Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Thursday: Do I HAVE to Give Up Carbs?

Q&A Thursday: Do I HAVE to Give Up Carbs?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: Erika! Luuuuuv the blog, but I notice you don’t post up a lot of breads or grains at all. Did you give up carbs to lose the weight before? Are you giving up carbs to lose your baby weight? I’m sorry but if I have to give up my bagels and my peanut butter and honey sandwiches, I might as well just quit now!

So, the answer is… sorta. I know that’s not helpful, but let me explain.

For starters, the term “carb” is often used to refer to things made of flour—pasta, bread, cookies, cakes, and so on—and that’s correct, it just isn’t the only thing the word “carb” applies to, here.

Vegetables and fruits are also “carbs,” but they’re never included in the conversation, I think, because the understanding is that they are inherently healthy so they shouldn’t be. So, to be fair, you’re not “giving up carbs” if you’re still eating fresh produce. You’re just “giving up flour.”

But to answer what you meant in reference to grains, I did, to an extent. Ouch, I know.

Here’s the thing. I generally avoid anything that tends to be particularly high-calorie without being very filling. Foods like avocado which are high in calorie are filling because dietary fat is filling. Foods like chicken thighs, my favorite cut of chicken, are filling because dietary fat and protein are filling. White breads, however? The protein is stripped out. The fiber is stripped out. The fat is even stripped out. There’s nothing there that’s particularly filling. I could eat it and become a bottomless hole, just eating food that isn’t remotely filling.

Good, fresh baked bread from a bakery that makes their bread by hand doesn’t have this problem. Bread that’s manufactured for grocery store sales, however, is another story.

Often, it’s baked using the most finely-ground white flour, meaning the “whole” part of the “whole wheat” flour—the part with the fiber and protein—is filtered out. Most of the time, it uses dough thickeners and conditioners, intended to make it seem like there’s more weight and heft to the bread, making the loaf look larger. Kinds of bread that are usually known for being very fat-heavy—like brioche, which uses easily almost 2 sticks of butter in a single loaf—now have little to no fat at all, thanks to the kinds of dough conditioners and fake butter fragrances used to mimic the real thing. Sometimes, they have fiber “put in” the dough, but that’s not the same kind of fiber as the insoluble fiber that helps clean our intestines and colon; it’s usually the kind that works like a laxative, which is a different—and sometimes painful—experience.

While we’re talking about fillers, let’s talk about how pasta today is made so differently than it used to be. A while back, I had a reader who extolled the virtues of fresh Italian pasta, how it was hands down, bar none, incredible, far more filling than anything you could buy in the grocery store. It took me a very long time to figure out why that was the case.

Fresh pasta is made of finely-ground flour, sure, but it’s also made using egg. Flour… and egg. That’s it. Sometimes, you’ll even find someone who uses multiple egg yolks instead of whole egg to make their dough. The fat and protein that make up an egg add positives to pasta, leaving them more filling and more satisfying. These things are often stripped out of grocery store pastas, leaving you with… flour and thickeners to give off the same feel as fresh pasta, but they fall short, leaving you with nothing but something that translates to pure sugar once it hits your blood stream.

We could go on and on with this, but I’m sure you see my point by now.

This isn’t an argument that says, “if you can’t buy the fresh fancy version of stuff, then you can’t have it. This is an argument that says, “when you buy the more accessible versions of certain things, the trade-off could be counterproductive to your fitness goals.” Lots of breaded and carby foods in the aisles and freezers of the grocery store all have the important stuff stripped out, leaving you little more than flour and a high-calorie sugar high… ultimately resulting in a sugar crash… ultimately resulting in a craving for more. This very well may be the reason you feel like you can’t give up your bread-y goods.

When I eat those kinds of carbs, I make sure a few conditions are met:

1) there are lots of vegetables and lots of protein are on hand. I’m careful to make sure I haven’t made myself a plate where more than a quarter of the calories will come from something that cannot fill me up.

2) I haven’t spent my entire day eating bread-y foods. If I had a sandwich for lunch, I’m not going to have pasta for dinner. If I am going to eat something flour-heavy, I’m only going to eat it once that day, so it better be good.

3) No, really—it better be good. I don’t eat what feels like hyper-processed bread-y goods. I want the full fat, high protein kind, and if it’s loaded with fiber, then that’s even better. Things that are store-made often have loads of fillers and conditioners in order to save money. I’d rather have something by someone invested in saving quality, and would sooner give my money to your niece with the bake sale whose Aunt Pookie makes a mean butterscotch cupcake than [insert grocery store] with “butterscotch flavoring” and dark orange dyed frosting.

4) I remind myself that I don’t need any particular food, I only want it. So, if it’s something rare that I will likely not have access to again, or if it’s something that just looks good in the moment, I check myself. “Would a bite of this be ok, or would I OD on it?” or a “Do I really want this, or am I just acting up right now?” usually helps a lot… I mean, a lot.

So to answer your question, I didn’t give up bread and bread-adjacent foods, but I definitely took a long look at why I ate them and what I was getting out of them… and the answer was “the sugar high that was contributing to my emotional eating.” When I decided to only consume the kinds of grain-based foods that were filling and satisfying by nature, it changed the way those foods impacted me, and made it easier to let them go.

Give it a try—maybe switch your bagel for a multi grain or a whole wheat, and use whole wheat bread for an occasional peanut butter and honey sandwich (or even lose the bread and try greek yogurt!)— and it might make it easier for you to let go, too.

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Telly July 22, 2016 - 4:48 PM

Hi Erika,

There is such a learning curve when it comes to eating healthy in today’s world. I don’t know if I am just not getting it or what but are you saying that you do eat grainy carbs but that they must be whole grain? Since I’ve started eating healthy , I’m only eating whole grains so that means things like sprouted breads, whole wheat breads, maybe rye bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, Bulgar wheat, quinoa, oats and such. I do worry that I am eating too many of these types of carbs because I find that I have something like that with every meal. An example of my daily meals include the cinnamon raisin Ezekiel bread with a banana and natural peanut butter in the morning. Turkey sandwich on rye and a salad for lunch, and maybe some whole wheat pasta sauteed with onions, garlic, bell peppers, spinach and shrimp for dinner as well as three snacks a day which include peanuts, apples, oranges and sometimes crackers or chips with laughing cow cheese.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 23, 2016 - 2:37 PM

To an extent, yes. I’m saying there has to be some major heft to the dish – there has to be fat, protein, fiber, and lots of it. Protein sources like meat, dark leafy greens, beans and fiber sources like whole grains and vegetables make a huge difference. It can’t just be pasta and white sauce, especially when that white sauce is mostly flour and milk instead of the cream (dietary fat!) it used to be and is SUPPOSED to be.

Bren July 23, 2016 - 2:15 PM

I sometimes buy fresh baked breads (which are pricier than the store aisle brands) and I absolutely LOVE pasta. So much so that I refuse to give it up, despite my exercise routine and desire to be fit. With that being said, what would be a few pasta brands that would meet the healthy/fulfilling requirements? To help control the amount of pasta I eat, I make sure that I include protein and vegetables with the sauce. For instance, I’ll sauté onions and then add chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, seasoning and marinara sauce, which is very delicious.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 23, 2016 - 2:39 PM

Honestly, I buy pasta locally, so I don’t think I’d be much of a help. Check out what you’ve got at your grocery store! Just be sure to read the label, looking for protein and fiber, and then check out the ingredients list. I’m sure you’ll be able to find something that will suit you!

jwoolman July 24, 2016 - 9:54 AM

You might try sandwich in a bowl. Huge bowl of raw greens and non-starchy veg, plus whatever must-have condiments you might use on a sandwich. You might find the bread isn’t needed, but if it is- make sure it’s really really good bread and consider adding only half of what you might use in a sandwich. That might be enough.

Stephanie August 22, 2016 - 12:01 AM


Just found your blog and loving it. Thank you so much for your take on carbs. Your comment about fresh bread/pasta vs grocery store options makes so much sense to me.

I’m diligently counting calories and losing regularly. Most of the time, I cook with fresh ingredients and stay away from fast food. Well, one day I got a McDonald’s grilled chicken sandwich. Fairly low calorie, etc. Low and behold, I gained 3 pounds when I stepped on the scale the next day. My total calorie count that day was pretty much in line with other days so I concluded (completely unscientific analysis) that fast food – no matter how ‘healthy’ or low calorie it claims to be – is very likely to make me gain instead of aid me in losing.

I used to eat out a lot and I gained weight like crazy. But, I also like to cook and I love pasta and crusty bread. I use real butter, heavy cream (I don’t even buy milk), bake bread, and have even made my own pasta. When I cook more than I eat out (no matter how rich the dishes are) I either maintain or lose. I’m going to completely abstain from eating out and see what happens with this approach over the next few weeks.

With that being said, for those who like to cook…maybe try to stop buying the processed and convenient stuff and make it yourself. If time is an issue, fresh pasta, bread dough, cookie dough, etc. can be made ahead in batches on a convenient day and frozen. You can control the ingredients and add natural, high quality stuff. And yes…it DEFINITELY tastes better!

Just my two cents. 🙂

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