These days, it seems that everywhere we turn carbs are being blamed as the underlying cause of our weight gain, and we are told to cut down reduce our intake in favour of an abundance of protein or fat. The idea that “carbs” were bad for us and causing us to gain weight was popularised by the Atkins diet, and more recently, the Keto diet.
With so many diet subtypes and mixed messages we are getting from the media, I get it: navigating the truth about carbs and weight loss has never been this confusing.
Through all this confusion, let me offer some relief: carbs are not the cause of our weight gain – being in a calorie surplus is. Any food can cause us to gain weight if we consume too many calories! So, while eating an abundance of carbs may lead to weight gain, it is not the carbs in themselves that are to blame. I think it finally time we stop demonising carbs and blaming them for our extra fat! Let me explain further.
First, it’s important to understand the basic science of weight loss and gain. If we are consuming more calories than we are burning, we are in a ‘calorie surplus’, we are giving the body more energy than it is burning and thus are in a position to gain weight. Losing weight is as simple as creating a ‘calorie deficit’, whereby we are consuming less total calories than we are burning per day. When we are in a calorie deficit, our body’s requirement for energy surpasses the amount of calories we’re feeding it, thus making it naturally utilise stored sources of energy.
What this means is that even if we were to eat ONLY fruit and vegetables, if we ate too many calories, we could put on weight. Conversely, it also means we can lose weight on literally ANY diet, including a low-carb diet, as long as we are in a consistent calorie deficit. If someone loses weight after eating no carbs, they likely did so because they were in a caloric deficit - not because they cut carbs. In essence, cutting out carbohydrates from our diets doesn’t necessarily mean we will lose weight if we are replacing the carbs with other foods that contain the same amount of calories. This was proven recently by a major systematic review which compared users on a low-carb vs a simple calorie restriction and found absolutely no difference in terms of weight loss.
Besides not being advantageous in terms of weight loss, in the long term a low-carb diet could put us at risk of not consuming enough fibre which has been linked to a wealth of health benefits, from longevity to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Essentially, this means that if we are trying to lose weight, as long as we’re in a calorie deficit, we not only shouldn’t fear carbs - we should welcome them!
However, this is no free pass to indulge in a daily feast of pizza and pasta: part of the reason carbs have been demonised is because of the broadness of the term. It is essential to distinguish between refined and unrefined carbohydrates! Unfortunately, our supermarkets are now flooded with many products that contain refined carbohydrates. Typically, these foods have been stripped of fibre and contain added sugars, contributing to an overall lower nutritional value compared to carbohydrate whole foods in their original form. For optimal health, it’s important we choose the right type of carbohydrates: unrefined, whole food options which are packed with fibre and nutrients to deliver a filling and nutritional punch! As a rule of thumb, stay away from ultra-processed foods with added sugars and refined carbohydrates that often come in wrappers, and try to limit the refined white flour in pasta, bread and pizza.
There is in fact, plenty of data showing that consumption of refined carbohydrates is just as bad as diets rich in fat in terms of disease risk: when low-carb versus high-carb diets were compared in subjects, studies found no difference in terms of disease risk or mortality if the high-carb group was eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates. However, when the high-carb subjects ate a diet rich in unrefined carbohydrates, their risk of disease and mortality dropped. In essence, this confirms that the source of carbohydrates matters more than the quantity. Adding to that is the findings of a 2019 scientific review showing adequate dietary fibre intake from whole plant foods rich in carbohydrates, significantly reduces one's risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancer.
In short, instead of fearing carbs and blaming them for our weight gain, we should enjoy whole food and nutritious carbohydrates as part of a balanced healthy diet, and limit ultra-processed refined ones.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health