I'm An Integrative MD: Here's Why I Don't Recommend Giving Up Carbs
Why low-carb diets can affect women.
When it comes to dietary protocols and eating styles, it's crucial to include hormones in the discussion. If we're talking about eliminating carbohydrates, it's important to note that women may experience sleep issues, depression, anxiety, and sometimes brain fog. Your body can also hold on to weight when it perceives it's being starved or deprived.
That's because, eating carbs is important for women to produce leptin, which induces their satiety hormone, serotonin, which is the feel-good or "happy" hormone, and maintain healthy thyroid function1.
Carbohydrates are important for serotonin production and metabolism, as well. Numerous studies show carbohydrate restriction is a link to depression2 since carbs increase serotonin secretion in the brain3. Eating carbs also triggers tryptophan, which then triggers insulin to be released. Insulin then allows tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier allowing the conversion of serotonin to take place, causing that "addictive" behavior and emotional high.
How to make carbs work for you.
Making sure you have a healthy relationship with carbohydrates is key! It's important to choose nourishing carbs and make them work for you. Here's how:
Focus on nutrient-dense carbs.
The biggest mistake people make when eating and thinking of carbs is automatically gravitating toward refined sugars and carbs. (Not sure what actually even classifies as a carb? Might be time to brush up on your carb literacy, here.) Instead, try to limit the processed and refined carbs, as well as sugars, sugar alcohol, artificial sugars, and more, and learn to adapt your natural sweet tooth.
I recommend focusing on a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in complex carbs like brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, quinoa, vegetables, and fruit. Complex carbs take a longer time to digest, so they help keep blood sugar stable. They are also richer in fiber, which will keep you full for a longer period of time. Plus, they're ripe with B vitamins, folate, and free-radical-fighting antioxidants4.
Try carb cycling.
When you start restricting carbs and calories for a period of time, your body starts adapting and forming a new, lower set point, which is why when you begin to increase your carbs again, your metabolism is thrown off. When you carb cycle, however, you're able to better manage those fluctuations by regulating your leptin hormone.
Your leptin levels go up when you eat carbs and your body no longer thinks you're starving, so when you limit your carbs again, leptin doesn't crash—this allows your body to regulate its metabolism5.
In order to do this, simply alternate the days you're eating high carbs and days you're eating low carbs:
- On lower-carb days: focus on healthy fats like avocados, nuts and seeds, as well as lean protein like salmon, chicken, and eggs.
- On higher-carb days: focus on eating less fat and protein; otherwise, you're just eating more calories in general.
If you're exercising often, it can be helpful to make your high-carb align with your workout days, and your low-carb days align with your rest days.
Eat in tune with your menstrual cycle.
Eating for your cycle is a helpful way to optimize your carbohydrate intake. For example, women would benefit from eating more carbs during the premenstrual phase6 after ovulation (and might be craving them more during this time, too!). This is because progesterone begins climbing after ovulation, which directly affects carbohydrate metabolism7.
This has to do with the body preparing for implantation and possible pregnancy and wanting to ensure it has the proper nutrients and calories necessary.
While low-carb diets may be popular right now, it's always important to do your research and consider what type of eating style will work best for you. Consider consulting with a registered dietitian or medical provider before making any major changes to your diet.
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who studied family medicine at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia. She completed her undergraduate training at the University of Georgia with a bachelor's of science in biology and psychology in 2004 and her doctor of medicine at American University of Antigua College of Medicine in 2010. She completed an integrative medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona with Dr. Andrew Weil. She is also currently working on her functional medicine training with the Institute of Functional Medicine. Her interests include integrative, holistic, and functional medicine; women's health; preventive medicine; international medicine; and health care reform. She's also a certified yoga instructor and Reiki master. She enjoys writing and educating everyone on important health matters.