It took me a lot of strength and willpower to sit down and write this article.
Why? Because as a registered dietitian, I get asked about carbs ON THE DAILY. And, as a sports dietitian, I feel pain in my soul every time an athlete tells me that they’re “cutting carbs.”
So, the fact that I even had to outline these things just to combat the very obviously misinformed who is breeding an even more misinformed and confused public was physically painful.
Undereducated influencers, greedy doctors-gone-entrepreneur and simply everyday people who have cut carbs with results they want are rampantly shouting from the rooftops that carbs are the enemy.
Believe you me, there are literal entire communities bordering on cult status on social media that insist that not only are humans not meant to eat carbohydrates, but every day that you continue to include them in your diet is a day you are killing yourself and dragging your body closer and closer to the hells of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
What do I say to that? Off the record?
Honestly, all of this talk gets me worked up emotionally because it’s such. unfounded. overblown. outright inaccurate. bullshit.
But before I totally go off here, let me tell you the main reasons people are afraid of carbs in the first place.
And then I’ll tell you exactly why you shouldn’t be afraid of them and why I eat half of my diet in carbs daily while still maintaining optimal health and a physique that I love.
The Most Popular Carbs are High in Calories
People tend to make the massive mistake of grouping “carbs” all into the same group. When I ask people for examples of carbs, I always get the same answers:
Bread, bagels, pasta, pizza, rice.
I can tell you, I have never had people include fruits, milk, yogurt, cheese or beans on their list.
My friend (and former personal training client) Nicole was outright horrified when I told her that fruit was a carb, considering fruits were something she snacked on daily despite actively trying to lose weight.
To their credit, many people recognize that potatoes and corn are carbs, but they will add the asterisk of “but those are bad for you” while still not recognizing that vegetables are carbohydrates too! But more on that later.
The point is, the bagels, pasta and rice are high in calories for the amount of food you get. Just one cup of rice or pasta is 200 calories and your typical pasta dish you get at a restaurant may have anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of pasta alone. Already being at 400-800 calories, that doesn’t even count the side of garlic bread, alfredo sauce and that generous sprinkling of fresh cheese your waiter just added. Along with your appetizers, drinks and desserts.
And have you seen a cup of rice? If you can’t picture it right now, let me tell you, it ain’t as much as you think. For perspective, one single roll of sushi normally contains 1 cup of rice.
But, here’s the thing. Just because the most popular sources of carbs are high calorie, doesn’t mean they alone are responsible for weight gain and certainly doesn’t mean they are bad for you. It just means you should watch how much of them you are eating if weight loss is your goal.
They Are Eating Too Many Refined Carbs
Piggybacking off of the last reason, people just tend to eat too many carbohydrates...and not the nutrient-dense kind. Meaning, a cup of sliced apples is going to be a more nutritious carb source than a cup of white rice and a steamed sweet potato is going to give you more nutrients as a side dish than two garlic breadsticks.
However, most people’s diets don’t look like that. Carbohydrates tend to dominate our diet when compared to protein and fat. So, when people switch to a “low-carb” diet full of high-fiber vegetables and healthy fats, they feel better. Then they blame carbs for their previous, shittier health.
This is a fallacy and leads us to my next point.
People Think All Carbs are Sugar
Now this is just a case of mistaken science. Or just...badly interpreted science.
Yes, it’s true. Carbohydrates (excluding fiber, but more on that later) regardless of the food source, from Snickers to blueberries to toast all eventually break down into a form of sugar.
However, not all sugar is created equal. The sugar that comes from a Snickers bar can harm your health when eating it in excess and Snickers bars aren’t a significant source of nutrition.
The sugar you get from a blueberry, though, doesn’t cause the same harm. No even close. Along with the fruit sugar you get from fruits, you also get vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. And I mean, come on, when was the last time someone told you they got fat from eating too many apples?
Not to be blunt, but it’s utterly idiotic for anyone to demonize fruit because of “sugar,” and if someone tries to pull this on you, awkwardly back away from this individual who obviously doesn’t understand nutritional science.
Carbs are Very Easy to Overeat
Let’s talk about satiety.
Whenever you finish eating, you either have a feeling of fullness or you feel satiated. Whenever someone says they feel “full,” they are referring to satiety.
Let me explain.
You can eat tons of food to the point of nursing a food baby, even painfully full, but still feel unsatisfied. However, when you eat a meal that “hits the spot” and feel just full enough to not need seconds, that’s when you’re satiated.
Different macros (carbs, protein and fat) have different impacts on their ability to satiate your hunger. Generally, protein promotes the most satiety and carbohydrates promote the least.
This is because the way that carbohydrates are structured chemically means that they don’t hang out in the stomach long and are digested pretty quickly.
While this is great for getting energy to the body when you need it, it means that you can eat a lot more carbs than you can eat protein and fat before you feel satiated which makes carbs a lot easier to overeat. If you couple that little chemistry fact with what we said earlier about the most popular sources of carbs being high in calories, it’s not a far stretch to wonder why people’s minds are convinced carbs are the devil of weight gain.
I will throw in a final note here to say that this is a complicated phenomenon. As mentioned, fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates, too, and they are generally loaded with fiber. Fiber is a special sort of carb that, while it contains no calories, takes the body a lot longer to break down, thus slowing digestion.
This means that carbs containing fiber tend to hang out in the stomach longer, thus making you feel fuller for longer.
So, dietitians recommend eating high-fiber carbohydrates for weight loss and general health as fiber delivers no calories, but can help you to control your hunger after eating.
When You Cut Them, You Tend to Lose Lots of Weight
No seriously. That’s all there is.
I saved the best reason for last because the loudest people who insist that carbs are the enemy are the ones who have seen impressive weight loss when they started a ketogenic diet or other low-carb diet.
There’s a couple of problems with this though.
One, anecdotes are not science. Just because it worked for someone’s aunt that one time, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for everyone.
Two, it doesn’t matter if you cut carbs, butter, Coke, dairy, sugar, meat...if you are not in a calorie deficit, you will not lose weight.
I’ll say this again, no matter what it is that you cut from your diet, if you are not eating fewer calories than you are burning, you will not lose weight.
So, if this concept is so solid, why is cutting carbs for weight loss so popular?
That’s because carbohydrates, relative to protein or fat, bring water with it wherever it goes. Hence the name. Hyd-rate.
Chemically speaking, when you eat a lot of carbs, you tend to gain a lot of water weight. Ever been super bloated the morning after a nice night out at an Italian restaurant? Feeling like you gained 5 pounds overnight?
This is around the time when people throw up their hands with the ol' "damn those carbs!"
Nuh-uh baby doll. That’s water weight.
Same goes for when you cut carbs.
You see, every single person I’ve ever spoken to that adopted a low-carb diet, lost weight and then added carbs back in gained their weight right back. This leads people to believe that carbs were the reason for their weight gain, but the fact is one of two things actually happened.
One, the weight they lost was mostly water weight from not eating carbs. Fewer carbs in the diet = less water to hold = lower numbers on the scale. And the scale can’t tell the difference between fat and water.
Second, the carbs they cut are typically carbs like pizza, bagels and doughnuts every morning. So, when people cut carbs, i.e. the junk food they eat too much of that just happens to also be high in carbs, they tend to replace them with foods they should have been eating in the first place like lean proteins, healthy fats and nutritious vegetables.
And let’s say hypothetically the carbs they cut weren’t junk food. In that case, it usually just means that they lost weight because they started eating less. Think about it in terms of what we just said about satiety: Take your diet full of carbs and flip it to a diet of fats and proteins, foods that makes you feel fuller for longer, and you’ll usually end up eating fewer calories. Thus a calorie deficit and viola. Weight loss.
And STILL. This all comes down to weight loss due to decreased calories and higher diet quality, not because of some magical effect of cutting carbohydrates.
The bottom line? There are many plausible reasons why people assume that carbs are the enemy when it comes to weight loss. However, this is simply not true. Carbohydrates are a diverse group of foods that range from “enjoy sparingly” to “eat as much as your heart desires.” Basically, not all carbs are “bad” and it’s perfectly possible to lose weight and live a healthy life while eating a diet rich in carbs.
As long as you watch your portions on the more calorie-dense carbs, make sure you’re including fruits and veggies in your carb allowance and, honestly, just generally avoid any sort of diet that requires you to restrict any food group, you’ll be just fine.
I have helped tons of people lose weight, cut fat and boost their health by eating a diet full of carbohydrates. Need some recipe ideas to make that happen for yourself? I’ve got just the thing for you straight from my program, The Athlete’s Method, with all of the macros and calories calculated for you.