Carbs aren't all bad
sarsmis/ShutterstockFirst, remember that carbs are not the enemy. Healthy complex carbohydrates are needed for any balanced diet, as they offer tons of benefits. Without carbohydrates, you might suffer from low energy levels, emotional instability, and weakened physical and mental performance, among other not-so-great health issues.
Yet, there are certain moments when avoiding carbohydrates might be your best bet for success, whether it's in achieving a fitness goal or simply gearing up for an event. Plus, you're always better off sticking to healthy foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains as opposed to refined carbohydrates, which can worsen your health and metabolism. Just see how this woman felt after going refined-carb free for an entire month.
Here, experts explain why ditching carbs and reaching for protein or healthy fats, in certain cases, could be beneficial.
Diana-Grytsku/ShutterstockIf you're digging into a bag of chips late at night—perhaps over an episode of Game of Thrones—you might be doing yourself a disservice. Instead, reach for more protein-based foods, like this Mediterranean chicken recipe or a handful of nuts.
Here's why: "As a general rule, it's healthier to have a larger meal with high-quality carbohydrates earlier in the day, with the remainder of your meals and snacks being smaller for dinner and the rest of the evening," says Robert Glatter, MD assistant professor of Emergency Medicine, Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health.
Because you're ready to hit the sack, your body doesn't have the time to burn off the carbs through activity, so they might not be the best snack when late-night munchies hit, especially if you're looking to lose weight. "We are more insulin sensitive at this time and therefore more likely to have a quick release of glucose into the bloodstream, which encourages the fat storing process," adds Rebecca Gahan, owner and founder of [email protected] Fitness.
Before a big workout
Jacob-Lund/ShutterstockThe days of carbo-loading are no more: If you're looking to compete in an athletic event, or even going for a long, grueling workout, go easy on the carbohydrates. Still, if you're in need of some pre-workout snack options, there are a few to choose from that can keep your stomach stable and boost performance.
Arizona-based nutritionist Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, explains that eating carbs prior to and during strenuous exercise, like cycling sprints, can increase GI symptoms, including nausea. Researchers at Florida State University have found that when athletes down a big load of carbs before working out, they experience increased nausea.
Prior to a big event
Monkey-Business-Images/ShutterstockDon't be tempted by cookies or a croissant when you're planning to squeeze into something special for a social event, such as a wedding or photo shoot. You might find your belly wants to bulge.
Personal trainer Drew Logan, author of 25 Days: A Proven Program To Rewire Your Brain, Stop Weight Gain, And Finally Crush The Habits You Hate, says: "Carbs are meant to bind with water and to hydrate cells. So, it would make sense that limiting starchy carbs prior to an event would decrease bloating because there is significantly less glycogen for water to bond to, thus giving the appearance of less bloat." Wait until post-event to dive into sweet potatoes or pasta.
First thing in the morning
bigacis/ShutterstockWhile it's best to eat your healthy carbs earlier on in the day when there's more time to burn them off for energy, don't turn to them the very first thing. You dont want your first food thoughts of the day to be, "bread, donuts, bagels, and more bread."
"Carbohydrates, especially simple carbs, cause a spike in insulin, the body's chief anabolic hormone," says David Greuner, MD, co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates. The spike causes a state of restfulness, as well as promotes recovery, storage, and building. This often causes sleepiness, or the state known as 'food coma' after a heavy meal,"
In general, any time that you need to be at peak mental alertness is a bad time to eat carbs, specifically sugar, he explains.
Instead, look for a protein-packed breakfast that's high in healthy fats. Don't want to completely give up on carbs? Try a bowl of oatmeal or sprinkle granola onto Greek yogurt. Or, you can add flax seeds, he suggests, which are high in fiber and omega-3s to help improve concentration and keep blood sugar levels stable.
joyfull/ShutterstockTo maintain energy and alertness, avoid the heavy, high-carb offerings at the airport or gas station; opt instead for lighter foods that are protein-rich to keep your energy up and belly satiated for a few hours.
"Foods like nuts, almond butter, with whole wheat crackers, cheese, yogurt, and so forth, will keep you nourished until you are back on a normal meal schedule," says Dr. Greuner. And while these foods do have small amounts of healthy, complex carbohydrates, the right dosages will uplift your energy levels without making you feel sluggish.
"Make sure the food and drinks that you are eating before a long flight are low sugar, slow-burning carbs, and have moderate protein. I'll typically bring hummus packs and multigrain crackers, vegetables that won't perish easily, homemade trail mix, and a protein bar to hold me over until my next meal," he suggests. And for the protein bar or trail mix, make sure it's low in net carbs and sugars—here are some homemade energy bar recipes you can try.
If you're short on sleep
Nenad-Aksic/ShutterstockAfter a sleepless night, your body might be craving some cheap simple carbs. Resist and reach for protein to stabilize and energizes yourself. Dr. Hollingsworth at NYC Surgical Associates says, "After a sleepless night, your body's metabolism is thrown out of balance. As with any physical stress, losing sleep causes your stress hormones to increase, and that rise in cortisol increases your blood sugar."
What's more, cortisol also makes you crave large quantities of sugar and carbohydrates, which can lead to a crash, as explained by researchers at Harvard Medical School. "The ideal way to stabilize your blood sugar, keep functioning and avoid a crash is to consume low glycemic index vegetables and protein," he recommends.
Africa-Studio/ShutterstockThis is especialy true if you're trying to shed pounds, says Logan: You want your body to use fat for energy, and depriving it of carbs can force it to convert dormant fat cells for energy. Protein is also good, since your body can use it to rebuild muscle tissue and perform cellular repair. Carbs are stored as short term energy only—if you want to lose weight, keep insulin levels low post-exercise by minimizing carbs, he says.
"My suggestion for an immediate post-workout snack would be a small apple, about the size of your fist, half a handful of walnuts, and a 100-calorie serving of Greek yogurt (no sugar added). This should keep you burning fat, building lean muscle tissue and increasing your metabolism," he suggests.
On their own
bitt24/ShutterstockIt's dismaying, but even healthy carbs like fruit that are unaccompanied by protein or fat can upset your tummy. And if you reach for fruit juice or unrefined carbs in isolation—no nuts, say, or cheese—it can wreck your stomach.
"Certain individuals don't respond well to sugar on an empty stomach, especially in the form of fructose, or fruit sugar. For them, they'll want to be sure not to drink juice and even need to be careful to not pack too many servings of fruit into a smoothie," says Kelly R. Jones MS, RD, LDN. Otherwise, you might experience severe gas, bloating, cramping, and for some, diarrhea, she adds.
Have those crackers with cheese, or try whippin' up some avocado toast when you're craving carbs.
When you're bored or fighting an afternoon slump
ESB-Professional/ShutterstockThe lure of the office lounge or candy machine is strong in the middle of the day, but you must resist. Unless you're going for one of these healthy afternoon snacks, you'll end up worse off. You need food that contains healthy fats and protein and complex carbohydrates in moderation.
"I recommend avoiding sugar and highly processed carbs during the 'afternoon slump,'" says Jones. "Most people are low energy in the mid-afternoon because their blood sugar is dipping, and this in turn can cause cravings for sugar and processed, low-fiber carbohydrates. If they reach for the candy or pretzel, they're going to see an even worse energy crash soon after and may be more likely to overeat at dinner."