Anyone who has been in a grocery store recently knows that food companies are tripping over themselves in the rush to introduce "low carb" versions of everything from bread to candy to soda to cereal. Do not think for a minute that these companies are motivated by the health interests of consumers. The reality is that they are mainly concerned with the wallets of consumers and will market anything that they think a gullible public will buy. Low carb junk food is still junk food.
I know some of you reading this may already be raising your defenses because you have lost weight by cutting your carb consumption. Let me first congratulate you on your weight loss, and secondly say that this is not an anti-Atkins or anti-South Beach piece. This article is simply meant to educate readers on the reality of carbohydrates, "good" carb choices vs. "bad" carb choices, what they do, why your body needs them, and how to make better nutrition choices than food company marketing efforts want you to.
The first thing to understand is that carbohydrates provide the body with its main source of fuel, glucose (blood sugar), which is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Any muscle contraction, whether during exercise, getting out of bed, or blinking an eye, is fueled primarily by glycogen. So, for those of you engaging in resistance training, this should immediately point out the fact that you need carbs for fuel in order to maximize your efforts in your resistance program. The next fact to understand is that your brain (which burns more calories than any organ in the body) and nervous system can only use glucose for energy. This is why, especially in the early or induction phases of carb restricted diets, dieters often feel sluggish and less alert than normal. By cutting out carbs, you are cutting off your brain's main source of fuel.
Some of you are probably thinking, "That's exactly what I want, because now my body will need to burn fat for energy!" Yes and no. Yes, your body will burn some fat for energy; however it will also generate glucose by breaking down protein stores in the muscles, organs and other tissues. This will severely compromise tissue growth, repair, and maintenance, and as discussed in previous articles, slow down your metabolism. Certainly, that is not the result you are looking for.
As I said, this is not an anti-(insert your favorite low-carb guru here) piece. But, the truth is, carbohydrates are a nutrient, and a nutrient is defined as a "substance that an organism must obtain from its surroundings for growth and the sustainment of life". So, does it make sense to follow a program that calls for the wholesale abandonment of vital nutrient? Of course not. What is needed is an understanding of the difference between supportive, quality carbohydrates that provide essential nutrients and fuel, and overly processed and refined carbohydrates that provide empty calories and support fat storage.
What do I mean by overly processed and refined carbs? Think about white bread, donuts, muffins, pastries, white rice, candy, sugary breakfast cereals, white pasta, potato chips, crackers, soda. Foods like these digest very quickly and give your body a rapid spike in blood sugar, which, when fat loss is the goal, is something we want to avoid. After your body takes the blood sugar it needs to replenish muscle glycogen, whatever is left over from that spike will get stored as fat.
What makes supportive, quality carbs different? They digest more slowly, producing a more gradual rise in blood sugar and providing a more even source of fuel. Look for breads and cereals made from whole grains, pasta made from whole wheat flour, brown rice instead of white rice, sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, fruits in moderation and vegetables in abundance. Whole grain carbs will keep you feeling satisfied longer, and not looking to devour a bag of chips within an hour of eating your plain bagel.
So, the lesson is to not get taken over by carb phobia and fill your shopping cart up with all of the new low carb products. Just like in the early 80's when the food manufacturers were frantically trying to come up with low fat versions of every product under the sun, they are doing the same now in order to sell more products, not because they are concerned with your health. Back then, consumers were tanking up on SnackWell cookies. They are low fat, so they must be okay right? Well, since the low fat boom of the 80's, the obesity rate in this country has skyrocketed. That is not because the true culprit is now carbs. No, the reason is because junk food, whether low fat, low carb, or low whatever, is still junk food.