As she walked into my office, she was clearly distressed. We had just met for the first time four weeks before and this was her first follow-up appointment. She took a seat, and met my questioning gaze with a deep sigh.
Her: “This just isn’t working for me. I did what you said, I ate as much of the food as I could,” she started, “It was just so much– and I don’t see much of a change in my weight from when I started! I should have known better than to think that this program would be different for me.”
Me: “Based on today’s Fit3D scan, I can see that while your weight didn’t shift much, you have more muscle than you did before! You also lost two inches in your waist. Let’s compare this program to the other programs that you’ve tried in the past. May I ask you a question?”
Me: “Did those previous programs include any of the following: carbohydrates, regular exercise, or a small calorie deficit?”
Her: “Well, I definitely avoided carbohydrates. Also, exercise was never really part of my routine in the past, so that’s new. But I don’t know what a calorie deficit is.”
Me: “If you add up the calories from your basal metabolic rate (or the amount you need to survive) with the extra calories needed for your level of physical activity, that number is how many calories you need every day. A calorie deficit is the number of calories between what you need, and what you actually eat.”
Her: “Well, what is considered an acceptable calorie deficit?”
Me: “I wouldn’t recommend that anyone have a deficit greater than 25% of their total caloric needs.”
Her: “We decided that I needed 2000 calories each day, but in the past, I was barely hitting 800. That’s calorie deficit is over 40%! So, I guess I didn’t have a small calorie deficit in those other programs, either.”
Me: “It sounds like everything you’re doing right now is pretty different from what you’ve tried in the past, so the hesitation is understandable. But you have already made so many small changes in just one month, and that’s incredible!”
She suddenly realized that she was able to incorporate some big changes into her routine in a matter of weeks. She saw very clearly that she needed to nourish and energize her body before she could begin reshaping it. After that, we discussed what happens inside her body when she eats carbohydrates. What I shared with her is relevant for everyone. That’s why I would like to share it with you now.
I’m going to give you the science behind your need for carbs, but first, I want to wrap it up in a nutshell for you. Carbohydrates provide many nutritional components aside from calories that lead to better overall health. Sometimes we’re unable to lose weight because we’re carrying around five to ten extra pounds of fecal waste in our intestines. Sometimes we’re unable to lose weight because our constant spiking blood sugar levels propel us to regularly seek out a surge in serotonin (“happiness hormone”) that comes from unhealthy treats. Once we understand how high quality carbohydrates can impact our ability to lose weight, we can use them to our advantage.
I understand that it can be difficult to wrap our minds around new evidence that goes against what we have been led to believe for years. But the reality is… carbohydrates do not equate to weight gain, carbohydrates actually help us regulate our weight and cravings, while providing the energy we need to move our bodies! So YES, we need carbohydrates! But which ones should we seek out, and which should we avoid? Here are some factors, relevant to all carbohydrates, that can help you when you’re at the grocery store, or a restaurant. When choosing carbohydrate sources, consider: fiber content, and glycemic index.
Stay with me friends, because we’re about to learn something new!
Fiber can be split into multiple categories, but for the purpose of this post, we’ll focus on two: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is fiber that dissolves easily in water. It mixes to form a gel-like substance in our intestines and decreases our levels of LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol.” Here’s how it works: when this gel-like substance moves through the small intestine, it attracts the cholesterol present in our gut, and is then excreted. This decreases the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed back into the bloodstream, which in turn, lowers blood cholesterol levels. Whoa! Soluble fiber also helps us maintain our weight by blocking excess fats from being digested and absorbed. Foods high in soluble fiber include nuts, seeds, oats, beans, lentils, fruits, and many vegetables.
Insoluble fiber is the opposite of soluble fiber, at least when it comes to physical properties. It still has a host of health benefits. This type of fiber does not breakdown in the stomach, or the gut. Think of this part as the “roughage” found in fruits and vegetables. When you bite into a carrot or piece of celery and you hear that crunch sound… that indicates the presence of insoluble fiber. This type of fiber remains intact as it makes its way through our GI system. During this process, that roughage is absorbing fluids and attracting other byproducts of digestion. But most importantly, it is cleaning the walls of the small intestine. When our intestinal walls are blocked by gunk, our bodies cannot easily absorb the nutrients that we eat. Also clean intestinal walls means that we don’t have excess food waste clogging our gut and adding to our overall weight. In this way, insoluble fiber prevents constipation and decreases our risk of diverticular disease. So cool! Foods high in insoluble fiber include whole wheat bran, nuts, many vegetables, and beans.
I want to expand upon diverticular disease very briefly. Any of you who have experienced abdominal pain or constipation when poo’ing, you may want to lean in here. When we are pushing waste from our intestines through our colon, the more “bulk” (read: insoluble fiber) present, the easier it is for the walls of our intestinal to contract and evacuate the stool. When our stool lacks “bulk,” it becomes increasingly difficult for our intestines to easily push the stool out. The harder we try, the more pressure within the intestinal walls builds; as a result, air pockets, or hemorrhoids, form. When these hemorrhoids become inflamed, this is known as diverticulitis. A diet high in soluble fiber can help tremendously! If our stools contain more of that roughage, our intestines don’t have to work as hard at excreting them, and we avoid the pressure buildup in our intestines.
So, whether it’s soluble fiber that improves our blood levels, or insoluble fiber that cleans our intestines and increases satiety, each serving of these foods will lead you closer to losing weight. If you look at the lists of foods under both fiber categories, you’ll notice that many are found on both lists. This means that incorporating several servings of these foods each day will ensure that you’re getting plenty of BOTH types of fiber! It’s a win-win!
Now onto the glycemic index (GI), the second factor to consider when choosing carbohydrate sources. Many of my clients have heard of this term, but they don’t feel comfortable explaining it. So here is a quick overview of the GI: it is used to categorize all carbohydrate sources and how they affect blood sugar levels. Why just carbohydrates? Well, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that promote insulin release, which is the primary hormone associated with regulating our blood sugar. So, carbohydrate sources can either have a low glycemic index, or a high glycemic index. All carbohydrates affect your blood sugar, but here, we’ll look at HOW your blood sugar is affected.
Vegetables are generally found on the low end of the glycemic index. So, when we eat vegetables, our blood sugar does rise, but very gradually. This gradual rise keeps our body in a steady state. However, if we were to eat a chocolate chip cookie, this would be found on the higher end of the GI. Our blood sugar would rise quickly, causing our pancreas to work in overdrive in an effort to produce and secrete enough insulin to bring our blood sugar levels back down to normal. This frantic process puts our body in a state of stress. It is best to avoid a state of internal stress whenever possible. Keeping our blood sugar levels as stable as possible helps us not only avoid internal stress, but this also helps with our satiety and cravings. The more stable our blood sugar levels, the less likely we are to seek out a quick “spike” from a sweet treat.
So, we can use the glycemic index to know if our carbohydrate sources are more harmful or beneficial to our bodies. While this tool isn’t the end-all-be-all in terms of categorizing carbohydrates, it is a wonderful resource for those of us who want to make sure we are making the best decisions for our health. Food sources on the lower end of the glycemic index include apples, grapes, cashews, brown rice, sweet potato, yogurt and almost all vegetables.
If we combine what we have learned about fiber and the glycemic index, we are in a much better position to make great choices about carbohydrate sources. Carbohydrates help our bodies function more efficiently, which improves our ability to burn fat. If you have come from a place of eating very few carbohydrates in the past, it will take some getting used to since your body is not accustomed to processing high amounts of carbohydrates. But with time and diligence, we can get the energy and nutrients we need from these carbohydrate sources, plus all the amazing weight loss benefits! There is no need to be afraid of carbohydrates if we know which ones to choose!
<3 Anna, the Rhino Nutritionist