A popular theory when it comes to eating for weight loss is that carbs are bad and can make you gain weight. But is this really true? Should you give up carbs, or focus on eating only certain carbs? In this article, we’ll review carbohydrates in detail and provide information backed by evidence on how they affect our weight.
What Are Carbs?
There are three micronutrients found in food and drink, carbohydrates (carbs) are one. The other two are protein and fat, and all three macronutrients are important parts of a balanced diet. But carbs are getting a bad reputation lately. Certain fad diets are making people afraid to eat carbs, which leads to them cutting out this important macronutrient entirely so they can lose weight. This usually isn’t a healthy approach – here’s why:
Carbs are Needed by Your Body for Energy
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the main source of energy used to power our bodily functions, daily activities, and exercise. As a result, severely restricting carbohydrates can leave you feeling tired, cranky, and even unwell. Additionally, foods that contain carbs can have several different vitamins and minerals plus fiber, all of which are important for our health.
Types of Carbs: Simple vs Complex
The type of carbs we consume is important to consider. Simple carbohydrates (also known as processed carbohydrates) are highly refined and have lost their fiber content in the manufacturing process. Simple carbs such as cookies and packaged baked goods, chips, candy, white bread, white pasta, and sugary cereals can also have added sugar. These processed carbs throw off many systems that help regulate our appetite and nutrient storage. Due to this, eating simple carbs can lead to a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, quickly followed by a crash. In turn, this leads to a drop in energy levels and can also cause an increase in hunger and cravings.
Complex carbohydrates are high in fiber and nutrients. Because fiber does not get broken down by the body into sugar, foods that are high in fiber do not cause the same sudden spike in our blood sugar and insulin levels as simple carbs do. Fiber can help us to feel more satiated and can decrease cravings, so we’re more satisfied with less food and for longer. Complex carbohydrates include foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, steel cut or rolled oats, brown rice, and whole wheat bread and pasta. These foods are an important part of a balanced diet. There is scientific evidence that suggests that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps prevent serious health problems like cardiovascular disease.
“Good” vs “Bad” Carbs
Thinking of foods as “good” or “bad” is often not helpful, when in fact food is fuel for our bodies. Framing foods as “good” or “bad” may lead to the thinking that we need to restrict ourselves from certain foods. This type of thinking can also encourage negative cycles of self-blame for eating the “bad foods”. This in turn can make it harder to lose weight, and lead to a disordered relationship with food and disordered eating behaviors. Instead of judging foods as black-or-white, good-or-bad, consider that some foods are more nutritious than others, providing more fuel our bodies need. But also keep in mind that variation and moderation are key elements of a balanced diet that is sustainable over time.
Tips For Eating Healthier Carbs
Replacing simple carbs with complex carbs is a good strategy for improving the quality of your diet, and for improving your health. Keep in mind, though, we still need to be careful about how much we eat of even the healthier carbs when trying to lose weight. Because our bodies are programmed to store excess fuel, even calories from healthy foods will get stored if we eat in excess of what our body needs. Consider the tips below for adding in more of the healthy complex carbs.
1.What is the color of the food on your plate? Simply swapping out more colorful foods with white foods means you are consuming more complex carbs and reducing your intake of simple carbs.
2. Watch for added sugar. Simple carbs are typically higher in added sugars, which can cause our blood sugar to quickly rise and then crash, leading to increased hunger and cravings. Added sugars also contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Use this simple formula when choosing a packaged snack: the sum of the protein and fiber grams should be greater than the grams of added sugar.
3. Read the label. High fiber foods have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, so take a look at the label and try to choose carbs that are close to or higher than this. Also take a look at the ingredients list and look for whole wheat or whole grain flour.
4. Where does your food come from? Foods that grow in fields, trees and other natural sources contain the healthy complex carbs and the vitamins our bodies need. Packaged foods go through a lot of processing to get from their original state to us, and are more likely to contain simple refined carbs.
Do Carbs Cause Weight Gain?
If you consume more calories from carbs than your body needs, you could gain weight. Carbs are broken down to glucose, which is used by our body for energy. Extra glucose that isn’t needed right away is stored in our liver and muscles as glycogen. If those glycogen stores are full, anything left over is stored as fat. Bottom line, if you eat more carbs than you need it will be stored as fat to weight gain.
Eating simple carbohydrates creates a spike in insulin levels in our body. Insulin is a hormone that tells our body to store fat, so when trying to lose weight it is better to keep insulin levels stable. Complex carbohydrates, especially when paired with protein, cause less blood sugar and insulin spikes; that’s why they’re a better option for weight management.
While we don’t yet understand all the reasons why, research has clearly shown that eating refined, processed foods can drive us to consume more calories. In at least one study, when participants were given access to only highly processed foods and were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, they ate significantly more and gained more weight than when they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of healthy, whole foods.
What We Know About Carbs and Weight Loss
Low carb diets have been used for weight loss for the past 60 years. There is no standard definition of a low carb diet, but it generally restricts eating of foods that are higher in carbohydrates such as grains, cereals, and breads, and sometimes even dairy, fruits, and vegetables. These are often replaced with foods high in protein and/or fat to provide the body with the energy that it requires.
While low carb diets can be effective for weight loss, the research tells us that they are not any better than a calorie-restricted diet and may not be sustainable long-term. This can lead to weight regain after weight loss, which can prove difficult to someone who worked hard to lose weight. For this reason, the best way to lose weight is to change your eating habits in a way that reduces calories, but is also sustainable for you. Considering the types of carbohydrates you are eating may be more important for your weight and your health than restricting everything in this food group.
If you need help thinking about how best to incorporate carbs into a healthy nutrition plan that works for you, a Registered Dietitian is a great resource. RD’s go through extensive training and stay up-to-date on nutrition research to develop the best individualized guidance on healthy eating, weight loss, and how to leverage eating the right foods to help you improve your overall health.
About the Author: Brooke Marsico, PA-C, completed her physician assistant training at Midwestern University in 2011. She began her practice in the field of Obesity Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago where she practiced from 2016 to 2021. She went on to treat patients living with obesity at Cleveland Clinic from 2021 to 2022 prior to joining the team at Form Health. Brooke is passionate about helping patients living with obesity achieve meaningful weight loss and improve their health. Her practice focuses on individualized behavioral and pharmacological intervention to help patients reach their goals.