Myth: Carbohydrates Are Fattening

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Carbohydrates are no more fattening than any other calorie source.  

Loaves of Bread

Loaves of Bread

If you read any of the low-carb books, you will get the idea that carbohydrates are evil and you should avoid them at all cost.  There could be nothing further from the truth because your body needs carbohydrates to function properly.  Without carbs, your brain will not work well.  Sure, your body can make glucose, and you can function without them, but you cannot operate efficiently.  It may be tempting to blame an undesirable health issue on a single item such as sugar, red meat, or gluten, but obesity and weight gain are more complicated than being tied to a single macronutrient.  

Carbohydrates have received a bad reputation through the low-carb writings of Atkins diet in the 1990s.  This diet is based on the assumption that people are overweight because of over-consumption of carbohydrates.  Dr. Atkins suggested that we can lose weight by correcting this overconsumption and reducing carbs and consuming more protein and fat in our diet to burn stored fat more efficiently.  The fact is that carbohydrates can help us maintain our weight in the long run especially if you make healthy choices in your intake.  Carbohydrates contain less than half the calories of fat and the same amount of calories as protein.  Heck, you can subtract the fiber since it cannot be used for energy.   If you just replace some your diet of fatty foods with unrefined carbohydrates (fiber filled), you are likely to reduce your caloric intake and lose weight, and the fiber will keep you feeling full longer.

Research on Carbohydrates:

  1. Whole grains reduce your risk of obesity.  In my research, I found several studies that indicate that whole grain intake is associated with a reduced risk of weight gain[1],[2],[3].  Other studies have
    selection of pastas

    selection of pasta

    found the same to be true with fruit and vegetable consumption and weight[4],[5],[6],[7].  The bottom line on these studies is that you can lose weight eating anything as longs as you caloric need is not exceeded.  

  2. Low Carbohydrate diets work but have less success in the long term.  Many studies on low-carb diets have shown them to be more effective for weight loss than low-fat diets over short periods of time but here are very few that indicate that they work over long-term follow-up.  In fact, most longer-term studies suggest that both low-carb and low-fat approaches produce modest weight loss at best[8],[9],[10].  Long term weight loss or maintenance is more about reduced calories and less about which macronutrients they emphasize.

While some carbs are less good for us, some are healthy to consume.  We should limit our simple carbohydrate but not eliminate the whole food group altogether.  

Avoid these carbs:

  • Refined and unrefined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are those that are sugar-laden and stripped of all nutrients.  Examples include white bread, biscuits, cakes, candies, and pastries.
  • Refined carbs are unhealthy not because they provide calories, but lack nutrients such as vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Furthermore, refined carbs usually have a higher glycemic index and are more quickly absorbed leaving you hungry sooner afterward.  They tend to increase cravings.

Encourage consumption of these carbs:

Fruits and vegetables at market

Fruits and vegetables at a farmers market

  • Unrefined carbs are the good because they contain lots of nutrients.
  • They are usually derived from natural food sources such as vegetables and fruit.   They often include both complex and simple carbohydrates.  Unrefined carbs are better for you because they contain plenty of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and fiber that are necessary for our bodies to function properly.  

The Bottom Line:  I will agree that we tend to overeat foods that contain carbohydrates.  When my family gathers, we love to have pasta dishes with garlic bread, and we usually eat 2-3 servings of each.  This intake undoubtedly will pack on the pounds if you do it regularly.  It is not that carbohydrates are bad or fattening,  it is because we consuming too many servings.  If we control our portion size, we can easily prevent the weight gain.  It’s a myth that all carbohydrates are bad or fattening. We can still learn a lot from low-carb diets. Carbs are not all created equal.  Sure they all have 4 calories, but if you eat only unprocessed high fiber sources of carbohydrates, you will stay full longer.  For this reason,  you want to avoid processed carbs that are often high in sugar and bleached white flour.  Instead, enjoy raw fruits, raw vegetables, beans, and whole grains which will provide a host of nutrients and fiber. 

Footnotes
[1]Aune et al., “Whole Grain and Refined Grain Consumption and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies.”
[2]Mozaffarian et al., “Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men.”
[3]Quick et al., “Personal, Behavioral and Socio-Environmental Predictors of Overweight Incidence in Young Adults: 10-Yr Longitudinal Findings.”
[4]Mozaffarian et al., “Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men.”
[5]Bertoia et al., “Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies.”
[6]Rautiainen et al., “Higher Intake of Fruit, but Not Vegetables or Fiber, at Baseline Is Associated with Lower Risk of Becoming Overweight or Obese in Middle-Aged and Older Women of Normal BMI at Baseline.”
[7]Kaiser et al., “Increased Fruit and Vegetable Intake Has No Discernible Effect on Weight Loss: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”
[8]Abete et al., “Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome: Role of Different Dietary Macronutrient Distribution Patterns and Specific Nutritional Components on Weight Loss and Maintenance.”
[9]Gardner, “Tailoring Dietary Approaches for Weight Loss.”
[10]Sacks et al., “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates.”
Abete, I, A Astrup, JA Martínez, I Thorsdottir, and MA Zulet. “Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome: Role of Different Dietary Macronutrient Distribution Patterns and Specific Nutritional Components on Weight Loss and Maintenance.” Nutrition Reviews 68, no. 4 (April 1, 2010): 214–31. [PubMed]
Aune, D, T Norat, P Romundstad, and LJ Vatten. “Whole Grain and Refined Grain Consumption and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies.” European Journal of Epidemiology 28, no. 11 (November 1, 2013): 845–58. [PubMed]
Bertoia, ML, KJ Mukamal, LE Cahill, T Hou, DS Ludwig, D Mozaffarian, WC Willett, FB Hu, and EB Rimm. “Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies.” PLoS Medicine 12, no. 9 (September 22, 2015): e1001878. [PubMed]
Gardner, CD. “Tailoring Dietary Approaches for Weight Loss.” International Journal of Obesity Supplements 2, no. Suppl 1 (July 1, 2012): S11–15. [PubMed]
Kaiser, KA, AW Brown, Brown Bohan, JM Shikany, RD Mattes, and DB Allison. “Increased Fruit and Vegetable Intake Has No Discernible Effect on Weight Loss: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 100, no. 2 (August 1, 2014): 567–76. [PubMed]
Mozaffarian, D, T Hao, EB Rimm, WC Willett, and FB Hu. “Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men.” The New England Journal of Medicine 364, no. 25 (June 23, 2011): 2392–2404. [PubMed]
Quick, V, M Wall, N Larson, J Haines, and D Neumark-Sztainer. “Personal, Behavioral and Socio-Environmental Predictors of Overweight Incidence in Young Adults: 10-Yr Longitudinal Findings.” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10 (March 25, 2013): 37. [PubMed]
Rautiainen, S, L Wang, IM Lee, JE Manson, JE Buring, and HD Sesso. “Higher Intake of Fruit, but Not Vegetables or Fiber, at Baseline Is Associated with Lower Risk of Becoming Overweight or Obese in Middle-Aged and Older Women of Normal BMI at Baseline.” The Journal of Nutrition 145, no. 5 (February 18, 2015): 960–68. [PMC]
Sacks, FM, GA Bray, VJ Carey, SR Smith, DH Ryan, SD Anton, K McManus, et al. “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates.” The New England Journal of Medicine 360, no. 9 (February 26, 2009): 859–73. [PubMed]
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About the Author

ChuckH
I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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