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.  

I’m not going to drag you into the science of carbohydrates in this article. I’m not even going to talk much about the context of carbohydrates, because I already did that in a separate article, The Truth About Carbohydrates.

I’m writing this article specifically to answer the question, “Do carbohydrates make you fat?” from a practical standpoint. People continue to ask the question and I really need to be able to point them to an answer that’s slightly longer than, “No.”

And yes, the answer is “No. Carbohydrates do not make you fat.”

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.

Comments

  • MiamiCaveman says:

    Good read, but for me Why We Get Fat stays gospel
    And that is all I have to say about Taubes (well, I have more: read Good Calories and Bad Calories for the most complete book on the theme)

  • Margaret E says:

    Except if you have insulin resistance, which many do (and don’t know it, I certainly didn’t for years). In that case, reducing carbs becomes a matter of health in reducing insulin load on the body. I lost 40 pounds and kept it off for 5 years staying low carb, and previously I thought I was eating healthy because I ate oatmeal, home-made bread, whole wheat pasta, potatoes, rice and beans instead of eating animal products.

    • Kevin Geary says:

      I would caution being so sure. I thought for a while that I was so sure on certain things like this. The truth is that there is no consensus. For example, here’s what someone wrote as an alternative:

      “Researchers debate the causal mechanisms of insulin resistance tirelessly, day after day, and travel thousands of miles to attend large conferences to flex their scientific muscles. They propose every mechanism you can imagine, and blame every tissue you can think of, from the pancreas to the muscle to the liver to the brain to your blood.

      To say that insulin resistance has a single cause is a misnomer. To say that insulin resistance is a complex metabolic condition is much more accurate.

      Despite this, however, researchers in the laboratory environment can induce insulin resistance in laboratory animals an in humans incredibly easily, using one simple technique. Regardless of the endless intellectual debate, one thing remains clear – if you want to induce insulin resistance in a laboratory animal or in a human, the most effective and repeatable way to do it is simple: Insulin resistance is caused by lipid overload, resulting from either a high fat diet or insufficient fat “burning” through movement.”

      There is “research” to back up that statement. There is also “research” that counters that statement.

      There are populations that eat mostly carbohydrates and there is no presence of insulin resistance.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong…or right. I’m saying that we should all continue to be skeptical and open-minded. Let’s not be so absolutely sure of ourselves on things like this.

      • Margaret E says:

        Not according to my doctor, who advocates low carb for me. My A1C was over 7 before low carb and dropped to 5.7 after low carb. I didn’t change the amount of exercise at all, I’ve always been an avid exerciser. When I eat more carbs, even in the form of starches, my A1C creeps up. So I’m sure of myself. I’m keeping diabetes at bay with diet.

      • Kevin Geary says:

        And there are many people who resolved the same issue while eating carbohydrates. Don’t get trapped into believing that what happened with your situation applies to all other human beings.

      • Margaret E says:

        but this is a discussion, right? And we are allowed to share our personal experience. I did say, “except for…” in my very first sentence. I agree that not everyone is insulin resistant but can be overweight nonetheless. However, I tend to trust the many doctors, including my own, who agree that for the insulin resistant individual, eating a mostly (65% of calories) carbohydrate diet is not the best plan.

  • Laura says:

    If certain carbs turn to sugar, then spike insulin, then make us hungry again, etc. isn’t that bad for our bodies? Doesn’t that cause far storage and many other problems besides obesity?? I’m afraid of carbs, but somehow still overweight, without eating them. So I do agree cutting carbs does not make everyone thin. I’m proof, unfortunately.

  • Klownhead says:

    My thought on this is… In the spirit of “the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” if carbs didn’t make me fat, then what? I think we are all looking for action items. If I push this button or pull this lever than THAT happens. If I can identify something that I’m doing wrong, then I can fix it. I don’t eat fast food, so I can’t stop doing that. I’m not a binge eater, so I can’t stop binge eating. I’m not a junkfood junkie so I can’t give up junkfood. I don’t drink soda. But maybe sugar is sneaking into my diet? If I don’t avoid carbs in the form of wheat, grains, sugars and starches. Then my new eating plan looks exactly like my old eating plan.

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