The role of carbs in your diet is one part science, one part personality.
The concept that “carbs” are evil can be put to bed with one statement: All vegetables and fruits are carbohydrates. So it should come as no surprise that any diet attempting to completely purge carbohydrates — or anyone suggesting all carbs are evil — needs to take a step back, cut out the dogma, and take a hard look at reality, personal preference, and make sure we’re all clear on the real rules of carbohydrates.
Few popular diets ever suggest to “eat more carbs,” so why is it that carbs get such a bad reputation? There’s a huge gap between understanding foods that have healthy qualities (think “micronutrients” like vitamins and minerals) and foods that play a part in weight loss. While foods are digested differently, almost any food can be part of a weight loss plan.
It’s why we’ve seen esteemed scientists eat a diet primarily of Twinkies to prove how dropping pounds can be turned into a mathematical equation.
That’s not an invitation to begin an all snack food diet. Instead, it’s context to finding the balance between eating foods you enjoy— like rice or potatoes — instead of having to follow a bland, frustrating diet that you inevitably abandon out of frustration and extreme hangriness. [Hangry (noun): that feeling of hungry that drives you to extreme levels of anger and/or becoming whiny.]
So let’s stop with the nonsense. Not all carbs are bad. At the same time, certain types of carbs can make it harder for you to look and feel the way you want, especially when you factor in your exercise behaviors.
Carb Resistance: It’s Real (And Imagined)
The biggest carb threat can be pinpoint to those with the “my body hates carbs” gene. These are the individuals that appear allergic to carbs because, well, they are. Gluten sensitivity, food allergies, and inflammation make foods like grains and bread a common enemy.
Even if you don’t suffer from any of those problems, you might find that when you eat more carbs you feel bloated and fat — especially when those carbs come from sugar, candy, or lots of processed crap. (Think of foods that are manufactured and don’t have the best nutritional profile…instant mac and cheese, anyone?)
At the same time, the overreaction to carbs is oftentimes a byproduct of a poorly designed diet. Here’s what happens to most dieters:
Step 1: They “determine” carbs are bad.
Step 2: The remove all carbs.
Step 3: Weight loss occurs within the first 1-2 weeks. Sometimes quite a bit. But fat loss is not a rapid process. (Although it can be for people with lots to lose, such as 50 to 100 pounds.) So what’s happening? Your body is dropping water weight because carbs hold water, but not necessarily in a bad way.
Step 4: Hunger and frustration builds, focus drops, and energy levels suffer. Eventually, you return to eating carbs after a period (usually about 2 weeks) of withdrawal. What happens? You might feel bloated, sick, and even see the scale dramatically shift.
The process plays out repeatedly, so let’s pump the breaks and solve the carb sensitivity issue. When you reintroduce carbs after a “no carb” period, many things are occurring within your body. At the most basic level, you’re replenishing your depleted carbs stores and gaining back the water weight. The end result is thinking, “See, carbs are bad!” Which inevitably begins an ongoing struggle of figuring out what you can eat and not be miserable.
What does it all mean? A dogmatic, black and white approach to carbs is hurting your mindset of what you can and can’t eat.
The Unfair Truth: Lean People Can Eat More Carbs
How many carbs you can eat and what you can tolerate is based on your body. It’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the truth. You can’t assume that high carb diets are bad. Just as you can’t assume that high protein or high-fat diets are bad either. That’s because different types of diets work for different types of people. Part of it is how your body responds, and another aspect is less physiological and more psychological. The physiological nature is oftentimes controlled by insulin, which at the most basic level is a storage hormone.
In general, the less body fat you carry, the better your insulin sensitivity, which means you can eat more carbs. (Your body doesn’t react as aggressively to larger amounts of carbohydrates, oftentimes viewed as surging blood sugar.) While insulin is important for weight loss and overall health, it’s not a black and white situation. If you are more insulin resistant it doesn’t mean you can’t lose.
If you are more insulin resistant it doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight, but it does have a big impact on the type of diet you should follow. If you’re more insulin sensitive (typically lower body fat), your body will respond better to a higher carbohydrate diet. If you’re less sensitive (more resistant), then it can oftentimes feel like higher carbs will go straight to your gut or your ass. And most of the time, it’s not just in your head.
Unfortunately, determining insulin levels isn’t an easy process and requires blood work. But you can see how your body reacts to higher carb meals. The simplest test (although far from perfect) is consuming carbs in a post workout period. Do you feel great or do you feel miserable and more bloated? If it’s the latter, either your insulin sensitivity isn’t great, or you just ate too much.
A more balanced (and successful) approach is to select a diet and then measure fat loss every 2 to 4 weeks, but not more frequently. Remember, fat loss isn’t magic. If you think your insulin sensitivity is good, then you can start with about 50 percent of your diet from carbohydrates. If you’re not confident and worried you’re resistant–or you know you have a lot of weight to lose–begin with about 20 to 30 percent of your calories from carbs.
Don’t Forget About Personality
The Paleo diet works for many people. There’s no magic, rather removing carbs oftentimes means you’re eating fewer calories per day, and focusing on a diet that consists of animal proteins, vegetables, and fruits. That’s definitely a recipe for success, but not what is required to drop pounds. Not to mention, if you eat unlimited amounts of anything (even if it’s natural) you will gain weight.
The bigger issue with a carb-less approach is if it doesn’t consider the foods you love. Removing certain foods are one way to structure an eating plan. But if you complete withdrawal pushes aggressively against personal preference, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Research has even shown that having dessert can help with weight loss. Case in point: Put a pasta lover on Paleo and prepare for pain. We want a flashy one-size-fits-all solution, but I’ve seen too many different diets work for every type of person to know that a broad generalization is not the solution. It’s actually the foundation of the problem. So we need to stop with the scare tactics and suggestions that might create imbalanced diets and do more harm than good.
How Do You Know Carbs Aren’t Really Bad?
There are many things in life we can’t explain with science. Or many things that science has yet to prove. (Or may never prove due to lack of funding, lack of interest, or just crappy studies. Hey, it happens.)
However, when science does uncover some truths, it’s important they’re not ignored. And in the case of carbs, insisting that “all carbs are bad” just isn’t a fair conclusion that can be applied to everyone.
[Side note: If you’re trying to build muscle, removing all carbs is potentially going to make the process harder, too.]
“The idea that carbs are the enemy is a common appeal to emotion and popular folklore rather than the full range of scientific evidence,” says Alan Aragon, MS, a nutritionist in Westlake Village, CA.
The best example is a recent meta-analysis that compared carbohydrate intake ranging anywhere from 4 to 45 percent of total calories in low-carb diets, and fat content at 30 percent or lower in low-fat diets. Here’s what the researchers found:
- Low-fat diets were slightly more effective at lowering total cholesterol and LDL.
- Low-carb diets were more effective at increasing HDL and decreasing triglycerides
- Neither diet was more effective than the other at reducing body weight, waist girth, blood pressure, glucose, and insulin levels.
This overall lack of differential effects led the authors to conclude that both low-carb and low-fat diets are viable options for reducing weight and improving metabolic risk factors, says Aragon.
One of the strengths of this analysis was its large sample size; it included 23 trials from multiple countries, and totaled 2,788 participants. Meaning, this isn’t one small snippet of truth. What’s more, the cuisines of some of the healthiest populations in the world consist of diets that have heavy carbohydrate components.
The best examples are “The Blue Zones,” says Aragon, known as “longevity hotspots that have the longest life expectancies and the lowest rates of chronic and degenerative diseases.” The main energy sources for all of these Blue Zones are carbohydrates.
Need more evidence? The Top-10 countries in the world with the lowest obesity rates all consume a carb-dominant diet. So where does that leave you? Are you supposed to assume that a high carb diet only makes Americans fat? No, but we can use that to better understand and guide our eating habits.
Let’s face it: We can’t discount that low carb diets have been found to be a very healthy way of eating. There’s plenty of research that indicates lower carb diets do everything from helping with weight loss to building bodies designed to fight off disease. In fact, unless trying to build muscle, I typically follow a lower carb approach.
But notice I said, “lower carb” instead of “no carbs” because lower can mean 100 to 200 grams per day. The more important message — and the one that will influence how you eat — is developing an understanding that while carbs are not all bad, they’re not all good either.
A Practical Approach to Eating Carbs
“Saying carbs are ‘ok’ does not mean you should shovel in bucket-loads of refined flour foods and chase them down with gallons of soda,” says Aragon. Instead, be smart about where the majority of your carbs come from. It’s always best to create a diet that’s filled with whole and minimally refined foods. Eat more “healthy” foods (proteins, vegetables, fruits) and less of the stuff that you know tastes good but has limited nutritional value (candy, soda, sugar-loaded foods, and boatloads of pasta).
Finding the right diet for you can take some work, but it’s important to remember that it can include carbs. And a healthy diet can include some of the carbs that you might not consider healthy — whether bread, grains, and rice, or even some sugary dessert every now and then.
The main point is to make the majority of your diet, say 80 to 90 percent, come from the good stuff, and keep the minority to the bad. (Or avoid it altogether if that’s your preference or you know that a small taste might open the gateways to a binging episode.) Some people will thrive on more
Some people will thrive on more carbs, while others will suffer. Your best bet is to play around with food options that are both healthy and work for you. This is the “sustainability diet” and while it’s not really a diet (or all that exciting), it is the best approach to dietary success.
Take it from one of the best nutritionists in the world: “Your carb intake should be individualized according to your personal preference, tolerance, and athletic and aesthetic goals,” says Aragon. Experiment and be patient. Find the right balance for your body and let that become the truth when it comes to your dietary stance on carbs and the message we need to spread.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and the author of You Can’t Screw This Up. He is the founder of Born Fitness, and the co-founder of Arnold’s Pump Club (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Pen Name Consulting. An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was previously the Chief Nutrition Officer for Ladder, the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to The Huffington Post, Bornstein is “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and E! News.