Carbs: Is it OVER? What to expect if you break up with carbohydrates.

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You’re bloated. You’re tired. You’re irritated. “Is this all life has to offer?” You slap peanut butter on your same-see-it-all-the-time bagel, wishing your life could be more exciting and fresh. You squint your eyes at your dear toasted buddy, and begin to wonder….Could it be true that your comfort BFF is the real enemy? You need something to blame your woes on, and the media, your friends, even your gym have all been desperately screaming at you who they think the culprit is: Carbs.  Dump that loser Carb from your life, and your troubles, and trouble areas, will melt away!

But you’ve been together so long! Should you really end your relationship?! Or will you find a new set of problems in the almost-too-green-to-be-real grass on the other side of your fence?  Before you kick your Carb-mate to the curb, let’s see what the research says you can expect if you decide to “break up” with Carbohydrates…*

(Blog previously posted on nutrivise.tumblr.com!)

Immediate aftermath:

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When you first break up with Carbs, you may experience the following:

  1. You will feel morally superior, because your friends have convinced you that Carb was evil — bringing you down, making you fat, and bloating you up. You may start to feel cool and socially interesting. Now you too can be like your other single carb-free friends and hit the protein-only dating scene. In fact, you can’t wait to publically snub the bread basket at your next dinner out.
  2. You will start to shed weight. Yay! But the weight will not be the belt-tightening, fervently-post-your-self-portrait-on-Facebook kind of weight loss.  Instead, no matter how tough you think you are, you will lose water. Not through the obligatory tear-shedding (or is that just what happens to me?) Here, you will lose it through pee. Each gram of glycogen (carbohydrate stores) is bound with 3 grams of water, so when you deplete these carb bank accounts, which typically takes 2 days, you can lose up to 5-6 pounds in one week. If you’ve ever been that person who switch out the water jug at the cooler, you’ll know that water weighs a lot. Yes, you will lose weight. The majority of this is just water, and along with it, all the energy that the water was attached to.

Water-Induced Weight Loss:

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3.  You will eat less….mostly because there is less to eat. By cutting out carbohydrates, you’ve cut out a ton of the food that is available for you to eat. There  It’s like deciding not to date anyone who works with computers….it significantly drains your choice pool.

A couple of weeks in:

You’ve made it without calling or texting Carbs, so you feel proud. You even begin playing self-empowering songs at top volume in your car as you whiz by bakeries and cackle your way past Italian restaurants. Let’s check in with your physiological state….

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4. You may or may not feel less hungry. This could be for a number of reasons. First, protein and fat often slow down the emptying of your stomach and your small intestines, making you feel full faster and longer.  If prior to giving up carbs you always had a little bit of protein and fat with your carbohydrate source, then you won’t notice a difference. On the other hand, if you only ate a plain bagel or had pretzels without anything else, you will start to notice a difference in the length of time your snacking / meals last before you get hungry again.

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Another reason you could be less hungry is that you could be in what’s called “ketosis,” something that Dr. Atkins used to sell breath mints to cover up. Basically, fat burns in the fire of carbs, and without carbohydrates, you can’t completely break down fat. Instead they turn into something called ketone bodies, which initially get escorted into the toilet by your kidneys, which makes you lose more water (and therefore more scale weight). Ketosis can cause an anorectic effect (decreased appetite).

5. You’ll start losing real weight. Yes, some of this will be your dead-weight TV-buddy, Fat; but any time you lose weight you will also inevitably lose your energetic and sleek friend, Muscle Mass, too. This is because you are eating less food. Most peoples’ everyday diet have 50%-65% of their calories from carbohydrates, so you could be cutting out close to that much of your calories, and probably not completely replacing it with tuna and olive oil. If you ate less food by following <insert ANY fad diet here>, you’d also lose weight.

6. You may feel thirsty and fatigued, both due to water loss and lack of carbohydrates, which are a major source of energy for athletes.  Low carbohydrate diets can reduce the average power output and the intensity level due to a slower rate of energy production.

One year later…

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You probably had sex with the ex by now, because most people can’t stay carb-free in the long term. One reason is because your red blood cells and brain tissue primarily use glucose for energy and those carbs you jilted are a great source.  Another is that you eventually get tired of canned tuna and cashew-crusted chicken breasts.  But let’s say you’ve stayed low-carb for a long time. Will your weight loss be any better than your friend who dumped Mr. Fat? Or your friend who married Ms. Mediterranean Moderation?

Nah, in terms of the scale, you’ll all be in the same boat, especially by 2 years.  At this point, the 15% of you who kept off weight lost through lower calorie diets, with whatever proportions of carb / protein / and fat, will have ultimately dropped the same amount of El Bee’s (LBs, if you’re out of the weight loss lingo loop).

What you’ll miss…

Anytime you break up with someone, as evil as the world tells you your ex was, your mind will eventually wander back to the good times. With carbohydrates, however, you may not be aware of all the things that carbs were doing for you while you were “dating.” (Oh gawd, is this metaphor falling apart yet?)

  1. First of all, if you gave up refined flour grains, good for you. This was a white toast relationship you didn’t need. While it’s fine and benign to grab dinner with a white flour guy or gal once in a while, on a daily basis it is not as healthful as the whole-grain counterpart. Good to have ditched White Bread for a relationship with more substance…                                  Image
  2. If, however, you also gave up whole grain carbs, then you are missing out on some great things. Shockingly, whole grains have been found to have higher antioxidant capacities than many fruits and vegetables. And, because they store better and don’t degrade as fast, these capacities may stay higher for longer than fruits and veggies.Some websites have righteously claimed “no, but all the antioxidant capacity is bound up and unavailable to your body!” Only the first part of this is true, most of these antioxidants ARE bound up in the whole grain. But they ARE available to your body; they bypass your stomach and your small intestine, and make it to your colon. Here, they are released through digestion by your healthy bacteria, and several things happen here that scientists believe explain the link between whole grains and overall health / lower risk of colon cancer / lower risk of heart disease.
  3. You probably are missing out on some fiber, so you may be constipated. Fruit and vegetables have fiber, too! But whole grains can provide a concentrated source.  For example, ½ cup of brown rice has 5.5 – 6 grams of fiber, but 3 prunes have 2, and 1 cup of spinach has about 3.  You should aim to get 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories you eat. Fiber has other benefits than increasing stool mass, but we’ll talk about that another day.
  4. Finally, there are a lot of great nutrients in grain products, such as vitamins B2, B6, folate, and some minerals like magnesium and potassium, too. Most nutrients are best absorbed and shown to have their health benefits when consumed as part of the whole food. Therefore, popping a multi won’t make up for the lack of original source of these guys. Yes, you could get these guys in other places, but further complicating this issue is that most of the health-benefiting polyphenolic and antioxidant compounds unique to certain foods haven’t been identified yet, and therefore they only come in the original package. So, scientists don’t even know what you’re missing!

So what to do? Break-up or stay together?

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It’s your life, you’re the only one who truly can make that decision. But from what the research says, having 3-4 servings of whole grains per day is not only not bad for you, but health promoting! So, my advice? Don’t kick Carbs to the curb; instead, learn more about your misunderstood Sig Oth, and start planning tri-daily hook-ups.**

Marily O.

MS, RD, PhD

*OK, let’s qualify this situation. Many people swear off bread / grains / potatoes for whatever reason, and still eat fruits and vegetables as their “carb” (because they are carbohydrates, too!) Often these diets have fewer than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day, so this would be “low carb” not actually “carb-free.” This is the scenario this blog will be referring to.

** If you’ve been dating Mr./Ms White bread, however, you should trade up. Stay tuned for why Whole-Grain Carb has much more to offer.

Sources:

A great review article of the implications of a low-carb diet:

Bilsborough, S.A., & Crowe, T.C. (2003). Low-carbohydrate diets: what are the potential short-term and long-term health implications? Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12(4), 396-404.

Another excellent summary of the research on the health benefits of whole grains:

Jonnalagadda, S.S., Harnack, L., Liu, R.H., McKeown, N., Seal, C., Liu, S., & Fahay, G.C. (2011). Putting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains- Summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 satellite symposium. American Society for Nutrition, 141(5), 1011S-1022S.

If you’re interested on a summary of ketosis, I can cover it in the future. Ketone bodies can be used by the brain as energy during periods of stress, trauma, ischemia, and, eventually, low glucose (less than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day).  These diets have been explored for the treatment of epilepsy and other neurological and neurodegenerative disorders due to the seeming anticonvulsant effect of ketone bodies. Check out:

McNally, M.A., & Hartman, A.L. (2012). Ketone bodies in epilepsy. Journal of Neurochemistry, 121(1), 28-35.

Ketosis is also being investigated in the treatment of diabetes. Check out:

Hussain, T.A., Thazhumpal, C.M., Dashti, A.A., Asfar, S., Al-Zaid, N., & Dashti, H.M. (2012). Effect of low-calorie vs low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet in type 2 diabetes. Nutrition, in press.

However, other studies have noted such adverse effects of ketogenic diets including negative cognitive effects, optic neuropathy, osteoporosis, GI distress, and vitamin deficiencies. Check out:

Tallian, K.B., Nahata, M.C., Tsao, C.Y. (1998). Role of ketogenic diet in children with intractable seizures. Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 32(12), 1373.

Until mechanisms can be elucidated, there is clinical resistance to the use of the ketogenic diet as treatment.  Further, for those without neurogenic diseases, the long term effects of ketone bodies in the blood theoretically could be a sub-clinical chronic metabolic acid state which can promote the release of calcium from the bone and has potential for exacerbating arthritis. Check out:

Breslaus, N.A., Brinkley, L., Hill, K.D., Pak, C.Y. (1988). Relationship of animal protein-rich diet to kidney stone formation and calcium metabolism. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 66(10), 140-146.

An excellent paragraph summing up research comparing weight loss on various diets, and some limitations of all of them, is the first paragraph found in the following article:

Sacks, F.M., Bray, G.B., Carey, V.J. et al. (2009). Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(9), 859-873.

Antioxidant content: Previously reported values have been deemed underestimated, as those of grains didn’t count the “bound” antioxidants, which have been shown to be bioavailable to our bodies in the colonic environment. For resources on the antioxidant content of grains, check out:

Adom, K.K., & Liu, R.H. (2002). Antioxidant activity of grains. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 50, 6182-6187.

Andreasen, M.F., Kroon, P.A., Williamson, G., Garcia-Conesa, M-T. (2001). Intestinal release and uptake of phenolic antioxidant diferulic acids. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 31(3), 304-314.

Miller, H.E., Rigelhof, F., Marquart, L., Prakash, A., Kanter, M. (2000). Antioxidant content of whole grain breakfast cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 19, 312s-319s.

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