Strategic Eating / Earning Your Carbs

I saw this phrase the other day and it occurred to me how succinctly this positions the idea of what to eat when.

Let’s start with a caveat: this is not a post about planning to eat a hot fudge sundae after ‘earning’ it by doing two back to back Peloton sessions.

Rather, by simply learning about how the three macronutrients that make up our food work (protein, fat and carbs), we can position what to eat and when based on how active we will be.

Let’s start with a basic reality check:

More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese (1).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories (2).

Further, the types of carbohydrates recommended by the USDA are not remotely separated by how healthy or not they may be; we are told to ‘make half our plate fruits and veggies’ and to ‘make one quarter of our plates whole grains’ (only 1/2 of which should be whole grains)… and to move to fat free milk (3).

No wonder there’s so much confusion about what to eat.

If we move instead to a more common sense model, we might consider a plate which is made up of:

half to three quarters fresh, local, in season, organic veggies, leafy greens preferably
a palm sized about of mindfully sourced, local protein, such as wild local fish (remember, salmon cannot be a daily go-to for most of us) or grass fed and finished beef or a couple of soft boiled pasture raised eggs
plenty of natural fat, such as grass fed butter, olive oil, avocado or properly sourced animal fats such as grass fed tallow or pasture raised lard
fruit in moderation, with a focus on high fiber berries

This is a basic template of eating I utilize as a foundation of customizing an eating plan when working in my nutrition practice with clients.

For most, omitting for a short period of time those foods which are likely causing inflammation does wonders for the person’s ability to learn how specific foods + groups make them feel. In addition, doing the self exploration by removing and then possibly testing certain choices results in a feeling of empowerment through education. When we determine by using our own body’s responses as our gauge which foods work and which do not, we then have the experience and eduction to make sound decisions, which tends to resonate far more deeply compared to being handed a list of foods to avoid because ‘they’re not paleo’ or because a doctor has developed their own protocol based on a plethora of supplements they pedal to treat a specific health condition.

We then build upon that to determine when, if at all, to include:

Intermittent fasting. This is something that can be incredibly beneficial when done properly and wreak havoc on a body when not planned and executed properly or when practiced by those with specific health concerns.

Nuts, seeds, nightshade plants and egg whites, all of which can be contraindicated for those dealing with autoimmune issues.

Strategic carbohydrate. Adding in some baked yams or Japanese sweet potato to dinner the night before a long hike or bike ride makes perfect sense. Snaking on a ripe banana while sitting at your laptop and trying to focus does not.

Here’s where the phrase earning your carbs comes in; a very straightforward way of determining whether or not you need some starchy carbs with your meal.

Are you going to be moving your body? If so, for how long and at what intensity? For example, if you’re a healthy human being and you’re planning on a light 30 minute run, you can likely do this in a fasted state, and it will likely be beneficial to you.

On the other hand, if you’re planing on a century ride and you’ve never done a workout in your life without eating first you’re better of not making that your first foray into fasted exercise.

If we get familiar with balancing our meals based on the simple description above, we can begin to shift away from relying on the label of a package telling us that its contents are good for us just because it’s tagged as vegan or paleo or keto or gluten free.

And if 90% or more consists of all of the above, you then have significantly decreased the net inflammatory load on your body, subsequently allowing for a bit of wiggle room for that piece of premium dark chocolate (I love the real deal: 100%), that beautiful mezcal or whatever your thing might be.

Anything in a package is going to be more processed and less nutrient dense than something picked locally from a farm.

Granted, many of us don’t exactly go outside and pick kale from the garden and hop over to the neighbors farm for some freshly laid eggs.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve our level of awareness about where our food is coming from and how healthy and fresh it truly is by the time it reaches our plates.

The more those of us who are fortunate to have access to local, fresh, real foods, especially from farmer’s markets, continue to support our communities, the less demand there will be for the cheap (in price and quality) food byproducts that for far too many families are the sole option.

17.6 Million Americans still lack access to healthy food (4).

It’s up to each of us to first teach ourselves, then our families and those around us.

Then, to act on what we learn and actually start doing the work vis a vis supporting farmer’s markets, CSAs and just not buying junk, quite frankly.

How does this all circle back to carbs and what to eat and when?

It’s simple – what ties us all together is that we’re all in human bodies and we all have similar basic needs in terms of what foods to eat.

There are nuanced as well as great discrepancies from one body to another based on ancestry, and lifestyle choices, but suffice it to say that most of us will thrive with more greens, more good fat, less (or ideally no) inflammation causing agents in our diets, and a bit more action in the exercise department.

Toss out the idea of labeling, both for food as well as for diets or those who choose to eat a certain way and let’s just welcome back eating the way our not too distant relatives ate.

(We’re talking grandma and grandpa, or great-grandparents at best… we don’t have to go all the way back to Paleo to find examples of why eating real food is best).