When I first decided to stop dieting the single hardest thing for me to do was let myself eat carbs again.
Bread, rice and potatoes had been banned from my list of skinny-friendly foods for over 5 years. And even though I only weighed about 5 lbs less than when I ate them regularly, I couldn’t help but think of carbs as impossibly fattening. Given my body image issues at the time, I think I would have preferred to eat something laced with anthrax.
What is it about carbs that makes people act insane?
Getting over my fear of carbs required several critical steps. The first big one was digging into the science and learning that the healthiest, longest lived humans on the planet eat intact grains, tubers and legumes regularly. I grudgingly had to accept that they were not subsisting on protein bars and Diet Coke like I was.
The next big test was trying for myself. I slowly phased out processed “diet” foods and started teaching myself to cook vegetables and other Real Foods. I started eating fruit again. But the scariest part was letting myself eat things like oats, rice and breakfast cereal (still not the best choice, but it didn’t matter).
To my surprise and delight I didn’t gain weight. This was a huge win, since it was the first time in my adult life I remember not being constantly hungry. Then, slowly, I started to lose weight.
As I experienced success and felt my health flourish, I gained confidence that I was on the right track and became even more adventurous with my food experiments. I even allowed myself to eat things like bread and cake on occasion.
Today, nearly 10 years later, I hardly ever think of the word “carbs” unless I see it in the news. I eat and love Real Foods. Sometimes they’re starchy. Sometimes they’re sweet. But they’re always delicious.
I even eat foods that have been processed if it sounds tasty and appropriate for the setting. When I’m in Italy I eat pasta, in Paris I eat baguettes, in Napa I’ll eat pretty much anything because the food is so amazing.
Believe it or not I haven’t gained weight, I don’t have diabetes, and the apocalypse didn’t come. In other words, I’ve learned to eat the formerly forbidden “carbs” like a sane person.
Carbs don’t have to be your enemy. Anyone with a healthy metabolism can learn to live with them in peace with the right attitude.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Don’t moralize your choices
Foods, even those that contain carbohydrates, are not all “good” or “bad.” Some may support health more than others, and some may remind you of your childhood summers at grandma’s house. There’s value in both and no need for feeling guilty or virtuous in either case. Drop the moralization and you can start to see your actions more objectively, which is half the battle.
2. Prioritize unrefined starches
I’ve come to accept that I don’t function well without some starchier foods in my life. Going completely carb-free gets me very hungry, making it harder to eat mindfully and more likely I’ll binge (meat binges are not pretty). It also makes my workouts suffer and makes it nearly impossible to eat in public without being that obnoxious person who has a problem with every single thing on the menu.
At the same time I still prefer to eat unprocessed foods, which help me have more energy and look my best. I’ve found that when I eat small amounts of grains (e.g. oats, rice, farro, etc.) and legumes (e.g. beans, lentils) regularly, my cravings for bread and sweets completely disappear and I’m satisfied with less food. It also helps vary my meals so they’re less boring and generally makes life more delicious. Win-win-win.
You may do better with more or less starchy foods in your personal healthstyle, but regardless of the quantity focusing on unrefined, intact starches should be your default.
3. Own your indulgences
When outside your normal habits––maybe it’s your birthday or you’re on vacation––you’ll occasionally have an opportunity to eat something that is made almost entirely of flour and/or sugar. Only you can decide what is or isn’t worth it for you.
Now that I am totally in love with the Real Foods I eat every day, it’s easy for me to be really picky in this regard, which I’m thankful for. But even if Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cake still makes you swoon, that’s fine.
What’s important is that if you decide to go for it, go for it. That doesn’t mean shoveling as much into your mouth hole as you can fit in a 20-minute sitting.
It means being honest with yourself about what a satisfying piece is for you––not too skimpy, not so big it’ll make you sick.
It means putting it on a plate, finding a place to sit, putting a smile on your face, and enjoying the hell out of it. Because life should be awesome.
4. Don’t pretend processed carbs don’t matter
No one eats processed carbs because they’re healthy. You eat them because they’re delicious. Because there’s more to life than eating like a robot. Because you don’t know what the future will bring. Because one croissant won’t kill you.
That doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind and eat like that every meal of every day. Your food choices have consequences, and the frequency and quantity of processed starches and sugars you eat is strongly predictive of your future health and body weight.
Finding the balance between health and enjoyment gets much, much easier when you stop moralizing your food choices, pay attention to your body, and prioritize your own well-being. But it is still work you need to do for yourself, since everyone is different.
Learning to enjoy delicious food without sacrificing your health requires mastering your own psychology and being realistic about what you really want, and what you can really do.
5. Don’t believe the hype
In recent years it feels like starchy foods have become even more controversial than meat. Every week new sensationalist headlines rekindle the battle between the low-carb and low-fat camps, providing next to zero actionable advice for average people.
Just ignore it.
The science is interesting to us geeks, but it tells you almost nothing about yourself as an individual. So don’t worry about it. Focus on eating real, unprocessed food most of the time and choose your indulgences based on what you love and what works to keep you feeling and looking your best. That’s all you really care about anyway, and it will help keep you sane.
What are your strategies to eat carbs like a sane person?
Originally published August 25, 2015.