Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates do not inherently make you fat. Carbohydrates have been vilified by many industries over the last couple of decades due to inadequate research and the overall goal to sell a product. That product was typically a fat burner, a weight loss diet, or any other fad that made its way to the market on the back of the evil carbohydrate narrative. But carbohydrates are not bad. In fact, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel, and the primary source of fuel for the brain and muscles.
Carbs go through a drastic journey to provide your body the energy it needs to survive and thrive each and every day. The breakdown of carbohydrates starts in the mouth where salivary amylase, an enzyme in saliva, splits the monomeric sugars down into disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and starches. This very enzyme also breaks down amylose and amylopectin into smaller chains of glucose, which are known as dextrins and maltose. The breakdown of these sugars in the mouth are what cause some carbohydrates to have their notoriously sweet flavor. From there, these sugars and starches make their way to the gut where they are broken down further.
The stomach begins to contract to break carbohydrates down into a mixture called chyme which is then excreted into the small intestine. From there, the pancreas releases more enzymes to begin to break down dextrins into shorter and shorter carbohydrate chains all while the intestinal cells secrete enzymes called sucrase, maltase, and lactase that line the villi. According to Libretexts, “Sucrase breaks sucrose into glucose and fructose molecules. Maltase breaks the bond between the two glucose units of maltose, and lactase breaks the bond between galactose and glucose.” It is from here that the now simplified forms of carbohydrates are absorbed by the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream; where they will go to their respective destinations to be used as energy. Put simply, carbohydrates are a source of energy that are broken down by our saliva and our digestive system into sugars which are burned as fuel. They are also stored in the muscle cells and readied for utilization for energy output when lifting weights. You need this stored glycogen in order to perform optimally in the gym.
Once the importance of carbohydrates is understood, it is much easier to look at them as something our body needs, rather than restricting it of the energy it is meant to have. Even so, many people believe that carbohydrates are to blame for weight gain. And while that is a convenient, yet partial answer, it becomes a lot more complex over the long haul. Weight gain is a very large term used to blanket an endless number of issues. But to simplify the topic, weight gain comes from the caloric intake ratio to energy expenditure. Calories in versus calories out will determine the changing of the number on the scale. When calories consumed are less than calories expended, a caloric deficit is taking place and weight loss will ensue. When calories consumed are equal to calories expended, weight maintenance will be the outcome. And when calories consumed are greater than calories expended, weight gain will be the end result.
Attributing weight gain solely to carbohydrate intake can be a false correlation where the true factor that is allowing someone to lose weight when restricting carbs is that calories are also being reduced as a result. Because carbs can induce a spike of insulin (depending on its GI Index ranking), blood sugar levels also drop, which can result in further hunger pangs and overeating. In a sense, this would be the true cause of weight gain on the scale. If by reducing carbs you are also eating less overall, you will likely lose weight but feel sluggish and weak in the weight room.
So in actuality, carbohydrates are not the determining factor in weight gain, but in fact, it is the caloric intake one consumes on a daily basis in relation to their caloric expenditure that determines weight. Carbohydrates simply house more calories in relation to other macronutrients while being less satiating. It then becomes an understanding of macronutrient ratios that allow us to see where weight gain (and what form of weight) may arise.
The unfortunate reality of a Western diet is that the foods that line our shelves are not designed to be macro-friendly. These foods are more so designed for addiction to the sugar breakdown and are marketed through bright colored packaging. Because of the west’s perpetual carbohydrate intake, insulin resistance is becoming increasingly common. Insulin resistance doesn’t always result in a diabetic outcome. It also plays a role in water retention, obesity, nutrient deficiency, coronary heart disease, strokes, hypertension, and many other chronic illnesses. Insulin resistance is when the body has been overloaded with sugars for an extended period of time, that it can no longer break down carbohydrates efficiently. The good news about insulin resistance is that it can be reversed for many with proper nutrition and exercise implementation.
Finding the right macronutrient ratio for your body will allow for the results you need to see. This includes, the appropriate amount of grams of protein needed for your muscular and genetic maintenance, the correct number of carbohydrates needed for proper consumption, force production, brain activity, and the correct number of fats for hormone regulation and backup energy storage.
When those three macronutrients are properly calculated to your individual needs, the outcomes will drastically change in regards to your body composition. Many weight loss clients on a proper nutrition plan will happily enjoy a donut for dessert or a pizza dinner simply because they understand the macronutrient goals they need to hit daily. Reaching out to a local nutritionist or dietician to set you up with the customized plan that works for you will make eating carbs an enjoyable experience without the guilt.
Cao, Ya-Jing, et al. â€œAssociations of Fat and Carbohydrate Intake with Becoming Overweight and Obese: An 11-Year Longitudinal Cohort Study: British Journal of Nutrition.â€Â Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 7 May 2020, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/associations-of-fat-and-carbohydrate-intake-with-becoming-overweight-and-obese-an-11year-longitudinal-cohort-study/3C7BAABD60FC4C5648E621904950FFF8.Â
Daniel H. Bessesen, The Role of Carbohydrates in Insulin Resistance, The Journal of Nutrition,
Volume 131, Issue 10, October 2001, Pages 2782S–2786S
Libretexts. â€œ3.3: Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates.â€Â Medicine LibreTexts, Libretexts, 14 Aug. 2020, https://med.libretexts.org/Courses/American_Public_University/APUS%3A_An_Introduction_to_Nutrition_(Byerley)/APUS%3A_An_Introduction_to_Nutrition_1st_Edition/03%3A_Carbohydrates/3.03%3A_Digestion_and_Absorption_of_Carbohydrates.Â