The Science of Carbs and How to Manage Comfort Foods
Chances are some of your favorite comfort foods are starchy foods like bread and pasta, sweets or savoury crunchy foods like potato chips. Since many of our clients have a love affair with carbohydrates and struggle with portion sizes of these things, this article is designed to help you figure out the best ways to manage these and achieve good health (without ever giving them up).
Why are carbohydrate rich foods something that can often be overeaten?
Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, some dairy foods, and sweets.
Carbohydrates are comfort foods that play a direct role in elevating the neurotransmitter serotonin which boosts mood. Protein rich foods are not comfort foods for your brain. When was the last time you actually craved eggs, meat or cottage cheese when you were tired, sad, or mad?
Carbohydrate rich foods such as mac and cheese, chocolate, cookies, popcorn and potato chips are in essence happy foods the brain will crave when you are tired, hungry, mad, or sad. Since these foods are very enjoyable and often readily available, it is important to manage portion sizes but certainly not eliminate them. If you try to deprive yourself of something enjoyable, chances are you will likely seek it out, obsess about it, and eventually overeat.
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How much carbohydrate should I eat per day?
Your brain runs exclusively on carbs (you can think of all carbs as single, double and longer chains of sugar).
To balance your breakfast, lunch and supper with a good amount of carbohydrate aim for half your plate veggies, one-quarter of your plate protein rich foods and one-quarter of your plate grains/starchy types of food.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in partnership with Health Canada suggests the average minimum amount of carbohydrate needed for the brain and central nervous system of children and adults is 130 grams per day. This amount of carbohydrate is the equivalent of eating 2 slices of bread, 1 cup of rice and several pieces of fruit, for example. In addition to this, you also need carbs to fuel your muscles for physical activity. Adult women and adult men require approximately 180-230 grams and 220-330 grams of carbohydrate or more per day respectively.
When carbohydrate is not consumed in sufficient amounts, you may feel tired, anxious, depressed, have difficulty concentrating, or experience muscle fatigue when exercising.
If you eat more carbohydrates than your body needs for days and weeks (just like if you eat too much protein or fat), extra calories are stored as extra energy on the body.
Also, keep in mind that carbohydrate stores water on your body. It is not uncommon for low-carb dieters to lose 5-15 pounds of water weight when restricting carbohydrates.
Could I skip grains and sweets and get my carbs from veggies and fruit alone?
Despite popular claims that you can skip grains and just eat vegetables and fruit, keep in mind that grains (such as bread, rice, pasta and quinoa) provide different types of fibre, B-vitamins, and other nutrients that are not found in fruits and vegetables.
Variety is the spice of life. For optimal health and enjoyment, choose a wide variety of foods. If you only eat blueberries and apples each day you will miss out on the many nutrients found in other fruits and grains.
If you are worried about carbohydrates remember that many cultures from diverse parts of the world (such as Asia and Europe) that traditionally have maintained good health and manage a healthy body weight, consume a variety of carbohydrates coming from whole foods such as grains, legumes, fruits and veggies.
Should I altogether eliminate foods I find myself overeating?
While the term “food addiction” or “sugar addiction” are often casually used, there is currently little scientific evidence to suggest you can be addicted to food or sugar. Food cannot be placed in the same category as drugs or alcohol since we require food to live and can abstain from drugs and alcohol.
Research shows that attempting to avoid certain foods usually makes people more vulnerable to binge. If you are struggling with overeating, binge eating and emotional eating working with a Psychologist and Registered Dietitian that specializes in emotional eating and eating disorders is the best way to move forward.
How can I manage portion sizes of carbs and sweets?
For me as the chocoholic dietitian while sometimes a mug of hot chocolate or piece of fruit might do the trick to soothe a sweet craving, it certainly won’t work all the time. Sometimes the real thing (aka in this example chocolate) must be enjoyed to kill a craving. Healthy eating can and should include your favourite soulful foods you choose simply for enjoyment rather than nutrition. Sometimes it is better to have a bit of whatever it is you are craving than try and find a substitute.
In my nutrition practice I have coined the phrase “chewing around a craving” which is the act of sampling many items from your kitchen to try and satisfy a junk food craving. You could go through a range of foods in your kitchen and take in large amount of calories but still feel unsatisfied. When you eventually end up giving in and eating the food you craved, you might feel overly full and defeated.
A better approach is to take some time to really tune into what you are craving, determine if a substitute will actually work and if it won’t, you are likely better off having some of what it is you are craving. When I say “some” I am referring to the amount of a soulful food that brings you satisfaction. When you eat to a point of satisfaction, away from television and other distraction you will realized that while a handful of chips might not cut it, you may not need to finish the entire bag to feel content.
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