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Carbohydrate Confusion: How Much, What Kind, & When to Eat Them
There has been so much in the news, in diet books, and from self-proclaimed experts about carbohydrate intake. It has really become hard to know what to believe. In today’s post, I am going to help clear the confusion about how much carbs we need to eat, what kind of are best for you, and when you should eat them. With the New Year right about the corner, why not make eating a healthier diet one of your New Year’s goals!
How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?
Some diets tell you to focus on eating carbs, while others tell you to avoid them. Both approaches can be dangerous and extremes should generally be avoided. Carbohydrates provide our bodies with glucose, which is converted and used for energy for both daily functions and exercise. Without enough glucose, we are likely to be fatigued, have difficulty concentrating and our bodies may start breaking down muscles for energy. On the other hand, too much carbs are likely to increase our fat storage and can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
So how much carbs should we be eating? Although experts caution us against obsessively counting carbohydrates, it is good to have a general idea of how much we should be eating each day. The bodybuilding.com website provides a helpful Carbohydrate Intake Calculator to get you started. Their calculator allows you to enter age, height, weight, gender, and activity level. Another great feature is that the calculator allows you to enter your goals to lose fat, maintain, or increase your muscle.
Are There Different Kinds of Carbohydrates?
Once you have an idea of how many grams of carbs you should be eating on a daily basis, the next thing to consider is the different types of carbohydrates available. Not all carbs are not created equally! To make it as easy to understand as possible, we’ll call them either healthy choices or not so healthy choices.
- Whole grains bread, pasta, and rice.
Not-so healthy choices.
- White bread, rice, and highly processed food.
- Pastries, donuts, cookies, cakes etc.
- Sodas, sweetened drinks.
Several nutrition recommendations, including Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, and the USDA’s Choose MyPlate recommend that half of the food we consume consist of vegetables and fruit. However, they also recommend that a quarter of what we eat be whole grains. So, it’s important to try lots of options and find some things you like. I love fresh fruits and usually do pretty well getting enough of these. I also love oatmeal for breakfast so that’s a good choice for me too. It’s the vegetables that I struggle with, but we’ll focus on them another day.
Does it Matter What Time You Eat Carbs?
When do you refill the gas tank in your car? When you’re running low on fuel, right. We can use that same principle when it comes to when we should eat carbs. We should eat them when we are going to need the most fuel. Lori Zanini, a Registered Dietician, recommends eating carbs throughout the day. This prevents your body from sensing a low blood sugar and releasing stored sugars. Consistent carb eating patterns may help to prevent fluctuations that could lead to diabetes.
However, if you’re really trying to maximize fat loss, you may want to go even one-step further than consistency. You may choose to focus on three specific times during the day when energy is needed most. Those times are the first thing in the morning, pre-workout, and post-workout. The Morellifit website staff discusses the benefits of these three times. The morning and pre-workout times are to provide energy for the day and the intense workout. The after-workout time is not quite as obvious. But intense workouts deplete sugar stores in the body. So this time is a replenishing time.
You probably noticed that no one recommended nighttime carbohydrate eating. If you are diabetic and taking certain medications, a nighttime healthy carb snack may be recommended by your primary care provider. But, for most people, the act of sleeping does not require extra energy. So that’s not the time of day to eat carbs. When they’re not used, they are much more likely to be stored away for future use, which we probably don’t want or need.
How to Set Carbohydrate Goals
Now that you know a little more about why carbs are important, how much you need, what types are the healthiest and what times of day are best to eat them, it’s time to develop a healthy carbohydrate goal and plan. Here are a few steps to get you started. I am also working on my own carbohydrate goal this year (2017) since this is an area I really struggle with from time to time.
- For one or two days, keep a food diary and calculate how many grams of carbs you are eating.
- During the same one or two days, determine what percentage of each meal/snack is carbohydrate.
- Use a carbohydrate calculator to determine your personal recommendations for daily carb intake.
- Compare what you generally do with your recommendations and see how you are doing.
- Set a realistic goal of where you would ultimately like to end up.
- Break your master goal into tiny bite size goals that you can achieve. Here’s an example.
Example of a Goal Plan
Recommended Carb gm -150
Actual Carb gm Intake -200
Different – 50 gms over
Master Goal – Reduce daily carb intake to recommended 150 gms.
January Month Goal – Reduce carb intake from 200 to 175 gms.
Ideas for Cutting the Not-So-Healthy Carbs
- Discontinue soda drinking.
- Switch from sugared creamers to reduced fat milk.
- Stop buying bags of chips, pretzels & other carb snacks.
- Stop nighttime snacking of carbs.
- Reduce portion of whole grains during mealtime.
- Have you looked at your daily carb intake lately? How is it?
- Are you ready to set a carbohydrate-eating goal for the coming year?
- What one or two things can you start changing tomorrow that will help you meet your goal?
Bodybuilding.com Carbohydrate Recommendation Calculator
Men’s Fitness Nutrition Q&A: When Should I Eat Carbs?
Tips to Help you Eat Whole Grains. ChooseMyPlate.gov.
The Healthy Eating Plate. Health.harvard.edu
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A Lack of Sleep Can Sabotage your Weight Loss Plans
We’ve all heard that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep of 7-9 hours. But how seriously do we take that advice? Too often, it seems that late night or early morning work is more important. As a college professor, I know I would often burn the midnight oil or get up at the crack of dawn in order to prepare for my next lecture. Cutting your sleep short once in a while is not a huge problem. But if it becomes a common practice, it can do a great deal of harm. One type of harm is sabotaging your weight loss plans. Today we’re going to look at three reasons that we have trouble losing weight when we’re short on rest.
Have you ever been woken up in the middle of the night to deal with something urgent? I know that has happened to me more times than I could count. I’ve had my share of emergencies requiring a parent, a nurse, or a chaperone at odd hours. I’ve also been awoken suddenly by the barking of a protective family pet. And then there those intentional choices to forego sleep in favor of something deemed more important.
What I didn’t realize were the changes that were taking place in my brain due to my lack of adequate Zzzs. The first change was that the frontal lobe of the brain was becoming dulled and not working as it should. The frontal lobe is needed for decision-making, thinking, studying, planning, and other higher level functions. When we don’t get enough sleep, it’s almost like the frontal lobe doesn’t fully recharge and wake-up. You can see this is going to be a problem if we need to do any thinking or decision-making throughout the day, which of course we all need to do. Even on vacation, we have to decide how we want to relax and what we want for dessert.
The other change happening in the brain is that the reward system (primarily the cortico–basal ganglia–thalamic loop) kicks into gear. So, at the same time our frontal lobe is on vacation, the reward system is on the prowl for anything that makes it feel good. That means that even with the best intentions, we are more likely to give into food cravings when short on sleep. We’re more likely to choose high carbohydrate snacks, to snack late at night, and in general crave and eat junk!
Several of our hormones get out of whack when we don’t get enough sleep too. Our hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin work against us feeling satisfied. I’ve discussed these hormones in a previous post, you can check out called Protein, Protein, Never Eat a Meal or Leave Home Without It! In a nutshell, ghrelin causes us to get hungry and leptin helps us know when we are satisfied. So, in order to stop eating, we want low ghrelin levels and high leptin levels. Of course, that’s not what happens when we don’t sleep enough. The opposite occurs and we have high ghrelin (telling us we are hungry) and low leptin (not telling us we are satisfied) so we keep eating.
Another hormone influenced by a lack of sleep is cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone and we need it if we ever need to fight off a wild animal or run for our lives. That might be exaggerating just a tad. We need it for other things beside managing sudden stress and you can read more about there here if you would like. For today’s purposes, we just need to realize that sleep deprivation causes cortisol to rise. And high cortisol levels cause our bodies to conserve energy and store more fat. Obviously, that’s not going to help much with our weight loss efforts.
The fourth hormone that is altered by inadequate sleep is insulin. Insulin is needed by your body to move sugar, carbohydrates, and other foods into the cells where it can be used for energy. When we are sleep deprived, insulin becomes less sensitive, which means it doesn’t work as well. The reason this is a problem for us is that the body ends up storing food calories as fat.
The third area of concern with lack of sleep is how our behavior is influenced by how much sleep we get on a regular basis. When we don’t have enough energy, we tend to search for energy all day. There’s too ways we go about doing this. First, we can give ourselves a boost with caffeine, a variety of energy boost drinks or high sugar foods. While a little caffeine won’t hurt most of us, pumping it in all day is likely to make you jittery and can cause other problems such as a high heart rate or high blood pressure. Too much sugar may temporarily give you an energy boost but it will give you many calories that are going to stick around.
The second thing we can do to increase our energy levels is to move less. In a sense, if we don’t demand anything of our bodies, we won’t have unmet need. How likely are you to exercise when you’re exhausted before you start? It’s not very likely at all. So, the combination of boosting energy with sugar and caffeine, and not moving any more than is necessary once again is sabotaging your weight loss efforts.
The moral of the story is for us all to realize how much lack of sleeps hurts us and to get enough of it on a daily basis. Only you can control how many hours you sleep. Make every effort to get enough sleep, to allow your brain and hormones to function properly, and to give your weight loss efforts the best chance for success possible!
1. How much sleep to you get on an average night (be honest)?
2. If you’re not getting at least 6 hours per night, what can you do to help improve this for yourself?
3. Is there someone else you need to ask for help with this problem? Sometimes we just can’t do it alone and help is a great idea!
Home Health Network. What Does Cortisol Do?
Mayo Clinic. Is Too Little Sleep a Cause of Weight Gain?
O’Connor, A. (2013). How Sleep Loss Adds to Weight Gain.
The Brain Made Simple: Frontal Lobe.
WebMD. Sleep More, Weigh Less.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.