Do Carbohydrates Cause a Gain in Body Fat?

Posted October 12, 2010 by

I’ve had about 15 clients ask me this question in the past month alone, and tons more over the course of my experience as a trainer and nutritional consultant. For some reason carbohydrates have gotten a reputation as the “unneeded” and “harmful” macronutrient that we are all better off avoiding completely in favor of protein and fat.

The bottom line is, this is unfounded and no, carbohydrates (in and of themselves) do NOT cause a gain in body fat. That being said, eating in excess of your daily caloric allotment will result in a gain in body fat, but that goes for any of the macronutrients, not just carbohydrates. The truth of the matter is that eating over your maintenance level in calories is the main cause of body fat gain, not the macronutrient breakdown of those calories. If you are eating fewer calories than you burn each day, then you are basically not going to gain body fat, period.

Now, of course, LOSING body fat is a whole different scenario. As we know, there is a difference between general weight loss and specific fat-loss, and in order to target fat to be used for energy, we have to monitor what we eat to a degree, but that still doesn’t mean carbohydrates are bad. Carbohydrates have their place just as much as protein and fat. While it is true that carbohydrates are not required for survival (unlike fats and protein), for an optimal, healthy lifestyle they should not be avoided.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy during exercise—particularly cardio training. The mechanism that generates the power needed to contract the muscles and initiate bodily movement is fueled by glucose (blood sugar) which is the broken-down form of carbs. Keeping a moderate amount of carbohydrates in your diet will not only give you more energy during your workouts, but will also keep your metabolism running at full throttle, which as we’ve discussed in previous articles, is the key to fat-loss.

While your body can switch to using fat byproducts (called ketones) for energy in the extended absence of carbs (like on the Atkins Diet), the lack of carbohydrates will negatively affect your metabolism and slow or halt fat-loss. This is a common reason why followers of the Atkins Diet and other long-term, low-carb diets typically suffer unbreakable plateaus in their fat-loss efforts—their metabolism has slowed to a crawl and is no longer conducive to effective fat-loss. Additionally, a lack of carbs will also put you in a sour mood—they’ve been shown to improve your mood pretty significantly!

So the real question is, how do you know how much of your diet should consist of carbohydrates? The answer is, it depends on your goal and your current situation. For 95% of the folks out there, who are of average body-fat levels (or higher) and looking to lose weight and “tone up,” it’s best to eat approximately 55% of your daily calories as carbohydrates. Now, this doesn’t mean you can go celebrate this news by breaking out the donuts and chips! The carbohydrate choices you make should definitely be healthy ones, because poor food choices can still cause fat-loss to suffer. Good choices include anything that is in it’s natural form, such as potatoes, brown rice, vegetables, corn on the cob, fruit, oats, etc.

Eating complex forms of carbohydrates like the ones above, in small amounts on a frequent basis (every 2-3 hours) will keep your energy levels stable, keep your metabolism high and keep your mood elevated. By using cardio exercise to increase your caloric usage to above the amount of calories you are eating, you will experience stable, healthy fat-loss. For 95% of the population, it really is that simple.

Now, a figure competitor or a fitness model preparing for a photo shoot is a whole different story, but you need to keep in mind that their goals are completely different than a fat-loss client’s goals, so why WOULD the process be the same? A competitor or a model is looking for drastic, unmaintainable results that aren’t based on healthiness, but on what “looks the best.” They are only concerned with the results for a temporary period of time as well. So, for these folks, low carbohydrate diets can work very well but mainly because they can aid in TEMPORARY reductions in water retention and can bring already low body fat levels to even lower values TEMPORARILY. Once the event is complete or the individual is in the offseason, the vast majority go back to eating a balanced diet that includes a moderate amount of carbohydrates. The plethora of benefits provided by the inclusion of carbs in one’s diet are just too plentiful to ignore!

Comments on Do Carbohydrates Cause a Gain in Body Fat? »

  1. Brian Mitchell

    Great article Ben!

  2. Carry Tinner

    I really can’t understand folks who believe that they are able to shed pounds with diets & pills. I mean, come on!!! Its not brain surgery now, is it? Intake less calories than you burn and you will probably lose weight – yes, its that easy!!!

  3. claudia

    Nice article ben!!