Do Carbs Make You Gain Weight? Are Carbs Bad for You?

Banana, potato, bread and other carbs

When it comes to nutrition for weight loss, there is a lot of information out there about how we should be eating. Books, websites, friends, family, your healthcare provider – it seems like everyone has advice on the best way to eat in order to lose weight. A popular theory when it comes to nutrition for weight loss is that carbs are bad for you or that carbs make you gain weight. But is this really the case? Should you give up carbs altogether? In this article, we’ll talk about carbohydrates in detail and provide research-backed information on how they affect our weight. 

What Are Carbs?

Carbohydrates (carbs) are one of the three macronutrients found in food and drink. The other two are protein and fat, and all three macronutrients are important components of a healthful, balanced diet. But carbs are getting a bad rap these days. Fad diets make people fear carbohydrates and frequently have them cutting out this important macronutrient entirely as an approach to losing weight. This usually isn’t a healthful approach, though, and here’s why: 

Your Body Needs Carbs

Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the main source of energy used to fuel our bodily functions, activities of daily living, and exercise. As a result, severely restricting carbohydrates can leave you feeling tired, cranky, and even unwell. Additionally, carbohydrate-containing foods often have a number of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, which are important for our overall health.  

Simple vs Complex Carbs

The type of carbs we consume is important to consider. Simple carbohydrates (also known as processed carbohydrates) are highly refined, often have added sugar, and have lost their fiber content in the manufacturing process. Simple carbs include foods such as cookies and packaged baked goods, chips, candy, white bread, white pasta, and sugary cereals. These highly refined carbs throw off many of the systems that regulate our appetite and nutrient storage. For example, eating simple carbs can lead to a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, quickly followed by a crash. This can lead to a drop in our energy level and an increase in hunger and cravings. 

Complex carbohydrates on the other hand are high in fiber and nutrients. Fiber does not get broken down by the body into sugar, so 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 also helps us to feel full 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. A lot of scientific evidence suggests that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps prevent serious health problems like cardiovascular disease. 

“Good” vs “Bad” Carbs

Just as cutting out a whole food group can have unwanted health consequences, thinking of foods as “good” or “bad” is often not helpful. Food is fuel for our bodies. Framing foods as “good” or “bad” may lead to the idea that we have to completely restrict ourselves from certain foods, and to very negative cycles of self-blame for eating any of those “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, but variation and moderation are key elements of a balanced, healthful diet that you can sustain over a lifetime. 

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.Take a look at the color of the food on your plate. Simply incorporating more colorful foods, and less white food, means you are incorporating more complex carbs and reducing your intake of simple carbs. 

2. Look at 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 while you’re there, and look for whole wheat or whole grain flour. 

3. 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. A good rule of thumb when looking at the label of a packaged snack is that you want the sum of the protein and fiber grams to be greater than the grams of added sugar. 

4. Think about where your food comes from. In general, foods that grow in fields, bushes, trees and other natural sources contain the healthy complex carbs and the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. Foods that come in wrapped packages or go through a lot of processing to get from their original state to us, are more likely to be full of simple refined carbs.

Do Carbs Make You Gain Weight?

As with anything, if you eat many more calories from carbohydrates than your body needs, you may gain weight. When we eat carbs, they are broken down to glucose, which our body uses for energy. Any extra glucose that isn’t needed right away is stored in our liver and muscles as glycogen. Once those glycogen stores are full, anything left over is stored as fat. So if you eat more carbohydrates than your body needs, it will be stored as fat and could contribute to weight gain. 

There are multiple reasons why consuming more complex carbohydrates in place of simple carbohydrates is good for weight management. First, the fiber in complex carbohydrates helps to make us feel full, or satiated, so we’re more satisfied with a smaller portion. On the other hand, the blood sugar spike and crash that we get from simple carbohydrates can contribute to feeling hungry again shortly after eating. 

When we eat simple carbohydrates, there is also a spike in our insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that tells our body to store fat, so when it comes to weight management, it is better to keep insulin levels stable. Complex carbohydrates (especially when paired with protein!) cause less blood sugar and insulin spikes; another reason they’re a better option for weight management. 

In truth, we don’t yet understand all the reasons why, but research has clearly shown that eating refined, processed foods can drive us to consume more calories. In at least one carefully conducted 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 around for a century and used specifically for weight loss for at least the past 60 years. There is no standard definition of a low carb diet, but it generally restricts intake 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 that are higher in protein and/or fat in order to still provide the body with the energy that it needs.

While low carb diets have proven to be effective for weight loss, a review of the research tells us that they are not superior to a calorie-restricted diet and may be difficult to sustain long-term. This can lead to weight regain after weight loss, which can be particularly disheartening 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 feels sustainable to 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 your body, a Registered Dietitian is a great resource. They will use their training in the most up-to-date 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.

How Form Health Can Help You Reach Your Weight Loss Goals

If you’ve been trying a low carb diet or counting calories but not seeing the results you want, Form Health may be able to help. With support from your Board Certified Doctor and Registered Dietitian, you can begin the process of practicing healthy habits for weight loss. Your RD will guide you through your journey by creating a healthy and sustainable nutrition plan that makes the most sense for you. Form Health’s program is personalized to each individual’s needs to help them reach their specific goals. 

Take our quiz to find out if you’re a candidate today, or schedule a call/send a message to get in touch with us directly.

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. She is also experienced in managing patients who have a history of bariatric surgery.

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