When it comes to fat loss are carbs to be avoided? Do carbs make you fat? Do carbs make you gain weight?
I feel pretty confident in saying that carbohydrates are the most controversial macronutrient group. I’m here to help set the record straight. Ketogenic diets are all the rage right now and low/no carb has been a thing since WAY back when Atkins became popular.
Let’s get right in to some of the basic questions/concerns that people have when it comes to carbs– trust me as an Online Trainer– I’ve heard it all. 😉
Do carbohydrates make you fat?
Do “too many” carbohydrates make you fat? Yes.
But it’s not the carbohydrates themselves that are making you fat, it’s the excess in energy intake.
Every heard of the energy equation– it’s an oldie but a goodie 😉
The energy equation states that:
- If you take in more energy (calories) that your body needs, you will store it (aka gain weight).
- If you take in less calories than your body burns you burn excess energy stores (you lose weight).
- If your energy intake is equal to your energy output, you will maintain your current size.
- There is no getting around this fact, period.
(Note: this is assuming that you do not have any type of hormonal imbalance, food intolerance, digestive issue etc which can cause abnormal fluctuations in weight)
The truth is, you can get fat from eating too much chicken breast, heck you could even put on weight from consuming too much broccoli. Excess energy is excess energy period.
Want to know something?
You *could* lose weight on 300g of carbs per day (IF you are in a caloric deficit).
*Conversely* you *could* GAIN weight on 20g of carbs per day (IF you are in a caloric surplus).
Real world example: many years ago I was an 18 year old freshman at Suffolk University. I also had a good amount of weight to lose. So what did I do? I watched my calories and increased my exercise.
Looking back, I was eating well over 200g of carbs per day. My “diet” consisted of vodka/soda, frozen burritos, lean cuisines and Special K bars.
Now obviously this is NOT the most ideal diet for improving body composition. HOWEVER I lost over 50 lb while still eating a TON of carbohydrates.
Am I special? No. I was just in a caloric deficit.
Did I do it the most ideal way? No, I was lacking a lot of nutrient dense foods and protein.
But the bottom line is that I was carb-ing all day all night and still able to lose a bunch of weight.
Even now, whenever I embark on a fat loss phase, my carbohydrate intake never drops below 30-40% of my diet.
Take a look at this example from my Online Training client, CR. When CR came to me she thought she was going to have to give up the things that she loved in order to see progress. Well this is her 2 months in to her plan…
Now obviously most of CR’s food choices are coming from whole, nutrient dense foods– but she knows that she can have her carbs and her progress too. Ahh– there is such a thing as balance 😉
So, why do people experience rapid weight loss on a low/no carb diet?
Water. For every 1g of glycogen (stored energy from carbs) in your body you store 3g of water. Lose the glycogen, lose the water. When you go back to eating the carbs– the water comes back too ;). Period.
The dangers of low/no carb diets.
Are low/no carb diets dangerous? Well, it depends on who you ask. I think *yes* because glucose is the body’s preferred fuel source. Female bodies are even more sensitive to low/no carb because it can disrupt the balance of the HPA-axis (whoaaaa! goin deep!).
Some other unpleasant potential effects of low/no carb dieting…
- Suppress cognitive function
- Increase cortisol
- Decrease thyroid
- Decrease cognitive function
- Cause disruption in menstrual cycles for women
- Cause disruption in sex hormones
And this is just naming a few pitfalls of low/no carb diets.
(For more information check out this article by the Precision Nutrition folks– they cite a TON of great research)
What about all the rage with ketosis?
I am NO expert on this matter but I do want to address it..
Adopting a ketogenic diet essentially means that you restrict carbohydrates and instead focus on increasing fat sources. This forces the body to produce ketones for fuel instead of glucose (which is the body’s preferred source of fuel, glucose comes from carbs).
Personally I have a hard time believing that if the body’s preferred fuel source is glucose (which is derived mainly from carbohydrates), then why would we want to go against that and produce ketones? Again, I am no expert however I am not a fan of any “diet” that restricts a certain food group (i.e. ketogenic diets). But if it works for you thumbs up!
What about carb cycling?
Carb cycling essentially means that you switch between periods of low carb to periods of high carb either hourly, day by day, week to week or month to month. In my opinion, most people can reach the goals they desire combining macro counting with a solid training plan.
I say, why make reaching your goals more difficult than necessary?
Carb cycling is a more advanced strategy that I would only recommend to someone who is very familiar with counting macros and wants to push their body/experiment and take it to the next level. For most people, it’s not necessary.
So what is the best approach to carbs?
Keep most of your carbs to whole food/nutrient dense sources (whole grains, sweet potatoes, quinoa etc). Toss in the occasional white rice white potatoes too. And heck– have a cookie or slice of pizza once in a while!
Pay attention to how your body feels and play around with certain carb/protein/fat splits. If your goal is fat loss, you should be ensuring you are in a safe caloric deficit and also ensuring that you are eating .8g-1g of protein per lb of body weight.
Feel free to split up the rest of the calories however you’d like. Some folks prefer higher fat– others prefer higher carb. The point is– do not restrict carbs because you think it’s THE BEST WAY to cut fat.