Carbs tend to get a bad rap for making people gain weight. However, this is one of the biggest misconceptions. Often, weight gain is a direct result of consuming too many calories, not just carbohydrates.
In fact, carbohydrates are one of the most important macronutrients you need, and a vital source of energy for your body. They fuel your muscles, and play an important role in brain functions related to mood, memory, and more.
Keep reading to understand why carbs tend to be the leading cause of weight gain, and whether there’s science behind the claims.
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients—a type of calorie found in food. Protein and fat are the other two. The main role of carbohydrates is to provide energy to the brain, other organs and tissues.
When you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down by the intestines into glucose and released into the bloodstream. Your pancreas responds by releasing insulin to move glucose into the cells. Many carbohydrate-rich foods also provide vitamins, minerals and fiber which are important for overall health.
Carbohydrate foods may contain one or more of three different types: sugar, starch and fiber. Starches and fiber are considered complex carbohydrates, while sugars are considered simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates consist of glucose molecules strung together in long chains. Your body must digest or break down complex carbohydrates into glucose molecules to absorb them from the digestive tract into the bloodstream, where they can be used as fuel.
Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that your body cannot digest. Fiber prevents constipation, and helps support feelings of fullness, blood sugar regulation, and cholesterol control. The majority of carbohydrates in your diet should come from complex carbohydrates.
Sugar is also called simple carbohydrates because it is the most basic form of carbohydrates. They can occur naturally in foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and milk. Sugar can also be added to foods for sweetness, such as the packet of sugar you stir into your coffee or sugary drinks, candy and desserts. The sugar that is added to food and drinks for sweet taste is known as added sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar because of the link between excess added sugar intake and health risks. They advise women to consume no more than 25 grams (g) of added sugar daily or six teaspoons’ worth. Men should limit added sugar to no more than 36 g per day or nine teaspoons’ worth. The average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day.
Too much added sugar can increase your risk of these and other health problems:
Simple and Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates include added sugars as well as complex carbohydrates that have been processed, such as white flour and white rice. Processing the grain removes the bran and germ, which gives starch a smoother texture and longer shelf life, but also removes fiber and important nutrients. Sugar can also be refined. One example is the production of high fructose corn syrup from corn.
Simple carbohydrates are shorter chains of glucose, which are broken down more quickly, whereas complex carbohydrates are longer chains of glucose which take longer to break down, so don’t raise your blood sugar too much.
Carbs don’t inherently lead to weight gain. In most cases, it’s the quality of carbohydrates you eat and how many total calories that are the biggest determinants of weight gain.
A 2022 systematic review of previously published studies failed to show that a low-carbohydrate weight loss diet was superior to a balanced carbohydrate-intake weight-loss diet. The data show that there is little or no difference in weight loss and heart disease risk factors in the short term (three to 8.5 months) or long term (one to two years).
Another study published in 2020 looked at the effects of low-fat versus low-carb diets for weight loss in adults who are overweight or obese. Researchers concluded that for weight loss, no diet is superior, as long as there is no difference in calorie or protein intake.
Types of Carbohydrate Problems
Other studies have shown that the type of carbohydrates consumed is key. Several studies have shown that a high intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugars increases the risk of obesity, while a diet rich in unprocessed carbohydrates is associated with weight loss.
A review of research published in 2020 concluded that long-term clinical studies have not shown that all carbohydrate sources behave the same when it comes to weight loss. A high-quality, high-carbohydrate diet that emphasizes fiber-rich whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), and fruit is associated with weight loss and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Fiber intake in particular is inversely related to weight gain, meaning that the higher the fiber intake the lower the likelihood of weight gain.
Conversely, a high intake of ultra-processed foods, which contain lots of refined carbohydrates and added sugars and little fiber is associated with weight gain. A 2019 study in 20 adults at a stable weight looked at how ultra-processed foods affected appetite regulation and food intake compared to unprocessed foods. After admission to the clinic, volunteers were randomly assigned to receive either a processed or unprocessed carbohydrate-rich diet for two weeks immediately followed by an alternative diet for another two weeks. Subjects were instructed to consume as much or as little as desired. When fed ultra-processed foods, adults consumed about 500 additional calories per day and gained weight. Instead, they lost weight when they ate a high-carbohydrate, unprocessed diet.
A 2020 study in a small group of healthy women concluded that a diet rich in high fructose corn syrup reduced the number of beneficial gut bacteria associated with anti-obesity effects whereas a diet rich in whole fruit increased the same obesity-fighting bacteria.
That said, any calories consumed in excess of what your body needs can contribute to weight gain and ultra-processed foods can make it easier to consume more total calories. A 2022 study found that consumption of ultra-processed foods increased among U.S. adults in nearly all demographic groups, regardless of income, between 2001 and 2018.
Carbohydrate recommendations vary slightly by health organizations but usually range from 40-65% of total caloric intake with the caveat that added sugars should be limited and fiber-rich, unprocessed carbohydrates should take priority.
For someone who needs 2,000 calories per day, 40% of calories from carbohydrates is worth 800 calories or 200 g. For 1,600 calories per day, 40% of carbohydrate intake is 160 g of carbohydrates per day.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is 130 g per day, which is based on the brain’s daily energy needs.
Total daily calorie needs are determined by age, height, weight, gender, and level of physical activity. In general, people who are younger, taller, heavier, and more active have higher calorie needs.
Healthy ways to include carbs include:
- Make oatmeal a breakfast staple.
- Incorporate fruit into snacks, paired with other nutritious options, such as nuts.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains, such as brown rice or quinoa in place of white rice.
- Eat more pulses in the form of lentil, black bean, or pea soup, hummus, or roasted chickpeas.
- Make starchy vegetables a source of carbohydrates in meals, such as baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, or roasted corn.
Carbohydrates are one of three types of calories found in food, but not all carbohydrates are created equal. For weight management and overall health, the best approach is to minimize your intake of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and ultra-processed foods. Instead, choose unprocessed, nutrient-rich sources of high-fiber carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils.
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