I joined a month long fitness challenge at the beginning of January and was surprised to learn that a lot of the girls in the challenge still believed that carbs were bad. And by bad, I mean that they thought they were making them gain weight or hindering their progress of losing weight. I forgot that I have done A LOT of research about nutrition in my fitness journey which has changed the way I’ve viewed a lot of things we’re taught by society including the lie that carbs make us fat. I love educating people about nutrition and teaching women that food is not the enemy. We’re taught to be scared of eating food and eating too much and unfortunately, these thoughts often lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and an unhealthy body image. Remember weight does NOT equal health. You cannot look at someone and judge if they’re healthy or not based on their size.
First things first, what is a carb. The short answer is that a carb, short for carbohydrate, is a macro nutrient. There are three macro nutrients that make up calories: carbohydrates, fats, & protein. Some examples of carbs are bread, pasta, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and cookies. Carbs are usually the main energy source in the human diet.
Now that we know what carbohydrates are, let’s discuss what makes people gain weight. Except for a small percentage of people who have a thyroid condition, gaining weight is caused by eating more calories than are being burned. For example, if you’re burning 2,000 calories per day and eating 2,500 calories per day, over time you will gain weight. One pound is equal to 3,500 calories so if you ate 500 calories more per day than you burned, you’d gain 1 lb per week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 cals = 1 lb). Conversely, it takes a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose 1 lb so a 500 daily calorie deficit would result in 1lb of weight lose per week. I wrote an in-depth blog post more about this here, but you can see why losing weight is a lot harder than gaining weight (i.e. eating 500 calories is a lot easier & quicker than burning 500 calories).
So why do carbs get a bad rap? And more importantly, are they making you gain weight? Society has been telling us for years that carbs are making us fat and with the obesity problem in America, it’s easy to point the blame at the biggest macronutrient: carbs. Carbs make up a majority of our food choices and are in most of the food we consume. Let me ask you this, have you ever heard of someone gaining weight because of eating too many apples? Or how about too many bananas? Both of these food choices contain all carbs and minimal to zero protein and fat. When you think about someone gaining weight, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if you found out they ate things like donuts, potatoes chips, cookies and ice cream. Again, these food choices are mostly carb based. However, the key difference between the first example and the second is that the second is all processed food. These foods, while mostly being made up of carbs, also have a pretty high fat & sodium contain. This doesn’t make them inherently bad but it does make them highly palatable and calorie dense. Have you ever eaten just one potato chip? Probably not, because they’re designed to make you eat more than one. The food industry designs food to be addicting. They want you to keep coming back and buying their products because they’re making money off you. So how is this making you gain weight?
Simply put, it is easier to overeat processed foods than it is to overeat whole foods. Processed foods are high in calories and low in fiber, water and nutrient density. You can eat a whole bag of chips for relatively low nutrients and high calories; whereas, you can eat significantly more whole foods (fruits, veggies, potatoes, legumes, etc.) with much higher nutrients and lower calories. So why do people who go on low carb or keto diets lose weight? A lot of people think it’s because they stopped eating carbs but the real reason is two-fold. One, they’re eating less calories than they’re burning and two, they’re losing water-weight.
- When people go keto or low-carb, they significantly limit what they can and can’t eat. For example, if your coworker brings in donuts every Friday, now that you’re keto, you will no longer eat these because it doesn’t fit into your diet. Those chips and ice cream you ate every day after work no longer fit into your diet and you stop eating them. You also probably eat out less and start incorporating more whole foods into your diet. After a few weeks, you’ve been in a caloric deficit and lost weight.
- Many people who start a low-carb diet, lose a significant amount of weight in the first week due to water weight. Carbs are great at holding water which is why they are a great fuel source for our bodies. When you stop eating carbs, your body holds onto less water which results in a decrease in scale weight. Another example of this is if you eat a high sodium meal for dinner and the next day wake up 5 pounds heavier. You most likely didn’t gain 5 lb over night (that would be 17,500 extra calories!) but the scale says you did because of water retention. This is why weighing yourself isn’t the best method for progress as weight fluctuates daily. If you’re a female, it’s also normal for us to be ~5lb “heavier” on our period because of water retention.
So if carbs aren’t making you fat, what is?? Well, as I explained above, gaining weight is caused by a calorie surplus. These calories can be from bananas, apples, donuts, or French fries. Your body doesn’t care. However, being in a calorie surplus is significantly easier when you’re eating highly palatable, processed foods that make you want to keep eating them. So, if you cut back on these foods and eat more whole, unprocessed foods, you will be much more likely to sustain a healthy weight.
I hope this was helpful! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments! 🙂