How to Eat Carbs Like a Sane Person

by | Nov 2, 2016

yogurt schnooze

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.

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31 Responses to “How to Eat Carbs Like a Sane Person”

  1. Kerstin says:

    I firmly believe in a well balanced diet but also that everyone is different. Some people feel better on low carbs, others thrive on being vegetarians while the omnivores could never feel good without animal protein. And some of us are ok with a bit of everything, like you describe above. The trick is to really listen to your body and know what it needs.

    I know for myself that when I stop listening to my body that’s when I am most susceptible to all the latest cries for no carb, or no sugar, or no life! I am dieting right now because I am very overweight but I aim for a balance in my food groups. And even though I am calorie counting (for portion control until I feel confident enough to go it alone) I am also focusing on tuning into my body and creating good habits around all of that.

    Oh, and I am so glad that you approve of (the occasional) croissants!

  2. Emma says:

    Hey Darya,

    I’m currently 5lbs heavier now than I was in Summer when I wasn’t eating carbs (and binging on the weekends like there’s no tomorrow) – when you re-introduced oats, potatoes etc. back into your diet, and you slowly lost some weight – may I ask how slow the process was? Or what the time frame was? Sometimes I think I’m just impatient.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I noticed I didn’t gain weight right away, but I barely noticed it coming off. Maybe at 6 weeks I could tell things were moving downward? Honestly I was so excited about eating again I didn’t pay much attention.

      It’s worth noting that I kept adding new habits though. I completely overhauled my strenuous workout routine. I started eating more veggies, etc. The little habits are what add up, it isn’t just about carbs or no carbs.

      • Emma says:

        That makes sense! I love how it all just kinda fell into place for you after that. Thanks Darya 🙂

  3. Pam says:

    Just today, I learned from a functional medicine doctor that he has a rule of thumb for his patients … people who are in a catabolic state (i.e., adrenal fatigue, autoimmune, achy/painful, depression, hormone problems, chronic fatigue, high stress life, etc.) needed higher protein/fat, much lower carbs … whereas people in a healthy anabolic state can get away with more carbs without ill effect.

    Personally, I am in a catabolic state (adrenal fatigue/hormone problems) and it is true that I do feel much better with lower carbs and higher protein/fat.

    Last night I succumbed to a big burger with bun and fries. Wow, did I feel like crap after that. Another clue that what the doctor said is true for me. And, yes, there were poor quality fats involved, and just way too much food, so it wasn’t necessarily just the carbs that made me feel awful.

    • camille says:

      That’s a very good point. I have an autoimmune disease (ulcerative proctitis) and carbs are a definite trigger for my symptoms. When I’m not flaring I can eat them in moderation, but in the past I haven’t been very good with practising “eating carbs like a sane person”. It’s almost easier to just go without.

    • JoAnne says:

      I think eating a big burger/bun and fries would never make a person feel well, no matter what “state” you’re in.

  4. Craig says:

    This info seems really true for me too thank you . I also find olive oil and a whole milk and butter from grass fed cows helps as well . So nice to pass on the binge dance with insanity and really savor and enjoy the infrequent smaller amounts of rich food. One bite of high end cupcake was amazing on my daughter’s birthday. I’ve always wanted to demonstrate healthy, sane eating habits to her .

    Starch was Red lentils with dinner last night and blood sugar was fine in the morning . 10000 steps helped as well I bet .

  5. Well said! I seriously am a CARBOHOLIC and I love when I get a client who has banned carbs! I find joy in showing them how the right kinds of carbs and not only A-OK but essential for our bodies! Great post 🙂

  6. Robert says:

    I think that any really extreme diet, whether it’s very low carb or very high fat, is not the best approach. It’s the highly processed stuff with all the added sugars that contribute too many calories to the average diet. By just cutting those out, most people will get significant weight loss and feel much better for it.

  7. Sandy says:

    Have had an entire year of great stress including serious illness of child and trying to buy a home. Concluded with a major move at age 70 – a very hard thing to do – downsizes by half. Result has been huge flare of fibro, sciatic nerve, osteoarthritis, thyroid and more. Eating on the run, too tired to prepare, insomnia, eating wrong. This gives me great hope as I try to turn things around, redo my pantry and fridge. Thank you so much for the encouragement!

  8. Patricia says:

    I’m cultivating the muesli for breakfast habit (with almond milk since cow’s milk has more sugar). I’m eating vegetables more often for lunch and dinner. I have also re-started my appreciation of yoga and acknowledge how good it feels to get into a position and feel neutral – neither hungry nor stuffed. A binge is a horrible feeling.

    Your messages are so inspiring. I have to read them over and over again to let them sink in like a good deep pose does. You are getting to and I’m very grateful for it.

  9. Teri says:

    What rice cooker are you using?

  10. Dory says:

    I am annoyed that so many of the comparisons of what diets are best for weight loss compare extremes– i.e. high carbohydrate no fat (possibly with many of the carbohydrates refined– who knows?) and high protein almost no carbohydrates. Who can live on either extreme for a lifetime? I do think that low glycemix index carbohydrates are the best, but I refuse to cut out all carbohydrates in the name of “health.” I actually avoid the abbreviation “carbs” because the people who use it so often seem to view carbohydrates as poison and feel there is a miracle route to health by avoiding them (especially carbohydrates containing gluten even for those who don’t have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.) Ten years ago vegans seemed to have the same sense of miraculous health due to diet. I need to lose weight but feel there is no miracle shortcut.

  11. jenny says:

    This has come at such a good time for me. I’ve just started a medication that I need to be on for 10years that has a side effect of being an appetite stimulant. I’m not a large person & find I’m thinking about food so much more & have already gained weight in 2 months. The limited research i’ve done on the internet is so confusing, eat this not that, no now it’s full cream dairy, carbs are still bad etc so I’m feeling really stressed out!Trying to bring it back to a day at a time & yes, smaller portions of carbs with higher protein. Hard work!

  12. Craig says:

    I definitely need Dr. D.R.’s approach aka “the remedy,” but a truth based spirituality was foundational for me. It helps me hold on while waiting for the healthy rewards of sanity and satiety to arrive.

  13. Paloma says:

    I loved your balanced viewpoint on eating the food we love but not forgetting our health in point 4, great explanation.

  14. Alekhya says:

    Hi Darya!
    Thank you so much for writing this article. I’ve been on a stringent diet for sometime now where I was eating close to no carbs.I had to deal with crazy hunger pangs and almost always felt hungry. I was a little paranoid about re-introducing carbs into my diet but now I think I’m more confident about adding regulated amounts of crabs to my diet.

    Alekhya

  15. Michelle says:

    Unfortunately this article does not discuss what you were eating while you were on your carb-free diet. all diets fail because once the dieter arrives at their goal weight, they recommence eating all the junk they ate which made them overweight in the first place. I ate a diet of whole grain carbs and starchy veg like chickpeas and potatoes, keeping off candy and confectionary and gained weight rapidly. I eat low carb veg such as all the greens except peas, high fat in dairy, certain nuts, avocado, coconut, olives and dark 75% > chocolate and I eat moderate proteins, i.e “like a sane person” from red meat, fish, chicken. I never get cravings and I’ve lost a lot of fat. No danger of bingeing for me. Most women will be fine until after their first or second pregnancies and as they reach their mid-30s, but today, much younger women are growing heavier because eating carbs is so much easier and often the quickest option to soothe themselves and/or starving children who are battling with the hyperglycaemic effects of cereal breakfasts or high carb pasta/pizza lunches. this seems to me to be a propagandist article without much research into the lack of nutrients in carbs or what they do have being far outweighed by their high starch or sugar contents. Sugar is highly addictive and never filling.

  16. Ana says:

    I didn’t read all the comments only the main article and I can identify so well to the narrator. I started rigorous dieting as a teenager and it all turned chaotic from there. I know my first boyfriend when I was in my early 20’s struggled to deal with me and all my food restrictions. It wasn’t till I hit 30 that I could call myself normal and be happy with myself and all food in general. It was a long slow road and nowadays in my mid 30s I’m slimmer, by a few pounds than all those years in my youth that I restricted myself from so many foods and would have a break down if I didn’t hit the gym and put in at least 5 miles on the treadmill a day. Nowadays it’s something if I even run twice a week anymore than 2 miles a session. I still work out. My work out is intense, challenging and I’m done way before the hour. Also, I do it as I feel adequate. Sometimes for different reasons I only get a work out or 2 in a week. Typically, I go for every other day and give it my most when I am at it. I stopped obsessing about food. I eat carbs and find I really do need them to feel satiated. I gave up sugar free gum and candy that ruined my gut and caused me so much gas and discomfort. I find eating flavorful foods rich in good fats to work the best for me but I still need some hummus, toast or my to go everything “Rice Chex cereal “. Simply carbs. Donuts, cookies and cake are not really a part of my diet nor do I crave them, but I will have them on occasion, just a little at a reunion, a brunch,or just because I walked by a dessert display and one of them looked so rich and appealing. With a glass of wine at home, it’s perfect. My best therapy has been a pet. It shifts my mind away from fruitless obsessions. I eat as I please. Some days I feel like I eat all day, sometimes I am just very hungry. Other days it’s 3 pm and I

  17. Ana says:

    I didn’t read all the comments only the main article and I can identify so well to the narrator. I started rigorous dieting as a teenager and it all turned chaotic from there. I know my first boyfriend when I was in my early 20’s struggled to deal with me and all my food restrictions. It wasn’t till I hit 30 that I could call myself normal and be happy with myself and all food in general. It was a long slow road and nowadays in my mid 30s I’m slimmer, by a few pounds than all those years in my youth that I restricted myself from so many foods and would have a break down if I didn’t hit the gym and put in at least 5 miles on the treadmill a day. Nowadays it’s something if I even run twice a week anymore than 2 miles a session. I still work out. My work out is intense, challenging and I’m done way before the hour. Also, I do it as I feel adequate. Sometimes for different reasons I only get a work out or 2 in a week. Typically, I go for every other day and give it my most when I am at it. I stopped obsessing about food. I eat carbs and find I really do need them to feel satiated. I gave up sugar free gum and candy that ruined my gut and caused me so much gas and discomfort. I find eating flavorful foods rich in good fats to work the best for me but I still need some hummus, toast or my to go everything “Rice Chex cereal “. Simply carbs. Donuts, cookies and cake are not really a part of my diet nor do I crave them, but I will have them on occasion, just a little at a reunion, a brunch,or just because I walked by a dessert display and one of them looked so rich and appealing. With a glass of wine at home, it’s perfect. My best therapy has been a pet. It shifts my mind away from fruitless obsessions. I eat as I please. Some days I feel like I eat all day, sometimes I am just very hungry. Other days it’s 5 pm and I have yet to eat anything. I become so entertained in whatever it is that food can wait. I’m a single woman by choice and it works for me. I have an intense job that eats up most of my time. People around me are often taken aback by my nonchalant attitude towards food. Nothing is a bad food, even candy has a boost of energy. I also know I will be fine if I only ate one sound meal today. At least I ate it when I was able to enjoy it and I ate what I enjoyed which is also typically what my body needed most. Through my journey I learned to listen to my body and love it. Different things work for different folks.

  18. Anna says:

    I’m curious as how one “listens to their body”?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Excellent question, thank you for thinking deeper. Listening to your body is another term for mindfulness. That means paying attention and observing to your body’s cues without reacting. For instance, if you’re instinct tells you “I want cereal I must be hungry,” don’t just grab a box of cereal and go to town. Instead ask yourself, where is the hunger? In my stomach, brain or mouth? What might be the source? Is cereal truly what I need/want? When you feel you know the reason for your desire, experiment by giving it what you think it needs and notice again how you feel. Was your hypothesis accurate or do you feel worse instead of better? It takes practice, but it is a critical skill.

  19. Dee says:

    Nothing’s wrong with carbs…. Just look at the skinny, sexy Jamaicans lining up for Devon House ice cream on a Sunday night…..
    Food, slimness , fitness is all about attitude….

  20. SSlorach says:

    Hi Darya,

    I’m just starting to understand how to listen to what my body is saying. But any advice you can give on that would be most appreciated. I have a common history of yo-yo dieting over the last 30 or so years and what I’ve learned from that is that for me dieting serves a short-term purpose, but it’s not sustainable. I’ve read your book, which was enlightening and insightful and I read your weekly updates with keen interest. What I’m finding now is I have an element of fear in fully embracing the demoralisation of food. I really like the thought of that, but I’m concerned about spinning out of control if I finally let go of it. I’m thinking that if I knew a little more about how to listen to my body – which I guess is about self awareness, perhaps that self awareness is a key in self control or in helping to prevent the loss of it.

  21. Sabrina B says:

    Hype is a problem!

    I remember there being similar but not as long lasting hype about fat, i.e. – ban all fat from your diet! then of course, the imbalance starts causing unexpected side effects…

    I think that there has to be some genetic sensitivity to certain foods, including carbs, based on different evolutionary histories, i.e. – how long was your bloodline likely dependent on grains vs protein, etc., and as a result some foods probably affect some metabolisms much more than others.

  22. Dee says:

    I love tip number 4.’dont pretend processed carbs dont matter’. I try to limit processed carbs as much as possible but the reality is, I’m human and love the taste and convenience of such foods.
    Real foods are better and healthier and its good not to kid ourselves when eating processed carbs. Eat them and enjoy them but dont think they’re the healthiest thing you could be eating xx

  23. Laura says:

    Hello Darya! Love your website and this article in particular. I was wondering if you have advice when it comes to a family member moralizing your food choices for you. Whenever I want to truly enjoy an indulgence, and this person is around, they frame my behavior in a negative way making me feel shameful about my actions when I was intending on enjoying my treat! I thought about just avoiding all indulgences around them since it’s a family member I just see on some vacas and holidays (of course when a lot of sweets are around ha). Thanks for the help!

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