Eating Carbs for Weight Loss: Is it Bad? Here's Everything to Know

Not all carbs are created equal. But that shouldn't be your problem

eating carbs for weight loss bad?

Is eating carbs bad for weight loss? Should you cut out carbs if you want to lose weight? Can you lose weight faster without carbs?

The topic of whether eating carbs for weight loss can help weight loss goals is controversial.

This is in part due to diets like South Beach, Atkins, or Ketogenic. These programs claim that reducing or avoiding carbs can make pounds fall off faster and more efficiently. 

But, is this true? 

In this article, you’ll learn why carbohydrates are important and their roles during weight loss. 

What are carbohydrates?

Macronutrients are the components of food that the body needs in large quantities.

Carbohydrates make up one of the three main categories of macronutrients.

The other two are fat and protein. Foods usually contain a combination of them, with a predominant one that gives its main characteristics. 

For example bread, a high-carb food also contains small quantities of protein and fat.

So, what are carbohydrates made of?

Carbs are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen with a 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to oxygen. 

That’s their biological signature.

In terms of their chemical structure, depending on their complexity and number of atoms, they can be classified as monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides.

But you don’t see these names when you read food labels though. Let’s see more practical terms.

What are the types of carbs?

Considering more specific categories, these are also types of carbohydrates: 

  • Sugar 
  • Fiber
  • Starches

Sugar is also called free or simple sugar and is a monosaccharide. 

Fiber and starches are both polysaccharides.

Sugar

Sugar is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, or a refined form and added to foods and drinks such as biscuits, cakes, and sauces. 

According to studies, the excessive intake of refined sugar is related to health problems like obesity, diabetes, behavioral problems, inflammatory conditions, and cardiovascular diseases.

Fiber

Fiber or dietary fiber is an essential element for our health, but the human body can’t digest or absorb it. 

Experts keep reminding us that the importance of fiber can’t be overemphasized.

Fiber reduces the risk of numerous diseases, including digestive system problems, cardiovascular diseases, and some types of cancer.

Good fiber is one of the healthy carbs you should be eating to help with weight loss. Sources of fiber are:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole-grain bread
  • whole-wheat pasta and
  • pulses

Starches

Starches are from plant origin and they are present in bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta. 

They provide the main source of energy –  like the fuel for the body.

Next, why is this classification important in practice? Sugar, starches, and fiber affect your energy levels differently.

You may feel tired and sleepy after consuming too much sugar, or the opposite when your carbs intake comes from starches and fiber.   

They impact differently your blood sugar levels, which means different fluctuations in the energy levels throughout your day.

Sugar and starches are broken down into glucose and this is released into the bloodstream.

Glucose from sugar is released quicker leading to spikes in blood sugar levels followed by drops.

You may experience such fluctuations by feeling high-power in the spikes and tired or sleepy in the drops. 

However, glucose from starches is released slower into the bloodstream; therefore, leading to stable blood sugar levels. 

In other words, more stable energy.

And, fiber can contribute to slowing down digestion, releasing energy slower, and so, also stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Should you eat carbs if you want to lose weight?

The main principle of weight loss is to create a negative energy balance. Let me explain.

Negative energy balance means to spend more energy (energy out) than the energy you consume  (energy in).

In general terms, this can be done in two ways:

  • Reducing the total calorie intake, which comes from fats, protein or carbs
  • Spending more calories through physical exercise

Carb-restricted diets are based on the principle that when carbs are not available, the body can use fat as the main energy store.

This is true.

In other words, you will also lose weight if you reach this negative energy balance in a plan that includes all macronutrients.

What types of carbs are good for weight loss?

Not all carbs are the same. We know there are fiber, sugar, and starches.

We can make another classification that will help you choose them for weight loss:

  • Complex carbs
  • Simple or white carbs

Simple carbs are made by stripping out the shell from grains and have less quantity of fiber and certain minerals and vitamins. 

Complex carbs are made without stripping out the shell from grains and are more nutritious and fiber-rich. 

It’s better to choose complex over white carbs because they will help you maintain your energy levels and avoid cravings. For example choose brown rice over white rice.

They also advise to avoid refined sugars and watch out for them in processed foods, considering one of the main reasons of modern obesity.

Here you have a list of some complex and nutritious carbs sources: 

  • Oatmeal
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Chickpeas
  • Whole grains 
  • Rye bread
  • Sweet potatoes

How do carbs help your body? 

Carbohydrates have essential roles for health and keeping the integrity of your body functions. 

They are essential for life. Let’s see why.

1. Provide the body with the main source of energy

The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide your body with energy.

How? The body converts carbohydrates into glucose which is released into the bloodstream. 

Cells take this glucose if energy is required at that moment and transform it into energy. This process to create energy is called cellular respiration.

Cellular respiration consists of creating the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which provides energy for cells to perform their functions.

In other words, ATP is the energy currency of the cell. 

Let’s go back to carbs.

If they are not used at the moment they are available in the bloodstream, they can be stored in the body.

The body stores glucose in the form of glycogen. These glycogen stores are located mainly in the liver and muscles, ready to be used when blood glucose levels drop.

But they are small.

So, what happens when these glycogen stores become empty? In that case, the body will use protein and fat to make ATPs and energy.

However, there is a catch here. Keep on reading and you’ll find out why.

2. Help preserve muscle 

When your body needs energy and the glycogen stores are empty, it may take stored protein and convert it into energy.

The thing is that protein is key to building lean muscles.

Protein has a structural role and using it as an energy source can compromise muscular mass.

Therefore, the body can break down muscle to burn protein for energy, reducing your muscular mass. This factor needs to be considered when choosing diets that restrict carb intake.

3. Prevent ketosis

During this process of breaking down fat to convert it into energy, there are also other byproducts created called ketones

When ketones are built up in the blood it is called ketosis. The effects of ketosis can be negative on health.

Ketosis may cause headaches, weakness, feeling sick, dehydration, dizziness, and irritability. 

However, the effects of ketogenic diets are also studied for other possible benefits on the treatment of certain conditions. 

If you are considering this diet, consult with your doctor first to make a professional assessment for your case.

4. Enhance physical performance

Muscles have glycogen stores and rely on them as the main source of fuel during exercise.

But these stores are limited and need to be topped up regularly.

Low-carb diets can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, early fatigue, and delay recovery.

Low-carb dieters may not be able to perform at their highest level during intense exercise.

Experts advise getting about 40% or less of your calories from carbs if you plan to keep working out in the gym.

5. Provide fiber and prevent disease

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate and it is present in high quantities in foods rich in complex carbs.

Fiber contributes to keep your gut healthy and to create certain essential nutrients. 

And gut health is linked to emotional wellbeing, cognitive capacities, behavioral problems, inflammatory conditions, and weight management.

The understanding of the happenings inside the gut is one of the most promising fields of research of modern medicine.

Takeaway

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body and play essential roles to maintain life.

Not all carbs are the same.

And knowing about their differences can help you know how to include them also during weight-loss plans without ruining your goals.

Therefore, eating carbs for weight loss within a nutritious balanced program can contribute to your goal and promote overall health. 

(Nutritionist coach and health writer)

Miriam is a certified Nutritionist and coach by ISSA and in Advanced Nutrition by Hong Kong University, and she has dedicated last decade to promote healthy lifestyles and education in nutrition. She is the author of the book series Food Wisdom under the pen name Broccoli People, in which she explains the principles of nutrition in an easy and intuitive way. You can follow her at www.broccolipeople.com.