Carbs Might ACTUALLY be Your Missing Health Link

How crash dieting can set “future you” up for frustration, why all calories are NOT created equal, and SO MUCH MORE!!

Today I am sharing my five main takeaways from a recent course I took through Precision Nutrition, How to Coach a Macros-Based Diet.

Why? Because as I was reading the course material I kept thinking, “This stuff is not as widely known as it should be. I want this information available to a wider audience than simply my individual clients.” So, I am putting my money where my mouth is. Below are the five take-aways I feel compelled to share!! If you find anything particularly interesting, be sure to click through the links I provide to learn directly from the horse’s mouth, Precision Nutrition!! GET EXCITED :-p

If you are not yet aware of Precision Nutrition, this is your lucky day.…Think of it like “nutrition Christmas”! Not only is Precision Nutrition a Nutritional Coaching Certification (I am level 2), they are a science-based, “nutritionally agonistic,” approachable, and intelligent source of nutrition and health information. Dare I call them “level-headed”? (FYI, that is a big compliment in the—in my experience—extremely product-driven field of nutrition.) Precision has a strong web presence, and you can TRUST the information they post! The next time you have a few minutes (or hours), be sure to go down their “habit hole” of articles, infographics, podcasts, and videos!!

Here we GO!! Off to the races…

Five Take-aways 

1. A calorie is not just a calorie. Losing weight is not as simple as “moving more and eating less”!

I am sure you have heard the weight loss adage “eat less, move more.” Or, “to lose weight you need to consume fewer calories than you expend” and/or “to lose weight you need to work off more calories than you take in,” etc, etc.

The statements above sound good, simple, “easy”…too good to be true!

Like so many adages, they are sort of correct—but the devil is in the details. Results come from understanding the complexities!! (As Brené Brown would say, the key is to understand the paradox that is life—the “both…and.”)

Like most things in life, weight loss and weight maintenance are more complicated than any one mantra can contain. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for a good mantra—an adage that keeps you on track. If you are using something like “move more, eat less” as motivation, go for it, BUT do so knowing it is a simplified equation. Problems occur when you believe too strongly in any one mantra. Simplified concepts set unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations are the seeds of discontent. I don’t want you to get discouraged and quit when you don’t get the results you are wishing for.

Reframe the equation to something like, “changes in body stores are a result of energy in minus energy out.” 

Sound like semantics? It is not.

The reframed statement takes into account that changes in weight loss and/or body composition are not simply a result of what we eat and how much we exercise. Body stores (muscle, organs, bone, etc) are impacted by the complex interplay of how our individual body metabolizes the food we eat, our hormones, any history of crash dieting, and how that impacts metabolism, your microbiome, your age, your genetics, and on and on.

To make any weight equation more complicated, the amount of energy a food contains in the form of calories is not necessarily the amount of energy we absorb, store, and/or use. We are unique beings and, as such, we each digest, process, absorb, and store, foods differently!

Did you know that your gut bacteria will impact how much and what you absorb?

Plus, we absorb less energy from minimally processed carbohydrates and fats because they’re harder to digest. For example, we absorb more fat from peanut butter than we do from peanuts!! For more info on how our body digests and absorbs food (for example, the difference in absorption between cooked and raw foods), take a look at this article from Precision Nutrition.

Here is one example of a more accurate equation from the Precision Nutrition article!

Here is another.

My goal is not to frustrate or overwhelm you but rather to give you an understanding of how complex the body is so you can stop berating and shaming yourself over your health and weight loss history. Metabolism, overall health, weight loss, etc are more complicated and interdependent than you might think. Plus, the older you get the more your hormones, microbiome, sleep, etc come into play!!

Instead of getting frustrated, become a health scientist! Use your newfound understanding of the equation “changes in body stores are a result of energy in minus energy out” to create tailored intervention pathways. Hormones are a key variable. Maybe you need to address your sleep. The microbiome is key. Maybe you need to take a look at your gut health. Read more. Maybe talk to a relevant health practitioner! Set realistic expectations. Evolve your strategies to match your new knowledge. Again, for more info, check out this Precision Nutrition article.

2. Carbs are NOT evil!! In fact, you might actually need MORE of THEM!!!

This next section is important info for everyone, but specifically for fellow females, especially my female athletes. If possible, read the Precision Nutrition article on this topic for more info.

Seriously, learn from my silliness. I spent my twenties being afraid of carbs, and my body (including my hormones), my mind, and the people in my life, all paid the price!!

Carbs…

Am I saying that Precision Nutrition says “eat all the donuts in the world”? No.

Am I saying that Precision suggests “eat carbs and forget the other macro nutrients”? NO. OBVIOUSLY protein and fat (the other two macro nutrients) are important. Don’t go from zero to one hundred!!

Instead…

  • Be an informed consumer. Health is a business. Companies, manufacturers, authors, etc are selling a product. I am not saying the info is “bad” or “evil.” I am not saying the products they sell are horrible. I am just saying “do some research.” Not all books, plans, or products will work for you and THAT IS OKAY!! Figure out what works for YOU and your body!! Just because a diet or product worked for your favourite celebrity, your son, your husband, etc does NOT mean it will work for you…especially long term. This goes for everyone, but particularly women. Our bodies can be slightly more sensitive to aggressive changes such as fasting, low carbs, etc. Also—and this is BIG—just because something works for you short term doesn’t mean it will be healthy for you over the long term!
  • All “carbs” are not the same! Processed carbs, desserts, etc are NOT the same as nutritious vegetables such as squash and/or whole grains like farro and barley.
  • Everything you consume—as well as the foods you skip—will impact your hormones. (See the section on carbs below.) We often frame food as “calories,” but every food is SO much more than its caloric number. What we eat effects our microbiome, our energy, our sleep, etc. Foods are the building blocks of hormones and neurotransmitters, etc. We are what we eat, digest, and absorb!!Here is a passage from Precision Nutrition’s The Ultimate Guide To Low Carb Diets.

We now know that eating too low-carb for too long can cause significant disruptions to many hormones. This seems especially true for women, whose bodies may be more sensitive than men’s to low energy or carbohydrate availability (perhaps because of the evolutionary importance of having enough body fat and nutrients to sustain a pregnancy). While organs like our gonads or thyroid make hormones, Mission Control of our hormone production system is the central nervous system (CNS), i.e. the brain. Our hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which sit in the brain, are exquisitely sensitive to things like energy availability and stress (which can include life stress and exercise stress). The hypothalamus and pituitary work together with other glands such as the adrenal glands. This partnership is often known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis. Thus, when women don’t eat enough calories or carbohydrate — or even when women eat enough calories but not enough carbohydrate — they face hypothalamic amenorrhea.

  • Think long-term. Ask yourself “what is sustainable”? Figure out the food choices that will set your future self up for success. (This is connected to the previous point: dysregulated hormones will not make future you happy.)
  • Think PROPORTIONS and QUALITY!! Too often we think in black and white. Consumption of any macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat) exists on a continuum. You could, for example, decide to eat 5% fewer carbs and 5% more protein; the protein will probably help you feel more satiated. Within whatever parameters/proportions of carbs, fats, and protein you decide to consume, the key is to work on improving the QUALITY of your choices. Aim for nutritionally dense foods! For example, replace a breakfast of a processed store-bought muffin with a homemade egg muffin (recipe here) on some sweet potato, or have oatmeal with berries.

Be an informed consumer. 

You are a unique being; what works for someone else will not necessarily work for you. 

Think proportions and quality! The macros you eat exist on a continuum!! 

Be kind to yourself….This life crap is HARD!! 

3. Think LONG TERM!! Your choices today impact the you of tomorrow!!

I get it. It can be hard to think long term when your jeans are feeling tight and/or you want to have lost weight, like, YESTERDAY. I have felt that way. I think most of us have. The thing is, life is long, and your choices today impact your metabolism of the future.

How much you weigh and how easily you lose weight is not just a reflection of how many calories you eat. The proportions of macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) you eat, the quality of your food, the amount you eat, the amount and type of exercise you do, etc, impact your metabolism, your neuroendocrine system, etc. To quote Precision, weight loss is “accompanied by adaptive metabolic, neuroendocrine, autonomic, and other changes.”

In Kathleen speak, this means that how your body will regulate weight will be impacted by your history of yo-yo dieting. Your body is an aggregate of all your choices mixed with your genetics!

So, before you try another crash diet, take a minute to learn how your choices today impact your metabolism (and thus your frustration level) of the future! For more info, try this Precision Nutrition article titled Can Eating Too Little Actually Damage Your Metabolism?

If you are still not convinced to skip that cayenne pepper cleanse, hear this: The juice fast today might make it almost impossible for you to even maintain your weight in twenty years.

Don’t get me wrong. I know making choices in the present that will serve us in the future is like swimming against a current. Our brains are predisposed to default to the cognitive “present bias”; we tend to think that how we feel at this moment is how we will always feel.

If we want to do a cleanse NOW it is hard to think of a future where we would have been happier if we had skipped the cleanse. Or, when we want ALL the ice cream it is hard to pause and remember that future us won’t feel great after two tubs of dairy and fat!

The thing is, it is worth taking a pause and really telling your current self, “Self, be an informed consumer. Read up. Learn the foods that will make your future self feel energized and motivated.”

Don’t believe me? Here is an excerpt from the article.

Losing weight, and keeping it off, is accompanied by adaptive metabolic, neuroendocrine, autonomic, and other changes.

These changes mean that we expend less energy—around 5-10 percent less (or up to 15 percent less at extreme levels) than what would be predicted based on just weighing less.

Unfortunately, because of this adaptive response, someone who has dieted down will often require 5-15 percent fewer calories per day to maintain the weight and physical activity level than someone who has always been that weight.

(Or even less, potentially, because as we learned in the very beginning, the RMR of people of the exact same age/weight/etc. can still vary by up to another 15 percent.)

This means someone who was never overweight might need 2,500 calories to maintain their weight, while someone who had to diet down to that weight may need only 2,125-2,375 calories to hold steady….

This is extra relevant for people who have repeatedly dieted, or for fitness competitors who may repeatedly fluctuate between being extremely lean and being overweight in the off-season.

I don’t have data to back this up (to my knowledge no one has studied it), but adaptive thermogenesis seems to react more strongly or more rapidly with each successive yo-yo of extreme body fat fluctuations.

All of this explains why some people can feel like they’ve “damaged” their metabolism through repeated dieting. (And why some experts suggest “metabolic damage” is a real thing.)

But nothing really has been “damaged”.

Instead, their bodies have just become predictably more sensitive to various hormones and neurotransmitters. Their metabolic rates are understandably lower than predicted by various laboratory equations. 

4. Your hand could be the health tool you have been searching for 

Adapting a healthier lifestyle requires consistency. It doesn’t matter what you do on one single occasion. It matters what you do regularly—your habits!

What most of us need is not COMPLEX/EXCITING ways of eating and exercising. We need ways of eating and moving that we can do consistently, even on the days we do NOT feel like being active and eating our vegetables!!

As Precision says, even master carpenters use a hammer and nails…they just know how to use them with precision.

Sure, power tools can be fun, fancy, and expensive and can be a nice “add on,” BUT YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE BASICS DOWN SO YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO ADD ON TO!!! Don’t cut the grass while the house is on fire!!

As James Clear would say, “standardize and then optimize.”

Create good habits!! One such habit could be using your hand as a personalized, portable portioning tool. When you use your hand to track, you don’t actually measure out food; instead you use your hand to inspire awareness and gauge portion sizes!!

According to the article from Precision Nutrition titled Your Hand Can Be Your Guide, there are two main reasons why using the hand is useful.

#1: Your hands are with you everywhere you go. This means you have a consistent reference point wherever you are—at the airport, your mom’s house, work lunches, buffet restaurants, and more. (It also means you don’t have to listen to your table mates groan as you furiously search for calorie counts in your food tracking app.)

#2: Your hands are generally proportional to your body and always the same size. So they serve as a reliable reference point—without the need for measuring cups or a food scale. (No need to wonder if your scale’s batteries are dying, or sheepishly pull your measuring cups out of your bag at your friend’s birthday dinner.)

Find something you can always (or almost always) do; find ways you can move and be aware of your food on a daily basis. Create a plan you can follow in airports, at restaurants, at parties, etc!!

If using your hand is not the habit for you, NO PROBLEM. Find what works for you. CREATE a plan of action tailored to YOUR needs!!

Create healthy habits in regular life then perfect them. Practice and practice. Then, even when you are stressed, they will naturally just continue to happen!!

Tim Ferris always quotes Archilochus: “We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to level of our habits.”

5. All choices come with a cost

As my fav gastroenterologist and author of the book Fibre Fuelled would say, “The juice has to be worth the squeeze.”

All choices come at a cost. Or as my therapist would say, every choice involves a loss. The question is, are you willing to pay the cost? Is the loss something you can live with?

Some costs are small. Some costs are large. Some costs impact you in the short term (you get to eat less of the yummy ice cream you so desire, you have to give up an hour of your time on Sunday to food prep). Some costs add up over the long term—remember the example of the cost on your hormones from skipping too many carbs? You will not notice the cost to your endocrine system overnight! But there are REAL trade offs to every choice we make. The question is, are you willing to pay the cost of admission?

Many of us desire an end goal—to lose a certain amount of weight or reach a specific body fat percentage—but for better or worse we are not willing to live with the costs needed to make that wish a reality. Costs include food prep, forsaking alcohol, going to bed early to wake up for an early workout, etc. For some people these costs are worth it. For others, not so much! I have had many people state a goal, then when we go over the steps needed to reach that goal, their answer is “that is not worth it.” The question is, what are you willing to give up?

My point is NOT that you “should” be meal prepping or giving up alcohol. “Giving something up” is not synonymous with “a good choice.” My point is—yet again—be an informed consumer. Know what you want, acknowledge what you are willing to do for that goal, AND realize that anything healthy done to an extreme is no longer healthy. The impacts of long-term restrictions are REAL!! Excessive carb cutting, over exercising, or existing on too few calories can have disastrous consequences; decreased thyroid output, increased cortisol output, decreased testosterone, impaired mood and cognitive function, muscle catabolism, suppressed immune function, etc.

Be an informed consumer. Make realistic goals. Know the costs needed!!

Here are a few “health realities” that Precision Nutrition sites in their article aptly named The Cost of Getting Lean.

Reality #1:
The process that helps you lose “the first 10 pounds” isn’t the same one that’ll help you lose “the last 10 pounds”. Indeed, it usually takes a lot more work as you get leaner.

Reality #2:
If you do aspire to “fitness model” or “elite athlete” lean, you might be surprised. Images are photoshopped for effect. Bodybuilders only look like that for competition. And achieving that look comes at a high cost; one most people aren’t willing to pay.

Reality #3:
However, if you’re okay not being on the next magazine cover and aspire to be “lean and healthy” even small adjustments can — over time — add up to noticeable improvements. Sometimes these improvements can change, perhaps even save, lives.

Final Thoughts

Be compassionate with yourself! Health is HARD!! Have realistic expectations!

Never forget that the “health” field is a billion-dollar BUSINESS. Know where you are getting your info. Know what YOU need. Know what YOU want!

Also, remember, health is not synonymous with weight loss. “Going without” is not synonymous with “healthy choices.” Moving is good for your body and mind no matter what (unless you overdo it to the point of injury). Vegetables are helpful for your body, mind, and mood no matter what. Water is wonderful.

Stop trying to find the “perfect” plan. CREATE a plan of action tailored to YOUR needs!!