There is a good chance that you sat down this morning and poured yourself a bowl of cereal to start the day. If it wasn't cereal, then it may have been a bagel, toast, pancakes, waffles, or doughnut. What you may not realize is that these could be making you fat. So what does each of these examples have in common? The answer is carbohydrates. So what is it about carbohydrates that causes us to gain weight, and what can we do about it?
Losing weight is more than just a matter of "calories in < calories spent"; the type of calories matters. It is possible to control your weight without starving yourself or feeling hungry all the time. In fact, you can, you can have plenty of energy and start feeling healthier immediately while you continue to lose excess weight. Always be sure to consult a doctor when considering a new diet, especially if you suffer from an illness like diabetes.
Let's begin with a trip back in time. A time long before knights, castles, the Colosseum, the pyramids, and even farming.
The History of What We Eat
Long ago, before man discovered that to till and plant the earth with grains, Homo sapiens fed themselves by hunting other creatures and by gathering whatever wild edibles they could find. When we visualize prehistoric man, we often think of a short, hunched-over savage stumbling his way through the wilderness. The truth, however, is that these ancestors were tall, robust, and had strong teeth and bones. In many ways they were much healthier than most of us are today. Their diet and the constant need to move around looking for food kept them healthy and strong. The trouble was that food wasn't always easy to find or catch.
While agriculture is one of our greatest inventions, it has also had an effect on our health. Rather than subsisting on meats and wild edibles, grains and starches have become our primary source of calories. As you may remember, for years and years we were told that the base of our diet should be six to eight daily servings of grain.
Now we have the technology to produce more grain per acre than was ever imaginable in earlier generations. Nearly everything we eat contains some form of grain - usually corn. While corn and other grains keep our bellies full, the carbohydrates from these foods also tend to make us fat. If you add in all the refined sugars and sweeteners in our junk food and soft drinks, it's not surprise that much of the general population is overweight.
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Carbs = Fat
It isn't meat or even fat that is the real culprit in our ever-expanding waistlines. In fact, our ancestors probably ate far more meat and fat than we do now. The real problem is high blood sugar from eating too many carbohydrates.
High blood sugar is toxic to the human body, and the job of the pancreas is to keep blood sugar at safe level using the hormone insulin. Eating carbohydrates, whether from sweets or starches, causes a spike in blood sugar which kicks the pancreas into gear.
The problem is that pancreas can only process a relatively small amount of sugar at one time. Eating too many carbohydrates at one time can increase blood sugar much faster than the pancreas can reduce it. To avoid damage from toxic blood sugar, our body converts the sugars into fat and stores the fat in the body for later use. For an active person with a generally healthy diet, the additional fat is quickly burned off during physical activity. Many of us, however, don't get much exercise and load up on more carbs at the next meal. Even if we are eating a reasonable number of calories during the day, the high blood sugar caused by excessive carbohydrates still causes the body to store those calories as fat.
To add to the problem, many of us barely move at all during the day. We sit in a car, sit at a desk, sit on the couch, and barely get any physical activity. Since we aren't engaging in physical activity to burn off the stored fat, our body keeps storing more and more.
The video clip below, from the documentary Fat Head, gives an excellent illustration of how excess carbs can lead to excess fat.
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Lose Weight by Eating
It's More Than Calories
As mentioned in the video, losing weight is not as simple as eating fewer calories than you use. The type of calories matter. Most of the grain-based foods that we eat are dense in calories and carbohydrates but have relatively few nutrients, while foods like vegetables and fruits are dense is nutrients but provide fewer calories and carbohydrates.
Let's compare a chocolate doughnut to some carrots. A single doughnut has about 270 calories, 15 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of sugar, and no real nutritional value. A single medium carrot has about 25 calories, 0.2 grams of fat, 6 grams of carbohydrates, 2.9 grams of sugar, and a host of vitamins and nutrients. Since one doughnut probably doesn't fill you up, you might grab a second one. With two doughnuts, we're already at 540 calories, all the sugar & carbs, and still no nutritional value. To equal 540 calories, you would need to eat over twenty whole carrots or about 135 baby carrots.
You could do a similar comparison between cereal, pasta, bagels, bread, etc. and a fruit or vegetable. As you do the math, you may be surprised at how many fruits and vegetables you can eat while staying within your daily calorie intake. The key to losing weight is to substitute nutrient-dense foods for the calorie-dense and carbohydrate-dense foods that we eat too much of.
Whole grains are certainly better than their bleached and processed cousins, but we still have a tendency to eat too many of them. Whole wheat pasta is an excellent substitute for white-wheat pasta, but too much of any carbohydrate will still boost blood sugar too high and cause fat to be stored.
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How to Start
Adjust Your Diet
We have developed habits and acquired certain tastes our entire life, so it's no easy feat to change them overnight. Make SMART goals that you can accomplish. If you start slowly with smaller goals, you will be less prone to getting frustrated with yourself and reverting back to old habits.
Start with something like cutting carbs out of your snacks, eating fruits and vegetables instead. You could also fill up your plate with healthier foods first before adding a smaller amount of carbohydrates.
As you make progress, be sure to experiment with new foods and recipes so you have a variety of options to choose from. There is a host of fruits and vegetables that you have probably never tried; try something new.
Exercising is another key component to any weight loss plan. Exercise for 30 minutes per day and many days as possible. Be sure your routine includes strength training and vigorous aerobic exercise on several days, but at the very least take a half-hour walk every day. Incorporate physical activity into your daily life: take the stairs, go for a walk on your breaks, park in the back of the parking lot, etc. Small healthy choices make frequently will add up into a healthy lifestyle.
See & Feel the Results
As you start to change your diet to reduce the number of carbohydrates that you consume, you will start to notice a burst in energy and attention span as your body receives a boost from the nutrient-dense foods you are choosing. We can certainly survive on a primarily grain-based diet, but we certainly don't thrive.