Do Carbs Make You Fat? [The Truth]
Do Carbs Make You Fat? Few issues in the fitness and health community generate as much controversy as the consumption of carbohydrates.
While the supporter of low-carbohydrate diets point out that a high consumption of these can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and obesity.
Dietitians and supporter of low-fat diets note that between 40-60% of our energy must come from carbohydrates.
The Basic Human Diet:
When it comes to studying the historical evolution of the human diet, it is necessary to start from the Paleolithic era. During this period, fish, meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots and nuts were ingested mainly.
It is believed that the ancestors of Homo sapiens became modern humans in Africa, from where they subsequently migrated to Europe and the rest of the world, being able to access fats, carbohydrates and proteins depending on the geographical situation, availability of food and season.
Paleolithic diets were always high in protein and low in carbohydrate compared to western diets that we know today.
Although the hunters of the Paleolithic era followed a diet rich in macronutrients, this does not mean that we have to follow their diet to be healthy. However, it does help us to understand the disagreement between the basic nutritional pattern of humans and modern diets consumed today.
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10,000 years ago there was a substantial change in the human diet with the appearance of agriculture. This apparition is sometimes blamed for introducing harmful foods into the diet, and the defenders of the Paleolithic diet point out that our genetics have not changed much since the Paleolithic era and that we have not had enough time to adapt to the “Neolithic foods“.
This premise is much debated among scientists. It is true that the human genome changes slowly, but it is also true that our second genome (the human microbiome) can be altered more quickly.
The micro-organisms in our body can provide our body with metabolic functions beyond the natural capabilities of human beings and can adapt to a very wide range of foods.
Today we know that there are several cultures whose members have maintained a healthy state thanks to a diet based on cereals and legumes, therefore it is understood that the introduction of “Neolithic foods” should not necessarily be problematic.
A study by Dr. Weston A. Price suggests that part of the problem with cereal consumption is that you do not spend enough time to neutralize some of the harmful components found in cereal fiber (for example, gluten, wheat and lectins) through traditional processing techniques such as soaking, germination and fermentation.
Our homeostatic energy system regulates our body fat. The increase in overweight and obesity has led to the fact that the homeostatic system may be maladaptive to excess food and a sedentary lifestyle.
However, the reality that non-Western peoples such as the Kitavans are slender and healthy despite eating abundantly and not exercising too much suggests that the homeostatic energy system works properly when living in the right ecological niche, eating whole and simple foods and avoiding the westernized ones like refined cereals, sugar and vegetable oils.
The diets of different healthy societies teach us that:
- The transition from a natural eating mode to a taste-based way of eating, as in Western food, is associated with an increase in body weight and a rapid decline in health.
- People can stay slender and healthy by following different distributions of macronutrients.
- The homeostatic energy system works correctly when you eat whole foods such as meat, fish, vegetables, legumes and fruit.
- The different types of carbohydrate, protein and fat are likely to tell us more about health rather than the distribution of macronutrients in the diet.
Why do we eat So Much?
Statistics show that energy consumption in the United States has increased from 3100 kcal/day in 1965 to 3900 kcal/day in 2012 (Boesler, 2013) and similar trends are observed elsewhere, especially in developed nations.
The question is, are gluttony and inactivity the only cause of fattening?
Different scientists have discovered that our body fat is regulated by different areas of our brain. This phenomenon is known as “setpoint” and tries to maintain our weight level by increasing or decreasing hunger and metabolic rate (Guyenet and Schwartz, 2012).
In another study, it was shown that a series of subjects who were overfed for 6 weeks gained weight despite the efforts of the aforementioned mechanisms.
However, it was also observed that, when the overfeeding phase ended and the subjects could return to eat what they wanted, they lost the kg they had gained, despite not restricting calories (Diaz, et al., 1992).
It is necessary to say that the same happens when we eat less than what we are used to, and although we are carrying out a restrictive diet, in many cases the weight is regained as soon as we stop restricting calories. Therefore, it would not make sense to take measures of this type to lose weight.
Therefore, caloric restriction is necessary for someone who is already slim and wants to lower their body fat percentage (in the case of men), but it is not a good long-term solution for those who are overweight and obese.
To control fat we have to pay attention to the factors that cause the body to want to store more weight and that this way a chronic caloric restriction and hunger is not necessary.
On the other hand, a breakdown of the synaptic system between the fat cells and the brain could cause us to eat more than we need and store more fat.
Several theories propose that synaptic hormones are the cause of overweight and obesity. Leptin is the hormone produced by fat cells and allows the brain to monitor the size of fat stores by varying appetite and energy expenditure.
The fact that the production of leptin correlates with the size of the fat deposits suggests that the obese produce leptin in more quantity and that the brain should respond by reducing the appetite.
However, obesity is characterized by resistance to leptin, producing a lower response in brain receptors and making our body believe that it has much more fat than it really has (Myers, Cowley and Münzberg, 2008; Rosenbaum et al., 2002).
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Do Carbs Make You Fat because they raise Insulin and cause Body Fat to Increase?
The majority of carbohydrates that we eat are broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed by the cells thanks to the help of a hormone called insulin.
Carbohydrates (especially refined ones) elevate the circulating insulin in our bloodstream, leading us to store more fat.
It is true that insulin plays a crucial role in the obesity epidemic that we are suffering, but it does not make much sense to point out that all carbohydrates are bad because they raise insulin.
Do Carbs Make You Fat because we don’t need as much Glucose?
Regular physical exercise is related to various health benefits and is beneficial when it comes to losing weight.
However, the brain homeostatically protects our fat deposit, and many people compensate for the energy expenditure by eating more or remaining less active the rest of the day (compensatory effect) (Garnas, 2013).
The reality is that exercise alone does not burn as many calories compared to what would be achieved through a good diet and focusing only on exercise would not be a good long-term strategy (Garnas, 2013).
Do we overeat by taking too many Carbohydrates and too little Protein?
The PLH (Protein-Leverage Hypothesis) suggests that humans regulate their intake of macronutrients and that the protein is prioritized ahead of fats, carbohydrates and total energy consumption.
A recent randomized controlled study showed that subjects who followed a diet composed of 10% protein had a higher energy consumption compared to participants who ingested 15-25% protein (Gosby et al., 2011).
This would imply that the intake of protein in the Western diet is sufficient to avoid the overconsumption of fats or carbohydrates.
On the other hand, the considerable increase in overweight rates in Western countries suggests that people consume more energy than they spend in order to reach a goal of protein consumption.
In other words, protein is a very satisfying macronutrient, and consuming it in low amounts can lead us to eat more than we need.
Do Carbs Make You Fat and Favor Inflammation?
One of the basic premises of the paleo diet is that the first agricultural revolution introduced toxic food ingredients such as lectins, gluten and phytic acid. Both animals and plants have their own defensive system to be protected from predators, being formed in the case of plants by toxic metabolites and antinutrients.
Neolithic foods are especially rich in antinutrients, and the defenders of the paleodiet indicate that our body has not been able to adapt to them, with the consequent harmful effects that their consumption can lead to our body.
There is a lot of controversy regarding the toxic effects of these antinutrients, depending on what they are, how many are ingested and how they are tolerated.
We currently know that disorders related to cereals such as celiac disease and gluten allergy are growing and that gluten can be problematic even for non-celiac people (Bernardo et al., 2007, Biesierkierski et al., 2011).
The truth is that many people enjoy better health and better digestions when they eliminate wheat and other cereals from the diet, having this probably to do with a special sensitivity to proteins and secondary metabolites of these foods.
Do Refined Carbohydrates change the Balance of the Bacteria that live in the Gastrointestinal Tract?
The bacteria of the organism provide us with a large number of metabolic functions that go beyond human physiological capacities, one of its main objectives being to decompose indigestible food components.
The composition of these microbes will depend on several factors such as diet, hygiene and drug use.
Vegetables, tubers and fruits store their carbohydrates inside living cells that remain intact during cooking and are the first to break down during the digestive process.
These walls of living cell fibers only allow a maximum density of 23% non-fibrous carbohydrates per group, which explains why the “ancestral” sources of carbohydrates such as fruit and vegetables have a relatively low density of carbohydrate compared to most common sources of carbohydrates in the Western diet (Spreadbury, 2012).
The consumption of prebiotic foods is also favorable for the bacteria of our digestive system, and the lack thereof may also be partly responsible for obesity (Garnas, 2013).
When eating flour, sugar and other processed foods, a high concentration of carbohydrates in the body of the partially digested food that passes from the stomach to the small intestine occurs in our body, where a bacterial imbalance that can cause resistance to leptin, weight gain and obesity (Spreadbury, 2012).
The change of said micro-organisms can also play a crucial role in controlling our appetite as well as in the preferences of the food we eat. (Norris, Molina and Gewirtz, 2012).
Refined carbohydrates in the form of tasty foods favor excessive intake and a high body fat setpoint.
The brain has its own reward system that reinforces or rejects certain types of behavior. For example, if we eat foods high in fat, starch, sugar and salt, we will learn that they are safe, tasty and probably very energetic, and we will be motivated to look for them again and again.
The problem is that this system has evolved to deal with the different incentives that the environment offers us.
When we lived as farmers we were motivated to look for dense sources of energy to survive in times of scarcity. However, in developed countries, we have access to a great abundance of food, and food manufacturers hire scientists to design products that are attractive to our reward system.
Compared to fruit, nuts, vegetables, and meat, modern processed food is very satisfying in the sense that it contains a wide spectrum of rewarding factors for us that are not found in natural foods. For this reason, many people end up becoming addicted to fast food.
The brain mechanisms that regulate food intake and body fat are not enough to protect us from western food. It seems that highly rewarding foods can increase the body fat setpoint and cause abnormalities in the parts of the brain that regulate metabolism, fat storage and satisfaction. (Guyenet and Schwartz, Alsiö et al., 2012; Volkow., Et al, 2012; Berthoud, Lenard and Shin., 2011).
Tasty, energy-dense foods often contain little fiber, water, and protein, and are therefore less satiating than unprocessed foods. (Holt et al, 1995) This is probably one of the reasons why many people eat fewer calories when they start a new diet rich in nutrients.
On the other hand, sucrose is made of glucose and fructose (simple sugars). While the human body can handle a significant amount of glucose, an excessive consumption of fructose from juice, sweet concoctions and other processed foods is related to leptin resistance and weight gain.
Low-carbohydrate diets: Better or Worse?
A common practice of the supporter of the low carbohydrate diet is to cite numerous studies showing that diets with a low percentage of them (normally between 5-20% of carbohydrates) are better than low-fat diets (40-60 % of carbohydrates) for fat loss.
Most studies show that when subjects are allowed to eat whatever they want between a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet, those in the low-carb diet unconsciously reduce their energy intake and lose more weight compared to those who follow a low-fat diet (Gardner et al 2007, Hite, Berkowitz and Berkowitz, 2011, Foster et al 2003).
However, in studies in which participants were asked to eat the same amount of calories between a low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet, it has been found that the components of both groups lost a similar amount of weight (Brinkworth et al., 2009, de Souza et al., 2012, Tay et al., 2008) indicating that in the event that there is a metabolic advantage in low-carbohydrate diets, it is quite small.
The most important thing in this article is to understand why following a low-carbohydrate diet leads to reduced energy intake. The reasons are:
- Low-carbohydrate diets are high in protein due to increased consumption of products of animal origin.
- Low-carbohydrate diets are low in gluten and secondary metabolites associated with whole grains.
- Low-carbohydrate diets contain little sugar and refined sugars.
- Limiting the amount of starch and sugar in the diet eliminates two of the most rewarding properties of food, so it is not surprising that many people reduce their total energy intake when they adopt a low-carbohydrate diet.
Humans can remain slender and healthy with a wide variety of diets (not Western) as long as we are consuming the right foods.
The body system that regulates the long-term storage of fat seems to work properly when we live in the right ecological niche and eat natural foods.
Carbohydrates do not get fat, but specific types of carbohydrates (depending on context and quantity) do.
There is a disagreement between the sources of carbohydrates to which we are adapted to eat and those that make up the majority of the Western diet.
The chronic conscious caloric restriction is not the right way to achieve long-term weight loss. Instead, we must work with our bodies designing a diet that helps us eat less without being hungry all the time.
However, someone who is already slim and wants to lose even more weight (for example, bodybuilding men) will make a conscious attempt to reduce food intake, because the level of body fat would be below what is considered optimal for survival and reproduction.
In addition, the brain protects the fat by increasing the appetite and decreasing the production of body temperature and metabolic rate.
Exercise is usually not very effective for fat loss since many people make up for it by eating more.
However, a regular physical activity also affects our metabolic health by improving sensitivity to leptin and insulin, allowing us to tolerate a higher amount of calories and carbohydrates without risk to gain weight.
The things we have to do to prevent and treat overweight are simply the same things we need to promote good health.
Strategies to Lower the Set-point:
- People living in developed nations are usually not metabolically as healthy as non-westernized people who follow “ancestral diets” and benefit from reduced average hydrate intake.
- Official dietary guidelines recommend that we consume between 45-55% of carbohydrates within our diet, but this probably means too much for the average population.
- Avoid refined cereals and added sugars.
- Avoid traditional food processing techniques such as soaking and fermentation make whole grains and vegetables more nutritious and easier to digest.
- Carbohydrates as part of tasty and rewarding breaths are especially problematic as they favor overeating and weight gain.
- Follow a diet rich in nutrients composed mainly of natural foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, tubers, vegetables and fruit.
- Take care of the trillions of microorganisms in our body by eating probiotics and prebiotics.
- Exercise regularly to increase muscle mass and improve our metabolic health.
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