“Carbs make you fat.” I’m sure you’ve heard it at some point in time whether it be from a friend, an article in Cosmo, or even Regina George. Society has demonized the carbohydrate. Therefore, it is no surprise that a popular opinion in the diet industry is that in order to lose weight (or even to maintain a healthy lifestyle), low carb diets are the way to go. This belief is rooted in the correlation between carbohydrate consumption and an increase in insulin. Consuming simple carbohydrates (sugar and refined carbs) causes blood sugar to spike. The purpose of insulin is to help your body turn glucose into energy and bring your blood sugar back into balance. However, when your blood sugar spikes too quickly and remains elevated for an extended period of time, insulin tells your pancreas to store excess glucose as fat. For this reason, carbohydrates are believed to cause fat accumulation in the body.
So carbohydrates do make you fat!?
Not so fast.
Simply put, carbohydrates are your body’s number one source of energy. As your body digests carbohydrates, it breaks them down into a simple sugar known as glucose which is transported through your blood stream (hints the term “blood sugar”) providing energy to muscles and tissues in your body, among the most crucial being your brain, which relies on glucose to function. If you’ve ever been on a low carb diet before, you probably experienced difficulty concentrating. This was due to a lack of glucose being supplied to your brain.
Dispelling the Myth:
Overall, losing weight is about creating a calorie deficit. One gram of carbohydrate (with the exception of fiber) has roughly 4 calories. Therefore, by decreasing carbohydrates, you are decreasing total calories, but this is true in regard to protein and fat well, as they yield 4 and 9 calories/gram respectively. So it is not the carbohydrate itself that causes weight gain or prevents weight loss, but rather eating more calories than your body burns. While diets low in carbs have been shown to yield greater weight loss than ones low in fat, studies have found that there is no significant difference after a six-month period, and the initial weight lost through these low carb diets is often water weight. In fact, due to being unsustainable, the majority of the time, the weight lost is gained back plus some.
The Real Issue:
When it comes to carbohydrates, your main focus should be on the type you are consuming: simple vs complex. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, are broken down and absorbed easily and quickly by your body. Complex carbohydrates digest more slowly and do not cause your blood sugar to rise. Additionally, fiber is not broken down as other carbs are, therefore it provides bulk without contributing as many calories. By choosing complex carbohydrates and foods high in fiber over simple/highly processed carbohydrates, you avoid blood sugar spikes and stay fuller longer, which can help prevent overeating.
Simple Carbohydrates Examples:
- Sugary breakfast cereal
- All products made with white flour
Complex Carbohydrate Examples:
- Whole grain breads/pastas
- Brown Rice, Quinoa, Couscous
Carbohydrates provide energy to the body. Weight gain is caused by excess calories, not any one nutrient. The effectiveness of low carb diets is short lived, and often result in weight gain. The majority of your carbohydrates should be complex and high in fiber to promote satiety and curb cravings.
Everything is okay in moderation, and can be part of a balanced diet!