“I’m not sure what to eat now that I can’t have any carbs.”

“Since I can’t have carbs anymore, I’m really tired.”

“What do I eat since I can’t have carbs on paleo?”

These are questions and statements that I see constantly. Before we really dig in, I want to address one major problem with these questions:

We don’t have a clue what carbohydrates even ARE.

We begin to look at them as these evil, horrible, dreadful things that will surely make us fat and sick. Yes, extremely low carbohydrate or ketogenic diets can be insanely beneficial for certain people and as a therapeutic treatment for certain conditions.  For the majority of us though, especially those of us who workout regularly (specifically an energy-demanding methodology like CrossFit), people with hormonal of thyroid dysfunction like PCOS, women in general, and those looking to maintain or build muscle mass, carbohydrates are not only NOT the devil, but they’re necessary. 

For many, a low carb paleo approach is a great place to start. Many of us come into this with blood sugar regulation issues, most of our calories coming in from junky carbs with little nutritional value, and our bodies have forgotten how to run on real, long-term fuel as they have been trained to rely on fast sugary-carbs. After a time though, as the body heals and gets back to a healthful place, it becomes not only acceptable, but beneficial, to start bringing nutrient-dense, real-food sources of carbohydrates back into the diet.

When we make the decision to eliminate things like bread, pasta, candy, and the other wheat-and-sugar-based junk foods, our brains just immediately to ‘absolutely no carbs ever’. We forget that ‘carbohydrate’ extends FAR beyond the bread and candy isles.

It happens to most of us. Paleo, a lifestyle and approach to nutrition focused on real, unprocessed foods became the accidental low carb diet. Heavy in non-starchy veggies and quality proteins, we forgot about our other options and went down the very-low-carb rabbit hole. Now, the movement back towards a middle ground is happening.  

So what are these carbohydrates anyway, and what are they for?!

When we talk about food and nutrition, we often reference macronutrients.

Here’s the thing: no single macronutrient can be looked at on it’s own. They each work in relation to the other two. Here are the cliff notes:

Proteins 
The building blocks of the body. The body uses and constructs about 50,000 different proteins to form organs, nerves, muscles and flesh.  Proteins are most known for their muscle-building properties, but they are also used to make antibodies that fight infection, and hormones that regulate metabolism. All proteins are different combinations or 20 amino acids. Some are best suited for muscle building, some for blood cells, some for the tissue of your organs. That’s why a variety of sources is key! Daily consumption of good, quality protein from animal and plant sources is essential for a healthy body.

Fats
Animal and vegetable sources of fat are important providers of concentrated energy for the body’s cells and contrary to popular belief, a good amount of healthy fat in the diet is critical for optimal health.  Along with providing energy, fats are the building blocks for cell membranes and many hormones (like sex hormones testosterone and estrogen).  Fats are required in order to absorb critical nutrients like vitamins A, E, D, and K.  They’re needed in order to adequately use protein, properly absorb food and utilize energy, and they serve as a protective cushion for joints and organs.

Processed fats should be avoided (hydrogenated oils, highly-processed vegetable, soy and corn oil) and natural fats should be consumed (oil from fish, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, nut oils like walnut and hazelnut, avocado, grass fed butter and other animal fats like lard and tallow).

Carbohydrates
At last, we arrive at the carbohydrate.  Carbohydrates at the most basic level are made of carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate). Short chains of these carbon-H2O combos are classically known as ‘simple’ carbs. The ones that re broken down quickly and have a fast and drastic impact on blood sugar levels. These are often the ones that we try to keep to a minimum, though they do have their purpose (more on that later). The longer-chain carbohydrates (like those found in root veggies like sweet potatoes) take the body a little more time to break down and have a more slow/steady/subtle impact on blood sugar levels allowing the sugars in them to get into the cells and used as fuel. Carbs provide fuel for the brain and the cells as well as quick energy for muscles. They help to regulate protein and fat metabolism.

In conjunction with proteins, they promote growth of body tissue like muscles, bones, and skin.

Stick with ‘complex’ unprocessed carbohydrates as they are linked with nutrients and not just sugar.

How the Body Uses and Stores Carbs

This is the very very basic way to understand carbs. When you eat carbohydrates, they eventually break down into glucose (this is basically the ‘sugar’ that our bodies cells use for energy). That glucose enters your blood stream.

Now, your liver releases insulin. What insulin does is tell your cells ‘HEY! There’s energy out here! Let it in!’. So, your cells take in the glucose and use it to do they’re cellular things. You know. General living and such. Once the cells are ‘full’, the leftover glucose moves on to your liver and muscles to be stored as glycogen. This is the bodies stored energy. This is also what gets accessed when you exercise. Once the muscles/liver are full, any remaining glucose is stored as body fat (or triglycerides…fatty deposits in the blood). Got that? Cells for use – glycogen for storage – leftover to body fat.

Low Carb is The New Low Fat

We love having something to blame everything on. First it was fat. Now it’s carbs. There’s a lot of rhetoric out there about the evil of carbs and folks love to point the finger at carbs for practically everything. Remove carbs. Avoid them at all costs. The thing is, nothing is that black and white. No macronutrient is all good or all bad. We can eat too little or too much of any of them. Too little fat and your brain health, hormonal health, joint lubrication, metabolism all suffer. Too little protein and you can’t repair or build muscle mass, or make blood cells, or antibodies. Too little carbohydrate and you lack energy, can’t build new muscle mass, downturn of thyroid function, mood and more. Too much of any of those things can create problems as well. The thing is, it’s WAY easier to market something if you get to throw the good old ‘this has none of that shit you’re scared of!’ on the label. 

People used to think if something was low fat it was automatically healthy. Then it was if it’s gluten free it’s clearly good for you. Now when a recipe or product is low carb we immediately associate that with being the healthier choice. Protein even became this magic eraser. If it says PROTEIN on it, people will think it’s going to make them fit and thin and healthy. Slap some protein on those potato chips, yo!

Someone recently commented on a post “Low cal, low fat, low carb…that’s what I look for.”  If you eliminate calories, carbs, and fat…

What the fuck else is there?? You’re eliminating FOOD. You can’t survive off protein alone. And you shouldn’t.

FOOD IS NOT BAD.

CARBS ARE NOT BAD.

FAT IS NOT BAD.

Fruit won’t kill you. Stop freaking out over an apple. 

You can still overdo it with fats. Maybe 8 tbsp of butter a day is a little much?

The idea that natural parts of food – macronutrients – or food in general is something to be avoided and feared needs to be killed. I see people struggle their whole lives with their weight and health, and I truly believe a lot of them stems from this negative relationship with food. This idea that it’s a necessary evil and we should try to eat as little of it as possible is what enslaves people to lifelong struggles with finding a healthy balance with their mindset about food. I get it. I’ve been there. I have been scared of food. Up until recently I was convinced that anything more than 50g of carbs a day would instantly make me fat and sick. I was wrong. I’ve since practically tripled how many carbs I eat in a day to support my activity level and even eat things like gluten free bread, potatoes and white rice on the regular. I feel better, I’ve leaned out, and it’s just simply way more fucking fun.