Back in her college days, Poonam wasn’t the thinnest among my friends but she was never obese or out of shape at all. However she never felt conscious of being slightly heavier than most of her friends, because in college her priorities were quite different. She always felt healthy and energetic throughout the day so did not bother too much about what shape she was in. That changed after about 10 years of her office life.
Health in your 30s and 40s is very different from college days.
It’s been over a decade since she finished college and a lot happened over these years. Getting married, busy jobs, late nights, having a baby, moving homes had kept her hands full. All these years Poonam slowly but surely gained weight.
She couldn't blame it on her pregnancy for too long- because her “baby” was already 8 years old. She finally had to take control of her diet and fitness. She enrolled for Yoga classes in her own apartment. Even with all the constraints around her involving a baby, busy jobs and aged parents, she managed to stay fairly consistent with her exercise routine and paid more attention to her diet too.
However, even after a few months of these changes, she had hardly lost a kilo. All that hard work and barely a kilo to show for it. She felt lost. What was going wrong? Her suspicion was around her diet so she dug deeper.
Carbs are evil.
She looked online and at that time low-carb and no-carb diets seemed to be popular. Fats were no longer the bad guy, it was carbs. She read many seemingly well-reasoned articles that made it seem black and white - carbs are evil, say no to carbs. She decided to give it a try and made the following changes to her diet.
Breakfast: Skipped the Paranthas and replaced them with a big bowl of fruits. Included a handful of salted almonds.
Lunch: 1 Roti with Chole or Dhal (Earlier it was 2 Rotis with Dhal)
Snacks: Replaced tea with Fruit Juice without sugar, protein bars, flavoured Yoghurt, Yakult.
Dinner: Strictly no rice. Only Rotis with a vegetable dish.
This seemed like the perfect answer. Based on what she knew at the time, this was a really low-carb plan. She got busy implementing this plan to near perfection.
A few weeks later, she decided to check her progress. Out came the weighing scale. Bad news. She had gained a kilo. She did not see that coming. Depressed and confused, she gave up this diet and went back to her old ways. After all, what was the point?
Does this story sound familiar?
We hear a lot of stories like this in our coaching program. If you’ve been through something similar, you're not alone.
Let’s stay with this example and see what was really going on with the food.
Breakfast : A bowl of fruits. Fruits are good for you, but they’re also carbs. Carbs or not a problem as such, it’s how much carbs you eat that is the problem. We’ll get to that soon.
Lunch : Rotis, dal, chole. They’re all mainly carbs. There is some protein in the dal and chole, but for every gram of protein they have, there's about 3-4grams of carbs. So as it turns out, lunch was all carbs too.
Snacks: Fruit Juices,Protein Bars, Yakults, Flavoured Yoghurt. All packaged food items which have hidden sugars in them. Sugar = Carbohydrates.
Dinner: No rice, but roti instead. They’re both grains, so it’s one source of carbs swapped for another source of carbs.
Overall, this is a diet that’s about 80% carbs. That is not ok.
Sadly, this is not a rare example. This is the reality for most people. Over the years, our diets have moved to an extreme where it’s almost exclusively made up of Carbohydrates.
So, are we saying Carbs are evil? No.
The poison is in the dose.
Remember two things:
- There are really no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods.
- You can have too much of a good thing.
Carbs are essential as a source of energy. For most of us, the carbs come from grains - rice, roti, bread. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having them. Run from anyone who tells you otherwise, they’re likely trying to sell you something.
But you can have too much of it. And that’s exactly what we see with most people. When you add up all the carbs in the day, it’s about 80% or more carbs. That causes some serious problems:
- You’re overeating. Compared to protein and fat, you’ll need to eat a lot of carbs to feel full. There’s a reason many meals have a mountain of rice in the centre, because there isn't really much else on that plate.
- You’re losing out on nutrients. Carbs don’t tend to have as many nutrients as other foods like vegetables and protein. If most of your diet is carbs, you just won’t get the nutrients your body needs. That results in nutrient deficiency and health problems down the line.
- You’re not getting enough protein. Your daily diet should be about 25-30% protein. With 80% carbs, you’re certainly not going to get enough protein. That’s a problem as protein is involved in most of the processes that occur within the body, and is important for several reasons including your bones, skin, immunity and hormones.
- You’re at serious risk of diseases like diabetes. Your body will store all excess energy as fat, whether it comes from too much carbs or fat or something else. So overeating over a period results in weight gain and compromises many systems in the body. This ends up causing problems like diabetes, thyroid issues, hypertension etc.
What should you do?
Re-balance your plate Instead of focusing on reducing carbs, start thinking of re-balancing your plate to accommodate more vegetables and protein. This is a better way to get the right amount of nutrients required for the vital functioning of the body. Also, this will automatically take care of reducing the carbs.
Here’s a great example of what a balanced plate looks like. You’ll notice that grain (carbs) only make up about a quarter of the plate. This makes space for plenty of vegetables, protein and fruit.
Image: Canada Food Guide
If you’re looking at this plate and thinking that this is far away from where you are now, do not worry. Start with baby steps and you’ll be surprised at how soon the little changes add up. Here’s what I would suggest to get started:
- Add 1 portion of vegetables to your current plate: Make room for some fibrous veggies as they keep you full for longer as well as provide the vital nutrients that you will need.
- Add 1 fist sized portion of protein: Besides providing energy, protein plays a very important role in muscle building and repair. So add some good quality proteins like eggs, tofu, paneer, meat, and seafood in your meals. This also helps with keeping you full for longer.
- Reduce 1 portion of Carbs: With the increase in Veggies and Protein, you can reduce your carbs without worrying about going hungry. Choose good quality carbs like whole-grains, pulses, lentils etc.
- Drink plain water: Drinking water during meals does not interfere with digestion. In fact it aids digestion and helps break down food. So sip some water during meals. It’ll also help you slow down and eat more mindfully.
Once you get comfortable with this, you could increase the protein or vegetables by a portion and reduce the carbs some more. With some practice, you’ll find that you’re soon eating more balanced meals. It will take some practice though, so be patient. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint.
All carbs are not equal.
Since it is clear that all of us do need some amount of carbs, it is important to now understand what kind of carbohydrates will help you achieve optimal health. Here are some simple guidelines:
Choose simple unprocessed foods
Whole grains such as whole wheat, rice, millets, oats, lentils and legumes should be your preferred choices. Don't fall for packaged foods that boast of innumerable health benefits or suggest meal replacements. This means you can skip the sugary cereals and health bars even if they are 'whole-grain'. They also contain a whole lot of additives, sugar and salt which are not good for you.
Limit the Sugars
Fruit should be your main source of sugars. We all need a treat every now and then but that’s different from having sugary foods every day. This means that you’re better off without the biscuits, juices and shakes. They also spike your blood sugar levels temporarily and leave you feeling hungry and tired soon, leading you to look for the next sugar hit. Give that sugary roller-coaster a miss and eat fruit instead.
Think ‘lower’ carbs, not low-carb.
I am not suggesting you give up on carbs or adopt some form of a low-carb diet (under 20% carbs). What I am saying is that currently it’s likely that you’re eating way too much of it now and that you should reduce the carbs and make space for important foods like protein foods and vegetables.
For women especially, going too low on carbs can adversely impact your hormonal health since our bodies are quite sensitive to energy intake.
Individual carbohydrate requirements vary between individuals, so instead of making drastic changes to your diet, start with small and sustainable changes. Observe how you feel and then think about improving it one step at a time. You will find the right balance to help you in achieving your goals soon.