Jan 20, 2022

Do Carbohydrates Really Make You Fat?

Carbohydrates (or carbs as most of us know them)  tend to catch a bad reputation and often take the blame when we find ourselves putting on weight. 

How many of us have looked at the scale and said, "That's it, I'm cutting out all carbs!"? Or maybe our Google search history looks something like this:

"Low-carb diet"

"No carb recipes"

"Keto diet"

"Atkins diet"

But do carbs cause weight gain? The answer isn't as simple as yes or no. Let's dive into the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to carbs!

What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are sugar molecules found in many foods and beverages. It's a type of macronutrient, along with fat and protein, needed in large qualities to help the body function correctly. 

Many carbs occur naturally in plant-based foods, such as grains. However, carbs, such as starch and sugar, are also added to processed foods during manufacturing. 

The body breaks down carbs into glucose, the primary energy source for the body's cells, tissues, and organs. Glucose can be used immediately or stored in the liver and muscles for later use.

Types of carbs

There are three main types of carbs:

  • Sugars- can occur naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk products, and as add-ins in other foods. 

  • Starches- are found in bread, cereal, pasta, and certain vegetables, like potatoes and corn

  • Fiber- found in many foods that come from plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains

We will talk more about these down below!

How carbs impact your body and weight

Carbs are the primary energy source for your brain and body, giving it the fuel to function. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbs make up 45% to 65% of your total daily calories. 

Simple carb vs. complex carb

Our bodies digest simple carbs quickly and send immediate bursts of energy into the bloodstream. That's why many of us often feel a "sugar rush" followed by a "sugar crash" after eating desserts or drinking soda. Simple carbs will usually leave our bodies feeling hungry, quicker than complex carbs. 

Sugar is a simple carb and is either:

  • Refined sugar- can also be referred to as sucrose, glucose, and high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar naturally found in foods like corn, sugar cane, and sugar beets is removed, processed, and added to foods. Refined sugar has been linked to health conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and heart disease

  • Naturally occurring sugar- sugar found naturally in food like milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose)

Foods with added sugars (refined sugar) provide calories but lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber, causing weight gain. Whereas naturally occurring sugars have vitamins, minerals, and fiber that our bodies need to function correctly. 

Complex carbohydrates are digested slower than simple carbs. As a result, they supply a steady release of glucose into your body and help you feel fuller longer. 

Similar to simple sugars, some complex carbs are better than others.

  • Refined grains, like white flour and white rice, are processed, removing most nutrients and fiber.

  • Unrefined whole grains, such as barley, quinoa, bran cereal, spinach, and green beans, are rich in fiber and have many essential nutrients to keep the digestive system functioning correctly. 

  • Fiber helps you feel full quicker and longer, making you less likely to overeat. High fiber diets have several other health benefits, such as preventing stomach/intestinal issues (i.e., constipation) and lowering cholesterol and blood sugar. 

Tips for incorporating carbs into your diet 

Whether you want to lose a few pounds or maintain a healthy weight, there are many ways to add healthy carbohydrates into your daily diet. 

Whole grains to start your day

Beginning your day with a whole grain can help provide your body with the fuel it needs to take the day on. 

Steel-cut or old-fashioned oats, or a bowl of cold cereal, are great breakfast options. Just be sure that whole grain is first on the ingredient list and that the cereals are low in sugar!

Use whole-grain bread 

Be cautious when buying whole-grain bread, as many aren't as good for you as you may think. Look for bread that lists some whole grain (i.e., whole rye, whole grain) as the first ingredient. A better option is bread that uses whole grain as the only ingredient.  

Mix up the whole grain options

Whole wheat bread can be high in sodium, especially if you consume it a lot. Try other forms of whole grain, such as brown rice or quinoa, as a substitute for bread. 

Choose fiber-rich fruits and vegetables

Did you know eating an orange will give you double the amount of fiber with half the amount of sugar than drinking a glass of orange juice?

Steer clear of anything with "added sugar," and instead aim for whole fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables. Just be cautious, as some canned fruits and veggies can be packed in syrups. 

More legumes, fewer potatoes 

When eaten in excess, potatoes are known to contribute to weight gain. Instead, try beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes for an excellent source of slowly digested carbs and a healthy dose of protein! 

Find a balance

A healthy lifestyle is a combination of diet and exercise. Creating a wholesome diet should always include finding a balance of foods that work for your own body's needs. Always read nutritional labels, follow proper serving size guidelines, and practice portion control.

In moderation, you can enjoy all carbs...yes, even those yummy desserts from time to time!

Final thoughts

Contrary to what low-carb diets may claim, very little research shows that a diet rich in healthy carbs contributes to weight gain or obesity. Remember, focusing on the type of carb is more important than the number of carbs in your diet. 

Always speak to your doctor before starting a new diet or new medication.

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