Let’s get this out of the way…
There’s no such thing as a “good carb” or a “bad carb.” Carbs are molecules without any moral agenda. Some carbs can make it easier to consume an excessive amount of calories regularly and that constant caloric surplus is what causes weight gain and a whole lot of health issues. It’s not the carbs that were bad, it’s how they were used.
Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for your body; your body breaks carbs down into glucose (blood sugar) and uses the energy from this sugar to fuel the cells of the various tissues of the body. That’s a nice description of what carbs do but what IS a carb?
Carbohydrates are a class of molecule consisting of smaller saccharide units; these are the essential building blocks of the carbohydrates molecular structure. The simplest carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose, consist of only a single saccharide unit and are called monosaccharides. Similarly, carbohydrates with two saccharide units, such as sucrose (table sugar) and lactose, are called disaccharides. Carbohydrates with 3 to 10 saccharide units are called oligosaccharides, and carbohydrates with 11+ saccharide units are called polysaccharides. The more units in a carbohydrate molecule, the more ”complex” the carb is usually considered.
A single gram of carbs contains 4 calories of energy, regardless of its structure.
Despite it’s important role in fueling the human body, carbs are often demonized as the source disease and fat gain, leading people to completely avoid carbs altogether. A lot of the myths surrounding carbs are perpetuated by groups that are grossly misinformed, have some sort of marketing agenda, or both. In this article we present the science of how carbohydrates influence your health and clear the air on some long standing carb-based myths.
Myth Busting Time
1. Carbs are the cause of fat gain
This is one of those big lies built around a nugget of truth. Let’s start with a very well supported fact:
Fat gain is caused by a surplus of calories. This surplus can come from carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and/or alcohol. Read more here.
So in a way carbs can cause fat gain because sugary drinks and snacks can be very calorie dense while also not being very filling. That being said, if you substitute a 1000 calorie surplus from sugar with a 1000 calorie surplus from avocados you will still gain fat. Fat gain is a result of an overly high calorie intake, not solely from carbohydrate intake.
”So why did I lose weight when I went ‘low carb?’”
Good question! Well when we cut out carbs we tend to be reducing our calorie intake as a whole. There is no easier way to consume 1500+ calories in under an hour than to have a few large sodas. But now let me ask you, how long did you stay ‘low carb?’
Low carb diets tend to fail because they don’t directly address the cause of weight loss, they just impose a general rule that can result in weight loss: No Carbs. In short, limiting soda and candy intake is probably a good idea, however when we completely omit other carbs such as grains and potatoes then we are starving our bodies of glucose. Remember, glucose is the primary fuel source of the body.
Additionally, placing a broad restriction like “absolutely no carbs” is at odds with our psychology. If I told you “you can never have a motorcycle” then it doesn’t matter if you don’t ride or ever plan to ride a motorcycle; you will start thinking about it more often and noticing them more frequently. When we’re told we can’t have something, we instantly start to search for it and it comes to the forefront of our brains. Because of this mental property Flexible Dieting can be an extremely useful dieting methodology in which no widespread restrictions are made.
Another reason people tend to believe that carbs cause fat gain is because they may binge on carbs one night and feel extremely bloated. This is a misattribution because, and this is critical here, bloat is not fat! Carbs can cause significant bloat, especially after a binge because of the way our body stores carbohydrates. Our bodies store carbs as glycogen which can hold onto 4x it’s weight in water. That means for every one gram of glycogen in your body, it’s holding onto 4 grams of water. If you’re bloated, all you can do is give it time.
2. Carbs spike Insulin! Insulin causes fat gain!
Again this is a case of the ‘nugget of truth’ hidden in the BS. Eating carbs will cause insulin to be released, which will cause ‘fat storage’ to occur, however this is not what makes you fat. Let’s start with a simple discussion of what insulin is and what it does.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that tells the cells to ‘open up’ to receive nutrients. Essentially, it’s the big signal to the cells of the body that it’s “FEEDIN’ TIME!” This takes nutrients – Carbs, Fats, Proteins, Vitamins, Minerals – out of the bloodstream and puts them to work within the cells as fuel, rebuilding tissues (building muscle), and storing them for later energetic needs (body fat).
It makes intuitive sense that if we limit insulin secretion in our bodies we can stop fat from being stored in our bodies. No insulin = no fat storage, right?! Well that also means no recovery (“Bye Bye Muscles”), or anything benefit coming from nutrition (”Adios Health!”). In short, we need insulin to live and function properly. So we’d better figure out how it works and how to use it optimally.
Patterns of insulin release often depend on the composition of a meal. Glucose alone will cause an immediate spike in insulin that peaks 3-5 minutes following ingestion followed by a slower rise after 10 minutes. This is similar to the insulin spiking patterns we experience when we drink sugar laden sodas or a handful of candies. In cases like these, there is a rapid need to store the excessive energy we have consumed. This is why if we have a large soda on an empty stomach we are likely to experience an uncomfortable crash shortly after consuming it.
In cases of mixed meals, a mixture of all macronutrients, the resultant insulin release pattern is very dependent on the composition of the meal and the insulin sensitivity of the individual. Overall, it seems that in a mixed meal insulin is slowly released, peaking around 1 hour after the meal and returning to baseline around 3 hours post-meal. This is why we can better tolerate a large soda in the context of a meal and mitigate the crash later on.
Overall, eating mixed meals consisting of a fair portion of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins together means that we have a sustained pattern of insulin release over the course of a few hours. This also ensures that insulin is being used to shuttle vital nutrients to our cells that we need to repair cellular damage and enable optimal functioning.
3. Carbs Cause INFLAMMATION!!!
This is one of those moments of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; let’s start with the nugget of truth. In a 2005 study researchers compared two groups of people: Group A drank a daily sucrose (common table sugar) drink, and Group B drank a similar drink container artificial sweeteners. The sucrose group gained bodyweight over the 10 weeks of the experiment and showed increases in inflammatory markers, Group B lost weight and showed decreases in inflammatory markers. In this context carb intake was positively correlated with inflammatory markers, but that’s not the whole story.
In a 2014 review published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researchers found that a diet consisting of foods with a low glycemic index displayed consistent anti-inflammatory benefits (Quick reference: think of glycemic index as an estimate of how fast a particular carbohydrate is absorbed). At first glance this appears contrary to the previous study mentioned. How can carbs be positively correlated with inflammation and display anti-inflammatory benefits? Well that’s because not all carbs are made equal.
Mono-, di-, and some oligo-saccharides are what are referred to as simple carbs meaning that their molecular structure is smaller and can be absorbed much quicker than their longer, more complex counterparts. When these types of carbohydrates are consumed with little else to buffer their digestion, blood sugar, and subsequently insulin, spikes and this process may contribute to systemic inflammation. Polysaccharides (complex carbs), on the other hand, take longer to digest and may actually contribute to decreases in inflammatory markers.
So how much should you worry about carbs causing inflammation?
Unless you have a digestive disorder; it seems that as long as the majority of your carb intake comes in the form of oligo and poly-saccharides, you shouldn’t need to worry about carbs causing inflammation. Additionally, it seems that focusing on achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is the main focus when trying to reduce inflammation.
In a 2005 study published in Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism researchers compared the different effects of Carbs and Proteins on inflammatory markers. They found that there was no significant difference between the two macronutrients, however they did notice a significant correlation between fat mass and inflammation markers. So rather than trying to eliminate inflammation via focusing on carbs, it’s better to focus on overall calories to reduce body fat composition first.
How many carbs should you eat?
- First, learn your total daily calorie needs . This is the total amount of calories you need to eat in a day.
- Next, determine how much protein you need in a day. This is typically 0.7-1.0 grams per pound of body weight.
- Now figure out how much fat you need. For most people 0.25-0.40 grams per pound of body weight works, depending on preference.
- Now multiply your grams of protein by 4, and your fats by 9. Add the two numbers together. Now subtract that number from your total calories.
- Divide the remaining number by 4 for an estimate of how many carbs you need in a day to maintain your current body weight.
This may sound complicated but you can find a super easy calculator here that will make the process much easier and give you a good estimate of how many carbs, proteins, and fats you should be aiming for everyday.
Carbs for Gaining Muscle and Building Strength
Protein gets a lot of the limelight when it comes to building muscle but carbs play a role as well. In general, building muscle requires a calorie surplus and sufficient protein. That doesn’t mean carbs don’t play a role in muscle building.
Remember, all carbs convert to glucose – the primary energy source of the body.
Increasing your calorie intake to get to a surplus by increasing your carb intake is a favored method by bodybuilders and strength athletes. Added carbs convert to more energy available during workouts. Meaning you can push yourself a little harder than you would otherwise, especially in longer events. These increases in effort add up to become the added inch in a bicep, extra 3 reps on pull-ups, or a bonus 20lbs on a max deadlift.
Additional carbs also mean there is more available glucose to be stored as glycogen within the muscles. This is especially important for people with long training sessions, and/or people that train multiple times a day. Muscles that are full of glycogen appear more “full” that muscles that are depleted. So, while this may not directly relate to the actual growth of muscular tissue, it does have a substantial influence on muscular size.
Carbs for losing fat
When it comes to weight loss, typically we want protein and fat goals to be the same as our maintenance goal – the calorie reduction comes from reducing carbs. This is where the “type” of carb starts to matter more for the average person but not for the reasons you may think. There is no special carb that will ramp up your metabolism and cause greater fat burn – energy balance is the law here.
Recall that simple carbs are things like sugar – super tasty but not very filling – and complex carbs are whole grains, and the fiber present in many vegetables – less exciting but super filling.
Now remember that as long as you hit your calorie and macronutrient goals, you can control your body composition and lose fat. That means you could get all of your carbs from sugary sources but that doesn’t mean you should.
The number one factor that chips away at someone’s determination and resolve during dieting is hunger. So minimizing hunger over the course of your dieting maximizes your chances of success overall! This doesn’t mean you can’t eat any candy, cake, or pie; it just means that you need to make sure that sweets are not a dominant source of carbohydrates in your diet.
One great time to have some simpler carbs while dieting is 30-60 minutes prior to your workout. This can give a little extra boost of energy, especially if you’ve been dieting for a while and are starting to feel depleted.
- Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that contains 4 calories of energy per gram.
- Simple carbs have a smaller molecular structure, which enables them to absorb quickly.
- Complex carbs have a longer molecular structure, which takes more time and effort to digest.
- Carbs and/or insulin is not the cause of fat gain. Consistent excessive calorie intake is.
- Added carbs can help build muscle and gain strength by providing more energy for training and recovery.
- When it comes to fat loss, complex carbs can make dieting much easier by mitigating hunger.