We've just passed International Women's Health Week, when many people join groups and start activities to try and improve their health. But here's one thing to bear in mind if you're planning to put yourself on a healthy track: if you're trying to lose weight and get healthier by cutting out carbohydrates, you're on the wrong path.
The classic cycle I see in clients eager to lose weight is increasing exercise and cutting out carbs. But this puts you in an impossible position. Exercise, obviously, puts huge energy demands on your body. If you don't provide an energy source—i.e. carbohydrates—to fill that need, your hunger spikes high. In fact, in women, and only in women, exercise spikes ghrelin, the hormone that causes hunger. Work out and you will get very, very hungry. You will experience cravings, sometimes powerful and specific ones. You may even believe you are addicted to food, or to a particular food—the experience of the "chocoholic". But the problem isn't emotional, it's nutritional.
If you are planning to exercise, you should think about what foods you're going to eat to fuel your body and when you're going to eat them. Start right when you wake up by eating breakfast. This will put your metabolism on a good footing for the day, and make sure that you don't start out from the get-go with an energy deficiency. Don't be afraid of carbs at breakfast—you need them! But also don't dive head-first into a bag of bagels. Balance your carbs with fat and protein. Oatmeal with milk, fruit and a few nuts is a great, healthy choice! Now, make your plan for getting through the high-intensity part of the day. Plan to eat both before and after exercise. Low-fat cheese with whole-grain bread and a handful of grapes is much better fuel for a workout than a salad. A post-workout snack of Greek yogurt and piece of fruit will get you through to your next meal without cravings.
The bottom line for people, especially women, who exercise is this: you need protein for muscle-building, but you need carbohydrates for energy. And if you try to get through your workouts without carbs you run the risk of unmanageable food cravings that make you desperate for fast energy in the form of sugar. Better to plan on eating healthy carbs than to binge out of desperation. Whole grain bread. Quinoa. Sweet potatoes. Oatmeal. Beans. Brown rice. None of these are foods to fear. Quite the contrary.
Manuel Villacorta is a nationally recognized, award-winning registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, in San Francisco, California. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good!