The Real Deal on Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
Rachel Fiske, NE, CPT-NASM
There seems to be quite a bit of ongoing confusion surrounding the subject of carbohydrates and weight loss, and understandably so! We hear different opinions and approaches from endless sources, making it difficult to sort out what to believe and how to eat. As a Personal Trainer and Holistic Nutritionist, a big part of my work entails shedding some light on this very issue, so lets take a look at the facts about carbs, weight loss, and (most importantly) overall wellness.
A Quick Look at the Basics
Ok, so lets just make sure we have a general understanding of macronutrient basics. In the foods we eat, we have protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our cells. Adequate dietary protein is necessary in providing us with essential amino acids, which are amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on its’ own. Second, we have fat. Fat is vital (and sadly feared, but more on this later) as an energy source, is the precursor to our hormone production, and enables protection of and communication between our cells (especially brain cells). And lastly we have carbohydrates, also an energy source for the body. They include both simple and complex carbs, and dietary fiber in the form of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and then of course the more processed end of the spectrum such as pasta, breads, baked goods, cereals, etc. And this is where we run into trouble!
Does Fat Make us Fat?
I love answering this question, which is (if you haven’t guessed already) a resounding, NO!!! My clients are always thrilled to hear that they can “indulge” in the foods they’ve been wrongly taught to avoid their whole dieting lives. The truth is, good quality sources of fat can assist not only with weight loss, but enzymatic and bodily functions, brain health, hormonal production, and more. Consider this from Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon in their groundbreaking book, Eat Fat Lose Fat:
“If eating saturated fat caused heart disease and weight gain, then eliminating those fats should have resulted in a decline in heart disease and an increase in weight loss. But look around you. That’s not what happened! While we Americans have been dutifully eliminating fat from our diet, eating low-fat foods, and avoiding saturated fats from tropical oils, butter, and red meats, obesity rates and the overall incidence of heart disease have continued to climb.”
Good sources of dietary fat include grass fed butter, ghee, coconut oil (these are the best to heat and cook with), nuts and seeds (organic and raw whenever possible), cold-pressed unrefined oils such as extra virgin olive, sesame, walnut, and flax (these should never be heated), and avocado. For more on fats, visit my website and blog, as this is one of my favorite topics!
The Link Between Carbs and Weight Gain
Not to say carbohydrates are to be avoided at all cost, but if weight loss (or just general health) is our goal, then we need to very conscious of what kind of carbs we are eating. When people steer away from fat in their diet, they tend to steer towards more carbs, particularly of the refined variety. Refined carbs and sugars (think bread, pasta, baked goods, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juices, sodas, and even grains in excess) take a real toll on our blood sugar. When our blood sugar is uncontrolled, we experience energy dips and spikes, cravings, mood swings, and insulin resistance. Insulin is our fat storage hormone, and the more we produce, the more fat we store. Furthermore, according to Michael Murray, N.D. in his book The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, “…carbohydrate excess, especially too many refined carbohydrates, is associated with increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.”
The bottom line when it comes to carbohydrates, is while they are an important part of a well balanced diet, if weight loss and blood sugar regulation are our ultimate goals, they need to be consumed in moderation and in the right form. Stick primarily to a wide variety of (preferably organic) vegetables, soaked whole grains and legumes in moderation, and fruit (organic and seasonal whenever possible). For weight loss, don’t go crazy with the fruit, and eat it alongside a fat, like a small handful of raw nuts or 1 tablespoon of almond butter.
Putting It Into Practice: What Should My Plate Look Like?
Keeping in mind that we are all bio-chemically diverse, and therefore our nutritional needs will never be identical, here are some general pointers to consider:
- Focus more on quality protein, fat, and less on carbohydrates. Think 20-25% protein, 20-50% fat, and 25-50% carbs.
- Primary carb sources should be leafy and crunchy vegetables (think kale, chard, arugula, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, just to name a few) and starchy, complex carbs as a secondary source (potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole grains, legumes)
- Strive to avoid simple carbs like breads, pastas, baked goods, fruit juice, sodas, artificial sweeteners, anything that ends with the word “ose” (fructose, sucrose, etc).
- When shopping, stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. If you must buy something packaged, go for as few ingredients as possible. If you can’t pronounce it, probably not the best choice.
- Think about eating the bulk of your starchy carbs in the 3 hour window post exercise. This is when we can best metabolize these foods.
- Add 1-3 tablespoons of coconut oil/day to your diet. This is a medium chain fatty acid which is a very efficient fuel source and aids in weight loss.
Remember, sometimes there are players at work if you are experiencing weight loss resistance, such as toxicity, stress, sleep, and other factors. Feel free to contact me with further questions!
About The Author
Rachel Fiske is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Educator and Personal Trainer, and owner of Madrona Wellness. She lives in San Francisco, CA and attended school for Nutrition at Bauman College. Rachel sees clients one on one, addressing issues such as weight management, blood sugar regulation, liver detox, hormonal imbalances, weak immunity, food allergies/sensitivities, fatigue, insomnia, and digestive distress. To learn more, visit her website at: madronawellness.org. Or contact her directly: firstname.lastname@example.org, 503-459-7808.
Mashed Cauliflower Recipe
While potatoes are ok once in awhile, due to their starchy nature they can lead to pretty intense blood sugar spikes and crashes. And of course, if weight loss is our goal, they're not a great choice. Cauliflower, on the other hand, is a cruciferous vegetable packed with nutrients, and is especially high in vitamin C, K, folate and other B Vitamins, magnesium, and is full of fiber. Try this recipe instead of mashed potatoes next time, it is absolutely delicious!
1 medium head of cauliflower, organic
3 – 4 large cloves of garlic, peeled (or more depending on taste)
1 cup chicken or veggie stock, or water
sea salt to taste
Fresh ground pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast, optional or 1 tbsp miso paste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or organic butter
Wash and trim the head of cauliflower and cut into rough pieces. Heat a pan and pour in the cup of water or stock, toss in the cut cauliflower and cloves of garlic. Bring to a simmer and cover the pan. Allow to cook for about 10 minutes until the cauliflower is soft. Add pepper. Transfer mixture, including the liquid, into a blender. (You may want to do this in two batches.) Add in the nutritional yeast or miso paste, olive oil. Puree until it resembles the consistency of mashed potatoes. You may need to add in a little more water/stock to facilitate the blending, but be careful NOT to add in too much liquid. (You could also add in some coconut or almond milk for extra richness and flavor.) Taste and add sea salt if necessary.