The carb myth part 2: It’s the calories, stupid

In the first part of this series, The Carb Myth Part I, I pointed out that people often replaced the fat in their food with carbs, primarily in the form of refined sugar. I also stressed that controlling carb intake was critical to ensuring successful fat loss and appetite management. I’d like to expand on this a little bit because currently, the low-carb mania is echoing the stupidity of the low-fat mania ten years ago. People are buying “carb-free” carbs just like we bought “fat-free” candies. In neither case do you really learn how to eat properly, or even why you are doing the low carb thing in the first place.

Refined carbs—processed sugars and simple starches—are still bad for you

No matter how you slice it (no pun intended), refined carbs are bad news. They’re essentially nutritional pollutants (one nutritionist refers to them as “fat fertilizer”), and they are found in most processed foods. They wreak havoc with your appetite and satiety, turn your blood sugar into a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and cause a variety of nasty things to happen throughout your body. I’m being a little hyperbolic, of course — one cookie isn’t going to make your liver shrivel, but when you start reading labels and realize how much junky crap is in your food, it’s a real wake-up call.

Here’s an example. This comes from a box of granola cereal. This cereal is marketed as “healthy” and “low in fat”. In fact, the slogan on the box reads “Good for You never tasted so good”. Supposedly it’s a “wholesome, crunchy multigrain blend”. Well! Wholesome! Low fat! No hydrogenated oil! Granola! Hippies like granola, right? So it must be awesome for me! Shazam!

And then reality hits like you like a warm wet baby diaper across the face. One serving is 2/3 cup. Go and measure out 2/3 of a cup of cereal. I would bet $20 that most people haven’t eaten a 2/3 cup serving of cereal in their lives, except to pass it as they keep on trucking to a 2-cup serving. This 2/3 cup serving has 220 calories, 3 grams of fat (well, at least they weren’t lying about that part), 4 grams of protein (eh, not great, but what can you expect — it’s not a steak cereal)… and 44 grams of carbs! The second ingredient is brown sugar. And just in case that wasn’t enough there’s also honey, y’know, a belt-and-suspenders kind of sweetener deal. Healthy, my ass.

One particular culprit is high fructose corn syrup. That stuff is everywhere: ketchup, juice, breakfast cereals. Read your labels! If there are more than, say, three ingredients and at least one of them ends in “ose”, don’t eat it, or restrict yourself to a small portion. White flour is also included as a refined carb, so limit your intake of this stuff too. Potatoes are often put into the refined carb group, although they are technically a vegetable. This is because they tend to stimulate a similar kind of response as other refined carbohydrates. But it’s a matter of degree: eating a baked potato is still much better than eating a pop tart.

refined carbs include:

Baked goods: muffins, donuts, pastries, cookies, cakes
White flour and white flour products such as white bread and bagels
Snack foods: candies, chips, pretzels
Sweetened dairy products: ice cream, chocolate milk
Drinks: pop/soda, juice
Processed grain products: Pasta made from white flour, white rice, rice cakes, many breakfast cereals

Remember: when you read the labels, look for the “ose” to denote a form of sugar, especially sucrose, glucose, and fructose, as well as their cousins maltose and dextrose. Think “OSE”: “Omigawd, Sugar Everywhere!”

For the geeks in the crowd, some reading material on glucose, fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome that notes, in part:

“The intake of dietary fructose has increased markedly as a result of the steady increase in added sugars in the American diet… In terms of feedback to the central nervous system (CNS) regarding energy status in peripheral tissues, fructose consumption results in decreased production and, therefore, decreased signaling to the CNS from 2 hormones (leptin and insulin) involved in the long-term regulation of energy homeostasis and body adiposity… Thus, the long-term consumption of diets high in fat and fructose is likely to lead to increased energy intake, weight gain, and obesity. The potential for weight gain from increased fructose consumption may only represent one aspect of its metabolic consequences.”

(Sharon S Elliott, Nancy L Keim, Judith S Stern, Karen Teff and Peter J Havel. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(5): 911-922 (November 2002).)

By the way, many women have written me about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), so I thought I would include a brief mention of it here. PCOS is characterized by several different symptoms, including higher than normal levels of circulating androgens, irregular menstruation, and persistent weight gain (or stubborn fat loss). It is correlated with insulin resistance and can be managed, in part, by weight training and a low carb diet (Glueck CJ, Papanna R, Wang P, Goldenberg N, Sieve-Smith L. “Incidence and treatment of metabolic syndrome in newly referred women with confirmed polycystic ovarian syndrome.” Metabolism. 52(7): 908-15 (July 2003).).

For more reading check out sites such as SoulCysters and PCOS Support.

Substitute whole grains and/or fruit and vegetables for refined carbs

Whole grains and fruit/veg are higher in beneficial fibre, vitamins, and in the case of fruit/veg, other useful phytonutrients (“phyto” = plant). This means that not only are they more nutritious in general, but they help control energy levels and appetite more effectively. Plus, they taste better! I give some ideas on the site about how to cook whole grains, useful if you have never incorporated them into your own cooking. The more you reduce your refined carb intake, the less you will probably crave the stuff. You’ll likely find that your appetite diminishes, and you have fewer blood sugar swings, but more consistent energy.

instead of:

White bread
Regular pasta
Ramen noodles
Fruit juice
Sugary breakfast cereals
White rice


Whole grain bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread
Whole wheat pasta
Buckwheat noodles (soba)
Brown rice or wild rice
Seed flours such as hemp and flax seed

Folks concerned about inflammation and food intolerance might consider going one step further, and eliminating grains such as wheat from their diet altogether. Grains such as wheat and oats contain proteins known as lectins, which may interact with the gastrointestinal tract to cause local and systemic inflammation and an overactive immune system response. This can manifest itself as upset stomach symptoms along with a host of other autoimmune-type symptoms, such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. If this sounds familiar, check out the Paleo diet. But if you’re just starting out with this whole project, begin with small steps.

Some people will say that fruit should not be eaten while dieting, because fructose is easily converted to fat. This is a misconception. First, fruit is relatively low in fructose compared to things like high fructose corn syrups (HFCS). Fruit contains a mix of fructose and other sugars like glucose. HFCS is essentially a shot of pure sugar right into your veins, while fruit is much more slowly digested because of its fibre content.

Second, the amount of total sugar in fruit is very low. While the body lacks the ability to convert large quantities of fructose to muscle glycogen effectively, it would be very difficult to consume enough fructose in the form of fruit to make this happen. Compare:

8 oz orange juice: 110 calories, 27 g carbohydrate, maybe a bit of vitamin C. Oh yeah, and some glucose-fructose.

1 orange: 62 calories, 15 g carbohydrate, 3 g fibre, 116% of daily RDA for vitamin C plus a ton of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients. Nothing else.

Fruit has an important place in a well balanced diet, no matter what your goals are. It’s loaded with vitamins and fibre, and it tastes great!

Lowcarb diets are not magical

They work in large part by inhibiting appetite (largely through their effects on regulatory hormones) and lowering calories. Total caloric intake is the prime determinant of weight loss. It’s just that many folks find that lowering carb intake also reduces their appetite, so they eat less. Or, because they’re told they should restrict a food group, they eat less. In any case, they’re eating fewer calories.

There is evidence that diets lower in carbohydrate do seem to work better than diets low in fat for both weight loss and improving overall health indicators (e.g. blood chemistry), and that people may not need to restrict calories quite so much when restricting carbohydrate, because of the ways in which the body handles the different macronutrients. Generally, one of the first things I do is have clients cut way down on their carb intake, simply because most people eat too many carbs to support their levels of activity, and they eat a lot of sugary and starchy junk. For the average person, just cutting out the foods in the “eat less” column below will produce noticeable results.

Personally, I strongly recommend clients and trainees cut way down on carbs, simply because the average North American eats so much. When they cut out the junk and focus on consuming whole unprocessed foods, good fats, plenty of lean protein, and heaps of vegetables and fruit, a lot of this just takes care of itself. No carb-free bread required.

It’s the calories, stupid

This bears repeating. Any diet that involves you eating fewer calories than you burn will result in weight loss. Any diet that includes eating more calories than you burn will result in weight gain. Nobody’s body breaks the laws of physics. It just looks that way sometimes, because we haven’t accurately calculated or understood some part of the equation. Some people report eating more on a lower-carb diet and still losing fat — great. It doesn’t mean their bodies have violated the rules of the universe; it just means that their systems are handling the nutrients in a particular way that isn’t exactly comparable to a different macronutrient ratio. If they kept on eating more and more and more, regardless of what that “more” was, eventually it’d catch up.

Now, the quality of that weight loss, and how you feel while doing it, depends on your macronutrient intake. How your body handles the calories it takes in will depend on your activity levels and your ability to effectively use the carbs you do ingest.

But in general, a diet which has adequate lean protein, good fats, adequate fibre, and lots of fruit and veggies is the best choice for general health for the average person. The actual percentages will vary from person to person, depending on individual needs, but this plan is a good basic overview.

Cutting carbs drastically is not appropriate for everyone

No diet, no matter how great it is, is a one-size-fits-all prescription. People doing lots of endurance activity will likely find their performance decreases when carbs dip too low, as will people trying to gain muscle. Carbs, especially good carbs, have a role to play in a balanced diet which is sustainable for the long term. In addition, even people who aren’t very good with carbs can benefit from timing carb intake around their workouts.

Most folks can benefit from reducing the amount of refined sugars and starches they eat, but cutting down drastically on good quality carbs is not necessarily always the best thing for everyone.