Carbohydrate 101: How To Eat Carbs & Still Lose Body Fat

Foodscape

Jan 11
carbohydrate_fat-sugar

I’ve heard carbs make you fat?

Why are low-carb diets so popular?

I’m confused … some of the healthiest people in the world eat loads of carbs?

What does GI actually mean and should I care?

WHAT YOU’RE GONNA LEARN

  • What are carbohydrates?
  • How can carbs help or hinder your fat loss goals
  • Do you need to be concerned about the Glycemic Index.
  • Are there “good” carbs and “bad” carbs?
  • Understanding the sugar issue, once and for all
  • The best time to eat carbs for fat loss
  • What is fibre and how do you
  • Is "a carb a carb"?

MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT CARBS

carbs_complex_starch

WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES & HOW DO THEY WORK?

Carbohydrates or carbs for short are one of the three main macronutrients. Carbs are the sugars, starches and fibres found in fruit, grains, vegetables, and milk products.

Although it is very trendy to hear that they are non-essential in the body, they play a vital role in testosterone, sleep, how you feel mentally and are your body’s preferred energy source in training performance. [1][2][3][4]

You might also have heard that carbohydrate is your brain’s preferred fuel source, and this is correct.

Carbs can generally be broken up into two main categories – simple and complex

Simple carbohydrates contain just one or two sugars called monosaccharides. Often your refined, processed foods, stripped of fibre, contain this type of sugar, hence why they get a bad rap in the media – it’s not as simple as that though.

Complex carbohydrates on the other hand (polysaccharides) have three or more sugars and are often referred to as starches. Think beans, pulses, potatoes and whole grain products.

At the very basic level, ingested carbohydrates turn into glucose in the bloodstream, converting to energy for our body to carry out tasks.

THE SUGAR ISSUE

carbs_sugar_fat_loss

Oh boy, shall we? Here we go …

DOES EATING SUGAR MAKE YOU FAT?

Sugar is a carbohydrate. It is also public enemy number one and is deemed to be excessively fattening in and of itself.

However, when you dive into the research, its really not as clear cut as that at all. There have been studies comparing diets with the same amount of calories and the same macronutrient ratio, only differing in carb sources.

There were no differences in fat loss, muscle retention or health outcomes regardless of sugar content. [5]

In a different kind of study, replacing part of a diet’s complex carbs with simple carbs did not result in any changes in body composition. [6]

It’s also pretty hard to point the finger solely at sugar when it comes to weight gain when looking at the actual facts.In 1970, Americans consumed 2,169 calories per day ... in 2010 they consumed an estimated 2,614. Of this increase, only 42 calories could be accounted for with sugar, the others were due to added fats, oils and refined grains. [7]

This means that it isn’t simply sugar that is responsible for fat gain, it is an overall hike in total calories consumed.

WHAT ABOUT THE HEALTH EFFECTS OF SUGAR?

Most people eat as much as they want, whenever they want, with no real thought to portion control and energy balance.

When sugar is a big part of your food plan, this can produce problems as it is extremely easy to overeat.

However, research is clear that as long as you are controlling the total amount of calories coming in, are getting enough fibre, fruits and vegetables – sugar intake should not be a concern for most people, from a health standpoint.

“Research data does NOT support any link between normal sugar consumption and various adverse metabolic and health related effects” [8]

Additionally a 2017 study concluded that, “consuming sugar instead of complex carbs had no effect on blood pressure or body weight”. [9]

carbs_weight_loss

Lastly we have the professor who went on The Twinkie Diet – he ate 1800 calories, which was enough for him to lose body fat, but filled his diet with mainly crap foods as an experiment to see if he would lose weight. [10]

The findings were interesting as not only did he lose 27 lbs in 10 weeks, but his other indicators of health such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure all improved.It must be noted that he admitted to feeling pretty awful, especially towards the end probably due to the large dips and spikes in energy all the time.

He also did not recommend anyone follow this kind of poor food quality diet, but the study did make the point that if the overall calories are controlled, sugar intake is not an issue.

"I wish I could say the outcomes are unhealthy. One side says it's irresponsible. It is unhealthy, but the data doesn't say that.”

GLYCEMIC INDEX

All carbs (other than fibre which we’ll talk about in a minute) will eventually convert to glucose in the bloodstream, although depending on the food choice they will have different digestion rates and consequently affect your blood sugar differently

.This score of how fast or slow a certain carbohydrate raises your blood sugar levels is called the glycemic index. Low-GI meal plans were all the rage a few years back because of their claims for increased weight loss.

Once you control calories though, this isn't the case, study, after study after study show that simply lowering the GI index of your food plan has no added benefit in promoting weight loss. [11][12][13]

Again confirming that even a more sugary intake can not override a reducing calories.If you are diabetic or seriously obese I absolutely would encourage a low GI approach, due to the fact that low-GI foods are generally high in fiber and high in micronutrients which is going to be beneficial for your health.

There is evidence that low glycemic food choices are good if you are coming from a very unhealthy standpoint. If you’re otherwise healthy, the glycemic index of foods should be of little to no concern. [14]

“So Sharif, if you're saying that as long as I have a handle on overall calories, sugar isn't a problem and that the GI index isn't anything to concern yourself with … so is a carb a carb?!”

Apple = Carbohydrate, fiber, micronutrients (including phytonutrients)

Gummy Bear = Carbohydrate

The apple would overwhelmingly win out as the better option for nutrient content. From a fuel perspective, the gummy bears would be just as helpful for your gym session and will both eventually end up exactly the same way, as glucose in the bloodstream.

THE ACTUAL ISSUE WITH SUGAR

Sugar isn't bad. Nor is it good. The reason that many people run into problems with sugar is that does a poor job of keeping you full and is very easy to overeat.

However, as we’ve learnt in the context of a well thought out food plan with some form of caloric control, with plenty of fruit, veggies and fibre and an active lifestyle, sugar in and of itself is not a problem.

The real issue is more so what sugar is commonly being eaten with. Compare eating a small handful of blueberries with eating a Snickers bar.

After one bite of the Snickers, you'd get a taste for it and want more and more – this is unlikely to happen with the blueberries.

carbs_sugar_weight_loss

The Snickers is not just sugar, it’s that perfect combination of sugar, fat, salt and additives that makes moderation extremely difficult as it lights up the reward centres in the brain.

This is part of the reason why I recommend an 80-90% whole food approach for the majority of the time.

My good friend, Dr Eric Helms, one of the smartest strength and nutrition coaches of our time sums up the issue nicely:

Sugar is a carb. The reason why doctors tell people not to eat sugar when you want to lose weight is not because of body composition reasons, but because of satiety and addiction reasons generally.

Addiction because once the average joe takes a small bit of chocolate he can't stop to just that bite and he will continue to eat it, therefore overeating.

Controlling sugar intake is not important at all when deciding to lose weight. Look at the big picture. Control your diet in general. There’s no such thing as good and bad foods, but there is such a thing as a bad or good diet. Diet = all the changes and things you do as a whole when eating.

If you feel you can't control yourself when it come to sugar and you start overeating it, therefore increasing your caloric intake, then by all means, minimise its intake.

But, if you can control yourself to eating something sugary in small amounts, (or even high) while still maintaining your required caloric and macronutrient, micronutrient (fruits and veggies) and fibre intake towards reaching your goal, then why cut such a tasty thing.

HEALTHY HIGH-CARB FOOD EXAMPLES

You’ve seen that using the GI index of a food to discern whether it is healthy or not certainly has it’s limitations.

It is not the case that a high GI food is “bad” for you or causes weight gain, and a low GI food is “good” for you. Some perfectly healthy foods such as potatoes, carrots, breads etc. have a high GI.

Instead there are some other markers we should use to decide whether or not a high carb food is healthy or not.

1. Fiber content
2. Vitamins and mineral content
3. How full or satisfied a food makes you feel after you eat it – Satiety Index

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Legumes
  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Dairy products
  • Whole grain products (If tolerated)

FIBRE: WHY YOU NEED IT AND HOW MUCH YOU NEED?

Dietary fibre is the portion of food that cannot be digested in the small intestine. Soluble fibre, delays gastric emptying, helping you to feel fuller for longer and potentially helps in maintaining a lower body weight. [15]

Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, is responsible for “keeping things moving” providing bulk in the gut. Both types are necessary and I recommend about 10–13 grams of fibre for every 1000 calories. Taking the average guy consuming 2,500 calories, that would be 25–35 grams of fibre daily.

carbs_fiber

Example of high fibre food:

  • Oats
  • Bran Flakes
  • Berries
  • All fruits (with the skin on)
  • Potatoes
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Pulses
  • Brown Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts

ARE SOME CARBS “BAD” FOR YOU?

Using the above logic and realising that no carb in isolation is inherently bad or causes fat gain, one could argue that those low in fibre, nutrition and satiety should NOT make up the majority of your carbohydrate choices.

I’d also mention that if you know you have trigger foods that cause overeating – usually a combination of carbs and fat – then avoid them completely.

LOW CARBS VS HIGH CARBS FOR FAT LOSS

The research is pretty clear that over the long term and once protein and calories are matched, there is no difference between a low carb vs a high carb food plan when it comes to fat loss. [16]

This is great because it means we can really customise our meal plans to our own personal preferences. [17] You might feel you do slighter better on a lower-carb approach, enjoying fattier foods such as eggs, nuts and cheeses.

Alternatively if you naturally gravitate more towards fruit, veggies, potatoes etc. then a higher carb plan might be for you.

carbs_glycemic_index

I would say that if you are doing lots of activity or are younger with likely good insulin sensitivity, a higher carb plan might be the better choice

.If you only hit the gym two or so times per week and are otherwise sedentary and are a bit older, a higher-fat, lower-carb type approach may be more beneficial for you. Experiment and see what you prefer.

So what’s all the fuss about eating low-carb?It’s become very trendy in recent years to adopt a low-carb meal plan with the rise of Atkins etc. This is primarily down to two reasons:

1. When you adopt a low-carb approach, you initially experience a large drop in scale weight due to water loss. For every gram of glycogen, it attracts roughly three grams of water. This initial drop gives people a lot of “buy in” and makes them think they are losing fat faster than they really are.
2. Carbohydrates cause insulin release. The Insulin Hypothesis of why we get fat was hugely popular until recently, where it has been completely de-bunked. [18]

A word of caution for an extremely low-carb approach (for most people)

It must be said up front, that some people do remarkably well on almost zero carbohydrate food plans getting their energy from protein and fat.

However, most people do well with at least some carbohydrate. I have observed this in real life practice as well. Crashing your carbs too low if you’re not suited to that style of eating or don’t know what you’re doing may lead to:

• Decreased thyroid output [19]
• Increased cortisol output [20]
• Decreased testosterone [21]
• Impaired mood and cognitive function [3]
• Muscle catabolism [22]
• Suppressed immune function [23]

HOW MANY CARBS SHOULD I EAT A DAY TO LOSE WEIGHT?

Answer: The rest.

Let me explain …

carbs_fat_loss

Let’s take the typical overweight dude at 87 kilos who, if he were to eat 2,000 calories per day would see decent fat loss.

I like to set protein at ~ 0.82 grams per lb/1.8gram per kg = 155 grams

I like to set fat at 20–40 % of total calories (let’s go with 30 here) = 65 grams

So we know that we have allotted:155 grams of protein = 620 cals65 grams of fat = 585 calsWhich leaves us 795 calories to allot to carbohydrates, giving us 200 grams of carbs.

So his daily set up would be:

Protein: 155 grams
Fat: 65 grams
Carbs: 200 grams

CARBS FOR HEALTH?

It must be observed that some of the healthiest countries in the entire world, have carbohydrates as their primary macronutrient.

Take the traditional diet of the Okinawans for example, or the Hadza tribe in Tanzania who thrive off honey (a high-GI carb) as their staple food and yet are very healthy. [24][25]

Potatoes, fruits, veggies, beans, sourdough bread and legumes are all staple foods of some of the healthiest countries in the world. [26]

Next time your mate tells you “carbs are bad”, point him in this direction.

BEST TIME TO EAT CARBS TO LOSE WEIGHT

From a fat-loss perspective, when you chose to eat your food in terms of meals per day is of no significance. [27]

However, what I have found with myself and many I’ve coached is – starting the day with a massive high-carb meal can often lead to increased cravings throughout the day, sluggishness and energy dips and spikes.

Shifting larger carbohydrate meals towards the end of the day makes sense because it is when you are winding down anyway and can promote an awesome night's sleep.

Funnily enough, there is some research showing that eating carbohydrates in your last meal at night produces better fat loss results than having them earlier in the day! [28]

I will say though that if you are engaging in activity lasting over an hour, at least a small amount of carbohydrate would probably be beneficial, 30–60 minutes prior should do the trick. [29]

IN A NUTSHELL

• Carbohydrates are the athlete’s or active person’s primary fuel source.

• Simple and complex refer to the chemical nature of the carb and shouldn't be used to distinguish between “good” and “bad”.

• Sugar is not in and of itself problematic for body composition or health in the context of a well thought out food plan.

• The problem with sugar arises when it is packaged with fats and salts making it extremely hard to moderate.

• If you have trigger foods, get rid of them completely. Sometimes abstinence is better than moderation.

• High-fibre carbohydrates tend to be healthier for you compared to highly-processed carbs, stripped of nutrition and fibre.

• You should aim to consume both some soluble and insoluble fibre to the tune of 10–13 grams for every 1000 calories you ingest.

• When setting up your food plan – set protein and fat minimums first, then have the rest filled with carbohydrate.

• Placing carbs around times of the day when you're going to be most active makes sense, as does a bigger carb meal before bed – especially if falling asleep doesn't come easily to you.

References