*Part 2 is up. Read it here.
With my previous two posts honing in on a popular, yet badly misinformed dietition’s ridiculous claims surrounding the relevance of calories in fat loss and overall metabolic health, I wanted to begin a new series on an oft demonized macronutrient; the delicious carbohydrate.
If you’ve fallen for the nonsense spread about by Gary Taubes and his devout followers, you probably believe that carbohydrates are at the root of all fat gain, for reasons I will get to in a moment.
Now, not only is this completely wrong, it’s misleading and disingenuous. And by now, you know I don’t take kindly to misleading blanket statements, and neither should anyone else.
The belief that carbohydrates drive obesity is not just silly and overly simplistic; it’s completely incorrect from a scientific standpoint.
I know that popular gurus don’t take kindly to the presentation of actual facts, as they tend to prefer their comfy estate on fantasy island, but hopefully you’re someone who actually cares about the objective scientific evidence.
You don’t have magical insulin fairies floating around your cells, waiting to store those wretched carbohydrates, longing to make you obese and diabetic.
Let’s relieve carbohydrates from some of the dogma and extremism.
Myth #1: Low Carbohydrate Diets Lead to Fat Loss, Therefore They Are the Cause of Fat Gain
This myth doesn’t come from the ‘experts’ as much as it comes from the dedicated followers of the low carb philosophy. If removing something from the diet fixes the problem, however temporarily, then what was cut out must have caused the problem in the first place. I see this all the time regarding gluten, sugar, soda, etc. So, if cutting carbs/eating carbs isn’t the sole cause of fat loss/fat gain, what is? Let’s take a look.
The standard American diet is anywhere from 40-60% carbohydrate, give or take a few percent in either direction. Now, what do you think happens when you cut from 60% carbohydrates to 20% carbohydrates? Unless the carbohydrates are replaced with fat isocalorically (this does happen, but not very often it seems), you will be cutting a huge chunk of your overall calorie intake.
Let’s look at this in the context of a 2000 calorie diet. If this diet is composed of 60% carbohydrates, that’s 300 grams, which totals 1200 calories. We can all agree that 1200 is a large portion of 2000, I hope.
So, if one were to decrease their carbohydrate intake to 20% of total calories, that would be 400 calories coming from carbs, as opposed to 1200 (a drastic difference of 800 calories). With the addition of more dietary fat (which slows gastric emptying, leaving you fuller, longer) and spontaneously increased protein intake (usually due to more meat consumption), there is bound to be an unconscious reduction in overall food intake due to increased satiety.
Now let’s expand on that a bit with the next myth…
Myth #2: Carbohydrates are Fattening in Comparison to Dietary Fat
The title of this section reads like it was taken straight from a comic strip. Anyone with a grasp on basic physiology and nutritional science would call bullshit; and they would be 100% justified in doing so.
Now that we’ve discovered that dietary fat doesn’t have a direct causal relationship with cardiovascular disease, people seem to think it is somehow more nutritious and less fattening than carbohydrates. People are so excited that saturated fat isn’t going to kill them that they decide to toss 800 calories worth of it into their morning coffee. It’s funny how the paradigm shifts, ain’t it?
The great thing about reality is that it doesn’t care what you think. Facts are facts, reality is reality, and your opinions don’t change anything.
Let’s look at the reality: dietary fat is the macronutrient that is stored with the most efficiency.
When you consume dietary fat, fat oxidation increases very little in response. However, when you consume carbohydrates, carbohydrate oxidation increases dramatically, alongside an increase glycogen storage (1). Contrary to what now seems to be a common belief, it’s very difficult for humans to convert dietary carbohydrates to fat (de novo lipogenesis).
Now, this does not mean that you should not eat any dietary fat. It doesn’t even mean that you shouldn’t eat a high fat diet. It does, however, mean that energy balance, once again, reigns supreme. If you create a caloric surplus with only dietary fat, you will gain body fat much more efficiently than if the surplus were to come from pure carbohydrate.
To add on to the carbohydrates equal insulin which equals fat gain point: supporters of the carbohydrate/insulin hypothesis of obesity have a tendency to extrapolate transient effects to the long term. For example, we know that insulin inhibits lipolysis (fat burning) in the short term. But that does not mean insulin makes you fat over the long term.
Insulin inhibits lipolysis because glucose is readily available to be used for fuel. Why would the body release fat from fat cells when glucose is available to be utilized? Energy balance over the entire day is much more important than postprandial insulin levels in terms of fat loss. The body is constantly shifting between burning glucose and fat.
Insulin is often referred to as the “fat storage hormone”. However, it’s more honest and all-encompassing to use Stephan Guyenet’s definition (from this post):
“Its main role is to manage circulating concentrations of nutrients (principally glucose and fatty acids, the body’s two main fuels), keeping them within a fairly narrow range.”
If insulin was not there to do it’s job, there would be a constant circulation of fatty acids and glucose in the blood, which is seen in obesity and insulin resistance. Not good.
Anthony Colpo, in his most recent article (read it here) discussing the silliness of the insulin hypothesis of obesity, writes:
“The reason it’s rubbish [...] is because it ignores critical events that promptly follow on from the immediate changes in lipolysis and lipogenesis. Namely, when you eat more carbs, rather than converting the extra carbohydrate to fat and stockpiling it in adipose cells, the body responds to increases in carbohydrate intake simply by increasing the amount of carbohydrate used as fuel. At the same time, the body decreases the amount of fat used for energy. That’s why, when volunteers are fed high- and low-carbohydrate diets of equal caloric content, the subsequent differences in lipogenesis are so small as to be meaningless in terms of fat gain[7,8].”
Side Note: Carbohydrates are Extremely Beneficial for Muscle Gain, Fat is Not
Carbohydrates are “anabolic” and they fuel exercise performance, whereas fat is not and does not. Sufficient carbohydrate intake while in a caloric surplus will ensure that glycogen stores remain full and you’re able to blast through whatever activity you take part in.
On the flip side, if you’re in a caloric deficit or eating at maintenance, macronutrient composition is pretty much irrelevant (aside from protein intake, which should remain relatively high to ensure maximal lean mass retention). Optimal diet composition is going to come down to personal preference and what makes you feel best. Some enjoy eating low carb because it can be more filling, and some will want to eat as many carbs as possible. The latter is especially true for athletes and those who are highly active on a consistent basis.
So, if you’re in a caloric deficit you will not put on body fat, regardless of the macronutrient composition of the diet. People spouting the ‘carbs make you fat’ dogma need to wake up and smell the basic facts.
If your goal is to lose body fat: establish calorie intake, establish protein intake, and adjust the rest based upon your personal preferences. Demonizing one macronutrient or the other is futile as it takes focus away from the overall picture and the most important factor in body fat loss; a caloric deficit.
Anthony Colpo, to quote him once more, says it best in his post titled “Carbohydrates are Good; Dogma is Evil!“:
“People can wank on and on about how much they hate the concept of calories in versus calories out, but petulant ranting against reality doesn’t change the indisputable fact that without a calorie deficit, no fat-derived weight loss will occur.”
Beautiful. Some seem to have this fantasy that if they hate calories enough, eventually they will become irrelevant. Sorry to dissappoint you, but you can hate calories all you want; they’re not going anywhere, and they must be accounted for.
If you’re interested in reading more about the oft touted carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity, you can check out Stephan Guyenet’s merciless obliteration of it here.
Long story short, carbohydrates are not inherently fattening, and they’re not going to turn you into an insulin resistant mess. It’s time to start disregarding the ‘experts’ who make a living cherry-picking data that supports their cherished viewpoint while ignoring data that proves their ridiculous ideas invalid.
Myth #3: Carbohydrates are Not “Essential”, Therefore They are Unimportant
The zealous low carbers love this one. Your body can make it’s own glucose, therefore technically, no one needs to eat carbohydrates.
Yes, this is true. But there are several crucial problems with this argument that need to be addressed.
First of all, yes, the body can makes its own glucose via gluconeogenesis. But why would anyone want this? Why would anyone want amino acids or odd-chained fatty acids to be their main source of glucose?
Personally, I would much rather the delicious protein I consume go towards supporting structure rather than providing me with glucose that I could easily get from whole sources (mmmm, potatoes).
And I think most who are active and care about their body composition will share the same view. Gluconeogenesis is certainly not the most efficient process, considering you could just consume dietary carbohydrates and be dandy (and you’ll probably feel better, too).
Another huge issue with this argument is the assumption that “essential” is somehow analogous to “unimportant”. I don’t want to attack a strawman here, so I will note that not everyone believes this to be true, but there are certainly some who do (as I mentioned above, it’s usually the overly dogmatic low carb advocates).
Look, there’s a massive difference between surviving and thriving. Sure you can survive without consuming any dietary carbohydrates and deriving your glucose needs from amino acids among other sources, but again, you’re distracting amino acids from their primary endeavor; supporting and building structure.
Also, there are plenty of “nonessential” amino acids (such as taurine, alanine, and glutamine) and fatty acids (such as palmeric acid, stearic acid, and lauric acid) , but you would be a fool to exclude them from your diet because off the fact that they aren’t “essential”.
Carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables are obviously excellent sources of nutrients and fiber. I’m pretty sure no one recommends avoiding vegetables, but because of the recent fructose craze, people have begun to demonize fruit. This is completely silly. I love fruit, I eat a ton of it daily, and I haven’t died from fatty liver disease or developed insulin resistance. Live a little…
So, nonessential does not mean unimportant.
Having friends isn’t essential, and neither is going on vacation, but I don’t see anyone cutting those two things out of their lives. Carbohydrates serve an excellent purpose in the diet, especially for those who are highly active. While there are some athletes who do well on a ketogenic diet, they are a far-cry from the majority.
If you’ve been cutting carbs out of your diet, seriously ask yourself: why? If you’ve fallen into the trap of believing they make you fat, hopefully I’ve done a good enough job convincing you that they don’t above.
One More Thing…
Let me touch on one more point before I wrap this thing up: when I refer to carbs, most people hear donuts, twinkies, and cupcakes. Folks, those are as much fat as they are carbs. So when discussing carbs, it’s important to actually discuss carbs, and not refined sugars slathered in artificial trans fats.
While processed foods can certainly have their place in the diet, I’m of the opinion that at least 80% of the overall diet should be comprised of whole foods. If you want to go 100%, great. But, for those who like a bit of flexibility, the 80/20 rule seems to work well.
So that means that most of your carbohydrate intake should come from fruits, potatoes, veggies, rice, and other grains if you tolerate them.
The above carbohydrate sources are not the problem, although Taubes seems to believe the potato is evil.
I guess you can only eat potatoes if you’re a twenty five year old marathon runner. And people still take him seriously?
You should come away from at least one point from this post: carbohydrates are no more the cause of the obesity epidemic than dietary fat. The low-fat craze has come and gone, and it’s time for the low-carb craze to get to steppin’ as well. I said this earlier, but I’ll say it once more: demonizing one macronutrient is completely useless.
Fat gain is not caused by carbs, insulin, dietary fat, sugar, or processed foods; it’s all of these things combined. A chronic surplus of calories combined with a sedentary lifestyle is a recipe for obesity (2), yet people still believe “it’s the carbs, bro”. Sorry, time to pick on something else. Maybe they’ll go after protein next, who knows?
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to look out for Part 2 coming out either tomorrow or Wednesday. If you’re subscribed to my email newsletter, you’ll be notified when it is published. If you’re not subscribed, WTF? Sign up, now. I mean it.
Have an awesome day.