It’s a trick question. They’re neither. They’re just one important part of the balance of macronutrients and movement we need for optimal health and metabolism. Too much or too little of anything will have ill effects and getting the whole food version over processed versions will always be superior. But what’s the one thing aside from exercise for most, that people focus on when they want to lose weight? Cutting out carbs! I mean, everyone knows carbs just spike insulin, the fat storing hormone, right?! Ready for the bigger picture? More of the *whole* story?
Low-carb diets definitely succeed in eliminating the very processed, nutrient-void carbs like cakes, pastries, cookies, etc, which is great and a big reason why they work, but is there a downside to restricting carbs too much, even the healthy ones like whole flake or steel cut oats, amaranth, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, barley, and wild rice? Here’s what happens when there’s not enough carbs:
Thyroid Hormone T3 and Reverse T3:
T3 is the most active thyroid hormone and is very important for regulating blood sugar and metabolism. Reverse T3 is a hormone that inhibits T3. Too few calories and carbs lowers T3 and increases Reverse T3 (meaning T3 is further inhibited). Low T3 levels can even lead to constantly being cold and feeling sluggish. Ketogenic diets (very low-carb) can reduce T3 levels as much as starvation!
Cortisol & Testosterone:
With too few carbs, research has consistently shown that cortisol increases and testosterone decreases. That means higher stress and less metabolism boosting hormones. That means less muscle and more fat. A study showed that those eating a low carb diet (30% of calories from carbs) had a 42% drop in their ratio of cortisol to testosterone while the control group (who ate 60% of calories from carbs) had no change in these hormones. Too few carbs causes the opposite of what we’re going after.
The disruption of hormonal balance with too much carb restriction can especially affect women. Our bodies seem to be more sensitive to carb intake, likely due to needing body fat and nutrients for pregnancies. The hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals regulate everything and when cortisol (stress) is up, hormonal levels of estrogen, progesterone, leutinizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and prolactin are thrown off balance even more, which can lead to symptoms all very indicative of menopause: stopped/irregular period, more body fat (especially around the middle), lower fertility, anxiety/depression, bone density loss, blood sugar swings or hypoglycemia, chronic inflammation, fatigue, and disrupted sleep.
The pancreas is always secreting a low level of insulin. It doesn’t exist to simply fill up our fat cells when we eat carbs, but unfortunately that’s the only part of the story we hear and it fuels the idea that carbs are all bad. Insulin exists to help transport nutrients in the blood stream – not just glucose (sugars) but also amino acids and blood fats – into our cells, as well as stimulate protein synthesis. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning it “adds to” rather than “breaks down” (catabolic). By not triggering the release of enough insulin (i.e. too low-carb), you are thwarting your body’s ability to build muscle tissue and instead causing a catabolic (break down) state with your hormonal balance. So while it is true that insulin can “add to” fat cells, it can also “add to” muscle cells and the higher your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, the more nutrients will be transported to them. So what increases insulin sensitivity? regular exercise, especially resistance training, increasing wholesome foods from all sources, daily movement, adequate sleep, Vit D, and limited caffeine. An insulin surge post workout, especially a resistance workout, is your friend and that means wholesome, whole grain carbs are your friend as well. Studies actually show that you can basically slam protein shakes by the hour and still lose muscle mass if there’s inadequate carb intake (not to mention gaining fat from way too many calories from a zillion protein shakes, so don’t try that at home, folks).
Balance is KEY. Is it true that too many carbs will cause excess fat gain, especially from more processed sources? Of course, but so will too many fats and too many proteins. In fact, one added reason is that we absorb more calories of energy from processed sources of carbs since the breakdown has already begun. If our bodies have to do more of the breaking down themselves, we still fill up with the bulk but don’t absorb as many actual calories from the food. Too few carbs can cause muscle loss and a host of other hormonal problems that lead to a diminished metabolism among other things. Any diet out there that only tells one piece of the whole story and fixates on that as the key to all-mighty weight loss and health has lost the big picture, which is very important and continues to be enhanced with further research.
If you’re wondering why the heck low-carb diets work so well, there’s several reasons. For one, most any restrictive diet will work in the short term, but results don’t last eventually. Secondly, low-carb diets cause people to cut the processed carbs and that alone helps with health improvement and weight loss. Lastly, when you’re restricting carbs, you tend to make up for it with more protein, a healthy change. Another study looked at whether low-carb diets work due to lower carb content or increased protein content. There were four groups, two with normal protein levels (one normal carb, one low-carb) and two with high protein levels (one normal carb, one low-carb). It was the two with higher protein levels who lost the most weight showing that the restriction of carbs wasn’t the determining factor for weight loss.
Carbs are especially important the more we exercise, and even more so immediately following exercise, especially resistance training. Muscles are especially broken down and in need of repair to build up and get stronger. After a workout, elevated insulin is key to replenishing muscles by transporting nutrients to them, both glucose and amino acids. Eating protein after a workout does us much less good if we haven’t also eaten carbs (whole grain sources) to trigger more insulin release so that a transport will be available to replenish those muscles cells. It’d be like planning a fabulous tropical vacation, but forgetting to actually buy the flight, a crucial part in the whole plan! All the pieces have to come together to make the magic work. We’re never going to outsmart our complex systems by picking and choosing good and bad foods out of context.
BONUS CHALLENGE POINTS begin WED, MAR 15 (start of week 3)!
Earn a bonus point for:
1. any day that you add a whole grain source to at least 2 of your meals (must be added to a meal, not eaten separately) (ideally, simply getting food with whole grain flour in it, for instance, wouldn’t count, but I’m going to allow that. However, the 1st 3 ingredients – if there are that many – must have the word “whole” in it. I highly recommend Dave’s Killer Bread with many whole grain sources in it! Also, only steel cut or 100% whole oats, no quick/2-min oats. You must post a picture of the ingredient list along with your food pic!
2. adding the whole grain source to a meal that is within one hour after exercise (please post exercise and meal pics together for this bonus point, noting the time the workout ended and the time the meal began)!
3. any workout that is primarily (more than 50% of the time) resistance training (max of 4 allowed per week) – if your muscles had to resist against a force, it counts! I’ll be the judge!