Here’s what you need to know:
1. The problem with carbohydrates may not be the carbohydrates themselves but it may be that you don’t eat enough protein or that the carbohydrates you eat are nutritionally inferior and high in sugar.
2. If you are lean, train hard and want to build muscle, you can eat more carbohydrates than someone who is inactive and has more weight to lose.
3. Carbohydrates help with energy, mood, muscle building, thyroid function, PMS, digestive health and hormone balance.
4. Women may be especially sensitive to low carbohydrate dieting. Don’t avoid carbohydrates just because it’s trendy. Figure out what works for you.
Why I’m loving bread again
For the past couple of months I’ve been eating a lot more carbohydrates and, contrary to what you’d think, I’ve been consistently losing weight. I’ve tried carbohydrate timing, carbohydrate backloading and eating carbohydrates with every meal. It all seems to work for me. I’ve got more energy during and after my workouts. I also don’t have an afternoon slump anymore. And I’m still losing weight.
I haven’t changed up my exercise so is the weight loss attributable to the carbohydrates? Am I telling you to eat more carbohydrates?
No. Because you aren’t me. You have to figure out what works best for you.
I told you my story to show you that carbohydrates are not inherently evil. There are even benefits to making sure you have enough carbohydrates in your diet.
The carbohydrate controversy
Carbohydrates are a highly debated topic in the nutrition industry, especially with the recent rise in popularity of the paleo and other low carbohydrate diets. In the online world, promoters of these diets have a loud voice. We see pictures of “paleo” meals everywhere and they look delicious. Understandably, we get sucked in. We believe carbohydrates make us fatter.
Even nutrition coaches like myself will tell to watch your carbohydrate intake if you’ve got weight to lose. So what’s the deal?
When you need less carbohydrates
Many women overeat carbohydrates in relation to the amount of protein they eat. The problem isn’t the carbohydrates themselves. It’s that you have a poor, unbalanced diet and eat processed carbohydrates that are nutritionally inferior and high in sugar.
If you eat cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and yoghurt and fruit for a snack, then the first real hit of protein you get is with your evening meal. In this case, you need to eat less carbohydrates because you need to make room for more protein.
To lose fat, insulin needs to be low for long periods throughout the day, especially if you are have a higher body fat and are inactive. This means if you have a lot of weight to lose and lead a sedentary lifestyle, you don’t need as many carbohydrates as someone who is lean and training hard.
When you need more carbohydrates
Generally, lean, active women in their fertile years need more carbohydrates. Your carbohydrate requirements can also change depending on what’s going on in your life.
Here’s when you might need more carbohydrates:
1. You train hard and want to build muscle
Exercise increases your needs for carbohydrates, especially if you are already fairly lean and trying to build muscle. Carbohydrates fuel your workouts, especially intense weight lifting sessions. If you find you don’t have enough energy to get through your training sessions, this is a sign you could need more carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates also help with recovery from exercise. They replenish your muscles after your workout (which is important for recovery and muscle growth). Exercise also increases circulating cortisol levels. Studies show that if you exercise regularly but don’t eat enough carbohydrates, your cortisol levels increase. Not a good thing for weight loss, muscle building or your overall mood and health.
2. You are often tired and moody
Studies show that following low carbohydrate diets leads to decreased thyroid output which impacts our ability to lose weight, our energy and our overall health.
Not eating enough carbohydrates can also increase cortisol levels. Eating a more balanced diet that includes some carbohydrates is better for your adrenal glands and stress levels, but this isn’t an excuse to binge on processed carbohydrates when you are stressed out.
3. You suffer from PMS
If you suffer from PMS, particularly mood swings and depression, you might benefit from eating more carbohydrates. Studies have shown that eating extra carbohydrates when you have PMS can improve depression, tension, anger, confusion, sadness, fatigue, alertness, and calmness.
4. You crave carbohydrates or sugar
When you diet, you have cravings, partly because you feel restricted. If you crave carbohydrates, restricting them is only going to make your cravings worse. Eating a few servings of whole food carbohydrate sources every day can help. If you crave junk food and sugar, find healthy substitutes like homemade protein treats and chocolate protein shakes (for example, using raw cacao powder and cacao nibs for a double hit of chocolate with some ripe banana for sweetness).
5. You’ve got digestive issues
Women who eat low carb can fall short of their fiber requirements and end up with digestive issues like constipation. Fiber is also important because it binds to and clears out estrogen we no longer need. If estrogen isn’t cleared from the body, it is reabsorbed and can worsen symptoms of estrogen dominance, a hormonal imbalance that affects many women.
6. You’ve got irregular cycles and/or are planning to get pregnant
Women may be especially sensitive to low carbohydrates because our bodies need a certain level of body fat to sustain a pregnancy. Even if we aren’t trying to get pregnant our bodies try to maintain that level of fatness. If we eat low carbohydrate for too long we can end up with lower levels of fertility hormones and throw our cycles out of whack.
How to use carbohydrates to your advantage
Eating the right amount of carbohydrates is important for your overall health and wellbeing. Remember that no one can tell you what works for you. The fitter you are and the hard you train, the more carbohydrates you can and should eat because your body needs them.
Keep in mind, we are talking about clean carbohydrates – mainly starchy vegetables (ie. potatoes, pumpkin), fruit, rice and some whole grains. This isn’t a license to eat more junk food.
On the other hand, if you have a history of dieting and you have a lot of weight to lose, you may not handle carbohydrates as well as your leaner friend.
As a starting point I like women to fall somewhere between 100-150g of carbohydrates per day at a minimum. This would be for someone who is trying to lose weight and exercising regularly. For someone who is active and lean, I like to see carbohydrate intake over 130g and some women, like myself, can get away with eating even more (I consume between 150-200g of carbohydrates everyday and I can even lose weight on this amount).
Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates and don’t avoid them just because it is the latest trend. Learn to use carbohydrates to your advantage and you’ll get a leaner, healthier body and a happier mind.