Will carbohydrates make you fat? This is one of the questions we hear most in the world of health and wellness. The reason it persists is basically because the answer is not as straightforward as you would wish it to be. Like every other nutrient, too many carbohydrates can make you fat. But, carbohydrates are not just going to magically make you fat.
In order to understand how carbohydrates do or don’t make you fat, we should take a look at what carbohydrates do in your body and what sources you should be looking for in your daily diet.
How carbohydrates help you:
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel source – if you are going to be active throughout your life, you will function best on a diet which includes carbohydrates. While we could get extremely scientific and explain the process of glycolysis, let’s just keep it high level for simple understanding.
When you consume carbohydrates (oatmeal, rice, potatoes, but also fruits and vegetables) your body goes through a process of converting the carbohydrates to glycogen. Glycogen is stored in your muscles and is used primarily for fueling your muscles during physical activity – whether that is exercise or something like carrying your groceries in from the car.
So why do people think they make you fat?
Carbohydrates have been vilified in recent years as being the primary reason for the obesity epidemic in America. However, there is nothing inherently true about carbohydrates that make you fat. The reason so many people report quick weight loss when they cut carbohydrates out of their diet is simply due to water retention.
You need three grams of water for every gram of glycogen your body is storing – so when you cut carbohydrates and you have less glycogen in your body you by default drop a lot of water weight. This is not to say you cannot follow a low carb diet and lose weight, you absolutely can, but it isn’t down to the fact you’re not eating carbohydrates.
The fact is any food eaten in excess will cause you to gain weight and potentially body fat. Whether that is protein, fat, or carbohydrates does not matter. At the same time, because so many processed foods are high in carbohydrates it is normal for calorie consumption to decrease when you cut carbohydrates out of your diet.
The one exception to the rule above is that simple carbohydrates like table sugar will quickly spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. Over time, this can lead to health challenges such as type 2 diabetes. However, these foods are ones you wouldn’t be surprised are unhealthy. Things like candy, cookies, and ice cream are the types of food which are full of sugar and quickly spike your blood sugar, leading to body fat increase.
What carbohydrates should you eat?
Simply put, you are looking for whole food sources for your carbohydrates. The first foods you should be prioritizing are fruits and vegetables. Aim to get at least half of your carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables each day. If you are very active (daily exercise, especially intense exercise like CrossFit or team sports) this is when you want to include more quickly processed carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat breads and pastas. As always, these things are highly individual and should be adapted to suit your unique situation.