I fully believe in releasing neurotic behaviors and thought patterns around nutrition and our diets in order to live at ease in our bodies and fulfill our potential in life, and this often includes paying attention to and/or counting macronutrients (fats, carbs, proteins). However, when working to overcome food and body obsessions, it can be incredibly frustrating to still feel physically unwell despite our best efforts to feel otherwise.
Feeling well physically lends itself to so much more ease around food, as we feel synergistic with our bodies. It reinforces the notion that we’re working in tandem, and it’s incredibly empowering too.
As I worked to overcome my own food and body obsessions, I continued to feel physically unwell despite my best efforts to eat a nourishing diet and listen to my body. I didn’t realize that I was still subscribing to the dogmatic, low-carb approach I was exposed to ten years prior, and my body and mind were paying the price. While I wanted to pay LESS attention to my diet, I realized I had to pay more attention to my carbohydrate intake.
I was exposed the concept of eating a low carb diet in high school when my parents’ personal trainer told us about the latest and greatest way to shed weight quickly. I had zero concept of nutrition at this point, and he was in a position of authority, so I blindly listened to his advice. Per his recommendation, I was to eat no more than 15 grams of carbs per meal and to eat every 3-4 hours, which typically led to 4-5 meals and 60-75 grams of carbs per day.
During this time, I was also attending group fitness classes at his gym with my family and a few family friends, and all classes were high-intensity in nature. Classes typically included sprints on the rower, jump squats and lunges, battle ropes, kettlebell swings, ball slams, etc. We moved quickly from one movement to the next and had minimal rest, so my heartrate was spiked during the majority of the 30-minute classes.
What were the results of this low-carb diet coupled with a high-intensity exercise regimen?
I lost 10-15 pounds over the course of six months, stopped getting my period completely, experienced severe moodiness, dry skin, brittle nails, poor digestion, awful sleep, an inability to sit down to a meal without overanalyzing its carbohydrate content, and an obsession with completing high-intensity exercise every single day. My ease around food vanished the minute I began this low carbohydrate way of eating.
A few things I didn’t know at the time:
- High-intensity exercise requires glycogen. Our bodies convert the glucose from carbohydrates into glycogen, and this is then stored in the liver or muscles if not immediately utilized.
- Carbohydrates are important to the development of strength and muscle growth.
- A diet too low in carbohydrates can disrupt and/or slow digestion.
- Females tend to be more sensitive to decreased carbohydrate intake, and our hormones often respond in kind. I.e. our periods become irregular or stop completely, as was the case for me.
- A diet too low in carbohydrates can lead to brittle nails, dry skin, poor sleep, and moodiness. I literally turned into a different (often terrible) human-being with zero patience and a short temper, and I had difficulty falling and staying asleep.
- Calories in vs. calories out leads to fat loss. Gary Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” had recently been released, and this touted the notion that calories don’t actually matter for fat loss, which I now know to be false. Macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat) do affect our bodies differently due to a variety of factors, but calories reign supreme in the end when it comes to fat loss.
- Carbohydrates hold water in the body. For every 1g of carbohydrates consumed, the body tends to retain approximately 3g of water. Conversely, reducing carbohydrates in one’s diet leads to a decrease in water retention. As a result, those following a low-carb diet often experience rapid weight loss due to the loss of water. Which leads me to my next point
- Weight loss does not equal fat loss. It’s common to see the scale drop 5+ lbs. in one week for those new to a low-carb diet, and this is largely due to losing water. For many, this is the incentive they need to continue pushing forward, as they’re under the false impression that all of it is fat. Losing more than 1% of your body weight per week increases the likelihood of losing muscle, so this wouldn’t be an ideal situation anyways.
- Greatly reducing or eliminating one macronutrient often leads to demonizing certain foods and a poor relationship comprised of fear, resentment, and guilt.
It took hours, days, and months of reflection, researching, and experimentation to discover and finally believe that carbohydrates are not the root of all evil for our body composition or health.
I was finally fed up with my fear of carbs and subsequent guilt after eating them, my poor and declining performance in Crossfit, brain fog, low energy, brittle nails, and a missing period, so I decided to start adding carbohydrates back into my diet. I was TERRIFIED of what the results would be, largely due to my fear of gaining weight, but my declining health, poor quality of life, and my tumultuous relationship with food eventually became more cumbersome than the idea of adding some weight to my frame.
During this time, my diet was based on the popular Paleo templates of vegetables, meat, and additional fats. My breakfast usually consisted of eggs, bacon, and greens; my lunch and dinners included vegetables, fatty cuts of meat, and often additional fats like avocado, butter, or nut butter. I enjoyed the occasional sweet potato with dinner, but that was the extent of my carbohydrate intake.
I started adding a small serving of carbohydrates to each meal, such as a cupped handful of rice, potatoes, or sweet potato. I enjoyed oatmeal before my workouts, and I often had a post-workout smoothie that included fruits. I was eating more carbohydrates than I had been in ten years, and the rest of my diet remained fairly consistent.
Within a few weeks I had gained 5 pounds, and I stopped stepping on the scale after that point. I began to mull over the potential reasons for the weight gain. Was it water weight? Was I actually gaining fat? Would it stop or would it continue? I didn’t know the answers at the time, but I kept trucking along in hopes that my body and weight would stabilize.
My fear and guilt around carbs had also lessened significantly by this point, and I wasn’t willing to give up my newfound ease around these foods for the sake of the scale. However, I knew in the back of my mind that there would be a tipping point for my weight gain, and I would likely adjust my diet again if my weight crept up to a point where I was no longer comfortable. I didn’t place a number on this, but the sentiment was lurking in the back of my mind. Still, I continued with my experiment.
While I still didn’t step on the scale again until a year later, my weight eventually stabilized around three months later as evidenced by the way my clothes fit. I would estimate a total weight gain of ten pounds. Some of this was water, and some of it was fat.
Six months after my initial increase in carbs, my period returned after being absent for two years. This was a HUGE win for me, and I decided in that moment that I would never return to a low-carb way of eating again (barring health conditions that warrant this protocol).
As a long-time sufferer of digestive issues, I wasn’t surprised by the bloating I experienced when adding in the carbohydrates. However, this subsided within a few months, and I was utterly shocked by the overall improvement in my digestion after the initial adjustment period. I was no longer experiencing nightly bloating and frequent constipation.
In the gym, I started adding weight to my lifts rather quickly, and this came after I had remained stagnant for many months. I was working hard previously, so it wasn’t for lack of effort, but I simply wasn’t providing my body with the fuel it needed to get through high-intensity CrossFit workouts or build strength. I was able to make it through difficult workouts much more easily with the addition of my new friends, and I got my first pull-up within two months of increasing my carbohydrate intake.
I was finally able to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night. Today, shitty sleep is an early sign for me that my carbohydrate intake has dipped too low.
My mood became much more consistent, and that means consistently positive, motivated, and patient. My brain fog began to dissipate, and my nails stopped peeling and got stronger.
Some of these improvements may be attributable to an overall increase in calories. I can’t say with any certainty due to the lack of data I have from these points in time, as I wasn’t tracking my carbohydrate or overall calorie intake. However, with many of my clients, an increase in carbohydrates with a net-neutral effect on calories has resulted in the same improvements. This is purely anecdotal though.
As always, nuance and context are very important when it comes to nutrition. For some, a decrease in carbohydrates will be beneficial, whereas an increase might be the key to improving someone’s health and well-being, as was the case for me.
Stay tuned for Part II where I discuss how I recommend increasing carbohydrate intake with my clients, nuanced recommendations, and what I would have done differently myself!