July 6, 2021

Myth Busting 101: "Carbs make you fat"

Photo of Justine Friedman, Registered Clinical Dietician and Mindset Mentor
Justine Friedman
Registered Clinical Dietitian and Mindset Mentor

I have heard countless times from clients in my practice, as well as from friends and passersby how “carbs make you fat”. And where some people may have a point, the question remains is this actually true? If you have been on the receiving end of this misconception, then you may either feel relieved or fearful from what I am going to reveal to you today. Like a magician who uses sleight of hand, I will weave my way through the layers of untruths and bring you to a point of miraculous discovery and hopefully a newfound respect for the macronutrient known to have a “bad rap”.

Let’s go back to where a lot of the damage was done. In the 1970’s there was a big push in the USA for the consumers to buy subsidized foods. This caused the population to purchase more of the lower cost products whose ingredients came from the categories of corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum and rice. These lower cost and less perishable ingredients formed the basis of many food items such as high-salt processed foods, high calorie juices and sodas which were sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. As a result, the trend to buy more of these at a lower cost led to a rise in the incidence of type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

All of this legislation happened at a time when the new food based dietary guidelines were published. The food pyramid depicted that the basis of healthy eating should come from the carbohydrate group. The actual guidelines suggested complex and unrefined carbohydrates, however this led to people feeling more comfortable including more refined carbohydrates in their diet as they were cheaper and more readily available.

The food pyramid has at its foundation carbohydrates as a food group and rightly so. When we eat unrefined and more complex carbohydrate sources that are closer to their more natural form, like vegetables, fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown or wild rice, quinoa, rolled oats, beans and we prefer breads with a higher fiber content with more seeds, then we are more likely to enjoy the health benefits of this food group. If on the other hand we choose higher amounts of white breads (including pizza bases, rolls and pastries) and sweetened breakfast cereals, then we are heading for a less satiating experience that tends to include higher fat components as well. It is the combination of both refined carbohydrate with higher saturated fats and trans fatty acids that really causes the biggest health concerns. When this combination of foods are eaten together, with greater frequency and in larger portion sizes the body is more at risk of effectively storing the energy from both the sugars in the carbohydrates, as well as the fats as energy for a “rainy day”.

My clients always question me about the inclusion of a carbohydrate choice at breakfast, lunch and yes even dinner on the meal plans I suggest to them. Really, I can eat a carb at night? It won’t make me fat? Will this plan really work? Are the standard responses I get. There are few sighs of relief from some who feel that they are finally able to include a potato or a helping of rice or even pasta at this meal. Relief that they now longer need to feel guilty about eating it! And there is the opposite response of fear and disbelief that this forbidden food should even be considered as part of a balanced and healthy plan.

So why do I promote the inclusion of healthy carbohydrate choices? One of the main hormones produced by the body when eating unrefined/ complex carbohydrates is serotonin. One of the reasons for this which is suggested by researchers is the positive impact that the intrinsic fiber in these products as well as the carbohydrate itself has on the gut microbiome. In my previous blog about gut health and mood, I discussed how 95% of 5-HTP, the precursor to serotonin is produced by the endothelial cells of the gut. When we have a very reduced intake of fiber and complex carbohydrates there is less substrate for the microbiome and gut cells to work with and this results in a decrease in mood. Researchers followed subjects following a low-carb diet over a year and one of their findings was an overall increase in mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety as well as anger in the group who ate too few carbohydrates.

In other research studies a group of women were followed over a period of two years and found that those who included complex carbohydrates in general lost weight. They proposed that this was due to the increased fiber content of their diets and the higher degree of satiety that these carbohydrates provided.

Carbohydrates that are higher in soluble fiber are suggested by researchers to increase heart health as well as balance blood sugar levels therefore lowering the incidence of diabetes. LDL cholesterol which is more harmful in terms of heart disease is lowered by the inclusion of soluble fibers in the diet.

Preferring unrefined grains may even decrease body fat percentage, in particular fat deposited on the waist and stomach area. According to research in the Journal of Nutrition, adults who ate 3 servings of wholegrains a day showed a lower abdominal fat deposition when compared to those who only ate a ¼ serving of these same foods daily.

Eating a balance of carbohydrates is linked to better memory. Glucose which is the primary fuel for the brain is either derived from ingested carbohydrate or from gluconeogenesis (glucose made by the body from stored carbohydrates). In people following a very low carbohydrate diet, memory has been shown to be poorer. Ketones which are produced by the body in response to starvation or very low carbohydrate diets can be used by the body for fuel but the brain and central nervous system prefers glucose for optimal functioning. Organs such as the kidneys and heart muscle also rely on glucose from carbohydrates for energy.

So how do we take this information and construct a healthy and balanced eating pattern from it? One of the most practical tools is to replace refined choices with more complex carbohydrates.

The suggestions below gives an idea of how to substitute one type of option for another:

  • Instead of: French fries | Try This: Home made potato chips in an air-fryer
  • Instead of: White Rice | Try This: Wild or brown rice
  • Instead of: White bread | Try This: Wholegrain/ Rye / Seeded bread
  • Instead of: Sugary breakfast cereals | Try This: Oatmeal
  • Instead of: Fruit juice concentrate | Try This: Eat the real fruit

The process of transitioning from eating a diet that is predominantly comprised of refined products to one of more wholesome and complex choices can take time. The key is to make small and consistent changes and build on these. I encourage my clients who are beginning to follow a meal plan that I construct for them to choose one aspect or one meal from the guidelines and work on one of these per week. Once they have one meal in place they can then add onto this and improve another aspect. This often works better than having an all or nothing approach.

When compared to quick fix and restrictive plans this may seem much slower, however it is very effective and allows for a more thorough implementation of new habits that will be longer lasting.

Wouldn’t you rather form good habits and make changes that can get you to your health and wellness goals without the battle of feeling limited and deprived? Not only does this approach ensure you will feel more satisfied by the foods you are eating but you are benefiting your mood, gut health and brain capacity. You are less likely to deal with irritability, anxiety and depression (that is food related) and by choosing better carbohydrates you are improving the quality of your gut microbiome which improves immunity and decreases inflammation in the body.

The gut microbiome when well fed also results in a boost in metabolism and a decrease in insulin resistance (The opposite is a major factor in causing weight gain and developing type 2 diabetes).

Here is an easy way to remember if a carbohydrate is less refined. If it looks like it just came out the ground or was picked off a tree you have a winner! Why don’t you try including more of these types of carbohydrates in your every-day choices and see if you notice any improvements to mood and energy levels. This advice obviously goes hand in hand with other holistic fundamentals but it’s a really good start.

Consider the “Carbs makes you fat” myth busted!

For more information on implementing these principles and for an individualized meal plan contact Justine on justine@justinefriedman.com

Disclaimer: Eating copious amounts of any healthier food choice is not advised. One of the foundations of choosing health and wellbeing is about including a balance of foods from all the different groups, listening to your body’s signals of hunger and satiety and listening out for signs from your body if any foods (even those deemed healthier) cause discomfort in any way. Overeating any food goes against health guidelines. Choosing to eat in response to situational triggers or feelings does not address a physiological need for food, and although incredibly common, it is advisable to seek the assistance of someone who can guide you on how to process these moments better.

Photo of Justine Friedman, Registered Clinical Dietician and Mindset Mentor
Justine Friedman
Registered Clinical Dietitian and Mindset Mentor
Justine is a seasoned Clinical Dietician with over two decades of experience in private practice. Holding a Bachelor of Science from WITS and an Honorary Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from UCT, she is both South African qualified and Israeli licensed. Justine's journey into nutrition was deeply personal, stemming from her own battles with weight management, emotional eating, and adapting her diet post-40 to meet the changing needs of her body. This personal connection to her field fuels her mission to empower clients to forge a harmonious relationship with food and their bodies. Understanding the complexity of diet, hormones, gut health, and eating habits, Justine brings empathy and expertise to her practice. She is dedicated to helping individuals overcome the cycle of dieting and self-sabotage by fostering a profound understanding of their own bodies. Justine's approach is grounded in the belief that knowledge is power—by understanding your body, you can work with it, not against it, to achieve lasting health and wellness.