Most people interested in health and fitness right now have their own journey with macronutrients. Paleo and the Atkins revolution opened up our eyes to the notion that perhaps fat wasn’t the enemy after all but rather carbs including bread, rice, pasta and potatoes were causing our waistlines to expand and spill over our jeans in true muffin top style. Of course this is a hugely simplified version of events and it’s clear that the goal with any macros is simply finding your sweet spot. However, gaining back your confidence eating carbs again after a low carb diet can be tricky business and is often fraught with fears of weight gain.
When I switched to a Paleo diet I experienced tremendous improvements in my digestive health and body composition. I really thought I’d found the solution to all my health and fat loss woes. My version of Paleo was high fat, low carb and pretty tasty. Although there were warning signs that my carbs were too low I ignored them and stayed safely below 100g a day. Why? Because for years I trained excessively in a bid to balance my mighty appetite and felt I was lumbered with a body that just wanted to hold onto fat. Paleo became my Holy Grail as my appetite stablised, my bloating disappeared and I lost body fat. Overtime I pushed boundaries and became stricter with my choices. It all made so much sense if I just stuck to the rules. The problem here is our body doesn’t respond well to rules, they cause us a lot of stress for a start!
The awesome thing about the Paleo diet is I think it’s a fantastic healing tool. It’s the foundation for fat loss, calming the immune system, fixing a broken gut and rebalancing hormones. However, you need to remember it’s not necessarily a destination. You can use the template to regain your health and understand our absolute need for nutrient density within our modern lifestyles and the importance of limiting processed foods. When you get back to your happy place you can play around with adding some non-paleo foods back in and adapting it to your lifestyle, personal preferences and your nutritional needs. We like to call this a Paleo-ish style of eating.
After a significant stretch on Paleo my body started to send me some feedback that maybe my hormones and digestive system weren’t quite so happy. I was always cold, often struggled with low moods, nausea and my performance in the gym took a nose dive. I was seriously limiting food groups and due to a busy lifestyle running a business I was overeating the same foods over and over again, mainly eggs and almond butter, I still think I could live on these two foods alone 🙂
Adding back in carbohydrates in the form of starches, grains and peanut M&M’s has been a battle for me. It was often a case of two steps forward and one back. As soon as I experienced any bloating or felt my trousers becoming a little tighter I recoiled back to my happy place of eggs and almond butter, dismissing the fact that the stomach distention could also be due to stress, eating too quickly or even being a little heavy handed with the sauerkraut (we’ve all been there!) The tight jeans could be down to the tumble dryer or better still the split squats I’ve been doing lately.
A motivating factor for me to increase my carbohydrate intake has been all the latest research on the gut microbiome and an observation that our bacteria love starch and other fibres. Increasing your intake will feed beneficial bacteria and support the diversification of different strains of bacteria that help you burn fat more efficiently, metabolise carbohydrates and even digest gluten and dairy proteins. If you’re hiding out in a low carb rut making little progress this could be your missing link.
I never scrimped on the non-starchy vegetables in my nutrition but I certainly held back on the potatoes, root vegetables, rice and avoided cereal and bread like the plague at times! Yet it seems our gut bugs love starch, furthermore insulin is also vital for thyroid hormone function so getting some regular glucose into your nutrition can actually help kickstart weight loss.
I brought my carbohydrates up slowly over months, firstly introducing more root vegetables, legumes, potatoes and fruit. Then gradually some good quality grains. I definitely experienced an improvement in my energy and the frequency of my bowel movements improved, I know this is bordering TMI but sluggish bowels are strongly associated with many hormonal disorders and even breast cancer, taking the trash out daily is an important aspect of detoxification and lowers your risk of disease.
Assessing my body composition is tricky as I don’t weigh or measure myself, those days are over, but I actually think my body is leaner and I certainly haven’t gained body fat. I’m enjoying my training again but I’m careful to keep this in check with a nice mixture of cardio, strength and intervals, just 2-3 sessions a week, so as not to lead to an insatiable appetite, carb cravings and energy crashes.
If you think you might be in need of a few more carbs in your life, here’s a few tips and tricks that really helped me.
1. Add nutrients and improve digestibility of grains
A valid critique of legumes and grains is their lack of micronutrients and potential for anti-nutrients like phytates and lectins that block the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Firstly, ensure you prepare your grains and legumes properly by soaking and slow cooking to significantly decrease the anti-nutrient content. If your lazy with food preparation just stick to white rice, potatoes and root vegetables, you can also buy legumes in water. Then just make sure the rest of your meal is packed with nutritious proteins like grass fed meat, omega 3 rich fish or dark green leafy vegetables so you’re still winning on the nutrient density front. Even your porridge can be pimped with some eggs or a protein powder, cinnamon or nutmeg and some antioxidant rich berries.
2. Choose Quality Carbs
I still largely avoid flour based and refined carbohydrates as some research suggests that processing carbohydrates into flour may have a negative effect on the gut microbiome. The grains and pseudo grains I consume regularly are things like different coloured rice (red, black and brown), quinoa, buckwheat, oats and a variety of legumes. These fibrous carbs have a beneficial impact on gut flora. That’s not to say occasionally I don’t have some popcorn and other processed foods, they appear every now and then which is equally important to keep me balanced and a safe distance from my Orthorexic tendencies. Sourdough bread is also an exception, as this involves using the traditional method of bread making (ideally fermenting the loaves for 24 hours) it’s often easier on the digestive system and helps support a healthy gut microbiome. Although we don’t buy sourdough too often as Matt has just smothers the whole loaf in Kerry Gold and eats it in one serving!
3. Adapt fat intake accordingly
Another change I made consciously was bringing my fat intake down slightly as I increased carbohydrates. Nothing extreme and certainly not a low fat diet but my fat intake was sometimes way over 120g most days, if I started whacking in carbs on top of that there’s a strong chance I’d find myself in a calorie excess so I swapped in more leaner proteins (poultry, white fish, prawns, cottage cheese), used less cooking oil (I boiled and steam more and used bone broth for cooking), more vinegar, lemon juice and tamari as dressings. I still have oily fish 3-4 times a week, eat plenty of eggs, nuts and red meat just not as frequently so fats are present just not in so much abundance.
4. Implement easy portion control
Prior to Paleo I was an absolute carb fiend and there are still some carbs I avoid for this very reason. Crackers, crispbreads, cereals, snack bars and pitta breads were my downfall and I could munch on them until my tummy wanted to explode. I don’t eat these now but when I introduced grains back into my nutrition I was conscious of portion sizes so I weighed a few servings to get an idea. Let me get one thing straight, I’m NOT a fan of weighing out food but I did want to have an intuitive notion of what a healthy serving of oats looked like. Matt actually had the great idea of using American measuring cups when serving up portions and it’s hugely helpful for things like rice or porridge where it’s easy to go overboard.
5. Rotate Rotate Rotate
Many of my digestive issues I suffered from were a culmination of factors including antibiotics, a serious running addiction, stress, the contraceptive pill and poor nutritional choices. I also ate the same 10-15 foods over and over again. The research on gut health suggests that limiting food choices and variety will limit the growth of bacteria and cause imbalances in the gut microbiome. Our guts like variety so expanding your nutritional intake is vital and will increase your chances of building up an army of bacteria that supports your health and fat loss goals.
If you like porridge for breakfast rotate between oats, buckwheat, rice and quinoa. If you’re having protein smoothies try different protein powders like pea, hemp and rice as well as whey, also change the fruits and flavours each day. Swap around the veggies in your soups, try different green leafy vegetables and add different legumes to your stews and salads, getting a seasonal fruit and vegetable box is great for this.
If you’re confused about carbs or any macronutrients we devoted an entire chapter of Fitter Food: A Second Helping to helping you personalise your nutrition and adopt it to your needs, we’re also filling our brand new Fitter 365 website with lots of webinars to help you establish your happy place with carbohydrates once again.