Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Carbs Got a Bad Rep. And What you Can Do About It.

My home-baked, white flour challah from last night.
(Today's french toast!)

 It’s all fat’s fault. It started with fatphobia, a fear of fat. Yes, back in the 80’s when Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Sinatra’s New York, New York were hits, Americans were instilled with a near fatal fear of fat-containing foods.  Meanwhile, carbohydrate was deemed safe and free to consume, without restraint. Ah, the good old days.
Heart disease became linked to saturated fat, and the message got oversimplified. Instead of saturated fats, the true culprit, all fats were grouped together as unacceptable.

And so food companies, ever interested in meeting consumer demand, supported our desire to eliminate the fat from most food products. Welcome Snackwell fat free cookies, fat free ice cream, reduced fat peanut butter—you name it.  Clients would declare, so proudly, that they had eaten 5 or 6 fat free sandwich cookies, clinging to the “free” part of the description. That they had consumed as much from these ”safe” cookies as they would from regular Oreos, never crossed their minds. They simply homed in on the fat content.

As fats were vilified, intake of carbohydrate-rich foods expanded, as did our waistlines. As you eliminate one of the three main building blocks of foods (fat) you are left with only two others (protein and carbohydrate) to fill the void. And we were given incentive to increase our intake of these items—they were “free” (of fats) and seemingly good for us. And their portions increased as well, as our guilt for eating them bottomed out.

So obscenely large I had to dig out my food scale and see what it weighed. Yes, 7 oz!

Unless you grew up in Brooklyn (which I happen to) a bagel was something Lenders made. It weighed about 2 ounces, the equivalent of two slices of pre-sliced bread. But even commercially baked bagels bulked up to 4 and 5 ounces, as in Dunkin Donuts, Finagle a Bagel, and Einstein.

No, not all bagels weight this much!
The thought of energy balance, of eating to meet your need, was absent, as larger amounts of carbs were eaten, regardless of hunger or need.

Finally the reality hit. Americans’ weight was climbing. In spite of having cut the fat, our weight, as a population, was increasing. (By the way, for those of you still fat phobic, this only further supports the fact that fats don't link with weight gain.) The culprit? Well, according to such authorities as Barry Sears (The Zone Diet) and Dr. Atkins (of restrict-carbs-to-make- ketones fame), the obvious conclusion was that carbs were bad. 

And boy did that message take off! They reinforced their messages with a distortion of a truth about carbs—that they increase insulin levels in the blood stream. They pathologized this situation, making it seem like a bad thing. Yes, insulin levels increase upon eating carbs. But a healthy body handles carbohydrate quite well, thank you. Yes, even diabetics can and should include carbohydrate as a chunk of their intake. (I say this as both an RD and a Certified Diabetes Educator.)

When panicked, we tend to not trust ourselves, instead latching on to information, even illogical and incorrect information.

Carbs don’t increase your weight. Period. 

Excess calories do. And the way we were eating carb-rich foods clearly resulted in taking in too many calories. And by choosing more processed, less filling carbohydrate-rich foods, it was quite easy to over consume them. For instance, eating a 5 oz. bagel was a breeze. But could you easily eat 2 ½ cups of cooked oatmeal? Because they’re the same, calorically.  And a 12 oz. can of apple juice? That’s about 3 ½ whole apples. Which would fill you up more? See the point. And the bagel pictured on this page (purchased from local bagel shop)? That’s like having 7 (yes, seven) slices of bread! But we tend to see foods as units—a sandwich, for instance, or a bagel, failing to recognize just how large the portion really is.

That isn’t to say that you should only eat high fiber grains, though. Truly, it’s simply about the portion. They eat white, processed pasta in Italy, and white baguettes in France, as part of their healthy Mediterranean diet. And the record shows it doesn’t cause weight gain. But they also include legumes, and fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. And they rarely eat in their cars, or on the train. And they tend to take time to eat. And I suspect they really enjoy those crusty baguettes and croissants. Get the picture?

Still struggling to trust the carbs? Make a substitution for a protein source, not an addition, just to prove it’s okay. Take baby steps. Once your worst fears don’t come true, do it more frequently. Start with foods you might see as healthier, to get started.

This one was too cute to cook. The rest got tossed with olive oil and baked!
Go ahead. Give it a try. You’ll see that bad things don’t happen. I promise!


  1. Okay, I'll ask the question I hope is on other people's minds (I hope it's not just me!). What is the point of carbs. The benefits of eating fresh fruit and veges (vitamins, mineral, fibre) and meat (protein and iron) are obvious. But I can't see the point of stodgy food like bread, rice and pasta. It seems to me just be empty unnecessary calories. Why have them at all, when I could be using those calories for something more beneficial?

  2. Glad you asked! This could be an entire post, but I'll try to summarize. First, fruits, grains (including rice, bread, pasta, oats, etc), legumes, starchy vegetables and milk and yogurt all contain carbohydrate (carbs) and to a less extent, all other vegetables. Carbs are one of the three macronutrients, energy sources, that make up all foods.

    They are a major energy source for the body, critical for fueling the body during exercise AND between meals(since we burn calories 24/7! They are the first fuel our body reaches for even when we are sleeping! The excess gets stored in our liver and our muscles as starch complexes called glycogen.

    Further, foods containing carbs provide a wealth of nutrients (as you could see there's a rather extensive list of foods). They also help our mood, impacting chemical substances called neurotrasmitters, such as serotonin (the stuff we try to have more available when we take antidepressants).

    Oh, and did I mention they tend to taste good and satisfy us?
    Hope this helps.

  3. I really appreciated this post--particularly the part comparing the bagel to 2 1/2 c. oatmeal, and the can of apple juice to 3 1/2 apples...That part really hit home in terms of the fact that foods with the same calories can be incredibly different in how filling they are

  4. This post has really helped me understand carbs better, however, struggling to battle bulimia, I find any kind of white breads highly triggering. Anything carb that isn't whole wheat or low in calorie (I tend to stay away from breads to prevent any triggering in general) I will only have when I feel confident about my recovery, but I obsess over whats 'safe' and what's not. I don't think I'm at the level where I trust myself enough to have a slice of french baguette, but from this post, I am relieved and optimistic that I should have nothing to fear.. Thank you so much for doing what you do. Your posts really do help me and provide motivation, I truly hope one day I will be able to close this door on my eating disorder and move on to something amazing! xx

  5. I find most clients have an easier time starting with carb-containing items that they could justify as healthy (ie. high fiber, whole grain, etc). Once you the first barrier, it becomes much easier to move to other carb choices.
    So glad this is helpful! It's why I do what I do.

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog! I just signed up for email alerts and will go back through your previous posts to find information for my new and very exciting trip back down to a "normal" weight. Very cool website you've got here!!

  7. Spread the word if like what you read!
    Glad you took a look, DJan.

  8. I've printed out this post to put in my recovery journal, right next to my meal plan. When I restrict, grains and fats are always the first to go. This post will serve as a reminder that carbs are not the enemy!

    Maybe in a future post you could talk about fat and why it's an important component of healthful eating (aids with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, satiety, etc.). Before I entered treatment, I couldn't remember the last time I had allowed myself to eat peanut butter, Nutella, etc, but I feel like a "Lori post" will definitely help with the "fat phobia"!

    Thanks for your wonderfully sane approach to food and eating, Lori!

  9. So glad to know these posts are helpful! And I will plan for a post on fats in the future! Meanwhile, trust that with blog recipes including ingredients such as half and half (in moderation) and nuts galore, I am certainly a supporter of inclusion of fats, as part of a balanced diet!

  10. Hi Lori!! Great blog. I randomly checked your website today and found the link. That bagel is huge...I recommend homemade ones. They are the best! Feel free to check out my blog. We have a new addition! ;)

  11. Thanks for sensible help. I'm a new reader and have enjoyed what I've read so far.

  12. Thanks for your feedback! Please feel free to suggest topics you'd like to see addressed on future blogs.

  13. Hi Lori, thanks for the comment on my latest post, that meant a lot. I love your blog, by the way, I wish I'd been lucky enough to have an RD like you when I was in treatment. Love that you have a biology degree, that's my field as well. :)

  14. Thanks for reading, Cammy!

    Please check out Cammy's wisdom and recovery perspective, now linked from my home page--Building Beauty Beyond Body!

  15. I'm really trying to stick to the things that my dietician put on my eating plan. But I am finding dinner extremely challenging. She is adamant that she wants me to have potato (blah carbs) - but I am finding this too difficult. I really don't want to fail. And I don't want to ask her in case she thinks I being obstinant or childish, but if I substitute cous cous would that be equivalent??

  16. Hi Plain Jane,
    1/2 cup cooked couscous is the equivalent of a small (3 oz/84 gm.) potato. That's a small potato. That's a very fair substitution, unless, of course, she is recommending it for some other reason. For instance, if you limited yourself to the same source of carbohydrate every night, perhaps she's trying to move you out of your comfort zone.
    Ultimately, best to be honest and share both your interest in recovery and doing the right thing, with the fact that it scares the heck out of you. Then negotiate a reasonable solution!
    Hope that helps.

  17. I spoke to my dietician about the cous cous today - and she said it is for nutrition and she really doesn't mind which one I choose as long as I eat it!
    Thanks for your encouragment Lori.

  18. Stick with this nutritionist! ; )

  19. I enjoy bagels, but have been scared to buy a bag of them from the market lately. They all look too big and made from ingredients that I cannot pronounce. Lori, what bagel brand would you recommend? I love the whole grains/whole wheat so if you are aware of some good bagels that are not the equivalent of 7 slices of bread, please let me know. Great blog and thanks for the help

  20. First, I must say, that in spite of having grown up in Brooklyn, THE place for great bagels, I had never encountered a 7 oz bagel until recently!
    As for great taste outside of Brooklyn with a reasonable size--try Ray's New York Bagels, frozen, just over 3 oz. Delicious! I don't think they do whole wheat, but honestly, there's no merit to whole wheat bagels from a nutrition stand point. So go for a flavor you enjoy! Hope you can get them near you!

  21. Great! Thanks for the suggestion. I looked online and I think Shaws and Stop and Shop sell them. I will keep my eyes open next time.

  22. Is it bad that at home I will basically never choose a white carb? I always buy whole wheat bread, pasta, etc. I will eat white carbs if out, but not in my house.

  23. The only issue would be if you were so inflexible that you wouldn't eat a grain outside of the house that wasn't whole grain. And f you passed that message on to your kids!

  24. Re: bagels. The best ones are definitely from Montreal (or, in a pinch, from bagel shops in Toronto run by Montreal-trained bagel makers).

    Once again, I really appreciate your viewpoint. You are one of the few bloggers who doesn't demonize foods.

    On different subject entirely, I followed the debate you had on DWF with the blog owner and a number of her readers. I find myself agreeing with both points of view. I'll probably have to blog about it myself.