by therapist Kellie Hodder
Carbohydrates have a bad reputation in the dieting world as an enemy of weight loss. Clients often report restricting and avoiding carbohydrates. What they find is that while they are able to resist carbs short term, it eventually leads to bingeing. Clients will usually attribute this bingeing to a personal failure, namely a lack of willpower. The real reason behind this is that they are working against the body’s basic biological needs. Our bodies are driven to need food to function, and when our body does not get the fuel it needs, the drive for food becomes more intense until it is met. Using a complex system, our brain keeps track of the energy requirements within our body. When we don’t eat, what we are actually doing, is turning on the system in our body that tell us we need to eat!
But do I actually need carbohydrates?
Yes we do need carbs! They are our body’s main source of energy. Essentially they are the gold-standard of energy for our body as they provide fuel to the cells in our body. Our cells run off glucose which is taken from carbohydrates. The importance of this is in the fact that our red blood cells, nervous system and brain run entirely off glucose for energy. If we don’t have enough glucose, the systems in our body are not working as effectively as they could and should be. In the instance that our carbohydrates levels do become low, our body keeps reserves. These are stored in our liver and are called glycogen. Our body reverts to these glycogen stores until we eat more carbohydrates. This restores our glycogen levels to normal.
If we are dieting or restricting carbohydrates, our body is forced to look at alternative energy sources to provide the body with vital fuel. The alternative energy source our body uses is protein. When our body doesn’t have sufficient carbohydrate fuel, it takes protein from our muscles and transforms it into energy. So essentially what we are doing, is taking protein needed for our muscles (protein being a more expensive form of fuel) to power our body. Using protein instead of carbohydrates, also means we are changing the primary role of protein. We change its function from maintaining and building muscles, hormones, enzymes and cells, to instead providing energy for the body, something that it was not designed to do.
Why is it so hard to resist eating carbohydrates?
There is a chemical that is produced by our brains called neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY fuels our drive to eat carbohydrates. When we don’t eat enough carbs, we are essentially activating the NPY chemical into action. This chemical works to help us seek out carbohydrates. If we have been depriving ourselves of carbs, this can lead to bingeing or over-eating on high-carb foods when we do eat.
In order to turn off the NPY drive, we need to eat carbohydrates. This is through the effect it has on another brain chemical called serotonin. What happens when we eat more carbohydrates, is that our serotonin level increases. This serotonin increase actually puts the brakes on further manufacture of NPY which in turn stops the body’s want for carbohydrates. Therefore, if we are trying to restrict our carbohydrate intake, the craving and need for it becomes more intense. This is because our body is producing more NPY whose very role is to get carbohydrates for our body!
Low carbohydrate diets are essentially designed to fail. They are doomed to fail due to the fact that our bodies need carbohydrates to function. When we restrict or deprive our bodies of carbohydrates, we are fighting a biological need. This is not a reflection of the individual’s lack of willpower; it is simply your body telling you what it needs! So remember to incorporate a portion of carbohydrates in every meal to keep your body and mind functioning at its optimal level.