Carbs Are Actually Good For Your Brain

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Lindsay Wolf

As a kid, I used to get so damn excited to eat freshly cooked pasta straight out of the colander. I’d taste test each little noodle with the discernment of a top ten chef. Each bite was carb heaven. Spaghetti was the wind beneath my wings, the peanut butter to my jelly, and the yin to my yang.

I’ve spent a whole lot of years in between then and now on some stupid ass diet. And with each weight loss plan, I’ve cut out various foods many have placed on the naughty list. When simple carbs showed up as a “bad” food, I tearfully put my fork down and backed away from the pasta bowl. Then complex carbs got stuck on there too, and I was WTF-ing all over the place. But like a good little calorie-counting student, I followed suit and said bye-bye to my roasted sweet potatoes.

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For full disclosure, I also spent a shit ton of years knee deep in an eating disorder and have been bone thin for most of my adult life. These diets, no matter how kinda-sorta scientifically backed they were, only fueled my dysfunctional relationship with food. I learned early on that certain meals would help me shed a bunch of weight, and others would just retain it. And when my skinny body wouldn’t lose an ounce more, I tripped headfirst into a diet pill addiction.

But I digress. Let’s dive back into yummy, yummy carbs.

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Since healing my eating disorder, I’ve finally allowed myself to connect with some major childlike joy and love to scoop a ladle-full of freshly made pasta into my grown-up mouth hole. As the steam wafts into my face and the al dente texture of the rotini softly crunches in between my teeth, I am transported to the early days of my youth before I began to see my body as a problem.

While I no longer place certain foods into “good vs. evil” categories, I certainly do love finding out when a previously demonized nom-nom gets its time to shine.

Bread is back in business, baby!

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In an Instagram post last month, dietician Kaitlyn Allen discussed how necessary carbohydrates are for our brain and blood cells. She also took to task the ever popular “keto” diet, sharing its unexpected origins.

“The ketogenic diet was designed for pediatric patients to help with epilepsy, that’s it. And when most people are ‘doing keto,’ it’s high protein, not high fat. The actual keto diet is about 70% fat,” she writes.

But that’s not all, folks! Apparently, the low-carb diet also robs our bodies of an essential nutrient – water! For every gram of carbs consumed, about 3-4 grams of water is stored. When folks are duped into believing that they’ll enjoy lightning-fast weight loss with a keto meal plan, they may not be realizing that the pounds quickly shed are due to water not being properly stored. Which can cause our bodies to freak out and think that we are croaking.

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“Your brain and red blood cells can only function from the energy provided from carbohydrates,” Allen explains. “So when people are in a ketogenic state, a back door pathway is activated to keep them from dying. Literally, the whole purpose of that pathway is to keep you alive!”

Basically, loading up on protein and avoiding potatoes tells your brain that you’re starving. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather down a bowl of pasta than deal with this diet culture fuckery.

I decided to do some investigative digging to find out if Allen’s claims were legit. And I was relieved – and a bit disturbed – to discover that they are. The original ketogenic diet, which was designed for specific bodies to absorb 90% of calories from fat, originated as a way of easing seizures in epileptic people, specifically children. Let me repeat that. Going “keto” was initially only supposed to help alleviate epileptic seizures. It was not developed for the long haul of life. But then someone got their grubby diet culture hands all over it and altered the composition of the diet to lower fat intake and up protein intake – and in doing so, transformed it into a “rapid weight loss” system.

Want to know how the pounds are so easily shed with keto? Because the revised ketogenic diet touted by many as a weight loss cure puts our bodies into a full-blown crisis mode.

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In a 2019 Huffington post article, gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at New York University’s Langone Health Rabia De Latour breaks it all down for us.

“Your body’s cells typically get their energy from carbohydrates,” she says. “But when you’re on keto, what you’re really doing is starving your body of carbohydrates, so it needs to go to the next energy source, which is fat.”

Doing this will intevitably lead to – you guessed it! – fat loss. But is a high-fat, low-carb diet the best thing for our bodies? According to Maciej Banach, it totally isn’t. Banach is a professor at the Medical University of Lodz in Poland who conducted an extensive 2018 study on the life-damaging effects that low to no-carb diets can have on the people who follow them.

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“Our study suggests that in the long-term, they are linked with an increased risk of death from any cause, and deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer,” Banach says in a press release of the study.

So basically, if you do it for long enough, you have a very real potential to keto yourself to death.

Is anyone else craving some fettuccine right about now?

Obviously, carbohydrates are still being defined by whether they are “simple” or “complex,” but the main thing to know is that complex carbs (like roasted sweet potatoes) contain essential nutrients and take longer to process, which provides lasting energy for our bodies. Simple carbohydrates (like white bread) are mainly frowned upon because they’ve had essential nutrients stripped from them and turn into glucose much faster than their complex counterparts.

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But please, don’t let this stop you from enjoying a slice of delicious cake before or after you tear into a bowl of whole grain brown rice. You’re a grown ass adult, and it is your goddamn life. If diet culture is driving you up a fucking wall like it has with me, I highly suggest listening to what your body needs and wants rather than forcing it into restrictive eating practices.

If you’re currently in the throes of dining on keto foods 24/7 in a desperate effort to lose a bunch of weight, I am sending you so much love and compassion. I have been where you stand. I have wanted the things you are seeking through a weight loss plan. I did not find those things, but I did manage to accidentally stumble into a wretched eating disorder. Thankfully, two decades later, I eventually stopped fighting against my body and allowed it to gain weight and recover. These days, I am finally living in a plus-sized bod I love, happy as a friggin’ clam to exist inside of it.

And I have zero desire – or future plans – to ever take a trip back to dietland.

This year, I wish for you to have the courage to allow yourself to enjoy a little bit of the happiness and freedom I am talking about here, instead of keeping yourself stuck in a body image prison through harmful weight loss methods. And if that starts with eating pasta straight out of the colander so you can feel like a kid again, even better.

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