If you are like me, you learned that the secret to losing weight was to burn more calories than you eat each day. It makes perfect sense on the surface, right? Dig deeper, and you will find out that there is much more to the story than burning more calories than you consume.
Why weight loss isn’t as easy as balancing calories in and out.
The problem with this idea is that the calories that you burn and those that you eat are not independent. Eating less and exercising more is much easier said than done. This is because our bodies specialize in something called homeostasis (balancing to stay regulated). What happens when you exercise and burn more calories? Your brain sends you signals to say: "Hey, you burned more calories than usual. Please eat more to replace them." On the other hand, when you restrict your calorie intake, your body subconsciously makes you more sedentary to conserve energy.
What about hormones?
If your philosophy on food is to balance calories in and calories out, in all likelihood you will NOT get the results you want. One of the most important topics that most “diets” don’t delve into is how your hormones respond to the foods that you eat. There are some hormones that put your body into “storage” mode, where your body’s main goal is to store what you consume for processes like lowering blood sugar. There are other hormones that put your body into “burn” mode where it is releasing stored fat to use it as fuel.
All calories are not created equal
When you eat a food, the calories that you get can fall into one of 3 categories. These are protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Our bodies use these 3 macro-nutrients in very different ways, and they each have different impacts on hormone levels. This article is going to focus on carbohydrates. Carbohydrate is the large umbrella term that covers sugar, starch, and fiber. Fiber pretty much goes through our bodies, but sugar and starch both impact our hormones significantly.
What happens when you eat Carbohydrates?
There is a certain blood sugar range that our bodies work well within. When blood sugar levels go too high or too low, it is toxic to our bodies. When we eat a significant load of carbohydrates, our blood sugar goes up. Our bodies release a substance called insulin which helps us to store this excess sugar as fat so it doesn’t create a toxic blood sugar level. In incredibly simplified terms, if you are eating foods high in carbohydrates throughout the day (bread, rice, pasta, cereal, soda, juice, other sugary beverages, fruit, chips, crackers, cookies, etc), you will constantly have to release insulin to regulate this sugar, and you will be storing fat all day.
On the other hand, if you eat a well balanced diet of real, whole foods (vegetables, healthy fats, some fruits, and meat), you will have a natural balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and you won’t need to release as much insulin to decrease your blood sugar.
Previously I mentioned that you can be in “burn” mode. This is when your body releases another hormone called glucagon to naturally increase your blood sugar by releasing stored fats for energy. If you are constantly supplying your body with carbohydrates throughout the day, you will never need to go into “burn mode” because you will have ample, or even excess supplies of carbohydrates/sugar for energy. You will continue to store more fat without using current fat stores. Are you starting to see how a diet high in processed carbohydrates would make weight loss very difficult?
Over the years of your life, if you are consistently consuming a high amount of carbohydrates, and releasing insulin to deal with it, your body's receptor sites for the insulin can get "burnt out" leading to pre-diabetes and eventually type 2 diabetes.
How many carbohydrates should you eat each day?
There is not one answer that is right for everyone, it depends on your weight, your goals, and your activity level. Below is a general guideline for daily carbohydrate intake. The following guidelines are from Mark's Daily Apple, one of my favorite websites for tips on living and moving like our ancestors used to.
- 0-50 grams (ketosis)- Your body will be in “burn” mode most of the time. You should lose about 1-2 pounds of fat/week. This zone is not easily maintainable for a lifetime because it requires virtually eliminating sweets and processed carbohydrates, and drastically reducing fruits and starchy vegetables. I am not a fan of staying in this zone long term because it can limit beneficial nutrients by limiting vegetable and fruit consumption.
- 50-100 grams- If you need to lose weight and aren’t very active, this is the zone for you. You can stay in this relatively easily by eating a wide variety of vegetables and some fruit (without eating processed carbohydrates).
- 100-150 grams- This zone is ideal if you are looking to maintain your weight. Be sure to get most of your carbohydrates from real food sources (fruits and vegetables- as opposed to processed carbohydrates)
- 150-200 grams- This zone may be okay for athletes to maintain weight. The rest of us will probably gain weight and store fat slowly over time.
- 200+ grams- Eating this many carbohydrates will put most people in storage mode most of the day. Your body will struggle to regulate all of the sugar you are feeding it. You will most likely gain weight. If you eat 6-11 servings of whole grains, cereals, breads and pastas as the traditional food pyramid recommends (typically 30-40 grams of carbs/serving), you will be consuming 180-440 grams of carbohydrates/day. With recommendations like this, it's not a surprise that our country is becoming more and more obese!
Let's Look At How Many Carbs Are In Some Sample Meals
- If you go out for lunch, and eat a burger on a bun (20 in the bun) with fries (50 g, depending on serving size), and order a soda (39 for 12 oz) that would be 109 g, in just one meal.
- If you're out for breakfast, and eat eggs with hashbrowns (46 g in a cup), 3 pancakes with syrup (135 g) , and OJ (24g in a cup). This is over 200 grams, and it's still breakfast!
- Even a "healthy breakfast" of a cup of plain oatmeal with a half cup of blueberries is 37 grams of carbohydrates (plus 4.5 grams/teaspoon of brown sugar/honey/etc that you might add)
- Do you enjoy cereal for breakfast? Read your labels because many cereals can have as high as 55 g of carbs per cup. Like milk with your cereal? That's an extra 12 grams/cup.
- The picture above is a half order of Maggiano's baked ziti with added sauteed veggies. According to their website, the full order of baked ziti (not including any salad dressing, bread, or dessert you might have while you are there) contains a whopping 127 grams of carbohydrates!
Weekly Wellness Challenge
Track everything that you eat today and add up the number of carbohydrates. For most foods, you can either read the label (if it has one), or do a quick google of "grams of carbohydrates in ________." There are also a few apps that can be used to input all of your foods you eat and get lots of information breaking down carbohydrates/fats/protein as well as the vitamin and mineral content. I have used both My Fitness Pal and Fit Day in the past for this purpose. They take a little getting used to, but it can give you some interesting data if you are interested!
Where do you fall on the carbohydrate curve? I have worked with many patients that go through this exercise and finally have a "light bulb" moment in which they understand why weight loss has been difficult for them over the years!
Let me know how it goes on facebook.