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Do Carbs Make You Fat?

Is rice really bad for your health? The truth might surprise you

Few things strike as much fear and create as much confusion as carbohydrates. Are carbs bad? Are carbs unhealthy? Do carbs make you fat? In the last decade, we’ve easily transformed from a society that feared fat, to one that is now terrified of carbs. Just the other day I was in the bookstore pretending to be a big deal author (yes, my new book is now available for purchase—you can pick it up here), and a woman started talking to me about diet. She said, she knew all the tricks.

 “I know that if I eat fewer calories I’ll lose weight. But here’s the thing: If I eat a couple of slices of bread or some rice, I know I’ll get fat. Isn’t that crazy.”

Well, yes. It is crazy. Mainly because it’s not accurate. And yet, that’s what most people believe.

In order to help restore some balance to the carb question, I reached out to Nate Miyaki. Nate’s been working on the nutrition side of the fitness world for more than 10 years, and has been an invaluable resource for many of the articles I’ve written. And he’s a coach in the Renegade Inner Circle, a fitness community where we help thousands ever month achieve their goals.

He also happens to be well versed in both the science of carbs, as well as real life application. That is, when you design programs and diets, do carbs really make people fat?

To answer that question, I had Nate discuss the truth about one of my favorite carb sources—white rice. Here’s what he had to say.  -Adam Bornstein

Do Carbs Make You Fat?

By Nate Miyaki

Who would have thought my tiny little morsel of goodness could cause so much controversy.

I’m talking about my favorite food–rice, rice, baby.

Whether or not rice should be included in a health enhancing, fat slashing, muscle building diet is a highly debated topic in our industry. To some (such as certain followers of the Paleo movement), rice is a demon food that should be avoided like the plague.

Yet in some cultures that exhibit immaculate biomarkers of health and low obesity rates, it has been a dietary staple for centuries. What gives?

I ate 5 cups of rice last night for dinner. I’m also close to 5% body fat, so I can tell you what side of the fence I’m on. I think sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and high omega-6 vegetable oils do more to cause insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity than my pal white rice.

But most of us don’t want to give up our beloved junk foods, so we have to blame something. White rice is as easy of a target as any. So in order to help you determine whether carbs–or rice–should be a part of your diet, I’ve developed a simple three-step system to help you figure out your nutrition needs.

STEP #1: ASSESS WHETHER YOU NEED STARCH 

A core problem in the fitness industry is trying to slot everyone into one universal diet system. It just doesn’t work that way my friends.

Intense exercise changes the way your body processes nutrients, and your internal physiological, metabolic, and hormonal environment for 24 to 48 hours. That means athletes and regular exercisers have very different dietary needs than sedentary populations.

Beyond any scientific debate, that’s really just pure common sense. So the first step in this carb selection story is to assess how many carbohydrates you really need, and for what reasons.

A sedentary person who does not exercise will not burn through muscle glycogen reserves (think of this as energy or carbohydrates), which are really only used for high intensity muscular contractions (hence the name). So inactive individuals do not need to worry about replenishing these stores with the ADA-recommended carbohydrate levels. In other words, if you don’t exercise your carbohydrate needs are much less.

If you’re inactive, you really only need to worry about providing adequate carbohydrates to fuel your brain and central nervous system at rest, which is primarily regulated by your liver glycogen stores (80-110g).  Could you go the super low carb route? Of course, that’s also an option. But if you do, be aware that it might be associated with ketogenic (low carb)-induced brain fog, grumpiness, depression, insomnia, and low testosterone.

So How Many Carbs Should I Eat?

An effective low-carb, but non-ketogenic diet, can be accomplished with roughly 100 to 125 grams of carbs a day from unlimited, non-starchy vegetables and a few pieces of whole fruit. No rice or starch is necessary. But here’s the key point: 100 to 125 grams of carbohydrates does not mean eating no carbohydrates. It just means that your demands are less, and your carb sources are best reserved for fruits and veggies. Can you eat other carb sources and stay within that carb range and still be healthy? Of course. But you might lose out on some other nutritional benefits.

High carbohydrate intakes, on the other hand, are more appropriate for gym rats and athletes that engage in intense muscle tearing, glycogen depleting training sessions. When you exercise, your body undergoes the cyclical depletion (through training) and repletion (through targeted starch intake) of muscle glycogen stores. That can take a lot more than 100 grams because beyond what supports the liver, your muscles can store about 300 to 600 grams of carbohydrates.

If you drive your car around and empty the gas tank, you need to fill it back up to keep it functioning properly. So in those cases, on the days that you train, depending on your bodyweight and goals you might need several hundred grams of carbohydrates to help your body recover and grow.

STEP #2: UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE EATING STARCH

By now, I hope you understand that the only reason you need starch is for the single, sole purpose of obtaining the high-powered glucose molecules within that food, which in turn can be used to:

1. Fuel anaerobic activity (think weight lifting) via glycolysis (the breakdown of carbohydrates). 

2. Restock glycogen (carb stores) that has been depleted through hard training. 

3. Trigger an anabolic (muscle-building) environment that offsets, and hopefully exceeds, the initial catabolic stress brought on by intense training.

The moral of the story is that for people who exercise, it’s the glucose chains in starchy carbs that really matter, not all of the additional compounds that sometimes come along with them. If you are eating starchy carbs for any other reason than to obtain those glucose chains, I believe you are eating them for the wrong reasons. That’s a lot of fancy science talk, so here’s what you really need to know. These are bad reasons to choose certain carb sources:

  1. I choose “x” carb because it is high in protein

Grain proteins are of inferior quality and bioavailability than animal proteins.  You should be getting the majority of your protein needs from high quality animal sources.  Any protein in grain foods is incidental, not necessary. The obvious exception: If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, this rule changes.

  1. I choose “y” carb because it is high in fiber

Fiber is invaluable for overall health, but I believe you are better off getting the bulk of your fiber, so to speak, from natural plant sources — like fruits and veggies — rather than man-made cardboard — like fiber twigs and sawdust.

  1. I choose “z” carb because it is low glycemic

Chronic elevations in insulin can definitely be problematic, and can lead to a host of diseases including diabetes and Man-Boob-itis. But short-term (acute) elevations under certain metabolic conditions can be highly beneficial to the athlete. Insulin transports amino acids and glucose into the muscle cell to initiate the recovery process from training.

You should indeed choose low glycemic fruits and vegetables the majority of the time (and if sedentary, all of the time). But a higher glycemic food – oh I don’t know, like white rice – can work magic in a targeted, post-workout recovery period.

 

STEP #3: CHOOSE THE RIGHT STARCH

Here’s the real reason why carbs get such a bad reputation: Up to 50 percent of the carbohydrate intake in the typical American diet is in the form of high fructose corn syrup and sugar. This often serves as the “control” group in most studies. So when people say carbs are bad, they’re usually just talking about eating lots of sugar. But that’s not really fair to every other food that also is labeled a carbohydrate.

When compared to a typical American diet, the low carb diet is going to look like the undisputed world champ. However, when compared to a good carb-based diet that is low in sugar, refined foods, and gluten (like the “Japanese Diet”), the results are very different.

In Japan, diabetes and obesity rates were never greater than 3 percent of the population pre-1991. If carbs in general were the enemy, with their high starch intake via rice and sweet potatoes, the Japanese would be the fattest, most diabetic and unhealthy population on the planet. However, this was not the case.

Condemning all carbs as evil and cutting them across the board, regardless of the type or individual metabolic situation, is an uniformed approach.

Finding the Right Carb Source For You

Athletes and people that exercise may benefit from the inclusion of some carbs into their diets, but it is critical they make the right choices in terms of carbohydrate type. You should choose starches that provide anaerobic fuel without all of the damaging toxic compounds.

The following foods can be consumed in your diet, but you might want to limit their consumption for various reasons:

  • High fructose corn syrup and refined sugar (one molecule of glucose plus one molecule of fructose) can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity.
  • Gluten-based starches (wheat, rye, barley) can be problematic because gluten is a protein that is an allergen or food sensitivity for many and can cause bloating, water retention, stubborn fat, and lethargy. (Remember, this is only if you have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten; it is not universally evil or problematic.)
  • Beans and legumes are lectins that can cause GI distress, leaky gut syndrome, and can inhibit protein digestion and amino acid absorption.
  • Most cereal grains contain the “anti-nutrient” phytic acid. This compound can also cause GI distress and inhibit mineral absorption.

In terms of carb sources that are universally healthy for people, we’re not left with much. That’s why I use the Japanese Village-style Diet as a simple dietary template to remember for active individuals: animal proteins, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruit, and starchy carbohydrates coming predominantly from root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes) and white rice.

WHY WHITE RICE

Isn’t brown rice so much better than white? Not necessarily. Remember, it’s better to receive your fiber from plant foods and not 87 servings of whole grains. Brown rice is like most other cereal grains. The “anti-nutrient” or phytic acid that is problematic for digestion and nutrient absorption is located in the bran of the grain. This is removed in the milling process that essentially changes brown rice to white rice. It is one of the few exceptions where I believe food refining is actually beneficial. When you remove the bran, what you’re left with is an easily digested, “safe starch” food without any toxic compounds.

The Bottom Line

Carbs are not evil.

While it’s true that lower carb diets provide many health benefits and can help with weight loss, low carb does not mean no carbs. When you’re training and exercising, your needs for carbohydrates increases. And if you’re trying to gain muscle, carbs are an essential part of the equation. What’s more, for many people, white rice is, in fact, one of the best carbohydrate sources because it isn’t associated with stomach distress, allergies, bloating, and it’s not loaded with sugars that are linked to diabetes or obesity.

So enjoy your carbs. Eat them based on your activity level, and your personal experiences and sensitivities with different types of foods. But no matter what, don’t just assume a food is bad (or makes you fat) because it’s a carbohydrate. It’s one of the bigger nutritional mistakes you can make.

The Fitness Coaching You Want (Carbs included)

If you want help building muscle, losing fat, or for me to personally design a customized exercise and diet plan, join me in my coaching program. You can apply here.

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About Adam Bornstein

Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning editor, speaker and business consultant. He is the CEO of Born Fitness, a company that specializes in viral content creation, publishing, online coaching, social media, and branding. View all posts by Adam Bornstein →
  • Cody

    Great article. I’ve become a huge Nate Miyaki fan!! I have colitis and experience a lot of GI distress with many food, but I feel much better after only eating white rice, sweet potatoes, and potatoes as my starchy carb sources. Gluten, oats, and cereals are no bueno for me. When my digestion is bad, white rice is my go to carb source!!

  • http://twitter.com/mbeckersley MaryBeth Eckersley

    Great article easy to reaad and understand actually makes sense. Thanks

  • anand srivastava

    Safe Starch, just reminds me of Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet.
    Nate, are you aware of him?

  • http://twitter.com/Cone911 Cone911

    Another awesome read Nate! Thank you!
    Another plus for white rice: On high carb nights, you can eat like infinite amounts of it before you feel full and have zero stomach distress the day after the feast.
    Try to do that with Cherri-o’s…. :( actually, don’t do that with Cherri-o’s (and just follow Nate’s advice when it comes to feasting)

  • Nate Miyaki

    @twitter-16332500:disqus sweet dude, thanks for the support

  • Nate Miyaki

    @google-34cf7065a6c94062c711eb16c0f6adc3:disqus I think I remember reading one post about The Perfect Health Diet. To be honest the first time I heard safe starch was from a dude named Kurt Harris. Maybe that’s where he got it? Who knows dude, its the frickin’ internet. But the term is awesome and applicable, so thanks to whoever.

  • Nate Miyaki

    @twitter-186058326:disqus Thanks Mary, glad you feel that way. People overcomplicate the simple these days.

  • Nate Miyaki

    @a6b46d13e701c199fb7daaa7f15fad2f:disqus Thanks dude, I’m a fan that you’re a fan. And yeah, given your situation, carb sources are critical. I think you are on the right track. Starch fuel that’s low in anti-nutrients and easy on digestion. Wish you continued success and progress brother.

  • Pingback: In Defense of White Rice « Nate Miyaki: Fitness Author & Fat Loss Educator

  • Rusty Moore

    Great article Nate!

    I got ripped off rice, green vegetables and chicken back in the late 80′s and 90′s. I’m going back to that way of eating this year. Just cooked a cookie sheet worth of yams last night and have those available for a snack.

    I’ve noticed when I go low carb, I lose fat…but my muscles flatten out so much I look less impressive. Even worse is the digestive problems, lack of sex drive, low T and other side effects.

    Been eating quality carbs, limiting sugar and omega 6 oils…and feel better than I have in many years. A little more color to my skin, look a little younger, etc.

    • ManGuide

      You need to cycle your carbs or refeed. Going all low-carb will lead to a flat look every time. Not a good diet for guys who are lifting a lot.

  • http://excuseproof.com/ Derek Doepker

    Great article Nate. I’ve always felt like you had some of the best and most practical insights when it comes to nutrition. I’m also starting to appreciate white rice rather than strictly eating brown rice.

  • Stu K

    Interesting article, thanks for posting. I’ve got a question though, if you’re not allergic to gluten-based starched, then are they just as “healthy” for you as white rice?

    I’m thinking wheat/rye bread, but maybe you can come up with some better examples.

    Thanks man

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  • Melanie Legaspi

    Just the kind of article I needed to read! I just started my fitness goal challenge and I must say that I cannot live without rice! lol. Living in Hawaii, you’re surrounded by food and rice so at least now I know what to look out for. I still have my rice, but in smaller portions now :) Gotta lose those 10 pounds!

  • joe

    carbs are so important for people training and athletes. even sedentry people need them, personally I do not believe in using a low carb high protein diet, 40% protein, 35% healthy fats and 25% carbs derived from primarily veg, basmati and quinoa personally has seen me well, nice balanced meals. wheat and gluten messes most people up, bloating the gastrointestinal system.

  • Ann

    I appreciate your 40/35/25 plan. I get really tired of the “no carb” routine. Thanks!

  • james mathew

    Great Nate. It’s a type of health related article i always want to read. Actually, i am from the health care industry and so always working to find the tips helpful for my users. My main source of carb are white rice, sweet potatoes and potatoes. I less use Gluten, oats and cereals. I will bookmark your blog so as to get the other & latest posts in my account.

  • Sancho

    What about pasta and noodles? Are they safe starch?

  • Fahad Maniar

    This article makes so much freaking sense! I loved it and will shareit!

  • Jack Veras Lara

    Thanks a lot! Great Article! I’m on a cutting diet . And due to that I cut some carbs from my diet.
    And unfortunately the white rice was on my list. Though the results were amazing, not because I cut the white rice , mainly because of the lower carb intake per day.

    Anyway, I feel like adding white rice back to my diet, since in my post workout I eat some bananas as simple carbohydrate. But I really feel like making up with white rice. The thing is that when you start a damn tough diet and you finally manage to get somewhere, your psychological kills you. You kind of feel afraid of losing what you conquered with such hard work. But that is the magic of it. You knowing your body and step by step, mistake by mistake learning how to change it according to your goals.

    You have to risk , you have to go hard or go home.

    Once again , great article! Keep up with the amazing work!

    Cheers.

  • Jeremy Corbeil

    Awesome breakdown! Easy to understand and puts the whole carb and animal food thing in perspective. I’ve forwarded this to several of my friends and family members struggling with the whole carb paradigm. My only nit is that I’m not a huge fan of white rice. While there isn’t anything bad about it and I don’t disagree with what what’s written here, it just doesn’t have the same nutrient density as starchy tuber vegetables. I prefer potatoes.

  • Graciany Miranda

    great article

  • http://www.jeetchowhan.com/ Jeet Chowhan

    Carbohydrates have
    got a lot of flak, apparently for making people gain weight. Many of the
    really popular low-carb diets have condemned carbohydrates, creating what we
    call carbophobia. Carbohydrates also play a significant role in the structure
    and function of the body organs and nerve cells. The brain also needs to use
    this glucose as an energy source, since it cannot use fat for this purpose.
    It is for this reason that the level of glucose in the blood must be
    constantly maintained above the minimum level.Whether carbohydrates are good
    or bad is really dependent upon your lifestyle and your needs. What we
    suggest is you eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Avoid processed sources
    of carbohydrates and be active. Go out and play a sport, run and get some
    exercise.Carbohydrates are not really the problem. You might be eating more
    than you need or not exercising enough which are causing the actual “I’m
    getting fat” problem.

  • lizbeth

    Just wanted to add: You can soak whole grains and legumes overnight to remove the phytic acid. Doing so activates the nutrients that are being blocked, and makes it easier for your body to digest these foods. In addition it makes the food taste much more satisfying. I was surprised when I first started doing this how much better it made the food taste.

  • Δημητρης Ιωαννου

    They say you are what you eat – so I am going to eat like the mighty lions.
    Never mind the carbs – bring on the saturated fat
    What was that? the saturated fat is going to make you fat?!
    Have you ever seen a weak and fat lion?

  • Hiba

    Interesting!

  • Sean.C

    One of the best articles about carbs that I have ever read! I will definitely be sharing this with people in my life that fear carbs way too much because they don’t understand them. Thanks, Nate!

  • donalda

    I am not an athlete, but I am a person who exercises 6 days a week 40 minutes cardio 4 days a week, free weights 2x a week – not body building. Do I need more carbohydrates?