Do carbs make you fat?
Despite what a lot of the latest diet
books claim, carbohydrates (like pasta, bread, potatoes, and fruit)
are not fattening in and of themselves. Excess calories (whether
from carbohydrate, protein, fat, or alcohol) are converted to and
stored as body fat in your body. The only way that carbohydrates can
become fattening is 1) if you eat too many of them (too many
calories from ANY source can be fattening) or 2) if you smother
them with tons of high fat/high calorie sauces and spreads.
Read on to learn…
More about how carbs can make some
What's the difference between
complex carbs and simple sugars.
Which type of carbs will maximize
your energy, health, and fitness goals.
How to manage sugar cravings.
Why carbs make some people fat
There are two main reasons why carbohydrates can lead to weight gain
in some people: 1) eating large portion sizes and 2) smothering them
with large amounts of high calorie, high fat toppings.
1. Eating large portion sizes
Over the past several years, portion sizes of carbohydrate-rich
foods have doubled or even tripled in restaurants. As a result, we
have become accustomed to jumbo, deluxe, and super-sized portions
whether we eat out or at home. Take a look at the calorie difference
between recommended serving sizes of carbohydrate-rich foods and
typical restaurant serving sizes.
||1 oz. dry
(½ cup cooked)
|2 oz. dry
(1 cup cooked) 200 calories
||6 oz. dry
(3 cups cooked)
(1/2 small bagel)
(1 medium bagel)
(1 large bagel)
||1 oz. small
|2 oz. medium
|4-6 oz. large
||3-4 oz. small
|6-7 oz. medium
|16 oz. large
||About 10 fries
|About 30 fries
|About 50 fries
|Nonfat Soft Serve
||6 oz. fruit juice
||24 oz. fruit smoothie
||10 oz. bottle
|40-60 oz. fountain cup
2. Smothering them with large amounts of high calorie, high fat
For every tablespoon of butter, margarine, or even “heart-healthy”
olive oil you add to bread, potatoes, or pasta you’ve packed on an
extra 100-120 calories. If you add ¼ cup of pesto or ½ cup of
alfredo sauce, you’ve got 300 additional calories.
To learn how to deal with super-sized portions and hidden fat
calories when eating on (or off) campus, check out the section on
Overcoming REAL World Challenges.
What is the purpose of carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. Some of our
cells (like our brain and red blood cells) can ONLY use
carbohydrates for energy.
Because of their vital role, most of our daily calories should come
But, the exact amount you personally need varies anywhere between 45
and 65% of total calories, depending on your individual health and
fitness needs. For most active, healthy college students, 50-60% of
total calories from carbohydrate is a reasonable goal.
Who may benefit from eating less carbohydrate? Someone with diabetes
or insulin resistance may enjoy better blood sugar and/or insulin
control with an eating plan that is lower in carbohydrate (i.e. 45%
of total calories). People with these conditions can't handle
carbohydrate as well, especially if they are not physically active
or they are obese. Click here for more info on
diabetes and insulin
Who may benefit from eating more carbohydrate? Endurance athletes
preparing for the LA marathon may train and compete better if they
consume 65% of total calories from carbohydrate (or even up to 70%
of total calories from carbohydrate a few days before the race if
carbohydrate loading). A higher carbohydrate intake will help
maximize their muscle carbohydrate (or glycogen) stores and, as a
result, help increase their endurance.
Types of carbohydrate: simple vs. complex
Carbohydrates can be classified into two general categories based on
their chemical structure: simple carbohydrates (or sugars) and
complex carbohydrates (or starches).
1. Simple carbohydrates (sugar)
Much of the sugar Americans consume comes from what is added to
processed foods (such as cookies, cakes, muffins, ice cream,
candies, breakfast cereals, sports bars, and especially sodas and
fruit drinks). The most common form of added sugar is plain white
table sugar (or sucrose). Other sugars that are added to foods
include molasses, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice
concentrate. Read labels to identify these sources.
Sugar is also naturally occurring in some foods. For example, fruit
has fruit sugar (called fructose), and milk has milk sugar (called
lactose). Just because these foods are high in sugar doesn't make
them "bad" foods. On the contrary, these foods are loaded with
important vitamins and minerals, and they are relatively low in
calories. It's only when sugar is concentrated or extracted from
natural sources and then added to nutrient-poor processed foods
(like the foods mentioned above) that sugar can become a problem.
2. Complex carbohydrates (starch)
Complex carbohydrates are in foods such as bread, cereal, rice,
pasta, tortillas, crackers, pretzels, beans, and starchy vegetables
(like potatoes, peas, corn, and yams). Because whole pieces of fruit
have fiber (unlike fruit juices or fruit juice concentrate
sweeteners), they too can be considered complex carbohydrates.
Much of the complex carbohydrate Americans consume comes from
refined and processed products (such as white breads, white rice,
white pasta, and white instant potatoes or French fries). The
refinement of these foods takes away many of their nutrients and
fiber and leaves just a white starchy final product. These foods are
“enriched,” but only with five nutrients (four B vitamins and iron).
All the other nutrients are forever lost.
Foods in their whole form (such as whole wheat bread, brown or wild
rice, oats, and whole grain cereals) retain all of their nutrients
and fiber. Click here for more info on
carbohydrates and how to pick
Does it matter which type of carbohydrate you choose?
All carbohydrates (whether simple or complex) are ultimately broken
down in the body to the same thing: sugar (i.e. blood sugar or blood
glucose). And all carbohydrates ultimately fuel your brain and body
the same way. So does it matter whether carbohydrate fuel comes from
a diet of mostly added sugars in gummy bears, Oreo cookies, and soda
vs. a diet of mostly whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits?
Absolutely! Here’s why…
1. Simple sugars when added to foods are a more concentrated form of
carbohydrate and calories. Naturally occurring sugars in whole
pieces of fruit, as well as complex carbohydrates in whole grains
and vegetables, are diluted with fiber and water (which makes them
more bulky so they fill you up without extra calories).
1 Tbs. sugar provides 12 g carbohydrate and 48 calories
1 c. berries, which also provides 12 g carbohydrate and 48 calories.
Similarly, naturally occurring sugar in nonfat milk is diluted with
water, protein, and many important vitamins and minerals.
2. Simple added sugars, as well as many refined, low fiber starchy
foods, have few (if any) vitamins or minerals. They’re just “empty
1 Tbs. sugar provides only 12 g carbohydrates and 48 calories.
1 c. berries provides 12 g carbohydrates, 48 calories PLUS 85 mg
vitamin C, 26 mg folate, 247 mg potassium, and 3 g fiber.
Calories from added sugars are hiding in many foods. Take a look at
the calorie difference between foods that have a lot of hiding added
sugar vs. foods that have no hiding added sugar:
|Plain fat free yogurt with fresh berries (1 c.)
One brand* of fat free fruit- sweetened yogurt (1 c.)
*Not all brands have this much added sugar. Read your labels!
|13 g -- all naturally occurring sugars
51 g -- 12 g naturally occuring sugars + 39 g (10 tsp.) added sugar
|Water (12 oz.)
Cola beverage (12 oz.)
| 0 g -- no added sugar
g -- 10 tsp. added sugar
3. Simple added sugars, as well as many refined, low fiber starchy
foods, are digested and absorbed more quickly, resulting in a rapid
increase in blood sugar levels. This gives you a rapid, immediate
burst of energy. But, this energy is short lasting. High blood sugar
levels trigger a rapid surge of the hormone insulin. Insulin causes
a rapid drop in blood sugar, leaving you feeling tired, hungry, and
craving more sugar shortly after you eat.
Not everyone experiences these "highs" and "lows" as a result to
eating simple, sugary, refined foods. But as many as one in four
adults (without diabetes) may be at risk due to a genetic
predisposition to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can lead to
increased insulin levels, increased sugar cravings, and increased
risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Click here for more
diabetes and insulin resistance and simple lifestyle choices
you can make to maintain and/or achieve healthy blood sugar levels.
Is it normal to crave sugar?
Many students worry about having sugar cravings. They feel as if
they are "bad" for craving sweet things. Keep in mind that it's
actually very natural for all of us to crave sugar to some extent.
As infants, we instinctively turn to our mother's breast to satisfy
our innate craving for sweet milk. Sometimes, though, these cravings
can get out of hand; and sweets begin replacing other nutrient-rich
foods in the diet. If sugar cravings are becoming a problem for you,
click here to learn some
strategies for stopping sugar cravings.
One of the good points about many of the popular low carbohydrate
diets is that they draw attention to the quality of the
carbohydrates that we’re eating. Most Americans are choosing lots of
refined, sugary, calorie-rich (but nutrient-poor) carbohydrates like
soda, candy, white bread products, white rice, and processed french
A healthy eating plan consists of 45-65% of mostly high quality,
wholesome carbohydrates (including whole wheat bread, brown or wild
rice, oats and other whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and
low fat milk foods). Keep added sugars to no more than 10% of your
That doesn’t mean that it’s “bad” to eat sweets or processed foods
once in a while or even every day. There are no “good” or “bad”
foods. Balance is key.
For instance, white rice or white pasta is not “bad” if you’re
eating it with high fiber vegetables and a good source of lean
protein. The whole meal is rich in fiber. And, the protein and fat
in the meal help slow down how fast the carbohydrate is digested and
absorbed, so the result is a lower blood sugar and insulin response.
Further, if you’re active and spending many calories a day, you
can enjoy some “empty calories” in your diet. It’s all about balance
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center