The Truth About Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
Lately, there hasn’t been a food group that has been more demonised in the media than carbohydrates. The popularity of low carb diets and even almost zero carb diets like keto has shown just how much people fear carbohydrates. Carbs have been accused of everything from weight gain, diabetes, obesity to deforestation (well not really). Even pop culture demonises carbs. Remember the memorable scene from the movie Mean Girls, when Regina famously asks, ‘Is butter, like, a carb?’
Is this fear of carbohydrates warranted though? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because of the kind of carbohydrates people are eating. When people refer to ‘carbs’, they are mostly referring to things like pizza, pasta and bread. However, these are refined, processed carbohydrates. These do in fact, contribute to weight gain and body fat. They also lead to insulin resistance and diabetes because of their processed nature.
1. Types of Carbohydrates
Insulin resistance occurs when the things you eat turn to glucose too quickly. This causes your insulin to spike too quickly and too often, to the point that your body doesn’t react to insulin anymore. This is why the entire medical community tells you to stay away from sugar. Sugar is also technically a carb, but a very simple and bad carb. It spikes your blood glucose very quickly.
White, refined carbs like bread and pasta are also kind of like sugar. They are easy to digest and turn into glucose quite quickly. However, people overlook the ‘good’ carbs. These are unrefined, whole grains like brown rice, farro, quinoa and buckwheat. These grains are higher in fibre compared to their refined counterparts and are therefore much harder to digest. The result is that blood sugar spikes aren’t as common. Blood sugar rises in a more gradual, sustained way.
2. Why Avoiding Carbohydrates can actually Hurt your Weight Loss Goals
The main issue with avoiding all carbohydrates is that many whole foods that are high in carbohydrates are also high in other important nutrients. For example, lentils are relatively high in carbs, but it’s also high in protein and iron. Potatoes are considered ‘bad carbs’ by some weight-loss gurus, but they are also high in fiber, Vitamin C and iron. So, skipping these foods also means skipping important sources of fiber, minerals and vitamins.
This could be dangerous because nutrient deficiencies can have long-term, irreversible consequences. For example, iron deficiency results in anemia, where less oxygen is delivered to important organs in the body. Diets low in Vitamin C can cause scurvy and poor collagen production. A diet too low in fiber can cause digestive issues like constipation and IBS.
Carbohydrates are also your body’s preferred energy source. When you’re doing a 100m sprint, it’s primarily carbohydrates that are fuelling your performance. It’s the quickest way of obtaining glucose compared to proteins and fats. Hence, eating too few carbs can make you feel fatigued and burned out. In the long run, this can harm your fitness goals.
You should also be wary of extremely low-carb diets because these diets replace carbohydrates with saturated fats. Saturated fats come with their own health problems, like high cholesterol and high body fat.
3. What Research says about Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
One thing to keep in mind about reading research studies is that terms like ‘low carb’ or ‘high carb’ doesn’t take into account the types of carbohydrates. For example, if you read a study that concludes ‘ High carb diets are linked to slower weight loss’, they may have considered the ‘bad’ carbs like bread or pasta. So, what do studies say about carbohydrates and weight loss?
While some studies do show that low-carb diets are better for weight loss, it is important to consider the variables in the study. Some of these studies are quite short-term, only considering a few weeks or a few months. In the short term, it’s perfectly possible to lose more weight by lowering carb intake because carbs tend to absorb a lot of water. So, the ‘weight loss’ you may be seeing is a loss of water weight as opposed to lower body fat. Also, some of these studies note that weight loss isn’t as significant when considered long term, like 12 months.
In one particular study, it was found that those who led moderate carb diets, as opposed to high or low carb diets experienced the most health benefits. The moderate-carb group had a lower mortality rate than the high and low carb groups.
4. So, just how much Carbohydrates should you Eat per day?
This is another contentious issue amongst dieters. Some say next to no carbs is the best (keto dieters), while others say carbs aren’t that bad (vegan dieters for example). In general, though, it’s recommended that around half of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates in this context refer to starches like whole-wheat cereal, bread, brown rice, whole grains and starchy fruits and vegetables. All these are also high in fiber, which can slow down blood sugar spikes. Refined carbs like sugar and white bread should be minimised as much as possible.
The bottom line is that carbs are not the devil. You just need to know which types of carbs you should eat and how much. Low carb diets can be beneficial for those with insulin resistance or diabetes. However, for normal people, cutting out too many carbs can cut off other valuable nutrients like Vitamin C, A and fibre.
Carbohydrates that come from whole foods like vegetables, whole grains and fruits are quite beneficial. These have other important vitamins and minerals as well, such as iron and zinc. They are also accompanied by fibre, which can stabilize blood sugar more.
This is what you should do with carbohydrates:
- Juicing fruits can be bad because it breaks down the fib43. In this case, fruit juice will affect your blood sugar levels as bad as sugar. Eat whole fruits whenever possible.
- Stick to minimally processed, unrefined whole grains. Things like rolled oats, wholewheat bread or pasta, brown rice, millet, farro and quinoa are all amazing sources of good carbs.
- Combine starchy foods with other fibrous vegetables. The fibre will again slow down blood sugar spikes.