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Why This Registered Dietitian Never Recommends Low Carb Diets

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

It's time to talk about carbohydrates again. I've had a few recent requests to do some carb myth busting, so let's do it. It’s especially important to do so as we head into the holiday season and the New Year. Unfortunately, 2018 has been especially anti-carb. I imagine the dieting onslaught that is coming with new resolutions will also be full of misguided encouragement to eat fewer carbs. So, I’m here to remind you that you have full permission to eat carbohydrate foods at every meal and snack.

As a future intuitive eating counselor, I am rarely direct in telling people how to eat. I'd much rather explore your direct experience with food and talk about the why, as well as what you notice and how you feel. I am all for this approach but when it comes to carbs, I want to cut to the chase because there is so much misinformation out there. Here are the facts: your body requires, and prefers, carbs for fuel. Period. Each day, your brain requires the equivalent of 3 cups of rice ALONE to function normally. Or 3 cups of pasta. Or 9 slices of bread. Or 2ish bagels. And that is just your brain! It doesn’t include all the other body parts and reasons that you might need carbohydrates.

your brain required 3 cups of carbs each day
low carb eating under fuels your body and brain

We even have research (here, and here) that has observed a connection between low carbohydrate eating and mortality - low intake is not associated with the positive health outcomes you might hear about in our current diet culture. Plus, avoiding carbs is pretty miserable.

The chatter around carbs is constant and relentless. How can we drown it out? Well, understanding science helps, but so does focusing on how you feel. Have you ever had a low carb day (intentionally, or even unintentionally) and recognized how crummy you've felt? Carbs are the primary source of energy/fuel for our bodies for a reason. When we don't eat them, we don't feel well. We can call this hunger or hanger or even chalk it up to the "keto flu" (don't get me started on how talk of ‘keto flu’ is just a strategic way to prepare people for how crappy it feels to deny yourself carbs), but carbs are typically the remedy. Plus, food/carb deprivation is one of the biggest reasons why people experience cravings that feel out of control.

Our bodies typically find a way to get the fuel they need. Thank goodness for this survival mechanism! Maybe you've gone a long time without eating, or haven't had enough to eat in general, or you’ve been restricting certain food groups - it’s entirely likely that your cravings will correspond with the fact that you need quick energy from food. This sort of chaos can feel out of control and a lot like addiction or binge eating. It really just speaks to the value of including carbs in your day.

cravings usually are amplified by under eating or low carb eating
we can learn a lot from our cravings

So what happens when you are faced with medical advice that is different than what I'm sharing here? Well, that’s a topic for a longer blog post, because I have a lot to say. It’s not uncommon that I hear these sorts of recommendations have come directly from other people on the medical team. It’s not uncommon that I hear this is the way to manage diabetes, or PCOS, or you name it. No matter your condition, we will explore ways to manage your relationship with food and your habits without restricting you.

Keep in mind that you can find research to support almost any claim. However, it’s critical to consider how that research was conducted and whether it was done in a way that controlled for significant confounders, which are additional reasons that might explain why a certain conclusion was reached. At the end of the day, it’s critical to consider how that advice is going to work for you. You are your own expert - you know what your experiences have been and how you feel and what suits you well given your own circumstance. There is no body of research that will take your own lived experience into consideration.

lived experience matters more than research
your lived experience matters

A balanced, satisfying pattern of eating includes all macronutrients, including carbohydrates. Carbs are nourishing, delicious and energizing. From a juicy plum, to crusty sourdough, mac and cheese (annie's OR kraft!), quinoa, yogurt or a cookie. What has you feeling concerned about carbs? What have you heard or learned that needs to be unlearned or unheard? Taking a closer look at this can help to shed a light on what might really be worth talking about or exploring.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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