It’s a question we’ve been hearing a lot more in recent years as the blame for fat gain has moved from fat being the culprit to carbohydrates. The answer isn’t so simple when we dive into the details, however the rules of basic thermogenesis still applies. Assuming you are on a diet that has you eating less energy than expended, and the diet is providing sufficient fibre and micronutrients, the carbs itself cannot make you gain weight.
Firstly let’s discuss the role of carbs. Carbs are a non-essential macronutrient in the body meaning your body can function without it. When the body requires carbs (namely the brain), your body breaks down protein via a process called gluconeogenesis to derive glucose. While non-essential, carbs are used as the primary source of energy in our bodies, and as individuals that want to lean down (meaning we need to preserve muscle mass while shedding fat), we want to be having sufficient carbs to prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue. As carbs are thus protein sparing in nature, it makes no sense to cut carbs completely.
A lot of times when people talk about it, they are specifically putting the blame on sugary, highly refined and processed forms of carbohydrates. The argument largely arises from the fact that these kinds of carbs are highly glycemic meaning they are able to reach the bloodstream quicker, spiking blood sugar and consequently insulin, due to the fact that they require much less digestion than wholewheat or whole grain carbohydrates. From this fact stems the allegations that 1. insulin inherently causes fat gain given fat metabolization is put on pause during its presence., and 2. sugar makes you fat. Fortunately, studies have shown this is far from true as they showed no significant fat gain in a high carb diet vs a high fat diet when protein and calories were equated.
In truth, while carbs itself are not inherently promoting fat gain, eating highly glycemic carbs that results in blood sugar spikes does usually see an extremely fast return to baseline and ends up resulting in cravings for more food to re-elevate blood sugar levels. Unfortunately during a diet, you are bound to be hungry and when these feelings kick in, it’s always going to be a battle with yourself to resist the urge. Thus it’s likely a smarter choice to avoid sugary carbs for the reason of keeping your willpower strong.
Secondly, using your calorie budget on minimally nutritious/fibrous carbs will mean you’re missing out on the opportunity cost of micronutrient and fibre intake for the most part, short-term pleasure. These foods usually won’t be satisfying on a satiety perspective, and the lack of micronutrients will obviously not be optimal, especially on a calorie deficit. Why then waste calories on what you know will be beneficial on all fronts from an objective view?
This is where emotions, mental state and psychology during your diet is taken into consideration. While it’s suboptimal to include “unhealthy” foods in your diet, some people feel they can perform better mentally when they are able to have some sugary treats during the week, or find that they can sustain their diet if they can look forward to a slightly unhealthier meal each week.
At this point what matters most is the sustainability of the diet itself. If this strategy improves your adherence, it should definitely be included in your diet. Whereas if you find yourself binge eating candy bars after you promised yourself just one, it might be better to put them out of sight completely.
In conclusion, we can confidently say that carbs don’t inherent cause fat gain. What causes fat gain is a caloric surplus that could definitely be from an excessive intake of carbs. Our bodies require carbs for energy and thus it makes sense to eat carbs preferably around your exercise bouts. Be sensible with carb intake as with all macronutrients and understand that balance is key.
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