To best think about this, we must start with the big picture. Carbs are one of six main nutrients:
Carbohydrates Proteins Fats
Water Vitamins Minerals
The top three, carbs, proteins, and fats, give you calories. The bottom three, water, vitamins, and minerals, allow your body to function properly and process correctly.
I like to think of vitamins and minerals as like WD-40 for the hinges in your body.
Water allows everything to process and gets everything where it needs to go – think like this: You can put a dish in the sink, but not much is going to happen until you rinse it off.
When it comes to carbohydrate foods, the first thing we need to do is identify what counts as a carb:
-Alternative Milks (i.e., Almond Milk)
-Beans (Pinto, Great Northern, Navy, Lima, Black, Garbanzo/Chickpea)
-Refried Beans/Baked Beans
Everyone has a different personal and family history, so we all have different requirements. With this thought in mind, it is important to realize that carbs are our main source of energy.
Carbs: Our Energy Source
Protein: Muscle Rebuilding
Fat: Energy Storage and Satiety (Satiety = feeling of fullness)
As a Board-Certified Dietitian, the biggest fight I face is with the media. I see people trying so hard to be “media healthy”, eating low carb/high protein, not losing weight, not seeing the lab changes they want, and exhausted (both physically and mentally) from spinning their wheels in mud. People are being played by the media and I would like to explain why.
When you eat carbs, they break down into sugar and get in your blood. You need this to happen because the sugar goes to your brain for fuel. Your brain only wants to run off carbs – not protein or fats. On average, the brain needs about 130 grams of carbs a day to function. (When you see these low carb plans like Keto and Atkins where they are roughly 30 grams or less of carbs, you are actually starving your brain on them. If you follow that long enough you can cause permanent personality changes, and none of them are fun. It’s all increased anxiety and irritability. I’m going to go on a whim and assume you like your personality and don’t want to change it). When the Keto plan was developed it was made for the epileptic population to stop seizures, because starving your brain of its natural food supply can be so powerful that it is possible to stop a seizure. But in doing so, doctors had to weigh the pros and cons of side effects like increased anxiety or brain fog. Of course, the media got wind of the weight loss side of the Keto diet and didn’t take any of the other “stuff” into consideration and pushed it into mainstream society.
So, carbs are important. You also need carbs for your muscles. When you think of muscles you usually think of protein. But protein builds muscles, where carbs fuel them. So, if you think of a car, the parts of the car (protein) build it but the gas (carbs) make it go. And these aren’t just the muscles that we walk with or lift with, but our lungs and heart and all our organs are made of muscle, so they need these carbs to function.
When it comes to your brain, there’s an open-door policy. The carbs (sugar) can walk right in from your blood and be used up. When it comes to your muscles, they must go through a “door” to get in. And to get through that “door” you need a key, which comes in the form of insulin from your pancreas. Typically, you eat food (carb), it breaks down to sugar, gets in your blood, goes to your brain or muscles, and gets used for energy. A couple hours later, you get hungry and do the same thing.
Whenever you get any concerns (it could be a weight concern, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc.), it means something is going wonky.
One of the reasons things can go wonky on you is genetics. I think of genetics as like someone putting furniture behind the muscle door. You have your insulin keys (even if you have blood sugar issues you are still usually making some insulin keys), you have your carb (sugar), but you need a little oomph to get the door open since it’s blocked. Your system works, it just might work a little more slowly than you’d like.
You can’t control who you come from. And quite frankly, you probably wouldn’t change who you come from…. most days.
Another contributor is stress. When you have a stressor – whether it’s a physical stressor (like pain), or an emotional stressor (anxiety, deadlines, family), your brain releases cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol runs through your body and acts like gum that gets stuck in the locks of the muscle doors. You still have your insulin keys, you still have your carb (sugar), but now the door is jammed and you can’t get in. The best way to fix this is physical activity – when you have movement, your brain releases endorphins, and endorphins are like the janitorial staff that go around and clean the locks out so the insulin key can do its job.
The third big factor is fat. If you think of a steak with the trim around it, it is animal muscle surrounded by animal fat. Well, by nature we are mammals, right? So, we are technically animals and set up in the same style. So, if you’re out for a walk and you go home and get your key out, it would be like someone came and wrapped your house in bubble wrap. You still have the key and the sugar, but now you must go under the layer of bubble wrap to get to the door. The problem here is that if it takes too long to get under the bubble wrap, you lose your key, because insulin only lasts 2 hours once it gets released from the pancreas.
So in any one or any combination of factors (genetics, stress, or body fat), if the sugar can’t get into the muscles, then it will bounce back into the blood and raise your blood sugar level. Now, your blood is meant to be like an expressway. You eat food, it gets on, goes where it needs to, and gets off. So, if you have sugar backing up into your blood, it’s like the expressway at rush hour. There’s too much sugar and nowhere to go. The sugar ends up on the side of the road, where it turns into fat (triglycerides). These triglycerides make their way into your bubble wrap layer and thus, it can create a vicious cycle. Obviously how you eat can break this cycle, but your body does have a system in place to help reset it for you.
Enter your liver. Your liver always has an extra store of sugar, because you’re not always eating (but you need to make sure that you always have sugar in your blood to keep everything running. We can’t shut anything off, as much as we want to sometimes.)
For example, when you’re sleeping, you aren’t eating for a significant period of time. During these times, your blood is dishing out this sugar to fuel your body and at some point is going to run low on sugar to give out. When that happens, your muscles start getting hungry. So they tell your brain, “Dude, feed me!” Your brain responds by having the liver pour out some of its sugar into the blood to balance everything out until morning. Rainbows and sunshine right? However, if you have any of these fun factors in place, like a stressful day (or genetics or fat), and the sugar can’t get into the muscles, your muscles don’t realize there’s sugar in the blood and it’s just not getting in. All that the muscles know is that they are hungry. (Think of like toddlers looking for goldfish crackers that are right in front of them). So, they start telling the brain to do something. And the brain starts kicking the liver on and having it spew more sugar into the blood.
But now you’re getting liver sugar on top of the sugar that’s already in your blood. All of this sugar now has nowhere to go except the side of the road(because it can’t get into your muscles), turning into fat (triglycerides) and increasing your bubble wrap. Instead of fixing the problem, the liver has created a brand new problem.
So, how do we fix this?
The best thing you can do is to make sure to eat something with carbs in it within 1 hour of when you wake up in the morning, whenever that is. When you eat within 1 hour, you are overriding the system. You are telling your brain to shut the liver off, so it stops throwing sugar in the blood (this way, the only sugar is coming from your food now and preventing an extra buildup of fat on the side of the road). It also puts your body into daytime metabolic mode and out of night mode, so it keeps everything running faster all day. If you aren’t a big breakfast person, it could be as simple as a piece of toast OR a banana OR a glass of milk. Convenience is really an option.
Carbs break down fast and last about 2 hours before they are completely in our system (consistent with the insulin key lasting 2 hours – they go together). That’s why when you eat a bowl of cereal (cereal and milk are all carbs) you want to raid the fridge an hour later.
Proteins take longer to break down, so they get you closer to the 4-hour mark. When you grab something, you want to think to yourself, “Self, what can I grab that has both carb and protein in it?” Because the carb is going to give you the instant energy you need (because you’re hungry, or to calm the liver down), but the protein will pull the sugar peak down and stretch it out longer to make it more of a delayed release over the 4 hours. So, grab a banana and a cheese stick. A piece of bread and some pb. It does not have to be fancy; it just has to be a combo of the two.
Since protein brings your food to the 4-hour mark, ideally you want to eat something (at least with carb, if not carb and protein) every 4-6 hours throughout the day. Carbs fuel everything, so you want to keep this fuel in you consistently all day. If you go past 6 hours without any carb, your body goes, “Oh they haven’t fed me, so let’s slow their metabolism down, let’s make them tired, let’s stress about it and gum their locks, and then the next time they do eat let’s store it all as fat because now I don’t know when they’re going to eat again and I can’t trust them.”
***We do this really “fun” thing as a society where we will go out and get ourselves a chicken salad for lunch, but we won’t get the bread on the side or croutons or any carb on it “because we are being good.” When we do that though, we often go past the 6-hour mark without carbs, so we go into starvation mode (because all we ate were free veggies and protein, so our body didn’t recognize our meal as “food”) and then when we go to eat dinner our body takes everything and stores it as fat. If we had just had a piece of bread or some fruit or a glass of milk with that salad, we wouldn’t have gone into starvation mode and we wouldn’t be hurting ourselves.
*TIP* Think of your body as a mistrustful mother-in-law – you have to constantly reassure it you are doing the right thing, and that right thing is feeding it every 4-6 hours
-Cream Cheese (note most cheese is considered a protein)
-Comfort Foods (Cookies, Chips, Pizza, Ice Cream)
-While many of these are carbs as well, I want to put it in your head that these are also fats
Fats take the longest to break down, and last about 8 hours. Like all foods, fats must go through the blood to get where they need to go. When fats get in the blood, they are unhappy. Blood is mostly water, and fat is an oil, so they don’t want to mix. As a result, fat becomes “best friends” with the sugar that it finds in the blood. And it holds onto it for the 8 hours that it’s breaking down. This creates a few interesting effects:
1: The fat holds the sugar in the blood for the 8 hours that it is breaking down, and this can make you run “sweet” for those 8 hours.
2: Because the fats hold your sugar in the blood for 8 hours, they can’t get into your muscles to give you energy. When you have a higher fat meal, you are more likely to become tired. Think Thanksgiving Dinner: it’s not the tryptophan that’s making you SO TIRED, it’s the fats in the gravies and sauces that’s holding the sugars in your blood and not letting the energy get into your muscles.
3: After the 8 hours, the fat will break down and let the sugar go, but now we have another problem.The sugar is free, but we don’t have the insulin key anymore because it only lasted 2 hours. So, the sugar has nowhere to go now except the side of the road to be turned into bubble wrap.
Now, this does not mean to not eat fat. Fat is important for us – it helps with brain function, it protects our organs, it helps us feel full. But we want to eat it in small doses throughout the day, rather than big meals, so we don’t do the roller coaster thing with our weight, blood sugar, or energy level.
Incorporating Carbohydrates As A Balance:
Obviously, we need carbs, but how do we balance it? We need at least 130 grams for our brain, but we need more than that daily to help fuel all our muscles and organs. If we overindulge, however, we end up storing the excess as fat and then blaming them for all our problems. If we underindulge, we end up slowing our metabolism and putting ourselves in a state of starvation. The last thing we want to do is slow down our metabolism because that means we get tired and can’t eat as much, and that would be most unfortunate.
Fad diets offer a one-size-fits-all plan that you must adjust your life to. Typically, they are low carb and high protein and temporary, and offer odd rules that imply they have some secret knowledge (their secret is that they had capital to start up the company).
You are not a one-size-fits-all person, and never have been. Why should you conform yourself into a mold that is going to make you miserable for a few weeks and then cause you to binge on the foods you’ve been missing out on? What does that accomplish?
Except for food allergies, my saying has always been,
“There’s nothing you cannot eat, it’s figuring out how to eat it, so it doesn’t hurt you.”
We all have foods that bring us happiness. Food is a part of our culture and genuinely a part of who we are. But there is a way to keep ourselves consistently healthy and balanced while not losing pieces of who we are. It’s not something that can be done overnight though, and it will not be found through a fad diet.
Please see a registered dietitian for recommendations for your carb goal. There is no “Google” algorithm for what your carb goal is as it really is determined by so many factors including:
Google can only put some of those in an equation, but it cannot put all of those as some require clinical judgment. If you want a personalized plan, you need to see a human being.
KNOW YOUR LINGO:
Nutritionist: Someone who has a certificate in nutrition from anywhere
Registered Dietitian (RD/RDN): Someone with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Food Science and is Board Certified in Dietetics; can back up all information with published research.