Man vs. Carb – Stop the Struggle

My first Ultra in 2011: 1st place female fueling on sugar.

“The lack of carbohydrates can make you a little crazy.” -Tom Hardy

It’s true.

Why are we all fighting sugar? Has anyone stopped to ask if we are just repeating history, just like in the 90s when we did the same thing with fat? Recall the low fat movement. And then the high protein movement. And now no sugar? What is happening? As a dietitian it’s becoming more alarming that people are relying on fad diets promoted on TV and by nonprofessionals to reach their goals. The desperation to look a certain way and find anything that might create body change is huge, even when the results never materialize. Maybe it’s not the sugar…maybe it’s something much different and non food related. I’m going to outline the more obvious culprits and it’s exciting!!!…Weight gain and loss is NOT because of food.

Disclaimer: Remember as I go through each of these that we are all individuals with different medical needs. Some people do need to limit carbohydrate intake due to medical reasons. An MD or RD can assist with all medical nutrition therapy. This blog is much more general in nature. If you are the type of person who is unhappy about your body image, or typically tries whatever the latest fad diet is, keep reading! And although I’m going to debunk the anti-sugar movement, I am also going to tell you what the best way to get over it looks like! Take note, throughout this blog I will use the word ‘sugar’ to mean any carbohydrate food – whole grain, simple sugar, fruit, etc. because the word sugar has the worst wrap sheet.

Culprit #1: Diets

If there is anything in the world to stop doing, I promise you it’s dieting. It’s not worth it. I could list a variety of diets, or point you to the entire wall of diet books at Barnes & Noble, but I’m not going to. The cornerstone of any diet is restriction of a nutrient. Pick out of hat – right now it’s elimination of sugar (or carbohydrate). I have worked with many clients and I recall one couple telling me about how they were following the Paleo Diet (the caveman diet which eliminates sugar). After hearing an explanation, I asked, “isn’t heart disease in your family? So now you are only eating saturated fats?” I’m confused. But when you are desperate to look a certain way, you do what it takes, right? Along with the low carb diet comes a high protein diet (essentially by default). I see grocery carts filled with protein powders, potions, and bars. But wait a second. Protein is not naturally chocolate!! And given it’s a low carb item, the chocolate isn’t sugar either! What are you eating then?

Another unbelievable trend was the low fat movement. Here is where the problem started…”oh it has no fat which means I can eat as much of it as I want.” Followed by “what are all these words I can’t pronounce on the label?” Yes, that’s right. When you take the fat and sugar out of foods, other unidentifiable things are added into it to give it the same taste. One of the biggest reasons for weight gain in the 90s and early 2000s was the mentality that because it’s fat free I can eat a ton of it.

I recently had 2 athletes, a 35 year old male and 22 year old female, restricting (aka dieting) their intake of all carbohydrates. She was at the point of being scared to eat them and he was doing what he read in the latest magazine. Both were eating high fat and protein diets. I inserted the carbohydrate back into their diet, which yes, increased their caloric intake, and here is what happened to both of them: energy went up, both continue to PR, both dropped weight, and both now have the peace of mind that it’s okay to eat…there is no worry about food. Sugar is not the devil! Nor is metabolism. Generally the retort is, “well they must have a fast metabolism.” Nope. We stopped restricting, gave the body what it needed, fed it appropriately for the activity, and transformed the metabolism – we basically set it on overdrive. You can, for the best, manipulate your metabolism. It’s not metabolism, it’s not age, it’s not genetics, nor is it sugar.

There are too many diets to review in this blog alone, but that should give you a bit of insight into how unbelievably ridiculous diets really are. Stop eliminating nutrients from your diet. You need sugar just as much as fat and just as much as protein. Ideally, carbohydrate is a body’s main source of energy. Don’t manipulate it. If you give your body what it wants, it will give you want you want. I promise.

How to get over dieting: Well, first, stop it. And second, believe what you know to be true. When you feed a baby you are giving it sugar, fat, and protein so growth inside and out can occur. When you run, the body’s systems can operate at its best with sugar. Remember athletes, the body doesn’t want to run on ketones (produced in the body on a low carb diet), and nor does recovery occur with fat – fat slows recovery!  Why deny it what it needs? How a person combines foods is what makes the difference. Blood sugar levels remain under control by combining a carbohydrate source with a protein or fat source. Eat sugar sources in their natural form. Potatoes are from the Earth and SO good for you. Rice, pastas, quinoa…all of them. Many people talk about how they do not eat sugar but continue to consume it in rather large quantities through alcoholic beverages, which are made up almost exclusively of sugar. Choice comes into play – the better option is to have a sandwich with bread and kick the beverage that weekend.

Culprit #2: Stress

Take a look at your daily routine and I venture to guess food is not a top priority. You are getting yourself, and probably kids too, ready for work, driving to work, working all day with limited breaks, then to the gym, then gotta cook dinner, then get ready for the next day, get the kids to bed, find time to be social with your spouse, etc…the mundane activities of the day in conjunction with work and family – it’s one major stress ball. We live in a world of stress. Whether we produce it ourselves or succumb to the demands of our bosses, we are over-stressed and over-worked.

Stress is the worst thing on the planet and contributes so much to your eating habits and choices. If you extract stress from your life and take time to cook meals, would weight and body image be an issue? Likely no. When stress is high, the body produces stress hormones; the most common is cortisol. There are some ways to reduce stress hormones, but the key is to not be stressed. So much easier said than done, I totally understand. Find stress relievers that work for you – yoga, TV, reading, music. If all you can do during yoga is think about what you need to do, then you are just simply increasing your stress even more. Actually taking time to be present is vital but takes time to learn. Behavior change is what comes into play. Did I mention already that its not the sugar in your rice at dinner?

Behavior and habits are the fundamental basis for weight gain. If you formed the habit to eat ice cream before bed every night, what is the end result? If you formed the habit for your child to have juice with every meal and snack, what is the end result? If you are an extremely anxious person and always stressed about something, your behavior to eat anything in that moment or wait to eat until you’re ravenous leading to a splurge, what is the end result? The culprit here is not sugar – its choice and behavior. if people would change their behavior, there wouldn’t be a problem. We eat our emotions and react to stress with food. Its a behavior we have been taught to do from family members or from the media. So how do we combat this and change old habits into new? As you know, it takes a long time to stop a habit and a couple hours to form one.  

How to get over stress…and then some: There is one word to get over stress and create behavior change. MINDFULNESS. I realize the latest trend is to bash moderation and balance, but the truth is, moderation and balance are key. You have to keep yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy. So that means enjoying fun foods every day in moderation and balance. Let the insecure people of the world continue to tell you to eliminate foods from your diet. Be the confident, strong person that tells yourself every day that you can make great choices and still have fun with eating. MINDFULNESS is a skill and actually one that can take a few months to years to master. Start now and stick with it. This is the absolute best way to reach optimal health. Walk into a kitchen and ask yourself, ‘what does my body need in this moment? what will make my body function best right now? am I hungry? am I full? does this taste incredible?’ All of those questions lead to mindful eating. Actually stopping to taste your food; smell it, look at it, let it dance in your mouth. Becoming in tune with what you are eating leads to perfect choices for YOUR body. And guess what!? Fun foods are a part of that. Don’t deny your body what it wants and needs at times – within moderation and balance – that manipulation leads to far worse things. So I promise you, being mindful of your food choices and behavior will ultimately help lower the stress around food, and hopefully the overall stress of everyday life. Sit back and think about how stress plays a role in your food choices and I bet you won’t be surprised to see that it’s huge! It’s not the sugar in foods that is the problem. Food is not the enemy. Take a minute and be present; breath; and ask yourself this: are you mindful when you eat? are you following the diet trend of the times? do you actually enjoy what you eat? are you fueled properly for your workouts? do you have fun foods? Listen to your body’s red flags. The body talks quite often and unfortunately we are not listening as closely anymore.

1. Fear is an illusion. When you are afraid of a food group, revisit why and how you came to that conclusion. Likely it’s due to another’s fear.

2. When you decide to follow a diet (even the ones that claim they aren’t diets), ask yourself, “how is this working for me?” Are you getting results? Are you mentally sane with your choices? There are lots of people that follow a diet and claim that it worked! Often denial is involved. It takes 7 years of maintained success for it to have actually worked….you decide!

3. Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. If you continue to do the same exercise and eat the same calories every day, nothing will change. Your metabolism can only be lit on fire if you give it a solid shake up often. SO – eat a variety of foods and do a variety of activities at different intensity levels. Engage in extremely easy and extremely tough activity for the best metabolic results.

4. When you are good to your body, your body is good to you!

Blog author: Annie Weiss, MS RD; ultra-endurance athlete and dietitian living and training in Milwaukee, WI. She is a sponsored athlete/ambassador for AltraRunning, Swiftwick Socks, The OrangeMud, and Fluid Nutrition. Follow her training/racing on Twitter & Instagram: ani_weiss and Facebook: Ani Weiss.  



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