Few things strike as much fear and create as much confusion as carbohydrates. Are carbs bad? Are carbs unhealthy? Do carbs make you fat? In the last decade, we’ve easily transformed from a society that feared fat, to one that is now terrified of carbs. Just the other day I was in the bookstore pretending to be a big deal author (yes, my new book is now available for purchase—you can pick it up here), and a woman started talking to me about diet. She said, she knew all the tricks.
“I know that if I eat fewer calories I’ll lose weight. But here’s the thing: If I eat a couple of slices of bread or some rice, I know I’ll get fat. Isn’t that crazy.”
Well, yes. It is crazy. Mainly because it’s not accurate. And yet, that’s what most people believe.
In order to help restore some balance to the carb question, I reached out to Nate Miyaki. Nate’s been working on the nutrition side of the fitness world for more than 10 years, and has been an invaluable resource for many of the articles I’ve written.
If you're inactive, you only need to worry about providing carbs to fuel your brain and central nervous system. If you're active, it's a different story.
He also happens to be well versed in both the science of carbs, as well as real life application. That is, when you design programs and diets, do carbs really make people fat?
To answer that question, I had Nate discuss the truth about one of my favorite carb sources—white rice. Here’s what he had to say. -AB
Do Carbs Make You Fat?
Who would have thought my tiny little morsel of goodness could cause so much controversy.
I’m talking about my favorite food–rice, rice, baby.
Whether or not rice should be included in a health enhancing, fat slashing, muscle building diet is a highly debated topic in our industry. To some (such as certain followers of the Paleo movement), rice is a demon food that should be avoided like the plague.
Yet in some cultures that exhibit immaculate biomarkers of health and low obesity rates, it has been a dietary staple for centuries. What gives?
I ate 5 cups of rice last night for dinner. I’m also close to 5% body fat, so I can tell you what side of the fence I’m on. I think sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and high omega-6 vegetable oils do more to cause insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity than my pal white rice.
But most of us don’t want to give up our beloved junk foods, so we have to blame something. White rice is as easy of a target as any. So in order to help you determine whether carbs–or rice–should be a part of your diet, I’ve developed a simple three-step system to help you figure out your nutrition needs.
Step 1: Do You Need Starchy Carbs?
A core problem in the fitness industry is trying to slot everyone into one universal diet system. It just doesn’t work that way my friends.
Intense exercise changes the way your body processes nutrients, and your internal physiological, metabolic, and hormonal environment for 24 to 48 hours. That means athletes and regular exercisers have very different dietary needs than sedentary populations.
Beyond any scientific debate, that’s really just pure common sense. So the first step in this carb selection story is to assess how many carbohydrates you really need, and for what reasons.
A sedentary person who does not exercise will not burn through muscle glycogen reserves (think of this as energy or carbohydrates), which are really only used for high intensity muscular contractions (hence the name).
So inactive individuals do not need to worry about replenishing these stores with the ADA-recommended carbohydrate levels. In other words, if you don’t exercise your carbohydrate needs are much less.
If you’re inactive, you really only need to worry about providing adequate carbohydrates to fuel your brain and central nervous system at rest, which is primarily regulated by your liver glycogen stores (80-110g).
Could you go the super low carb route? Of course, that’s also an option. But if you do, be aware that it might be associated with ketogenic (low carb)-induced brain fog, grumpiness, depression, insomnia, and low testosterone.
So How Many Carbs Should I Eat?
An effective low-carb, but non-ketogenic diet, can be accomplished with roughly 100 to 125 grams of carbs a day from unlimited, non-starchy vegetables and a few pieces of whole fruit. No rice or starch is necessary.
But here’s the key point: 100 to 125 grams of carbohydrates does not mean eating no carbohydrates. It just means that your demands are less, and your carb sources are best reserved for fruits and veggies. Can you eat other carb sources and stay within that carb range and still be healthy? Of course. But you might lose out on some other nutritional benefits.
High carbohydrate intakes, on the other hand, are more appropriate for gym rats and athletes that engage in intense muscle tearing, glycogen depleting training sessions.
When you exercise, your body undergoes the cyclical depletion (through training) and repletion (through targeted starch intake) of muscle glycogen stores. That can take a lot more than 100 grams because beyond what supports the liver, your muscles can store about 300 to 600 grams of carbohydrates.
If you drive your car around and empty the gas tank, you need to fill it back up to keep it functioning properly. So in those cases, on the days that you train, depending on your bodyweight and goals you might need several hundred grams of carbohydrates to help your body recover and grow.
Step 2: Why Should You Eat Starchy Carbs?
By now, I hope you understand that the only reason you need starch is for the single, sole purpose of obtaining the high-powered glucose molecules within that food, which in turn can be used to:
1. Fuel anaerobic activity (think weight lifting) via glycolysis (the breakdown of carbohydrates).
2. Restock glycogen (carb stores) that has been depleted through hard training.
3. Trigger an anabolic (muscle-building) environment that offsets, and hopefully exceeds, the initial catabolic stress brought on by intense training.
The moral of the story is that for people who exercise, it’s the glucose chains in starchy carbs that really matter, not all of the additional compounds that sometimes come along with them.
If you are eating starchy carbs for any other reason than to obtain those glucose chains, I believe you are eating them for the wrong reasons. That’s a lot of fancy science talk, so here’s what you really need to know. These are bad reasons to choose certain carb sources:
- I choose “x” carb because it is high in protein
Grain proteins are of inferior quality and bioavailability than animal proteins. You should be getting the majority of your protein needs from high quality animal sources. Any protein in grain foods is incidental, not necessary. The obvious exception: If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, this rule changes.
- I choose “y” carb because it is high in fiber
Fiber is invaluable for overall health, but I believe you are better off getting the bulk of your fiber, so to speak, from natural plant sources — like fruits and veggies — rather than man-made cardboard — like fiber twigs and sawdust.
- I choose “z” carb because it is low glycemic
Chronic elevations in insulin can definitely be problematic, and can lead to a host of diseases including diabetes and Man-Boob-itis. But short-term (acute) elevations under certain metabolic conditions can be highly beneficial to the athlete. Insulin transports amino acids and glucose into the muscle cell to initiate the recovery process from training.
You should indeed choose low glycemic fruits and vegetables the majority of the time (and if sedentary, all of the time). But a higher glycemic food – oh I don’t know, like white rice – can work magic in a targeted, post-workout recovery period.
Step #3: Choose the Right Starchy Carb Source
Here’s the real reason why carbs get such a bad reputation: Up to 50 percent of the carbohydrate intake in the typical American diet is in the form of high fructose corn syrup and sugar. This often serves as the “control” group in most studies.
So when people say carbs are bad, they’re usually just talking about eating lots of sugar. But that’s not really fair to every other food that also is labeled a carbohydrate.
When compared to a typical American diet, the low carb diet is going to look like the undisputed world champ. However, when compared to a good carb-based diet that is low in sugar, refined foods, and gluten (like the “Japanese Diet”), the results are very different.
In Japan, diabetes and obesity rates were never greater than 3 percent of the population pre-1991. If carbs in general were the enemy, with their high starch intake via rice and sweet potatoes, the Japanese would be the fattest, most diabetic and unhealthy population on the planet. However, this was not the case.
Condemning all carbs as evil and cutting them across the board, regardless of the type or individual metabolic situation, is an uniformed approach.
Finding the Right Carb Source For You
Athletes and people that exercise may benefit from the inclusion of some carbs into their diets, but it is critical they make the right choices in terms of carbohydrate type. You should choose starches that provide anaerobic fuel without all of the damaging toxic compounds.
The following foods can be consumed in your diet, but you might want to limit their consumption for various reasons:
- High fructose corn syrup and refined sugar (one molecule of glucose plus one molecule of fructose) can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity.
- Gluten-based starches (wheat, rye, barley) can be problematic because gluten is a protein that is an allergen or food sensitivity for many and can cause bloating, water retention, stubborn fat, and lethargy. (Remember, this is only if you have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten; it is not universally evil or problematic.)
- Beans and legumes are lectins that can cause GI distress, leaky gut syndrome, and can inhibit protein digestion and amino acid absorption.
- Most cereal grains contain the “anti-nutrient” phytic acid. This compound can also cause GI distress and inhibit mineral absorption.
In terms of carb sources that are universally healthy for people, we’re not left with much. That’s why the Japanese Village-style Diet works as a simple dietary template for active individuals: animal proteins, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruit, and starchy carbohydrates coming predominantly from root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes) and white rice.
The White Rice Myth
Isn’t brown rice so much better than white? Not necessarily. Remember, it’s better to receive your fiber from plant foods and not 87 servings of whole grains. Brown rice is like most other cereal grains.
The “anti-nutrient” or phytic acid that is problematic for digestion and nutrient absorption is located in the bran of the grain. This is removed in the milling process that essentially changes brown rice to white rice. It is one of the few exceptions where I believe food refining is actually beneficial. When you remove the bran, what you’re left with is an easily digested, “safe starch” food without any toxic compounds.
How To Eat Carbs and Stay Lean
Carbs are not evil.
While it’s true that lower carb diets provide many health benefits and can help with weight loss, low carb does not mean no carbs. When you’re training and exercising, your needs for carbohydrates increases. And if you’re trying to gain muscle, carbs are an essential part of the equation.
What’s more, for many people, white rice is, in fact, one of the best carbohydrate sources because it isn’t associated with stomach distress, allergies, bloating, and it’s not loaded with sugars that are linked to diabetes or obesity.
So enjoy your carbs. Eat them based on your activity level, and your personal experiences and sensitivities with different types of foods. But no matter what, don’t just assume a food is bad (or makes you fat) because it’s a carbohydrate. It’s one of the bigger nutritional mistakes you can make.