These days, carbohydrates are frequently demonized by popular media and diet culture. People often proclaim the “benefits” of low-carb diets with an almost religious zeal. Many individuals have developed a sense of anxiety and guilt surrounding foods containing carbohydrates.
As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating individuals with eating disorders, I know the danger of labeling specific nutrients and food groups as “good” and “bad.” This mindset can contribute to disordered eating, eating disorders, and may lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes.
I reached out to some nutrition experts to help debunk the myth that carbohydrates should invoke a sense of fear. The following are four reasons why you don’t need to fear carbs.
1. Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source.
Carbohydrates are an important energy source for your body. Carbohydrates are actually the macronutrient that we need in the largest amounts. Additionally, it is recommended that carbohydrates supply 45-65% of our total daily energy needs.
Julie Seale, RD, of Seasoned Nutrition, explains, “Why avoid carbs? They are the primary source of energy for the body, plus they are in most foods...and they taste great! Avoiding carbs would limit many other nutrients.”
Beth Rosen, MS, RD, CDN, Registered Dietitian/Owner of Goodness Gracious Living Nutrition says, “Carbohydrates contain essential nutrients that our bodies need to function each day. In fact, our brain's nutrient of choice is glucose which comes from carbohydrate intake.”
“The body's main and preferred source of energy is carbohydrate. So, "cutting carbs" will come at a serious energy loss. People are often scared of carbohydrate-rich food because of past experience with it - they're afraid of overeating it because they've done it in the past. This is not about the food itself, though. This is a behavior that can be addressed by looking at the underlying issues that contribute to someone overeating/binging,” Lauren Anton, MS, RD, Co-Chair of the Health at Every Size Special Interest Group of the Academy of Eating Disorders, explains.
Anton says, “Also, I've found in working with my clients that the more someone doesn't give him or herself full permission to have a particular food, the more they will disinhibit (read: overeat) when they encounter that food.”
2. Carbohydrates can help to boost your mood.
“Carbs are needed to make serotonin, our hormone that helps us feel calm and relaxed, like our own natural "chill pill". If you like being in a good mood, make sure carbs are on your menu,” says Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, and author of the upcoming book Body Kindness.
Additionally, going on a “low carb diet” or “cutting carbs” can have negative implications in terms of one’s physical and mental health.
Michelle Kuster, RD, LD, certified intuitive eating counselor, explains, “There’s always a nutritional demon; carbs are currently the culprit. With a $60 billion diet industry, marketers think of creative ways to make people fear food. But carbohydrates are your bodies and brain’s preferred source of fuel, and even a short time without them will lead to fatigue, headaches and irritability.”
3. Carbohydrates add satisfaction and pleasure to the eating experience.
Food provides important fuel for the body, but it is also supposed to be a source of pleasure and enjoyment.
“Without carbs, meals tend to be less satisfying. Having a source of carbs with meals helps you stay full and happy for longer. Who doesn't want that?” says, Josée Sovinsky, a Non-Diet Dietitian.
Ultimately, you deserve to be able to nourish yourself with food and movement that you enjoy.
4. Restricting carbs can create a disordered relationship with food.
Cutting out carbs or going on a “low-carb diet” can trigger disordered eating or an eating disorder in individuals who are genetically predisposed.
“Cutting out carbs is a great way to make yourself start bingeing on them. Because carbs are your body's primary fuel source, your brain is wired to seek them out if there's a shortage. Carbs are essential for keeping your blood sugar from dropping too low. If that happens (as it often does in a low-carb diet), your brain will actually send out neurotransmitters that drive you toward whatever high-carb foods are available. So people who attempt to cut carbs end up feeling out-of-control around those very foods, without realizing that this is actually their body's way of protecting them. To avoid this vicious cycle of restricting and bingeing on carbs, don't cut them out--instead, learn to trust your body around all foods.”
Michelle Kuster, RD, LD, certified intuitive eating counselor, says, “Any time we over-emphasize one aspect of nutrition, we lose the big picture, which is that all foods can be enjoyed in a balanced diet, and avoiding foods typically leads to unintended consequences such as intrusive or obsessive thoughts about food.”
The Bottom Line
Having a “black and white” mentality surrounding food sets people up for disordered eating habits. Further, mental health is an important part of one’s overall health. I think we can all agree that feeling guilt and shame about eating a bagel is not mentally healthy.
Instead of thinking in extremes, aim for balance, variety, and moderation in your eating experience. Work to let go of judgments of certain foods as being “good” or “bad,” and instead choose to mindfully nourish yourself with food that you enjoy.
If you are struggling with this, it can be helpful to reach out to a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, the non-diet approach, and disordered eating.
After all, life is just too short for food rules, chronic dieting, and self-hate.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer has a private practice specializing in working with adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and depression. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD. Jennifer offers eating disorder recovery coaching via phone/Skype. Connect with Jennifer through her website at www.jenniferrollin.com