I don’t think there’s a more heated debate right now than the debate over carbohydrate intake. Some people say that carbs are evil, others say that carbs don’t matter, and then there’s the group that says carbs are completely necessary and beneficial.
What does all this debate mean for you? All you care about is reaching your goals, but at every turn you’re faced with the health and fitness version of the game Clue.
“Hmm…I think it was Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a stick of butter!”
“Son of a ****!”
So let’s sort out the facts about carbohydrates. Let’s take an objective look at the issue. Let’s break this carb-talk down into practical, bite-sized pieces, shall we?
You don’t eat carbohydrates, you eat food.
The health and fitness industry loves to pretend that everyone eats macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs).
“Eat protein — it’ll satisfy you longer.” Then you’re stuck wandering the store looking for something that says protein, completely lost because nothing does.
That’s because you eat food and food tends to be comprised of more than one macronutrient. For example, a donut — often seen as “carbs” — is actually fat and carbs. There’s a little protein in a donut too. Who knew?
There’s also the important point that foods have different micronutrient profiles. A carbohydrate-heavy food can have a very solid micronutrient profile (like Tigernuts) just as a protein or fat-heavy food can. Or, the opposite can happen.
One carb-heavy food such as a wheat-based product might be destructive to the gut where a carb-heavy innocuous food like sweet potato is not.
Since you don’t eat isolated carbohydrates, blanket statements about the benefits or dangers of “carbohydrates” are irrelevant.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal.
Not all calories are created equal and the same is true for carbohydrates. Sugar, starch, resistant starch, and fiber are all carbohydrates, yet they all behave differently in the body.
Where sugar is typically seen as problematic—especially to gut health—resistant starch can be quite beneficial to gut health.
Furthermore, you can break down “sugar” into different types and see more differences. Glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combo of glucose and fructose), galactose, and lactose have unique effects on the body. So a carb isn’t a carb and a sugar isn’t a sugar.
When someone says, “carbs are beneficial” or “carbs are harmful” or “carbs are necessary,” you can be sure that you’re hearing a statement that lacks important context. Without the context, reaching your goals becomes quite difficult.
The terms “low carbohydrate” and “high carbohydrate” are difficult to define.
That’s the famous debate, right? “Low carb is best! No, high carb is best!” Or, “Low carb is dangerous! No, high carb diets make you fat!”
I don’t know what any of that means. Is a low carb diet that’s comprised of processed vegetable and seed oils, CAFO meat, and margarine best? I don’t think anyone would make that argument. So, let’s stop saying “low carb” or “high carb” as if they have anything remotely to do with health.
Of course, I also want to know how “low” is defined? Is it relative or is there some arbitrary number of grams we’re counting? Relatively speaking, a real food-based diet is almost certainly going to be “low carb” when compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD).
If you’re setting an arbitrary number, well, that’s broken too. You can’t say, “low carb is 100 grams or less.” Do you think a keyboard warrior and an CrossFitter can both fall in love with the same number?
200g of carbs might be really high for someone who spends 80 hours a week in an office and gets little activity outside of work. 200g of carbs might be really low for a triathlete. Context, context, context.
For all the die-hard low-carbers, just because the SAD is relatively “high carb” and tends to make people fat doesn’t mean that “high carb diets” make people fat. There’s a food quality issue. There’s a lifestyle context issue. There’s a lot of issues with that belief.
It’s not just the carbohydrates in processed foods that make them problematic.
Many people consider processed foods to be “carbs.” As I demonstrated with the donut example, this is an oversimplification. But beyond that, it’s important to understand that processed foods are uniquely problematic.
For one, processed foods are made to be hyperpalatable. As I explain to my Decode Your Cravings clients, the combination of sugar, salt, and fat creates a flavor profile that doesn’t exist anywhere else in nature. It’s a flavor profile that lights up the reward centers of your brain in a way that real food does not. This encourages over-eating.
Processed foods also contribute to poor gut health, which has a range of implications on your health and eating habits.
Processed foods are almost always low in micronutrients as well. This means you’re taking in calories while failing to take in adequate nutrition. Your body realizes this and triggers more hunger rather than more satiety.
Lastly, hyperpalatable, processed foods desensitize your taste buds and make real food less flavorful. After a while, real foods become less enjoyable and you start to prefer and seek out processed foods for their advanced flavor profile and the dopamine hit.
These are just a handful of the problems presented by processed foods. The point is that “carbs” can’t be singled out as the culprit here.
Limiting carbohydrate intake can be beneficial.
For someone coming from sugar addiction, disordered eating habits, and chronic dieting, focusing on healthy fat and healthy protein can be a refreshing concept.
With fat and protein making up nearly the entire macronutrient pie, so to speak, energy levels can be evened out, hunger and cravings can be minimized, and calories can be reduced with little effort.*
If you’re metabolically compromised, perhaps having Diabetes or a degree of insulin resistance, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that limiting processed carbohydrate intake can aid glucose control**.
*This is the real reason why low carb diets work for fat loss. It has little to do with “insulin makes you fat” and a lot more to do with “a higher fat, higher protein intake is a great way to reduce caloric intake without thought.”
Increasing carbohydrate intake can be beneficial.
Athletes and highly active people should seek to get a much larger portion of their calories from real-food carbohydrates than those who are more sedentary.
One of the biggest mistakes I see highly active people or those with high metabolisms make is thinking that they have to try and limit carbohydrates.
The second mistake I see some in this group make is using processed food as the vehicle for their carbs because they think their activity level allows them to eat anything. This can lead to disordered eating and poor health.
While there are a lot of examples of athletes—particularly endurance athletes—powering their lifestyles on low carbohydrate diets, I just don’t see a reason for it. There’s a lot of benefits to real-food carbs in this context.
Lastly, men and women suffering from metabolic decline due to chronic calorie restriction are encouraged to increase their real-food carbohydrate consumption. This adjustment increases overall calories and stimulates appetite so you can consistently eat more food and restore a higher metabolic rate.
Make sure you check out my related video and article, “How Many Carbs Per Day Should I Be Eating?”
Do Carbs Make You Fat?
I remember the first time I came across Gary Taubes’ book, Why We Get Fat. He made a pretty influential case that carbohydrates were primarily to blame for the obesity and preventable disease epidemic we face as a society.
I recommended that book to many people because it does have some good information and insight in it. I recommended it with a disclaimer, though. Don’t treat this book as gospel.
Since then, it’s become apparent that perhaps some of the research wasn’t so sound. Maybe carbs aren’t so evil after all?
I’ve since stopped recommending it because people have a hard time collecting nuggets of wisdom and insight from it without insisting on becoming zealots.
Being overweight and unhealthy is a multifactorial condition. Everyone wants to boil this challenge down into a single boogeyman so they can eliminate said boogeyman and ride off into the sunset (that’s pretty much what Taubes does).
That’s never going to happen. There is not one single cause. You can’t even say that calorie excess is a single cause. Eating to excess, in many cases, is more of a symptom than a cause.
Recommended Reading: The Truth About Calories.
Carbohydrates are beneficial to the body and to your journey. They can aid satiety, improve performance, feed gut flora, and so on.
I’m not going to link to a bunch of studies for those claims—I’m speaking from experience working with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world and proving benefits is not the purpose of this article.
The broader point I wanted to make here is that focusing on a single point of blame in this journey is going to cause major problems for your prospects of long-term success and happiness.
Sure, people find a lot of immediate success by drastically cutting carbohydrate intake. They also [sometimes] run into long-term issues like low metabolism, adrenal issues, and poor gut health.
If you want to win and win for life, it’s important to take a panoptic approach. Of course, as a novice you can’t really do this because you aren’t privy to the big picture yet.
Right now, you’re stuck in the weeds. You’re in the thick of it. When someone says something so bold like, “carbs make you fat and eating fat doesn’t” it feels significant. It feels like a pivotal moment in your research. This is especially true if you’re somewhat of a contrarian because this is opposite of what the mainstream has been telling you.
Really, though, it’s a distraction. It causes your focus to narrow when your focus needs to expand. That’s why having a coach is so important. A great coach provides the panoptic guidance. A great coach can pull you out of the weeds so you don’t lose months and years going down an interesting, but only slightly significant rabbit hole.
There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle that we need to fit together. Carbohydrates are a very very small piece. My advice to you would be: stop obsessing over them, stop blaming them, and stop demonizing them.
What the carbohydrate discussion needs is more precision and flexibility.
There are very few things in health and fitness that are black and white. Unfortunately, the dogma floating around would have you believe otherwise. It’s easier to sell one-size-fits-all solutions than it is to actually educate people and to spend time helping them arrive at personalized solutions.
I hope that I’ve provided a lot of the important context in this article and given you some powerful ammunition for shutting down the dangerous dogma about carbohydrates. The comments are open for you to share your thoughts.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.