Saturday, December 20, 2014

Burning through the calories: where the carbs fit for weight management

Are you hyper focusing on the nutrients that are 'safe' to eat?
Processed foods are bad, toxic even. Breads, even so-called wheat breads, must be avoided. Other starches aren’t great for you either—but those whole grains seem a little better. And forget sugar, because you know all the horror stories about what sugar does.  Best to avoid it all; it’s much safer that way.

That’s what Dave thinks, and he’s not alone. He's an underweight young man, unhealthily thin. Yes, most sources of carbs are a problem for him. In fact, most fats are also a problem for him. He selects only foods he perceives as super-foods—super healthy choices chock full of nutrients; he’s not contaminating his body with any of that other junk. He reads a lot, but never the full research paper, because, I mean, who does? Anyway, if it’s in print, then it must be true, right?

Start to look at the big picture.
No, not correct. Even all the hype about sugar and its negative impact on health pulls from studies showing high intakes—25% of total calories, to be specific. That’s a lot of sugar. And that’s quite different than including a couple of mint Milanos or Lindt chocolates for instance, in the midst of a healthy, balanced diet. But why all the fuss, you ask? Who needs processed carbs anyway?

An RDA for chocolates?

It’s like this. There’s no daily requirement for processed foods—that’s for certain. But creating long lists of foods to avoid creates another set of health issues, both mental and physical. Deprivation, for one, creates rebound overeating, so setting rigid rules about all the foods you can’t eat becomes an issue. Further, avoiding large categories of foods as Dave does leaves fewer fuel sources and nutrients to meet your needs. A diet of vegetables and lean protein and a bit of fruit will likely leave you low energy—carbohydrate stores are our go-to for fuel; yes there’s a reason why Marathoners have a pasta dinner before their event.  Food rules are challenging to adhere to and lead to increased preoccupation with food and eating.

It’s worse if your needs are high, like if you are in the process of restoring weight from a low place. Truly, metabolic rate dramatically increases to well above what others of the same height (but who weren’t restricting and now re-feeding) experience. So the feeling of fatigue may result, and if you’re wondering why your strength is lost, this could be why. Or if you are a growing teen, restricting what you can eat may add to your problems—it’s challenging to meet your needs to restore normal growth when there’s lots you choose not to eat.

Burn, baby burn

Take a step back and try to look at your
assumptions a bit differently.
It's hard to negotiate with irrational thoughts. And the media's messages villainizing most anything that tastes good hardly help. So I’ll turn to my fireplace analogy to help him (and you) see carbs as just another fuel.

Let's say you have a fireplace. You could burn logs of pine or oak or maple. Burning each log type generates heat, turns to ashes in the end, regardless of which you started with.

Should it matter to you which type of log or fuel you use? Well you might have a preference for the scent of pine or maple, let's say. But from a fuel standpoint, it doesn't much matter. That is, as long as the total amount of wood is equivalent. It's just like food and its building blocks. You could burn carbs or protein or fats that you eat and yield energy—our heat equivalent here. And as long as the total amount of fuel or calories is the same, your body hardly cares where the fuel source came from—from a weight standpoint. You may have a preference for the taste of chicken or of nuts, and some foods may be more satiating (think whole grains or balanced meals including protein); and a varied diet will help meet your nutrient needs over time. But if the calories are the same, they will generate about the same amount of energy.

That's sweetened chai tea with real milk to go with our
carb-based snack.
But substitute some twigs and the fire dies down fast. Rice cakes, for instance, just won't sustain the energy. You could swap newspaper for the logs. But you'd need a ton of it to heat your house in winter. Yes, just like if you chose only light products or large volume but low calorie dense foods like broths or salads with little substance to them.

So what can I do now?

Stoke your fire with items that are pleasant. I love the scent of burning pine, personally, and I enjoy a good piece of pastry when I need the fuel. There are times those whole grains are just what I'm yearning, and they'll likely take a bit more time to process, and thus burn, than just white rice. But brown sushi just doesn't seem right.  And favoring protein and eating lots of it simply because you heard it’s good for you is no advantage for long-term weight management.

A healthy body requires getting enough. Not just total calories, but satisfaction, from a wide range of foods and nutrients. Isn’t it time you free yourself from the unnecessary food rules?


  1. Hi Lori! Happy belated Channukah and hope you have a great new year.

    You might like this article:

  2. Hi Lori,

    Thanks for your wonderful approach! Your blog entries are like a breath of fresh air.

    Happy 2015!

  3. Thanks, Myrna and NewMe for your comments--and for the link to the new yorker article. Happy new year to all and please spread the sanity!

  4. Thank you for this post--it's exactly what I needed to hear to clear the ED fog from my brain!