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  • Writer's pictureRenee Little, R.D.

Intuitive Eating: The Importance of Carbohydrates

Did you last diet program say something along the lines of "cut back on sweets" or "limit pasta to x amount?" It's very common for diet programs to focus on reducing or cutting out some type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates is a term used to describe food which contains glucose, fructose, and galactose as well as fiber (a non-digestible carbohydrate).

Foods which contain these 3 main sugar molecules include breads, cereals, fruit, vegetables, legumes, lentils, pasta, grains (rice, bulger, couscous), candies, chocolate, chips, pop, foods made with grains (crackers, cookies, muffins, granola bars), milk, yogurt and milk alternatives.

Why does our body need carbohydrates?

Diets demonize carbohydrates in some form or another ignoring the physiology and demands from the body. Human bodies thrive on carbohydrates and at a cellular level there's a reason for this. Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for the body.

This is especially true of our brain, nervous system and red blood cells. "In humans, the brain accounts for ~2% of the body weight, but it consumes ~20% of glucose-derived energy making it the main consumer of glucose."(1) If you're not having a regular source of carbohydrate in each of your meals throughout the day you may notice low energy levels, poor sleep, lack of concentration, constant hunger, thinking about food frequently, lack of fullness after meals, and inadequate recovery after workouts/ exercise.

Diet culture thoughts to challenge about carbohydrates

You may be feeling confused about carbohydrates because there is a ton of mixed messages out there and many different messages coming from diets, "health" programs and health care professionals. If you've subscribed so beliefs that carbs are"bad" it may take you a while to shift your thinking and be open to having a variety of carbohydrates throughout your day.

Here are a few truths you can use to challenge negative thoughts coming up about carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are energy, if I want to have energy all day to do my job/ life I need to have carbs at each meal

  • My body prefers to use carbs for energy over other macronutrients (fat/ protein), this is just part of my physiology as a human

  • Honoring my hunger includes eating carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes, bread and others at meals and snacks.

  • After working out my body needs carbohydrates to repair muscles and replenish my energy stores. Having a fruit or granola bar or another carbohydrate rich food will help to recovery from my workout.

  • If I skip carbohydrates, I usually eat a lot of them in the evening. Instead of fueling the restriction - binge pendulum, if I eat carbs with all meals I can reduce the restriction - binge pendulum from taking place.

  • Carbohydrates at my meals contribute to the feeling of satisfaction. Meals with carbs + protein + fat will increase satisfaction because you are providing your body with the balanced plate it desires.

How can you create more satisfying meals which will keep you energized?

If you've been skipping on your lunch carbohydrate having a salad and then finding yourself powering down in the afternoon and ravenous by dinner, it's worth exploring how you feel WITH a carbohydrate source at lunch.

Here are some meal ideas for you:

Salad -> be sure to include a carbohydrate of bread/pita/naan/ few pizza slices on the side or a grain in the salad such as quiona, rice or couscous. You can also add 1/2 to 1 fruit such as dried cranberries, cut up apple or orange for part of your carbohydrate source. Don't forget a dessert option to add carbs of ice cream/ fruit, ice cream bar or a cupcake or tart.

Soup -> sometimes if you order or make a vegetable meat soup such as chicken vegetable there will be very little carbohydrates. If you are making it yourself add a carbohydrate such as pasta, rice or potatoes. You could also have a delicious bun, potato, macaroni salad or dessert on the side.

Fruit plate (fruit + cottage cheese or Greek yogurt): fruit can provide some carbohydrate but may not be quite enough on it's own. You can add 1/2 - 1 sandwich, crackers/ cheese, a bagel and peanut butter, chocolate bar (1/2) or muffin to increase the carbohydrate and staying power of your lunch.

Frozen meals: some of the frozen entrees which are very easy grab and go meals can have limited carbohydrates or limited overall calories. To increase the carbohydrate and energy from these meals add a fruit or yogurt or granola bar on the side. You can also add a dessert such as pie, cake, cookies, etc for more variety in the types of carbohydrates included in your meal.

What to do if adding carbohydrates at each meal is very challenging?

If you're finding the critical voice in your head is preventing you from meeting your needs, you do not need to figure this out on your own. That's where Registered Dietitians trained in Intuitive Eating comes in! I can help you to reduce anxiety, stress and guilt after eating meals with carbohydrates and help you to have more energy throughout your day. I have been certified in Intuitive Eating and can help you to understand how to trust your body, reduce the good/ bad food dichotomy and add energizing carbohydrates to your meals and snacks.


1. Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function Philipp Mergenthaler, Ute Lindauer, Gerald A. Dienel, and Andreas Meisel.


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