I can’t decide which nutrition myth makes me cringe more: that carbs make you fat or that eggs are high in cholesterol and should be avoided.
Either way, these common misconceptions need to be cleared up.
I always groan when I hear people say “I can’t eat that. It has too many carbs and I’m on a diet.”
Carbs are not the enemy.
Overeating, eating the wrong types of carbs, lack of adequate and frequent exercising– these are what you should be concerned about when it comes to weight loss.
The truth of the matter is, we need carbohydrates to survive.
What you need to know about carbs
For the most part, foods can be broken down into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Don’t get scared by these scientific terms; all you need to know is that “macro” means large and “micro” means small.
Our bodies need significant quantities of macronutrients in order to function properly.
But the key to keeping macronutrients in check is only giving the body as much as it needs and not a gram more.
But where do carbohydrates fit in? Is it a macro or micronutrient?
For starters, carbohydrates are considered a macronutrient just like proteins and fats.
Despite what some low-carb diets preach, our bodies actually need carbohydrates as much as they need proteins and fats.
According to McKinley Health Center, we need carbohydrates for the following reasons:
- They are our primary source of fuel
- They are broken down by the body for energy
- They play a crucial role in how our central nervous system, kidneys, brain, and muscles function
- They can be stored in muscles or the liver and used later
- They are important in intestinal health and waste removal
So as you can see, completely cutting out carbohydrates could wreak havoc on several systems in your body at once.
However, there is so much confusion about the notion that carbs alone make you fat that most people avoid them.
Are carbs making us fat?
There’s no simple answer here because in reality, it all depends.
Here’s the most important thing you need to know: not all carbohydrates are digested the same way.
When you think of carbs, try to imagine three sub-groups: starches, sugars, and cellulose.
Starches are what most people think of when they envision carbohydrates. This is your pasta, bread, rice, etc.
Sugars are pretty straightforward, too. Think cookies, donuts, pastries, cakes, etc.
Simple sugars, for example, are digested the fastest. Imagine that “sugar high” feeling when you get a flood of energy at first that eventually settles and causes you to feel tired afterwards.
However, cellulose is different. Cellulose is carbohydrates found in plant-based sources. It’s a tough fiber that’s not broken down by our bodies. It simply passes right through our digestive tract to help move things along. Corn is probably the best example to visualize here.
Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, or quinoa break down much slower.
Instead of a sugar rush, these carbs give you sustained energy.
How carbs can give you energy
Once a carb is ingested, it is broken down into little packages of sugar known as glucose, fructose, and galactose. This process happens in the stomach and small intestine.
Once the sugars are broken down, they enter the bloodstream and head towards the liver. The liver takes in the small units of fructose and galactose and converts them into glucose, which is also a carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates in glucose form are actually used by the body for energy in places such as the muscles, brain, and other organs.
But if the body has reached its energy capacity, the glucose will be stored as glycogen in the muscles or liver.
Here’s the problem: that excess glycogen is tucked away for later and stored as fat.
These fat stores worked great back when we were stuck foraging for food and wondered when our next meal was going to come. When our bodies needed energy, they would tap into these energy sources to keep us moving.
But most of us don’t need to store food anymore. Even if we’re not on a strict meal schedule, we at least know that there is more food coming when we’re hungry.
So if we don’t use this stored energy, it just sits in our bodies in the form of unwanted fat deposits.
Doesn’t that sound fun?
The key is to eat enough of the “good” carbs so that we don’t create excess in the body that only gets stored.
This gives you enough energy to power through your day and also provides your body with the essential nutrients it needs to perform at its best.
Good carbs to eat
Simple carbs can be associated with things like sugar, syrup, candy, honey, and overly processed foods such as white bread, pasta, and pastries.
When you hear about “bad” carbs, think simple carbs. These carbs should not be eaten often.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, should be staples in your healthy diet, especially if weight loss is your goal.
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs are not overly processed and usually contain fiber. Fiber is essential for keeping your blood sugar levels stable (preventing you from crashing) and gives you a sense of feeling full after meals.
These carbs can be found in whole grains and many plant foods such as:
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, kale, etc.)
I try to consume a combination of these complex carbs every day. Because I am picky, I usually stick with steel cut oats for oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and brown rice. If I don’t, I tend to feel irritable and tired and my workouts aren’t as productive.
In addition to keeping you full and energized, complex carbs can actually help with weight loss, too.
How to eat carbs for weight loss
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re consuming too many carbs, your body is going to switch into “fat storage mode.” To prevent this from happening, you need to eat just the right amount of carbs.
But how do you know how many carbs you should include in your diet?
That will depend on how your body reacts to carbohydrates. It also depends on your genetic makeup.
- After a carb heavy meal, do you feel bloated, gassy, tired, sleepy, hungry, or inattentive?
- Or, do you feel like you can take on anything after eating a carb-heavy meal? Do you feel alert, full, and ready to go?
Answering these two questions is your first step.
If you answered yes to the first one, you may be showing signs of poor insulin resistance. Of course, you’ll want to confirm this with your doctor instead of just taking my word for it.
This study from the University of Colorado compared insulin sensitivities and weight loss in obese women.
The trial had a mix of women who were insulin resistant and insulin sensitive. Women ranging from 23-53 years of age were split in two groups. The first group ate a high carbohydrate diet (60% of daily intake) combined with a low fat diet (20% of daily intake). The second group ate a low carbohydrate diet (40%) combined with a high fat diet (40%). The results proved to be pretty interesting.
Insulin sensitive women lost the most amount of weight by following a high carb, low fat diet. Those who faced insulin resistance lost more weight following the low carb, high fat diet.
If you said yes to the first question, a diet that is low-carb and high-fat will probably work best for you.
On the other hand, if you said yes to the second question because carbs give you enough energy to feel on top of the world, you may fare better on a diet that is high-carb, low-fat.
But, this is only step one.
Low-carb or high-carb is actually relative to other factors.
Things like your age, gender, activity level, and family history must all be considered before determining an exact amount of carbs to consume every day.
For example, if you workout multiple times per week, you’ll need more fuel, or carbs, than someone who sits at a desk all day and is inactive outside of work.
It’s important to consider all of these factors, not just one in particular, before determining how many carbs to eat each day.
The easiest method I’ve found to determine how many grams of carbohydrates you need is to first determine your daily caloric needs.
After all, when it comes to weight loss, “[A]s long as you keep yourself in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight regardless of the dietary protocol,” according to Muscle for Life.
No, this does not mean you should restrict yourself to an extremely low-calorie diet and only eat carrots and celery all day.
Rather, the idea is to consume less calories than you expend, or burn off. So if you know that you plan on skipping a workout one day, don’t consume as much fuel, or food, to keep going, since it will just be stored and unused.
With that said, let’s determine how many calories you should consume per day.
Once I determine my calorie needs, which are around 3,000 per day for me, then I can determine how many of those calories should come from eating carbs.
Remember, that number may seem high to you, but you have to keep in mind that I am an active male who eats a healthy diet and works out consistently. Therefore, I may require more calories to maintain my body than you might.
Determine the amount of carbs you need
This part requires math, but I promise it’s very simple.
According to Eric Coleman, R.D., L.D., of SFGate, you’ll need to take your total calorie intake per day and multiply it by your target carbohydrate amount.
So for me, I’d take 3,000 calories and multiply it by .60, or 60%.
That number comes out to 1,800. But we’re not done yet.
1,800 is the amount of calories consumed from carbs, but it does not tell me how many grams of carbs I should be eating per day.
So you’ll need to divide this number by 4, or the amount of calories found in each gram of a carbohydrate.
Therefore, when I divide 1,800 by 4, I get 450 grams. So since looking lean and feeling energized is my goal, I don’t want to eat over 450 grams of carbs in any given day.
Let’s try this on math on a female who is insulin resistant, or requires a high-fat, low-carb diet. For easy math, let’s say that this woman is also sedentary and does not work out at all.
Using the calorie calculator, I’ve determined that this particular woman requires around 1,600 calories a day to lose weight and about 1,900 calories to maintain her current weight.
Because she is insulin resistant, she should consume about 40% of her calories from carbohydrates if she wants to lose weight.
When I take 1,600 and multiply it by 40%, I get 640. And once I divide that by 4, I get about 160 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Therefore, a sedentary woman who suffers from insulin resistance and requires about 1,600 calories a day for weight loss has a target carbohydrate intake of only a third of mine.
Now can you see why I said the number of carbs you need per day is all relative and dependent on several factors?
Even though it can seem confusing at first, I’ve found this method to be a perfect guideline to use when trying to figure out just how many carbohydrates I need to stay healthy, and I hope you do, too. Of course, you should still talk to your physician before committing to any dietary changes.
The key takeaway here is that carbs are not your enemy. Healthy carbs should be consumed on a daily basis to maximize your overall well-being. Overeating and reaching for bad carbs are what leads to weight gain, not eating carbs in general.
We can finally bust the “Are carbs making me fat?” myth once and for all.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you eat carbohydrates every day or do you avoid them like the plague?