Back in 2000, I was 40 lbs overweight and I had just been diagnosed with PCOS. As I was researching the best ways to lose weight with PCOS, low carb diets were highly recommended. One of the classic characteristics of PCOS is insulin resistance. Put simply, if you cut back on your carbs, you can control your insulin levels and thus help control your PCOS symptoms.
At that time, I had no real knowledge of good nutrition; I only knew what was “in fashion” and what seemed like common sense to me. Also at that time, I was a vegetarian and I was eating a lot of processed starchy carbs.
Atkins was pretty popular then but I was drawn to The Zone diet because they allowed a lot of vegetables and healthy fats so it seemed to be much healthier to me. They also had a protocol for vegetarians. The Zone was how I lost over 40 lbs and how I maintained my weight loss for many years after.
Even after I was no longer following The Zone diet and was no longer a vegetarian, I maintained a lifestyle of low carb eating as a way to control my weight and my PCOS symptoms. Any time I’d “fall off the wagon” and increase my starchy carbs, I’d start to gain weight pretty quickly and my cravings would be out of control. Starchy carbs were most definitely the devil.
Once I found kettlebells and became very active, I continued to follow what was basically a Paleo lifestyle, even before I knew what Paleo was. The more I learned about nutrition, the more I reduced processed foods from my life. I sometimes added in some starchy vegetables around my workouts to give me some energy and some replenishment but I was mostly afraid of them because, well, starchy carbs are the devil.
Later, when I was studying for my Precision Nutrition certification, I learned that they advocated the same basic way of eating; a portion of protein, a portion of veggies, a portion of healthy fats and a small portion of starchy carbs only after workouts. Cool, I was on the same page and doing the right thing!
Then, after some new and continuing research, Precision Nutrition changed their recommendations. They were now including a small portion of starchy carbs at every meal. What? How could this be? I felt confused, lost and almost betrayed. Eating this way worked and it was everything I knew. If I ate carbs I’d gain weight and get out of control cravings. I had been guiding others to eat this way to lose weight and it worked for them. How on earth was I going to change everything I knew and start eating starchy carbs at every meal? How on earth was I going to tell my clients that how I’ve guided them is no longer accurate?
Once I wrapped my brain around it and looked at it a little more closely, I did what any self-respecting coach would do…I read more and I experimented on myself. I’ll admit, given my past history, I was afraid of this little experiment. But the more I read, the more I realized that carbs may not be the enemy after all. Gasp!
I stuck with the program, adding in a small portion of starchy carbs at most of my meals and the most amazing thing happened. Nothing! I didn’t gain any weight; if anything I got a little leaner. Best of all, my hormones and PCOS didn’t go all whacky like they used to with starchy carbs.
As I reflected further, I noticed that my energy levels and my workouts had actually improved. And I was no longer fiercely craving carbs after eating them or at certain times of the month. What on earth was going on here? It’s like my whole status quo had changed. But it’s a pretty cool phenomenon; being able to eat starchy carbs again and not feel like my body is going on the tilt-a-whirl.
Stepping back and looking at it through my coaching glasses I saw that I was now many years into being an athlete and my body just wasn’t the same as it used to be when carbs were the devil. I have a lot more muscle and I am a lot more active. I also changed from a desk job and part time kettlebell training to a full time career as a trainer, so I am no longer sedentary for the whole workday.
When I first embarked on my year-long quest to become a Level 2 Precision Nutrition coach, one of our daily lessons brought me a big epiphany. In my previous experience with carb restriction, I had become a carb-phobic. I was now released from that phobia and boy is it freeing!
I do believe that when I was losing weight and not exercising, that my carb needs were lower and my carb tolerance was probably lower as well. I also believe that reducing starchy carbs can be an effective way to spark some weight loss, but that people need to be leery of restricting too much and/or for too long. I think in my case, it took a few years for all of the carb restrictions to catch up with me, but the most important part of that is just that – it caught up with me. The way I was eating seemed to work really well for me, until one day it didn’t.
I had to step away from everything that I knew and everything I thought to be true in order to take a look with a fresh perspective. And it brought me to a whole new understanding of starchy carbs. When eaten in moderation, starchy carbs are NOT the enemy of our waistlines.
I still believe that the starchy carbs we eat should come from whole grains, legumes and vegetables like sweet potatoes and potatoes, and not from processed carbohydrates like breads, pastas, etc. I also believe that the amount we eat is crucial to our progress or lack of, and that we each have to find our sweet spot. For me, the Precision Nutrition requirement of one cupped handful of starchy carbs per meal works well most of the time. If I’m taking a few days off from training, I might reduce that a little and if I’m doing more then I might increase it a little bit.
The bottom line is, find what works for YOU! And please don’t make the same mistake as me; instead, keep an open mind to the fact that what works for you now may not work for you forever. As your body changes, your nutritional needs change too and what you once knew to be THE thing may no longer be what you need.
Here’s another great article from Precision Nutrition, explaining some of the why behind my experience.