On Jan. 24, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez challenged TODAY co-host Hoda Kotb to not eat carbs and sugar for 10 days, PEOPLE reports. “We’re just walking in from the gym, and we’re in the middle of our 10-day challenge, and it’s getting lonely,” Lopez said in a video on Instagram stories. Lopez called into the TODAY Show on Jan. 25 to explain the challenge, telling Kotb that in addition to not eating traditional carb-dense foods like breads, pastas, cookies, and candy, she and Rodriguez are also restricting their intake of dairy, fruits, and starchy vegetables. In addition to Kotb, celebs and folks on social media have been enthusiastic about joining in on the 10-day challenge, too.
Coming off the heels of new year's challenges like Dry January and Whole30, this kind of challenge might seem like not a big deal in comparison — after all, it's only 10 days without carbs or sugar, not a month. But you might want to think twice before cutting anything out of your diet completely, nutritionists say. The truth is that carbs and sugars have gotten a bad rap pretty unfairly, and food challenges like these can complicate an otherwise loving relationship with food.
"The 10-day challenge echoes common problematic assumptions about food — namely, that all carbs are unhealthy and should be avoided," Joyce Faraj, PhD, RDN, CDN, and a nutritionist at Mountainside, tells Bustle. "This new trend encourages people to categorize foods as 'good' and 'bad,' when the truth is much more complex."
The main source of carbohydrates are starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, and cereals, but carbs also come from vegetables, fruits, and sugar, according to BBC News. Your body needs carbs and sugar — or glucose — to function, according to the Diabetes Council. That’s why when people cut out carbs, even in the short-term, says the Diabetes Council, they may experience all kinds of unpleasant side effects, like irritability, shakiness, heart palpitations, cold sweats, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or impulsive decision-making. And when you don’t eat enough sugar, The Diabetes Council says you can experience severe headaches, shivering, constipation, brain fog, fatigue, heart palpitations, or leg cramps.
Further, by cutting these food groups out of your diet, you cut out the essential nutrients they provide, too. "It is important to first note that there are different types of 'carb'”- many of which are complex and nutrient dense, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and even dairy," Faraj says. "Avoiding simple carbohydrates such as cookies and cake can help stabilize blood sugar," aka, help you avoid a "sugar crash." However, "Those who avoid consuming complex carbohydrates for a sustained period of time may feel more tired or irritable," Faraj says, "because complex carbs like whole grains and fruit provide energy."
"Sudden dietary shifts are, simply put, hard to manage," Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Maya Feller Nutrition tells Bustle. "When a person is in the habit of eating a certain way, they need time to plan and come up with ideas of how to be successful on the new plan."
Researchers have found that moderation truly is the key when it comes to any food carbs and sugars. A 2018 study published in The Lancet Public Health found that people who ate a moderate amount of carbs over 25 years had a slightly lower risk of death than those who ate low or high amounts of carbs. The researchers said carb-restricted diets often don’t focus enough on the nutrients the body needs to stay healthy, BBC News reports. That means when people are focusing so much on eating fewer carbs, says BBC News, they aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruits, and grains, but are adding too many animal proteins and fats.
"When carbohydrate intake is reduced in the diet, there are benefits when this is replaced with plant-origin fat and protein food sources, but not when replaced with animal-origin sources such as meats,” Professor Nita Forouhi from the MRC epidemiology unit at University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News.
Eating anything in moderation isn't just OK; it's also just plain good for you. Challenges like these can be especially triggering to people who live with or are in recovery from eating disorders, Feller says, but can be tough on anyone's relationship to food. "After the challenge is over, this restriction may lead to desires to binge-eat the forbidden foods, causing unnecessary guilt associated with eating," Faraj says.
Supporting each other in developing and maintaining mindful relationships with food would go far in helping everyone eat in ways that are good for their bodies. Now that’s a challenge we can all get behind.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.