Do carbohydrates make you fat?
By Fahad Maniar
Ah, Carbohydrates. The poor new victim of our society hat likes to demonize things in isolation. You’ve probably heard it before, “I’m cutting carbs right now” or “No carbs before marbs” so I wanted to write a short article to shed some light onto this with a heaped table spoon full (and then some) of science.
Firstly, it is no secret that low carbohydrate diets are effective in your attempt to lose body fat but let met get two things straight. Losing weight and losing body fat are not the same thing! This leads me to the second thing I wan to get straight, it’s about calories in vs calories out.
Now, there’s a lot of debate around whether calories in vs calories out is the most important thing (ergo you can eat whatever you want providing you’re eating less calories than you burn and then you will lose weight)
True, your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE – I.E. Total calories out) need to be less than your Total input of calories to create a caloric deficit in order to lose weight but as I just said, losing weight and burning fat are two different (all be it slightly) things. You could be losing weight but losing a tonne of precious muscle which in turn means your metabolic rate will drop too.
Now, this isn’t an article to refute the importance of calories. That’s a debate for another day as today, I want to explain to you about carbohydrates, what they are, why they hinder fat loss and an effective strategy to eat carbohydrates and still achieve your goals!
Ever since the Atkins diet rose to popularity in the 90’s, Ketogenic diets were hailed as the best way to lose weight and keep it off. A ketogenic diet is pretty much any diet that sees you eating less than 5% of your total daily caloric intake in Carbohydrates. Your body adapts to using ketones for energy as opposed to glucose from carbohydrates.
Keto diets work, I’ve tried them myself and got incredibly lean on them but they sucked when it came to athletic performance for fighting (I found myself suffering from muscle fatigue early and I had a real hard time sleeping on the keto diet). Not only that, but for a person who isn’t competing at as a professional athlete, they’re hard to maintain and frankly, they make you grumpy and smell funny (ketone bodies have a very distinct metallic odour).
So what happens when you eat carbs anyway? Carbohydrates are broken down into their simpler form right from the moment you put them in your mouth and chew them. Enzymes in the digestive tract break them down into simple glucose molecules. The glucose molecules are metabolised and stored as glycogen in muscle cells (except for fructose – fruit sugar – which is stored in the liver).
Glycogen is used in the muscle for quick energy especially during intense periods of exertion lasting a less than 10 minutes. When there’s too much glycogen in the system, the body has to convert it to fat and store it in fat cells.
Now, it’s very easy to over eat carbohydrates, anybody fond of Indian food can tell you that, so it’s one of the reasons carbohydrates are seen as a bit of a no no when trying to get lean but there’s an even bigger reason why carbohydrates are given a bad rap.
Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the body when sugar is released into the blood stream. When your body ingests carbohydrates, it causes insulin to be secreted because of the process detailed above. The less work the body has to do to break food down, the more insulin is released because the food ingested is typically already high on the blood sugar count, or the glycemic index (an index which rates carbohydrates on a scale of 1 – 100 for their effect on blood sugar. 100 being highest ala glucose).
Foods high on the glycemic index, such as white bread, sugar, processed wheat flower, sweets, white pasta etc require the body to release more insulin than foods that are lower on the index such as sweet potatoes, legumes, cruciferous vegetables etc.
When the body secretes insulin, the body goes into an anabolic state meaning it can only store. Insulin is a nutrient transport system and there are times when its presence can help you for example, post workout where the transport system can shuttle nutrients to hungry muscle cells but for the most part, it just shuttles fat to fat cells. In fact, fat burning can not happen in an environment that’s high in insulin.
What’s worse is that the body gets used to insulin so if you’re constantly eating foods that cause a quick rise in blood sugar and thus, insulin spikes, the bodies cells become resistant to insulin and more and more insulin needs to be secreted to deal with the problem which means you’re in a fat storage state for longer.
If you think about the average diet of people today, it’s very carbohydrate rich and very rich in bad fats that promote insulin resistance and less rich in foods that promote insulin sensitivity such as essential fatty acids, proteins and nutrient dense foods like broccoli, kale etc.
Reducing your carbohydrate intake and eating the right carbohydrates at the right time is an excellent strategy therefore to reduce insulin resistance.
But how do you know if you’re insulin resistant? Insulin resistance is a dangerous thing. It’s a precursor to type 2 diabetes but you don’t need to be a diabetic to be insulin resistant (in fact, type 2 diabetes is when your body becomes too insulin resistant that it’s broken) so it’s important to catch it out before it gets out of hand. You can do insulin tests at home but one of the quickest and easiest ways to check is if you have problems with belly fat and love handles.
Our fat testing protocols we use at Team Fighting Fit can usually tell you if you’re insulin resistant too and we have a special diet to help you get back to insulin sensitivity that we use with our clients.
So what carbs should you eat and how much?
Ideally, We would say eat the minimum amount of carbohydrates you can without hindering your performance and turning you into a cranky mess. For most of our clients, this ranges between 20% and 40% of total daily caloric intake so with that format, it’s important to work out your daily caloric intake. One really easy way to do this is to use an app like My Fitness Pal and then key inn your data and it will work out the calories you need. MFP is not the most accurate and I personally like to do a calculation based on your lean body mass instead but it’s a good way to start if you want to do it yourself. You can then enter your macronutrient goals for carbohydrates in the app to make sure you’re within your allotted budget, say 20-40%.
So what does look like?
Let’s go on the lower end of the scale and choose 20% and let’s assume that your calorie target for the day is a nice round number of 2000 calories.That works out at 400 calories of carbohydrates which roughly equates to 100g of carbs per day.
So even though 20% carbs is on the lower end, it still allows you a fair amount of carbohydrates for the day.
1.4 Kg of Broccoli
4 Average sized Sweet potatoes
2 bowls of porridge
2 cups of rice
But what type of carbohydrates should you eat and when?
If we were to order carbohydrate choices on a scale of awesome to hardly ever eat then dense leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as Broccoli, Kale, Cabbage, Spinach etc would be the king! These foods are relatively low in carbohydrates by volume but are incredibly nutrient dense, packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre which will make losing body fat easier and keep you healthier.
Other greens after that such as peas and other legumes are also a decent choice of carbohydrates.
If you’re after starchy carbs, foods like gluten free oats and sweet potatoes make an excellent go to choice Sweet potatoes also can help satisfy sweet cravings but despite their name, they have a significantly lower blood sugar response than the normal white potato.
Other starches such as rice, pasta etc can still be eaten but we would recommend that these types of carbohydrates be eaten around workouts as either a pre workout or post workout carbohydrate choice.
Foods high in sugar such as dextrose, glucose, fruits and sugar can have place in the diet in moderation too. In fact, due to the quick insulin spike provided by simple carbohydrates, they are often seen as an ideal type of carbohydrate to ingest after a hard workout session along side protein to help shuttle the protein to the muscle rather than being converted into glucose to replenish glycogen stores, this is why many professionals will add dextrose or glucose to their post workout protein shake.
After all that’s been said and done, carbohydrates by themselves don’t make you fat. What they will do is make it harder to lose body fat if your body is constantly in a state of dealing with bloody sugar raises and insulin spikes. These spikes will cause your bodies cells to become more resistant to the effects of insulin making it even harder to get rid of the body fat.
Balancing your diet by managing your carbohydrate intake, eating more good fats and a diet higher in lean proteins will help to make you more sensitive to insulin.
Also, from a strict calories in vs calories out point of view, it’s very easy to over eat carbohydrates meaning it’s easier to get more calories than we need.
- Ultimately, weight loss is governed by calories in vs calories out but thinking only in this way is an over simplification
- Your metabolic rate determines how many calories you burn and your metabolism is controlled by factors such as how much lean muscle mass you have as well as hormones
- To burn more fat at rest you need to optimize these hormones and increase lean muscle mass
- Insulin control is important to fat loss and body composition – this can be achieved by controlling carbohydrate intake.
- Eat 20-40% of your overall calories from carbohydrates with a preference to dense leafy greens and cruciferous greens and vegetables
- Eat starches in moderation and around your workouts
- limit highly processed carbohydrates and sugars