There are only a few things which strike as much fear as carbohydrates.
But, are they really that bad? Unhealthy? Do carbs make you fat?
If we look back at the history of dieting, this controversy is nothing new. In the 90s, you could replace “carbs” with “fat” and you’d be having the same conversation.
However, as time goes on research improves, and now we should have a better sense of what actually drives weight gain and weight loss.
For years, I’ve been hearing the same thing over again, “If I eat less calories I’ll lose weight. But, if I eat some bread or rice, I’ll get fat.”
Fortunately, this isn’t true. Yes, you can eat carbs. And they are not the cause of weight gain. Be that as it may, there are still a few details that will help you figure out how many carbs you can and should eat for your particular body type.
Why Do People Believe Carbs Are Bad?
The answer is simple, all delicious foods that we easily associate with weight gain happen to be carbohydrates. Think cookies, donuts, pizza, candies, and any other comfort foods you can find at the bakery. All sugary sodas fall into the carb category as well.
There are certain limits on how many (and how much) of these foods you can eat. They are not completely off-limits, but the more you eat them, the more you’re likely to pack on weight.
Now, carbohydrates also include fruits and vegetables, oats and grains, lentils, and quinoa. The Mediterranean Diet, which has quite a bit of research supporting its ability to maintain a healthy body weight and reduce the chance of disease, is a high-carb diet that features all of those healthy carb options.
Some confusion is linked to the carbohydrate-insulin model of weight gain. In a nutshell, this myth states that obesity is caused by carbs alone, and not calories. The idea is that carbohydrates increase insulin, which reduces how our body is typically fueled. Instead, the insulin drives fat into our fat cells, we gain weight, become hungrier, and this continues.
There is just one problem here: whenever this is put to a test, the claims don’t hold up and research does not suggest that carbs make us fat.
It is also important to know that two different studies compared what happens when you eat too many carbs or fats. And the results? Overeating fat resulted in the same outcome as overeating carbs, and sometimes overeating fat induced even more weight gain, than overeating carbs (1) (2).
Enough said, the goal isn’t to avoid carbs, but rather find a balanced intake you can enjoy, stress less, being in absolute control of your looks.
Is a Higher-Carb Diet Healthy?
A healthy diet can (and should) include carbs. After all, carbs help fuel many essential processes in your body.
- Maintaining heart and brain function
- Fueling anaerobic activity (like weight lifting) via glycolysis (the breakdown of carbohydrates)
- Establishing proper recovery by replenishing lost glycogen
- Creating an anabolic (muscle-building) environment after training
Safe to say carbs are crucial, regardless of your activity level. Although, eating in a way that supports your activity level is important so that excess carbs don’t become unwanted weight gain.
Some will thrive on more carbs, while other require less. The easy way to determine how many carbs you need is based on your activity (more on this later).
That said, you can be healthy on a higher-carb diet, and, at the very least, you should feel comfortable having some form of carbs in your diet without any fear.
OK, So Which Carbs Should You Eat?
The simple answer is fruits, vegetables, and grains. The more complicated answer is that any type of carb can fit into your macros, if you know how many carbs (and what types) you need, based on your activity level.
People who train regularly have very different requirements than sedentary individuals.
If you’re relatively sedentary and don’t really have a lot of workouts during the week, then you won’t burn trough as many carbs. In other words, if you don’t exercise often with at least a moderate intensity, your carbohydrate needs are much less.
And if you’re a very active person, with lots of gym work, and physical activity overall, then you’ll definitely need and should intake more carbs.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat Exactly?
A more inactive person with health in mind only requires a rough number of 120-150 grams of carbs a day, mostly coming from non-starchy vegetables, legumes (like peas and beans), whole fruit, as well as a little bit of starch (oats, rice, pasta, bread). Preferably, the starch will only make up around 30 percent of your carb intake.
On the other hand, high carb intakes are more appropriate for gym enthusiast and athletes that engage in intense muscle tearing, glycogen (carb)-depleting training sessions.
When you work out, the body undergoes a process of tearing and replenishing of muscle glycogen (carb) stores. As a point of reference, your muscles can store about 300 to 600 grams of carbohydrates.
The more you weigh, the higher you can go on the carb scale. And the more you train (intensely), the more carbs you can eat and store as a part of your recovery and progress.
While it’s true that low-carb diets provide health benefits and can help with weight loss, don’t confuse them with “no carbs.” Dropping all carbs is completely unnecessary, and in many cases – that extra behavior leads to disorders which result in binges and weight gain.
Instead, enjoy your carbs. Eat them based on your activity level and personal needs and goals. If you’ve struggled with dieting, accepting that carbs are good and won’t really make you fat is one of the most important aspects. Just don’t forget, everything in moderation!