cassava, and taro, and seasonal fruits. Some people can tolerate white rice.

The amount of carbs to add to your diet after being on a low carbohydrate diet (or on any diet) is complicated and varies from person to person. Athletes and pregnant and lactating women should definitely eat more.

Many experts recommend starting with 100 grams of dense carbs (starchy vegetables and fruits) every day.  This may seem excessive, especially if you are coming from a very low carbohydrate and you may need to build up slowly. Once you get started it is very easy to find your own person range or sweet spot

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