Carbohydrates have gained a reputation for being the enemy, thanks to plenty of convincing marketing and popular diets that warn against them. But are carbs really bad news for weight loss?
Hardly. Complex carbs — like oatmeal, whole grains and potatoes — provide our bodies with energy and keep us from overeating.
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"Complex carbs are strung together in long, complex chains, taking more energy and time to break down into sugar for energy," says Juliana Dewsnap, RD, LDN, registered dietitian with Baze, a personalized supplement company. "Carbs are your body's preferred source of fuel, since it takes the least amount of work to convert to energy compared to protein or fat," she adds.
Many complex carbohydrates are great sources of fiber (think: legumes, pears and beans), a nutrient that promotes weight loss, satiety and gut health. So if you're thinking about cutting carbs to drop pounds, you may want to reconsider.
That said, it is possible to have too much of a good thing — carbs included. Adults should aim to get 45 to 65 percent of their daily energy intake from carbs, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The figure can ebb and flow, depending on our lifestyle — super-active people need more carbs for energy, while more sedentary folks require less.
While Dewsnap says it's better to focus less on the number of carbs and more on the quality of the carbs we're consuming, an excess of carbs, whether complex or not, can lead to a host of uncomfortable symptoms.
5 Signs You May Be Eating Too Many Carbs
A healthy diet should make us feel energized, as food is fuel for our body and helps us tackle the day. Complex carbs can contribute to this energy, but overeating (whether complex or simple) carbohydrates can sometimes backfire.
So, how to know if you're eating too many? There are a few signs to look out for.
1. You’re Always Bloated
If you find yourself constantly bloated, carbs could be the culprit, nurse practitioner Marina Yuabova tells LIVESTRONG.com. The sugar from carbohydrates can decrease the diversity of healthy bacteria in our gut, making our digestive system sluggish, which then creates bloat, Yuabova says.
Additionally, the bacteria in your colon ferment fiber, starches and some sugars, which produce gaseous compounds in the body, per the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research.
This happens most often when we consume refined carbs, Dewsnap says. "These types of carbs create an osmotic effect due to high amounts of sodium and pull water out of your intestines. This can result in bloating, constipation and feeling gassy or uncomfortable," she says.
And remember that beneficial fiber we talked about? While it's a great aid to weight loss, upping your fiber intake too quickly can lead to a bevy of stomach troubles, including bloat. It's best to gradually add fiber to your diet so your body can get used to it. You'll also want to drink more water as you do so.
2. You’re Gaining Weight
Let's be real: Eating too much of anything is likely to contribute to weight gain. Eating excess carbohydrates in particular, however, can translate to excess calories, since foods that are rich in carbs often contain a lot of fat, says dietitian and associate clinical professor Keith Thomas Ayoob, RDN.
"Sweets like cakes, pies and cookies are thought of as sugary foods, but they get at least half their calories from fat. These calories — from the carbs and fat — are very low in nutrients all around, so they're considered empty calories," he explains.
It's not always sweets. Sometimes it can be a matter of how you're eating your healthy carbs. Many people pair potatoes with a fat, like gravy. To reap the benefits of complex carbs, Ayoob says it's best to pair them with healthier alternatives.
"Have that baked potato with some salsa or a sprinkle of grated Parmesan instead of adding a ton of butter and you'll get your carbs, plus nutrients, with about half the calories of the tater with all the added fat," he says.
3. You’re Breaking Out
Though we'd all prefer if acne ended once we left our teens, many adults experience breakouts well into their 30s, 40s and beyond. This is partially due to our genetics, as well as our specific hormones, but breakouts can also be a sign that something's up in our diets.
Sugars from carbohydrates increase the production of androgens, which are linked to hormonal acne, Yuabova says. For some of us, when we overeat carbohydrates, we may break out. This type of breakout typically occurs in the lower third of the face, so if you see acne along your mouth and jawline, it could be a sign that you're eating too many carbs.
April 2014 research in Drugs and Dermatology highlights a connection between refined carbohydrates and acne. The researchers recommend reducing consumption of high-glycemic-index foods, which include certain cereals, bread, rice and fruit like cantaloupe and watermelon. You may want to substitute some of these foods with options lower on the glycemic index (think: nonstarchy veggies and fruits like apples and oranges) if you're noticing a new acne pattern.
4. You're Having Trouble Sleeping
There are plenty of reasons you might be having a tough time falling asleep. But if you're a nighttime snacker, this very well may be the issue. Eating carbs requires your body to work and process sugar, so if you're snacking before bedtime, you're asking your body to perform rather than rest, says Yuabova.
On the other hand, carbs may hasten your sleepy state — especially those with a high glycemic index, according to one May 2014 study in Sports Medicine.
If you are a late-night eater and struggling to fall asleep, try giving yourself an earlier cutoff so your body has ample time to process foods before it goes into rest mode.
5. You’re Tired All the Time
If you're feeling particularly tired, carbs might be contributing to that lethargic state, Dewsnap says. Brain fog and headaches are also symptoms of a carb overdose.
"When choosing a carbohydrate-based meal, it's important to pair with other nutrients like healthy proteins and fats," she says. "Your brain relies on glucose for energy, but burns through it fast if you're choosing simple or refined carbohydrates over those with more fiber and grains."
Eating too many carbs can spike your blood sugar and then lead to that crash that leaves you feeling sluggish, per Sanford Health. To avoid the slump, be sure to pair your carbs with other nutrients.
"Both protein and fats can help slow digestion of carbohydrates so you can feel energized throughout the day and avoid a sugar rush," Dewsnap says.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- GI Society: "Intestinal Gas"
- Drugs and Dermatology: "Diet and acne update: carbohydrates emerge as the main culprit"
- Sports Medicine: "Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep"
- Sanford Health: "Sugar crash effects and how to fix them"
- 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans