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Fad diets come and go, but there's one idea that seems to remain constant: the perception that carbs are bad. In fact, open a magazine, watch your favorite romantic comedy, or walk into any gym, and it's highly likely you'll internalize some kind of message regarding carbs and weight. More likely than not, it will have you second-guessing last night's empañadas—no matter how much you enjoyed them. But here's the thing, it shouldn't. True, too much of anything is never a great idea when it comes to feeling your best (and overloading on carbs is no exception), but starch, just like protein, and fat, is an essential part of any diet. So why the fear mongering?
While doing some research for a related health story, I came across numerous articles (written by industry-leading female experts) examining the relationship between carbohydrates and women's health. The consensus: Low-carb diets could have some less-than-stellar consequences, especially when it comes to our periods and hormones. However, as I dug around for more information, I became slightly disturbed. Little research has been done to see how low-carb diets impact our reproductive health, while a plethora of research has been done to see how these diets will help us lose weight. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Lara Briden, ND, who specializes in women's health and has more than 20 years' worth of experience and clients under her belt.
Myth: Carbs Are "Bad"
When it comes to maintaining a sustainable, healthy, and happy approach to eating, labeling particular food groups in an all-or-nothing fashion (i.e., "good" versus "bad") has the potential to lead to a frustrating and confusing relationship with food. After all, no food is inherently "good" and no food is inherently "bad"—it's just food. And while Briden points out a clean, unprocessed, and anti-inflammatory diet is important, it's perhaps just as healthy to enjoy meals out with friends. So what's the deal with the diet world's obsession with carbs? According to Briden, it's definitely a good idea to avoid sugar—but not carbs altogether.
In her book, Period Repair Manual, Second Edition ($10), Briden makes the point that while sugar is a carb, it doesn't have the same physiological effect on the body as other starchy carbs—an important distinction as complex carbohydrates are crucial for healthy homeostasis where hormones are concerned (more on this in a minute.) While sugar is high in fructose (which is inflammatory), whole-food forms of carbohydrate have more glucose than fructose, as well as additional fiber, and will have a less debilitating impact on insulin levels. In short, as long as you're not overdoing it, carbs can (and should) be a pivotal part of our diets.
A quick note on fruit: According to Briden, "A small amount of fructose will not cause inflammation or insulin resistance but instead improves insulin sensitivity and health. A small amount of fructose is less than 25 grams per day, which is about what you’d get from three servings of whole fruit.” In other words, please don't fear fruit—as with most things, it's healthy in moderation.
The Case for Carbs
While low-carb and ketogenic diets are very much en vogue at the moment, they could be unhelpful to women in the long run. Briden explains to me that complex carbohydrates have many positive benefits for women—especially when it comes to hormone and period health. In addition to being an essential source of energy, they also support our immune function, thyroid health, nervous system (preventing spikes in cortisol), and contain important soluble fiber, which "feeds your gut bacteria and promotes the healthy metabolism and the detoxification of estrogen," accodig to Briden.
And though low-carb diets have long been hailed as the ultimate solution to weight loss, Briden offers a fresh perspective with female health in mind: "If you follow a low-carb diet in the long term, you might run into problems. A low-carb diet can increase cortisol, slow down thyroid, and cause insomnia, constipation, and hair loss. A low-carb diet can also cause you to eventually lose your period because women need carbohydrate to ovulate."
However, some women may need more carbohydrates than others to maintain healthy hormones. When I ask Briden how someone would know whether they need more or less when it comes to their intake, she tells me our period and hair health is the best way to gauge: "If one of my clients tries a low-carb diet and by the three-month mark has lost their period and is shedding more hair than usual, that's a sign they may need more carbs."
And Briden isn't the only one trying to communicate this line of thinking. In her post "Carb Is Not a Four Letter Word," Robyn Coale, RD, NP, makes a similar case for carbs, explaining that restricting carbohydrate essentially puts stress on the body, which in turn increases cortisol. And if you exercise, it's all the more important to ensure you're getting an adequate intake (because, energy).
"Combine a low-carb diet with inadequate sleep, a stressful job and maybe too much exercise, and you'll find yourself at a hormonal frat party," Coale says in her post.
Are Certain Carbs Better Than Others?
As mentioned earlier, there's no such thing as a bad carb—both cupcakes and brown rice hold a healthy, happy purpose in this life. However, Briden does have some recommendations pertaining to carbs and hormone health. First and foremost, it might be a good idea to avoid gluten (aka wheat, barley and rye) since, just like sugar, it has an inflammatory effect inside our body. Instead, she recommends incorporating clean, whole forms of complex carbs, which she refers to as "gentle carbs" as they are anti-inflammatory:
- Sweet potato
- Gluten-free pasta
- Whole fruit
Portion-Size & Timing
To keep hormone levels in check, incorporating carbs at certain times of the day and in certain quantities may be key. Briden points out that the standard American diet typically adds up to a whopping 400 grams of carbohydrates per day—far too high, she says. Instead, the optimum range should hit a "sweet spot" somewhere between 150 grams and 200 grams (this can, of course, fluctuate based on individual needs and lifestyle.) In food-speak, a day's worth of healthy carbs could look like two potatoes, two pieces of whole fruit, and a small serving of rice paired with healthy fats, protein, and vegetables throughout the day.
Briden also notes the relevance of timing: "I do think it's important to keep breakfast lower in carbohydrates, as it extends the night's fast and will help keep insulin levels down at the beginning of your day. However, since carbohydrates are essential for energy and have a calming effect on the nervous system, I recommend them later in the day with lunch and especially at night with dinner." In fact, she says they can be pivotal for satiety and a good night's sleep.
Though there are endless options and combinations when it comes to a healthy balance of carbohydrates throughout your day, here's an example of a daily menu that Briden would eat herself and would recommend to her clients for period and hormone repair:
Breakfast: Eggs, avocado, and potato cooked in butter paired with unsweetened black coffee, or coffee with coconut milk or full-fat milk.
Lunch: A large green salad with beet, goat cheese, smoked salmon, and olive oil dressing. On the side, you could try gluten-free crackers and goat cheese, two squares of 85% dark chocolate, and sparkling water.
Dinner: A bolognese meat sauce and gluten-free pasta, green beans with organic butter, a small glass of red wine, and a mandarin orange.
As just food for thought, this is in no way is a prescription. Ultimately, it's up to you to do what makes sense for your body and eat the things that help you to feel your best. Additionally, if you've lost your period or experienced any other major changes in your health, it's always a good idea to see your healthcare provider.
Harvard University the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Natural and added sugars: two sides of the same coin. Updated October 5, 2015.
Jamnik J, García-Bailo B, Borchers CH, El-Sohemy A. Gluten intake is positively associated with plasma α2-macroglobulin in young adults. J Nutr. 2015;145(6):1256-1262. doi:10.3945/jn.115.212829