Carbo-Phobia: fear of eating carbohydrates

Carbo-phobia is not a real term but it seems to be a real phenomenon for those trying to lose weight and to get fit.  So if this is a diet you are considering, read on. 

The low-carb diet is so prevalent that approximately 29% of Americans report they are “actively avoiding” carbohydrates.  

As someone who has tried most diet fads, this was definitely one I stuck with for the longest time and have a hard time letting go, despite the science behind the benefits of eating carbohydrates.   I thought skipping out on carbs would get rid of the belly fat.  I tried going completely carbohydrate free (for about two-weeks before Hangry Jenny took over) and then going to eating only high fiber carbohydrates to now eating mostly unprocessed carbohydrates, with an emphasis on high fiber carbohydrates.  When I was waist deep in my brief carb-free stint, I dreamt of eating bread and rice.  I smelled fresh baked bread wafting into my nose while I slept.  I lost some weight in my two-week carb free diet but I was also starving and cranky.  For me, going carb-free was torture.  Now, I practice moderation and balance.  To see if a low-carbohydrate diet is for you, let’s get to know low-carb diets and carbohydrates a little more.

Low-carb diets gained popularity after Dr. Atkins published an update to his book in the 1990s.  It came at a time when the “low-fat” diet in the 1980s and early 1990s was declining in popularity, where everyone ate fat-free yogurt, fat-free cookies, and fat-free ice cream where the “fat” was actually replaced by more sugar.  For an interesting read on the history of the fat-free revolution, click here.  

Despite all the “fat-free” food, Americans were getting fatter and in fact, the number of obese skyrocketed.  

With the renewal of Dr. Atkins’ methods, Americans found their answer.  The idea of eating a juicy, fatty steak without guilt and that it can lead to weight loss was an idea that was too enticing.  Fat and protein are nutrients that our bodies need and crave, at an evolutionary level.  The Atkins Diet became a no-brainer.  Since the initial popularity of the Atkins diet, there has been so many variations of the low-carb diet.  There is the Ketogenic diet, the low-carb and high fat diet, Zero-Carb diet, low-carb Paleo diet and many more that would take a research team to separate out.  

So what is a carbohydrate and why is it villainized?  Carbohydrates are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Sounds harmless enough, right?

Carbohydrates comes in several forms: 

  • Simple carbohydrate - such as juice, milk, and sugar.

  • Complex carbohydrate  - such as starchy foods like potatoes, rice, pasta and legumes (beans and peas).

  • Fiber - such as apples, oatmeal, beans, and brown rice. 

Carbohydrates are important because it is the primary source of energy.  Sitting and watching TV, breathing, typing on the computer, thinking of what you are going to eat next (yes, all things I’m doing simultaneously right now), all requires energy.  It is also needed to repair our muscles, regulate our digestion and nervous system.  It is especially necessary for those who exercise because it is needed to build lean muscle mass.  It will also help in the recovery process. 

Carbohydrates are derived from the food we eat.  So eating something like honey or orange juice, which are simple carbohydrates or sugars, can be immediately used or stored by your body.  Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal must be converted to a simple sugar before it can be used.  Because some complex carbohydrates like oatmeal or beans have fiber, they have the added benefit of reducing the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer.  (Wolk A, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, et al.  Long-term intake of dietary fiber and decreased risk  of coronary heart disease among women, JAMA.  1999; 281 (2): 1998-2004.)

It’s easier to blame carbohydrates as the source of fat when the the culprit may be insufficient physical activity.  Today, people work more in a sedentary capacity than in the 1950s.  Most people use the computer for work and instead of taking the bus or walking to work, most of us drive.  We also have more stress than ever, even though we have washing machines to wash our clothes and dishwashers to clean our dishes.  For fun, we play video games or browse aimlessly on our computers and phones.  

So while we squirrel away our caloric nuts for the winter that may never come, we also spend little physical effort in doing so.  It comes down to balancing what we expend and what we put in our mouths: Generally, move > eat = weight loss.

There is no single diet that works for everyone but moderation is key.  Eating a dozen donuts is not a substitute for eating two cups of oats or beans.  We should enjoy our food and feel satisfied by it, but not consumed and in lust with it.  There are simple ways to incorporate physical activity into daily lives and feel more satisfied with our food:

  1. Eat more fibrous foods to feel more full. The candy, sugary danish and muffins are just being stored for that long Game of Thrones winter promised for the first 5 (?) seasons.  You may also have a sugar addiction and may need to consult with a licensed nutritionist or doctor, if it is controlling your life.

  2. Take a walk break during lunch regardless of how busy you are.  Walking 15 minutes will clear your mind and refresh your body.  Make it 30 if you can.

  3. Get a personal trainer if you feel your workouts at the gym are plateaued and you don’t see the results you want.

Carbohydrates should not be feared, abused or obsessed over.  It is a necessary nutrient for our body to properly function.  

What about your experience with carbohydrates?  Do you have a love-hate relationship with it too? Have you tried different carb diets? I'd love to hear about it.


Jenny Tam