Low carb diets have been around for a long time, but the ‘carbs are bad’ phenomena seems to have reached a critical mass – a tipping point – in the last few years, and nowadays even people who aren’t trying to lose weight tend to associate eating carbs with failure and almost certain weight problems.
After overhearing this father and son conversation, I decided it was high time I addressed the ‘why are carbs bad?’ question from my own perspective. But the ‘clincher’ was just a few days later when I spoke to a friend who asked for some diet advice.
This particular friend had commented in one of our social media channels that she wanted to cut out carbs, and did we have any suggestions. Knowing that she’s a slim woman, I jumped on it and said we should have a chat. This friend had been following everyone’s advice and was trying to cut out carbs because she’d got to the point when she saw carbs as…downright bad.
Why are carbs bad? One side of the argument…
The truth is, most people do eat too many carbs. When we started eating low fat and no fat food back in the 1980s, we had to eat something in its place. That ‘something’ was nearly always carbohydrate, usually in the form of sugar, high fructose corn syrup (in the USA especially) or highly refined grains. Generally, processed foods are full of carbs and it’s really easy to grab carb-laden food (pizza, pasta, sandwiches, rice, noodles) because it’s cheap, quick and filling. When you eat like that for every meal, it’s easy to see why the average person eats way too many carbs.
However, that doesn’t mean you should go from eating too many carbs to NO carbs. It doesn’t mean carbs are the 8th deadly sin; and nor does it mean that cutting out carbs will be the answer to all or any of your weight problems. It’s entirely possible to cut out all carbs and still eat a really bad diet. For example, a guy at our gym who cut out all carbs AND VEGETABLES for 6 months because vegetables, of course, are a carb. And another who thought that eating 1kg of almonds a day would help his weight loss, but couldn’t understand why he was putting on weight. [1kg of nuts=approx 30 handfuls].
Why are carbs bad? My argument goes like this…
The biggest issue for me in this carb-cutting frenzy is the impact it has on your mindset. As I descended into the depths of having an eating disorder (anorexia nervosa), I can still remember the transition from feeling totally in control, empowered and invincible about my food intake (or lack of)…to becoming obsessed, overwhelmed and consumed by thoughts and faulty beliefs about food. Almost overnight, it seemed, I went from having total control of my food, to food having total control of me.
Food obsessions, preoccupations with food, and excessive worry & concern about food are now more the ‘norm’ than normal.
When you try to cut out an entire food group, like carbohydrates, it’s highly likely that your thoughts about food will increase:
- what foods should I eat?
- what foods contain carbs?
- why are carbs bad?
- what can I eat for breakfast if I can’t have muesli/cereal/toast?
- what can I eat when I’m hungry in the afternoon?
- why am I so irritable?
- how come everyone else is so disciplined, but I’m not?
Unfortunately – and I know this from personal experience and from counselling 100s of people with disordered eating through to clinical eating disorders – it’s just one small step from having a healthy interest in eating well to becoming preoccupied with food in both thoughts and behaviour.
Why are carbs bad – a reality check
Back to my slim friend. When I asked her these questions about food preoccupations, she told me that she’d become almost obsessed with food. Having spent her whole life just eating ‘normally’, she was now worrying about everything she ate and barely knew what to eat anymore.
When I told her that I ate carbohydrates, she was so relieved she almost hugged me through the phone. When I added that being obsessed, worried and preoccupied with food was far worse for your health than any bowl of pasta, she completely agreed. She left the conversation with a new resolve to return to her intuitive eating of healthy food (with some chocolate thrown in :-)), and agreed to my ban of not reading anything about nutrition for a month!
With that said, here is my best, REAL LIFE advice for anyone who wants to be in shape, in control of their weight and eat carbs.
Guide to eating carbs, guilt-free
Below is a ‘cheat sheet’ so you can see an overview of which foods have sources of carbs, because it’s all too easy to assume that you know which foods contain carbs in the first place.
1. Eat a TON of vegetables
This is really where the problem lies, in my opinion. If everyone ate at least 5 serves of vegetables a day, you’d be fine and dandy. The Australian government have actually done a great job with their ‘Go for 2 and 5 campaign’ – 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables a day.
Tora’s real life eating: I eat 2 serves of fruit and around 10 serves of vegetables every day.
Guide to vegetable and fruit serves
Vegetables One serve of vegetables is 75 grams or:
- ½ cup cooked vegetables
- 1 cup salad vegetables
- ½ cup cooked legumes (dried beans, peas or lentils)
Fruit One serve of fruit is 150 grams of fresh fruit or:
- 1 medium-sized piece (eg. apple)
- 2 smaller pieces (eg apricots)
- 1 cup canned or chopped fruit
- ½ cup (125mL) 100% fruit juice
- 1½ tablespoon dried fruit (eg. Sultanas or 4 dried apricot halves)
2. Replace familiar grains with ‘new’ grains
You’ve probably eaten a lot of bread, pasta, rice and noodles in your life. Eating too much of anything can cause intolerances, and many people get bloated eating these popular grains. Try different grains instead: quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat are 3 alternatives you can access quite easily. Try sprouted bread instead of regular bread (you find this in the fridge in a health food store).
Tora’s real life eating: I eat alternative grains, and have familiar grains as more of a ‘treat’ a couple of times a week. BUT I have upgraded to this over about a year, I believe in slow and steady, so I can make a permanent change to my lifestyle.
3. Eat legumes instead of grains
Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, split peas) are a great alternative to grains, especially as they have a great protein content.
Tora’s real life eating: I eat lentils more than beans, I love them with eggs! If you get flatulence with legumes, make sure you rinse them thoroughly and cry cooking them with kombu (seaweed). But I find a thorough rinse does the trick!
4. Don’t obsess
I eat a less carbs than I used to, but I still eat carbs every day, often every meal. The reason I eat less carbs is because, like many people, they dominated my daily diet. Gradually I increased both the protein and the fats in my diet, which quite naturally and easily led to eating less carbs. However, eating all three of these food groups suits me really well. It gives me the variety, ease and lifestyle approach that I want from a healthy, weight controlled diet.
Donna feels pretty good eating less carbs, but still eats more than is stipulated in a low carb diet (‘low carb’ is usually 50-100g of carbs a day).
Overall, I believe it’s far more important to try and tune into what feels good for you: how your energy levels are during the day, what your mindset is like when you cut out carbs, your concentration, mood level etc. It’s a case of trial and error, but PLEASE don’t obsess about it. I know many, many slim and healthy people who eat plenty of carbs. It’s far better to eat carbs and have a normal, healthy attitude toward food than be miserable, obsessed and ‘disordered’ about what you eat.
Remember, health and weight control is a lifestyle, not a life sentence!
What do you think about ‘why are carbs bad‘? Agree or disagree?