Do Carbohydrates Make You Fat?

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When I was in college I would often eat 3-4 bagels per day (free from the cafeteria and portable), along with cream of wheat in the morning, fruit and/or starchy veggies at lunch, heaping quantities of brown rice at dinner, and a bowl (or two) of Raisin Bran with milk after dinner. I wasn’t on an all carbohydrate diet, I ate all of this in addition to regular meals . As a cross country runner, I was just plain hungry. Despite my high carb diet, my body fat via underwater weighing (the benefit of being an exercise physiology student) was very low, as in elite distance runner low. So when I hear people suggest carbohydrates are a surefire path to obesity for everyone, I shake my head and think “no, clearly they are not.”

Carbohydrates have taken a hit in recent years because 1) they taste good and are therefore easy to overeat (Which one tastes better: a jumbo size blueberry muffin or grilled chicken breast?) and 2) carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin from our pancreas, a hormone that increases carbohydrate (in the form of sugar) uptake by muscle and fat cells while also suppressing the breakdown of fat tissue. Sounds like a double whammy right? It definitely can be if you chronically overeat. But, if you only eat the amount of calories you need each day or less than you need over time, you’ll maintain or even lose weight (in the absence of Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance). And that is why the weight loss research shows that over time higher carbohydrate diets result in similar weight loss as low carbohydrate diets in healthy individuals. However, there are two big caveats to this “total calories” approach to weight loss:

1) If you don’t eat enough protein each day (and I recommend a minimum of 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner) – 0.55 – 0.91 grams per pound of body weight per day, you will lose a good bit of muscle during weight loss.

2) If you have insulin resistance, PCOS or Type 2 diabetes, a lower carbohydrate diet combined with exercise is the most effective way to take off weight (work with your MD to adjust any glucose lowering medications or insulin you are on based on your change in diet and/or drop in weight).

If you want to read more on this topic including the design of an exciting upcoming study, check out this thorough overview I wrote for FitnessRx.

In the meantime, remember there is no one perfect diet for all people. Are there times I ask my clients to cut down on their intake of carbs (particularly the junk food carbs)? Yes, absolutely. But, I take their overall diet, goals and what they will realistically do into account. And you should too. Because adherence, the ability to stick with a diet program, is the biggest factor that will predict weight loss success. So don’t jump on your neighbor’s diet detox 2 shakes-per-day bandwagon or let yourself be dragged to Weight Watchers meetings while kicking and screaming.  Instead, take into account your current food intake (what do you like to eat?), lifestyle, cooking skills, medical history, diet history and physical activity and come up with a plan that works for you.

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