Are High Carb Diets Really Bad?

Based on today’s collection of popular diets, one would be forgiven for thinking that High Carb diets were bad. Some of the more popular diets out there such as the Keto diet looks to minimize carbohydrates as much as possible. Other diets such as the Paleo diet allows fruits and vegetables but eliminates all grain products.

Diets such as Paleo do not target carbohydrates per se. Rather, a diet like Paleo seeks to model what our ancestors ate. Those dieters are of the thought that the caveman probably didn’t harvest wheat and make bread or harvest rice – of any color. Caveman (and women) were hunter-gathers.

Nevertheless, although the Paleo diet does allow simple carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, and nuts; it eliminates a tremendous source of complex carbohydrates. And to be fair, Paleo is less a weight loss diet as it is a lifestyle diet. Perhaps the better comparison would be to a lifestyle diet like the Mediterranean diet.

But Keto is a weight loss diet. The general gist of this diet seeks to eliminate all carbohydrates from consumption. The reasoning being that with the absence of carbohydrates, the body will begin utilizing fat for energy. It is a reasonable assumption.

After all, although carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, the body cannot use what it does not have. Hence, the body enters a state where it begins to draw on the fat reserves. The body does not like to use protein for energy. Protein is for muscle maintenance. Fat is the option.

The Keto diet works. A large group of dedicated followers and practitioners can attest to this. But if low carbohydrate, high fat, and high protein are the key to losing weight, how then do nations like Korea and Japan produce some of the “skinniest” and healthiest people in the world.

A cup of cooked rice contains about 44 grams of carbohydrates, 0.44 grams of fat, and 4.2 grams of protein. I can tell you from personal experience that Koreans eat more than 1 cup of white rice in one sitting, let alone the whole day. Yet, as a society, Koreans are a skinny bunch. The same holds true for Japan, maybe more so.

Aside from the white rice, Koreans love their sweet potato. Street vendors roast sweet potatoes on converted 55-gallon drums with wood fire blazing below. Grabbing one on a cold, wintery day is one of life’s true pleasures. 1 cup of sweet potato clocks in at 30 grams of carbs, barely 0.2 grams of fat, and 2.5 grams of protein.

The question to ask is why. Why are folks whose main, staple foods that are high in carbohydrates and low in fat with moderate protein levels not overweight. Because if the answer to losing weight is eliminating carbohydrates, then it stands to reason that carbohydrates caused the weight gain in the first place, or at contributed.

And it is not a question of good carbohydrates versus bad carbs. These low carb diets seek to eliminate all of them. And lifestyle diets like Paleo seeks to eliminate all starchy, complex carbohydrates, arguably the best form of long-term energy carbs.

And looking at lifestyle diets, pasta is key component to the famed Mediterranean diet. Although pasta as a term is quite encompassing, a cup of “regular” pasta yields about 43 grams of carbs, 1.3 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein. Again, another tremendously successful and healthy lifestyle diet that features high carbohydrates and low fat with moderate protein.

The answer to this dichotomy is that carbohydrates are not stored or converted to fat in any appreciable manner. In broad layman terms, the body burns carbohydrates until there are no more carbohydrates to burn or the body no longer needs to burn carbs for energy.

Excess carbs are stored as glycogen. It is not initially converted (or stored as fat). The average person has the capacity to store up to 1,500-2,000 calories of stored glycogen. Once those are full, carbs are stored as fat. But glycogen is constantly being converted to glucose, and so depleted constantly. And yes, “constantly” in need of replenishment.

What gets stored as fat is the fat a person eats. It’s the dietary fat. It’s not carbs or protein being magically glued to the belly or to hips, it’s the fat.

FDA’s recommended total fat consumption is 65 grams per day. The consensus is that any diet that gets less than 30% of its calories from fat is considered a low-fat diet. 30% is enormous. A cup of cooked white rice yields less than a half gram of fat. 65 grams of fat a day translate to whole lot of rice, and potentially a lot of happy Koreans!

Body uses protein to build or maintain muscle. Body burns carbohydrates as an immediate energy source. Body stores fat for the long winter hibernation (well, if we were bears).

Not getting fat means not eating fat. Not getting fat means eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass. Not getting fat means eating enough carbohydrates to fuel body and the glycogen reserves. Protein and carbs do not turn to fat (maybe a little), it’s the fat that turns to fat.

And the holy truth about weight loss is simple. Eat less than the body uses, and the weight will drop. And stop eating fat.