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Do carbs make you fat?

The idea that carbohydrates make you fat is a common myth that has been around for years. While it is true that consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain, blaming carbohydrates alone for weight gain is not accurate.


In this blog post, we will explore the science behind carbohydrates and weight gain, and dispel the myth that carbohydrates make you fat.


A baking sheet full of hand cut sweet potato fries.

Debunking the Myth

Firstly, it is important to understand that carbohydrates are an essential nutrient that plays a vital role in the human body. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the body and for the brain and muscles, in particular.


Carbohydrates are important for strength and physique-based athletes for four main purposes:

  1. to maintain high muscle glycogen levels, a type of sugar that your body stores in your muscles and liver, during high-intensity strength training sessions,

  2. to enhance muscle recovery and adaptation,

  3. to enhance aesthetics acutely, and

  4. to improve body composition via reductions in fat mass (1).

Carbohydrates come in different forms, including sugars, starches, and fibres. Sugars are found in foods like fruit, honey, and candy, while starches are found in foods like bread, pasta, and rice. Fibre is found in foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.


A farmers' market booth of cherry tomatoes.

When we eat carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into glucose, which is then used for energy or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. When we need energy, our body breaks down glycogen into glucose to fuel our activities. However, if we consume more carbohydrates than our body needs for energy, the excess glucose is stored as fat. This is where the myth that carbohydrates make you fat comes from.


It is true that consuming more calories than your body needs can lead to weight gain, and excess carbohydrates can contribute to this excess calorie intake. However, it is not accurate to blame carbohydrates alone for weight gain.


Consuming excess calories from any source, whether it is carbohydrates, protein, or fat, can lead to weight gain.


For example, a recent systematic review by Hooper et al. analyzed 32 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) containing ~54,000 participants, with a minimum duration of 6 months to see whether a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet would reduce weight. The study found that reducing the proportion of dietary fat compared to usual intake and, in turn, increasing carbohydrate and protein proportions, modestly but consistently reduced body weight, body fat, and waist circumference compared to controls (1).


A small charcuterie board of figs and a blue cheese wedge.

Furthermore, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient, containing 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for both carbohydrates and protein. Consuming excess calories from fat can lead to weight gain just as easily as consuming excess calories from carbohydrates (1).


Fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient, containing 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for both carbohydrates and protein. Consuming excess calories from fat can lead to weight gain just as easily as consuming excess calories from carbohydrates.


Quality Matters

Some carbohydrates are more beneficial for weight management than others. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, vegetables, and legumes, are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates, such as those found in sugary foods and drinks. This slower digestion means that complex carbohydrates provide a more sustained release of energy and keep you feeling full for longer, which can help you consume fewer calories overall.


A jar full of bright orange lentils.

In addition, fibre, which is a type of carbohydrate, is particularly beneficial for weight management. Fibre is found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and it is not digested by the body. Instead, fibre passes through the digestive system, adding bulk to stool and promoting regular bowel movements. Fibre also helps to slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, which can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diabetes.


High-fibre foods are generally low in calories, which means that you can eat a larger amount of food high in fibre without consuming too many calories. This can help you feel full and satisfied while consuming fewer calories overall, which is beneficial for weight management.


It is also important to note that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Processed carbohydrates, such as those found in white bread, pasta, and sugary snacks, are digested quickly by the body and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. These spikes in blood sugar can lead to increased hunger and cravings, which can contribute to overeating and weight gain.


A large Mason jar of overnight oats, with a measuring cup leaning agains the jar, pouring oats out of it.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are digested more slowly and provide a more sustained release of energy. These foods also tend to be more nutrient-dense, containing a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are important for overall health and well-being.


In conclusion, the myth that carbohydrates make you fat is not entirely accurate. While consuming excess calories from any macronutrient can contribute to weight gain, blaming carbohydrates alone for weight gain is not accurate.


Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient and they play a vital role in the human body, and some carbohydrates are more beneficial for weight management than others. Therefore, it is important to choose complex carbohydrates over processed carbohydrates, maintain a balanced and moderate calorie intake, and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine for optimal weight management and overall health.


 

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Reference

  1. Aragon, A. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Wildman, R., Kleiner, S., VanDusseldorp, T., Taylor, L., ... & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 16.

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