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Let’s talk about carbs

A No-Holds-Barred Look at the World’s Most Notorious Nutrient

TL;DR

Carbs aren’t evil, they’ve just been done dirty

Okay, so… What are Carbohydrates?

Despite what you’ve probably heard, carbohydrates are awesome. Carbs are the fiber, starches, and sugars that your body transforms into glucose (blood sugar) to give you energy. 

Without carbs, you’d be toast—pun intended. 

Carbs are typically categorized as either complex carbs, like those in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains, or simple carbs, like in sugars. We’ll talk more about that and other differences between carbs in a second.

Are Carbs Bad for You?

No. Not at all. Seriously - and say it with me now - carbs 👏 are 👏 not 👏 bad 👏 for 👏 you. 

Carbs are an essential macronutrient.1 You can get energy from just about every macronutrient that you eat, but carbs are the body’s favorite. 

At their most microscopic, carbs are just sugar molecules. When the body breaks these down, they naturally convert into glucose (blood sugar), get absorbed into your bloodstream, and provide energy for all of your bodily functions like cell, tissue, organ, and brain function. Glucose can also be stored in the liver or muscles for later. 

All of these things aren’t just good for you, they’re crucial. Like, you’ll-die-if-they-don’t-happen crucial. 

The Different Types of Carbs

You may have heard of “high” carbs, “simple carbs”, “complex carbs”, and of course - “bad carbs”. Some of these differentiations are real and useful to know. Others? Not so much.

Carbs can also be categorized by the three types of food2 that contain them—starch, sugar, and fiber.

Starch3 is a complex carb that is digested slower than sugar, but (usually) faster than fiber. It naturally occurs in foods such as beans, rice, wheat, and potatoes. Processed foods like bread, cereal, and pastas also contain starch.

Sugar4 is a simple carb, and the molecule type of every carb at their smallest. It can be digested very quickly, providing the body with almost-instant energy. Sugar is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, and is also the key ingredient in processed sweets like candy and soda.

Fiber5 is a complex carb that is either soluble (easily dissolved) or insoluble (difficult to dissolve). Because fiber trends towards insolubility, it slows down digestion and prevents sugar from becoming glucose as quickly. In other words, fiber regulates blood sugar by limiting how much glucose can flood our system, keeping us feeling fuller for longer. Fiber is found in many natural sources such as beans, berries, some vegetables like broccoli, and some fruits like apples and bananas.

What Are Foods High in Carbs?

When people refer to something being “high in carbs,” they usually mean it as an insult. They’re probably thinking about refined carbohydrates like sugary desserts, sodas, or corn syrup, which yeah, can be pretty bad for us.

But there are also sooo many perfectly healthy carbs like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. These are all also “high in carbs”—they just aren’t refined carbs,6 meaning they haven’t had their healthiest nutrients like minerals, bran and fiber removed during factory processing.

A great example of “high carbs” also being “healthy carbs” are “total"7 carbohydrates. These are foods that contain all three types of carbs (starches, sugars, and fiber). Total carbs are usually quite good for you, and are totally “high in carbs.” Refined carbs are also “high in carbs,” but lack almost all of the benefits of eating natural or unrefined carbs that total carbs have.

Simple Versus Complex Carbs

Simple carbs8 refer to simple sugars, whether that’s  the kind we like in our coffee and sodas, or the natural sort in fruits, veggies, and even milk. Complex carbs9 include starches, like those we get from bread, cereal, and certain vegetables such as potatoes and corn, or fiber, like what we get from many plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains.

That might sound a bit confusing, since all carbs are sugar molecules, but the difference is that complex carbs are composed of many simple sugars all strung together. This combination means the body has to break them down10 before using them as glucose, which regulates our blood sugar levels by slowing down the sugar-to-glucose process.

That said, simple carbs still have their place in a healthy diet—nothing fuels a good workout like simple carbs! For example, we like to add 2 tablespoons of maple syrup to our coffee before a morning workout; it helps us exercise longer and lift heavier than if we only ate complex carbs.

Good Carbs Versus Bad Carbs

Right, let’s settle this once and for all: there is no such thing as a “bad carb”. Even refined carbs have their place in moderation

Where a carb is good or bad really depends on their balance or excess, and that’s all determined by our blood sugar levels,11 baby. High blood sugar (aka high glucose) comes with a host of health drawbacks,12 including (but not limited to), you guessed it - weight gain. 

This is why we can’t stress enough how important the blood sugar regulating PHFF approach is for turning the white knuckle blood sugar rollercoaster into a relaxing ride on the teacups. By learning how to build our own meals with a healthy balance of Protein, Healthy Fats, and Fiber, we can bring our blood sugar levels back into balance, feel full and energized throughout the whole day, and know that we’re free to enjoy some guilt-free treats along the way.

Carbs & Dieting

Cutting carbs during dieting is a big mistake (and maybe dieting in general is a mistake - but that’s a topic for another time). When we cut carbs,13 we start losing muscle, we have lower energy levels, and our metabolic flexibility14 begins to shrink.

These things are our “metabolic money”—we can’t “afford” a healthy metabolism without them. Fitness industry memes about “bad carbs” that “make you fat” may well be the greatest scientific misunderstanding since “More Doctors Smoke Camels,"15 or y’know, the Earth being flat.

Carbs! How Many Do We Need?

Although different people have different carb requirements based on how often they exercise and what season of life they’re in, we generally speak of servings of starchy carbs as being around 30-40 grams. We refer to this as “1 carb source” or “1 starchy carb.”

Daily Carb Intake

Your ideal daily carb intake honestly depends, but there are some rough benchmarks to give you a general sense of where to aim.

In general, 1 carb source per day is sufficient for someone who is menopausal, has PCOS,16 is pre-diabetic,17 or works out less than three times a week. This goes up to 2 carb sources per day if you’re working out18 3-5 times a week or are wanting to maintain weight, and 3 or more sources per day if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, an athlete, or have uncontrolled hypothyroidism19 or HPA Axis dysfunction.20

Too Many Carbs

The relationship between carbs and unwanted weight isn’t due to eating carbs (seriously, it’s not their fault!), but due to overeating them.

The problem that carbs have going for them is that they’re the easiest macronutrient to overeat. They aren’t as filling as proteins and fats, and the more carbs you eat, the more of them you crave. Carbs are the least satiating macronutrient (you don’t feel as full after eating them as you do with other macros), and the spikes and dips in blood sugar that overeating them causes leads to cravings for more carbs, like a vicious cycle—or a rollercoaster.

The irregular blood sugar levels from consistently overeating carbs can lead,21 not only to weight gain, but to decreased metabolic health and a greater risk for heart disease. It’s not good!

Not Enough Carbs

Eating too few carbs deprives the body of energy, causes muscle loss, and has a nasty effect on our thyroid and overall metabolic health. In fact, low-carb dieting can result in weight gain,22 as the body reacts to being starved of carbs by producing glucose from protein and fat, and even storing sugar as more fat! Cutting out a crucial macronutrient like carbohydrates is effectively a slow form of starvation that the body fights in the only way it knows how.

The Right Amount of Carbs

Determining what the perfect amount of carbs is for you, really kinda depends on learning how to build your own PHFF meals. Finding a consistent daily balance of protein, healthy fat, and fiber is the best way to feel full and energized all day without risking spiraling blood sugar levels from too many or not enough carbs. 

Whether you need 1 carb source a day or 3, your blood sugar levels and how you feel throughout the day as a result are the best measure of whether to add more or get rid of carbs.

Knowing how many carbs your body needs is, at least in our experience, incredibly empowering. No more guessing whether this diet or that diet will be the one that finally works, and then sinking weeks or months into something completely unsuitable for what you actually need. Nope. Just knowing your body, knowing your metabolic needs, knowing your macro (including carbohydrate!) needs, can give you so. much. clarity. when it comes to finding a weight loss approach that works. 

Carbs and Weight Loss

It’s generally true that lowering carbs means lowering weight,23 but that’s not because more carbs automatically means more weight. It’s actually because the less carbs we eat, the less we crave them due to their feast-and-famine effect on our blood sugar levels. But taking this to an extreme and treating carbs like a dietary enemy means compromising the body’s ability to function, which will sabotage all weight loss goals in the long term. 

When weight loss is the goal and you think that overeating carbs is the reason for your unwanted pounds, it’s fine to gradually lessen your carb intake and see how the resulting blood sugar levels affect you. Just do yourself a favor and don’t overdo it. This is especially true because eating an average amount of carbs per day can cause us to retain roughly 1.5 pounds of water.24 In other words, cutting carbs and seeing weight loss as a result could just be a loss of water weight, rather than a loss of fat - don’t accidentally trick yourself!

Low-Carb Diets

Low-carb and no-carb diets like the ketogenic diet25 have been all the rage for ages.26 Unfortunately, keto is really only appropriate for people with neurological diseases or metabolic syndrome. 

For the vast majority of people, keto just cannot and should not be sustained as a way of life - and we don’t recommend any diet that you don’t plan to be on for the rest of your life

Studies have shown27 that weight loss only lasts when someone chooses a diet that they can adhere to over many years. White-knuckling your way through an extreme or unpleasant diet may shed pounds in the short term, but all of those pounds will be regained when your adherence to that diet inevitably fails.

This is especially true of women, who are more susceptible to hypothyroidism and HPA axis dysfunction. Either of these conditions can render a ketogenic diet absolutely devastating for women’s bodies.

In short, keto ain’t no way to go. 

How Do I Know If I Need More Carbs?

It’s been our experience that usually, people need more carbs, not less, and there’s a few signs the body sends us when it’s running low on carbs ( and they don’t require a blood glucose reader to understand, either). We find that people have it SO ingrained in them that eating too many carbs prevents weight loss. Some go so far as avoiding fruit altogether because it has sugar – just think what that’s doing for their 5 a day!28

Chances are, if you’ve been dieting, you probably do need more carbs. And yes, you can totally eat more carbs and still balance your blood sugar. When it really comes down to it, this balance is what matters - you can’t lose weight (at least not the right way) if you don’t properly fuel your body!

Signs and Symptoms of Carbohydrate Deficiency

The absolute best way to know that if you need more carbs is by tracking your workouts. If you’re not able to lift as much weight, or you’re not able to workout as long, or if you just don’t feel super hot during your workouts - that’s a dead giveaway that you’re running low on carbs!29 This is also true if you feel sluggish or under the weather during and after your workouts, when usually you should be feeling energized. 

But hold on there for just a second - these symptoms may also be true if you just aren’t eating enough in general, so if you feel tired and weak even when you aren’t working out, maybe check you’re actually eating enough full stop before you start piling on the carbs specifically.

What is Ketosis?

Ketosis,30 which is the goal of the ketogenic diet,31 is a state our metabolism enters when it runs out of glucose. In the absence of carbohydrates, it begins to break down fat for energy instead. When fat breaks down, it produces ketones,32 and these ketones become the body’s energy source in the absence of glucose. 

This is why many people assume that they’ll lose weight on a keto diet. And yeah they might—temporarily. Those who attempt a keto diet in the long term have a TON of fun side effects33 to look forward to, including but not limited to: dehydration and kidney stones, insomnia, constipation, high cholesterol, and (our favorite) low bone density including bone fractures. Yikes.

How to Get Back on Track

It’s become a bit of a knee-jerk reaction for women to dramatically reduce or even entirely eliminate carbs the moment that clothes start feeling tight or self-confidence takes a hit. But this is a conditioned response from past experiences with keto and fasting-related diets, rather than a natural reaction. 

It’s crucial to understand that starving yourself of carbs is not a good solution. The temporary weight loss this causes is not even fat loss; in fact, it’s usually muscle loss, which we absolutely cannot afford to lose! The long term metabolic damage this muscle loss causes just continues the cycle. 

This is how the diet industry keeps making money—by getting you to sign up for another go on the self-starvation merry-go-round. Going back to and paying more for what will never work is the perfect business model—y’know as long as you don’t like, care about your customers or any of that stuff. That way, every customer is a repeat customer for life. Kerrr-ching 😐

Getting back on track means realizing that no macronutrient is your enemy. In fact, all of them are friends you can’t do without (some, you just need to invite around to dinner a bit less often—or a bit more often). Learning to love food and yourself again by bringing both into balance is nature’s alternative to the painful and often disastrous path of dieting. 

The reason dieting feels so impossible is because it is impossible—the body has a big problem with what is bad for it, and rightfully so. That’s why we ask our clients to try PHFF instead. Building your own excellent meals and feeling empowered to live life to the fullest as a consequence is what we’re meant to do. 

Some of the most confident women of all time never dieted. Neither should you.

Summing It All Up

Carbs aren’t evil, despite what the dieting industry has been insisting for decades. Carbs give you energy, and we like energy. They aren’t bad, and they don’t make you fat. 

Sure, their excessive misuse is bad, but so is drinking a swimming-pool’s worth of blueberry smoothie. It’s just that with carbs, you don’t need to get to ridiculous levels before you’re in excessive territory—overeating them is surprisingly easy to do. But going too far in the opposite direction is an equally bad decision. 

As with all food, finding the right balance that works for your lifestyle and fitness goals is the answer, and that’s what PHFF is all about. There was a time in the past when we’d have felt guilty about having a bagel, too. Now we know to enjoy it and pair it with other PHFF foods to create the perfect workout recovery treat. 

Knowledge like this is Freedom—that’s why we love sharing it!

But don’t just take our word for it—here’s what some clients had to say about how it felt to welcome carbs back into their lives:

“Freedom from restricting foods! I always thought carbs were my cause for weight gain. However, pairing carbs with healthy fats and fiber have been an easier way to corporate carbs back into my diet! The feeling of Full after a meal and not already planning and thinking of what I will eat next is GREAT!! The energy I have is so much more, and no more pre-workout in the morning before working out.”

“I Increased my carbs a bit this week and still feel great, just making sure to follow PHFF at each meal. Down 9lbs total…clearly needed this second round of [Metabolism Makeover]. Feeling so good and excited about [the third round]!”

Next Steps

If you’re ready to rebuild a positive relationship with food and get yourself a fully-functioning metabolism, then head over here to find out about the 30 day Metabolism Makeover.

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