Do Carbs Make You Fat?
Seemingly every new fad diet, such as the popular keto and paleo diets, seems to have one thing in common: low carbs.
While these trends promise weight loss, before we say goodbye to our favorite bread and granola, let’s pause and ask the question, “Do carbs make you fat?”
Why are they a staple in the diet of the healthiest and longest living populations around the globe?
We jump into the research to answer this question once and for all. Good news! You’re going to like this answer.
do carbs make you fat?
First, What Are Carbohydrates?
Before we begin, we need to clear up a misconception. Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients, alongside fats and proteins.
That means that carbohydrates cover a wide range of food — and it’s not just the cakes, breads, pastas, and potatoes that most think of. Vegetables, beans, and fruits are carbohydrates, too.
As the primary energy source for the human body, your body needs carbohydrates to survive, thrive, repair, and grow. Once eaten, carbohydrates convert to glucose, which enters the bloodstream and provides energy throughout the whole body.
Fun fact, 25% of this energy goes straight to your brain. Yup, your 3-pound brain takes up a quarter of your energy!
Why Do Diets Restrict Carbohydrates?
So, if carbohydrates include healthy foods like vegetables and beans, why do all of these diets restrict them? Just as protein is glorified in the modern Western diet, carbohydrates are equally vilified.
What’s more, this isn’t anything new. Low-carb diets have been touted for weight loss since the early 1900s.
The theory of the ketogenic diet, a more modern trend, is to have stored fat burned instead of carbohydrates to lose weight. To get your body to burn fat in the required metabolic state of ketosis, there can’t be carbohydrates available.
So, if you restrict your carb intake, your body starts converting its stored fat into energy and dieters lose weight.
Yes, this is all true, but before you have dreams of dumping butter all over your bacon-covered strip steak, we have to remind you of one thing: your body needs carbohydrates. Your brain needs carbohydrates.
Losing weight is essential if excess weight is hurting your health, but too often we see the “low carb” blanket falling into dangerous territory. A typical ketogenic dieter will only eat 20 grams of carbohydrates a day — about the amount in one medium-sized potato.
The thing is, with carbohydrates also in fruits, beans, and vegetables, we too often see those healthy, fiber-filled whole foods cut out to make the 20-gram number.
So let’s not rush to use a quick-fix for weight loss that simultaneously hurts your health, because losing weight isn’t worth it when you damage your body and brain.
This leads us to the main question that we hear almost weekly, “Do carbs make me gain weight?”
Do Carbs Make You Fat?
“If carbs make you fat, then 2 billion people in China never got the message about that.”
– Dr. Pamela Popper, author of Food Over Medicine
Have you been to China? We lived there for three years, and they are not fat.
The devil is in the details with carbohydrates. If we’re talking about eating processed, simple carbohydrates filled with refined sugar and corn syrup then, yes, these carbs will make you gain weight.
Examples are soda, cake, pizza, french fries, and white bread. Not only will they make you fat, but these fake foods also make you sick.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, encompass most fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, and legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas).
You can eat these almost without limit (some doctors recommend up to 900 grams of these carbohydrates!) because they will satiate you before making you fat.
So here’s your answer: NO! Carbs do not make you fat. Instead, just fat makes you fat. Aiming to eat a diet full of healthy, complex carbohydrates is the best possible thing you can do.
“At least 80% of your calories should come from complex carbohydrates. We need glucose, our brains run on glucose. Carbohydrates make you thin. All the healthy nutrient populations around the world eat a predominantly plant-based, high-carb diet. The longest living people in the world, Okinawans, eat, I believe, 72% of the calories from carbs in the form of sweet potatoes.”
– Chef AJ, celebrity chef and author of Unprocessed
Pro Tip: A good rule of thumb to figure out if the carbohydrates in your pantry are unhealthy is to take a look at the fiber content. We purchase only granolas, pastas, and tortillas that contain at least 1 gram of fiber per 10 grams of carbohydrates. White bread is simply fiberless whole wheat bread, and white rice is fiberless brown rice. If you are a numbers person, our 30-Day Weight Loss Challenge follows an engineer’s approach to weight loss.
Are There Risks to Low Carb Diets?
While many see immediate weight loss benefits from a carb restrictive diet, longterm studies show that it is neither healthy nor sustainable.
As a renowned plant-based physician Dr. Milton Mills puts it, “Low carb foolishness… low-carb dieters are at higher risk for chronic disease, poorer performance on mental function, and greater risk of all-cause mortality.”
Outside of this, the sustainability for highly-restrictive diets is low with many stories of dieters bouncing back to regain an additional 10-15% of their original body weight from before the diet.
We discuss this extensively in our article, The Problem With Fad Diets. Including, why losing weight on a restrictive diet slows down your metabolism and unhealthily alters your body’s leptin hormone sensitivity.
Another risk is poor digestion. After all, fiber is a type of carb.
Why We Don’t Low Carb Diet
Chances are, your low carb diet is going to help you lose weight… at first. But take a close look at how you feel. Deprived? Still hungry? Cravings? Low energy? Is it sustainable? It’s not.
Let us sum up the one main reason we have never jumped aboard the low carb diet bandwagon.
Evidence Supporting Low Carb:
There’s only 150 years of low carb diet data which is construed by 75 years of people consuming processed, manufactured carbs. The data shows mixed benefits, potentially because the scientists were funded by food lobbyists or supplement/diet companies.
Furthermore, even good science collects data from a sample set of people who were consuming large amounts of unhealthy processed carbs. The evidence collected helps sick people who want to be less sick, not sick people who want to be healthy.
Evidence Supporting Healthy Carbs:
There’s thousands of years data on populations that eat lots of healthy carbohydrates. There are current non-western populations that are compared side-by-side to populations eating a modern, western diet of processed carbs.
The benefits are infallible — complex, healthy carbs are a staple among the healthiest, longest living populations. Eating more veggies, beans, fruits, nuts, grains, and seeds are the foods that help sick people become healthy.
We can learn a lot from the healthiest cultures in the world. If you need more evidence, look no further than the five Blue Zone populations of Okinawa, Icaria, Nicoya, Sardinia, and Loma Linda.
Read more: How to Eat More Vegetables
Our Personal Approach to Carbohydrates
We both agree that balance is critical when it comes to both simple and complex carbohydrates. While we’ve fully cut-out many simple carbohydrates and refined sugars, there are still some that we love, including pies, pizza, honey, and chocolate.
Our saving grace here is to do our best to enjoy them in moderation and keep them out of the house. Instead, we fully embrace our complex carbs.
So in a nutshell, aim to eat lots of whole grain products, legumes, vegetables, and fruit and we manage our diets as a couple to make sure we are getting the proper portions.
Learning how to fuel your body properly takes time and practice. So, make sure you are clear as day on your Why to live a healthy life. And make sure your partner is on board. If you’re carb rules and health goals are not aligned that’s a big problem.
Carbs We Always Eat
These are carbs and specific brands that we eat all the time. We also created The Ultimate Healthy Foods Guide to outline the most nutritionally powerful foods in each food group.
When we buy carbs, organic is always preferred because these companies are doing their best to care for our health and the health of our planet.
- Bob’s Red Mill Muesli with your favorite milk
- Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oatmeal as a hot breakfast
- Kind Granola with plain Greek yogurt
- Larabars (lemon) or BEACHBARS (both flavors)
- Sourdough bread
- Organic white corn tortillas
- Black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Pumpkin or squash
- All vegetables
What are your thoughts and questions about carbs? Any favorite carbs you recommend? Comment below!
30-Day Weight Loss Challenge
As engineers with ten years of health coaching experience, we needed to create a data-driven way for our clients to sustain weight loss. The number on the scale matters for weight loss, but other numbers are significantly more important.
Too many weight loss challenges involve a long list of what you can, cannot, and need to do every day. We’ve reduced the overwhelm and only require you to track five numbers a day — calories, steps, fiber, sleep, waistline.
In this 30-Day Weight Loss Challenge, you'll track five numbers daily to give you the highest return for sustainable weight loss.
Hey we're Ryan and Alex
The creators of Ryan and Alex Duo Life. We are a husband-wife duo and “lifestyle engineers.”
After eight years working in the corporate world as engineers, we left our high-powered jobs to tackle our true passion — helping couples engineer their best lives.
The synergy of our engineering minds and ten years of health coaching experience produced Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Our mission is to help you transform your bodies, minds, and relationship as a couple.
Join our 120,000 monthly readers