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  • Ask A Dietitian: What Can You Tell Me About Carbs?

    Posted October 13th, 2017 by

    Our expert dietitian Carolyn Williams shares her thoughts on macro nutrient breakdowns, focusing especially on proteins, carbs, and fat.

    “What can you tell me about carbs?”

    One of the many advantages to joining the Cooking Light Diet is having access to our staff of professionals. In particular, members can tap into the expertise of our James Beard award-winning lead dietitian, Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, who’s been an instrumental part of the team since we launched our service in 2014. 

    As part of an effort to provide members with even more serviceable content to assist their respective journeys to good health, Dr. Williams will be answering questions posted in our community Facebook group. We wanted to know: If you could ask a dietitian anything, what would you ask? This is part one of an ongoing series.

    Carrie from Colorado asked:

    A Cooking Light Diet member asks our expert about carbs.


    This is a great question, and it’s one that I struggle with myself! I do pretty good following a healthy eating plan, but when I do overeat (or have cravings I end up giving into) it’s usually on starchy, carb-heavy foods like bread, pasta, and rice. I’ll give you a quick summary of the science behind carbs and cravings. And then I’ll share tricks that work for me.


    The Chemistry of Carbs and Comfort.

    Eating a big bowl of pasta or crusty French bread is comforting, and there are several factors as to why they’re usually the first foods we reach for. Some may be psychological—you always want what you classify as “off limits” in your mind, right? Or, it could be out of habit. Meaning, for example, that you might be accustomed to reaching for carbs after a stressful event. Well, there’s some chemistry behind the comfort they provide. Consuming carbohydrates triggers the brain to release serotonin, the same hormone that many antidepressant medications stimulate. So, the fact that carbs make you feel better is somewhat legit.

    Carbs, carbs, carbs

    Credit: Getty Images.

    Unbalanced Intake.

    Most people associate carbohydrates with bread, pasta, and grains, as well as less-healthy foods with added sugars. But, vegetables, legumes, fruit, and some dairy foods are also carbohydrate sources. The problem is that the typical American doesn’t consume the recommended servings of these other sources. Instead, we (way) overconsume grains and added sugars. Our carb intake is pretty out of balance, and this can affect some more than others.

    So, how can this science really help us when it comes to real-world healthy eating? Here’s what helped me.

      I realized that most all of my meals and snacks featured a starchy carbohydrate like whole-grain bread, brown rice, or multigrain pasta—many of the same starchy carbs that I regularly crave. Yes, whole-grains are healthy and should be chosen over refined. But, whether whole-grain or refined, I had a hard time controlling my intake, and they seemed to make me hungrier. So, I challenged myself to create some meals that didn’t center around grains—a leafy, green salad with fruit, nuts, and grilled chicken, or a spaghetti squash bowl tossed with black beans, diced tomatoes, and a little cheese. These meals were slightly lower in carbohydrates, but still in a healthy range. And getting my carbs from vegetables, beans, dairy, and fruit made a world of difference in my satiety, appetite, and cravings.Healthy carbs recipe

    This is not something I stick to 100%, but I do feel better and have more energy when I eat this way. So I try to do it during the workweek. If you are interested in the approach I described, then check out the SmartCarb version of the CLDiet.

    • BE AWARE.

    Sure, rice, beans, milk, and oranges are all sources of carbs. But, I’ve found they have very different effects on how I feel. Watch the effects that different carbs have on your energy, appetite, and satiety. What meal or foods leave you feeling really content and satisfied? Which leave you wanting more? “Problem” foods that you identify don’t necessarily have to be eliminated, but you may not want them to be staples in your diet.


    There are certain foods that are harder to control my intake of. A good example of this is pasta. Even though I always had the best intentions to eat only a 1-cup portion, nine times out of ten I went back for more. I felt full—and mad at myself for not having more self-control. But at some point I also realized that pasta didn’t leave me feeling satisfied, and I didn’t like the “control” pasta seemed to have over me. My solution? I don’t buy it to prepare at home, but I do let myself enjoy it on occasion when dining out. So a good rule of thumb is to try and limit the foods that make you feel like you’re not in control.

    I hope this insight into my carb struggles helps with yours, Carrie! Learning to listen to my body’s physiological and psychological responses to food and respond appropriately has been a trying process, but definitely beneficial when it comes to curtailing my carb cravings.


    *This information is not intended to take the place of individualized recommendations from a registered dietitian or medical provider.

    *Members following the Cooking Light Diet, on average, lose more than half a pound per week.