Updated: Oct 6
If there’s been one consistent diet theme between scientists, companies and consumers over the years, it’s the objective to find the magic solution for weight loss. High carbohydrate foods, otherwise known as “carbs” (a term that seems to give these essential macronutrients a negative connotation) have been accused of causing weight gain. For that reason, many diets on the market suggest decreasing or completely eliminating carbohydrate intake. As we discussed in the previous blog post, Carbohydrate: Friend or Foe?, there are different types of carbohydrate and the type of carbohydrate consumed can either serve your health or contribute to chronic diseases. Carbohydrate is an essential fuel for our brains and bodies. The question is—can you maintain or lose weight through eating carbohydrate-rich foods? The short answer is YES. Below are five things you need to know about carbohydrate and weight loss.
1. The type of carbohydrate matters
Carbohydrate is the main nutrient that fuels our bodies and brains, however, the type consumed can help or hinder your weight maintenance or weight loss goals. Weight management can be a balance of many factors. When trying to lose weight, it may be helpful to think of food as your friend, not your enemy. Choosing to fill your meals with nutrient-dense, sustainable, high-fiber food is essential for weight management, as well as overall healthy living.
Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit have been shown in research to support weight loss. The mechanisms in which they do this include keeping you full longer, increasing waste elimination, and providing essential nutrients (that aid in metabolism) to your body. How many times have you eaten a sleeve of cookies and felt full after? Most likely not very often. That’s because most processed snack foods are made of refined grains and sugars and stripped of nutrients in order to improve taste, texture, and increase shelf-life—they’re not made to support health and wellness. Using cookies as an example, they do not contain nutrients and fiber that are found in whole foods and are easily over-consumed because they are digested quickly by the body (not to mention the addictive qualities that leave you wanting more). Including whole plant-based foods that are rich in carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, such as whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, farro, wheat berries, quinoa, amaranth), legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas), fruits, and vegetables will increase the nutrients in your diet for optimal health and provide sustainable energy throughout the day, supporting a healthy weight.
2. Make your snacks more filling with fiber
Recent studies have found that snacking is contributing to the rise of obesity in the U.S. Snacking accounts for one-third of an individual’s daily intake. Unfortunately, processed foods are often affordable, accessible, and mass-produced. You’ll find plenty of grab-n-go processed snacks, like chips, pretzels, and crackers, in the aisles of gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores—even home decor stores making it easy to snack while you shop. Snacking can actually be very healthy, but it depends on the type of snack you choose. Eating heavily processed foods may give you immediate energy, but shortly after consumption, you’ll be hungry again. You may even feel tired if that snack is made with processed sugars, fats, artificial ingredients, and devoid of all nutrition. Processed foods tend to contain addictive sugars that keep you wanting more.
When choosing snacks, make sure it has at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber is essential for weight management because it assists in eliminating waste from the body, stabilizes hunger, and promotes a healthy gut. Fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate and contributes to bulk, which means that foods that are high in fiber take up more space in your stomach, which can leave you feeling full and satisfied. Unfortunately, more than 95 percent of Americans get less than 15 grams of fiber a day (primarily due to overconsumption of processed foods). Studies have found that if fiber is added to the snack or the snack contains fiber (i.e. fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains), there is a decrease in hunger, desire, and motivation to eat between snacking and mealtimes.
Healthy snacks include roasted chickpeas, apple slices (& other whole fruits) or unsweetened dried fruits with nut or seed butter, and hummus with sliced tri-color bell peppers and carrots. Find more high-fiber meal and snack ideas on the blog.
3. Is low carbohydrate sustainable?
When looking at any diet ask yourself the question: is this sustainable and good for me long-term? Many diets are not a sustainable way to live. While omitting certain food groups may be a quick fix to losing weight, it will not support a healthy body long-term. If you’ve ever been, or known anyone, on a “no-carb” diet or “low-carb” diet, you may have noticed that sticking to it was a challenge or that hunger often remains. This is because when carbohydrates are mostly or completely removed, important nutrients to fuel the body are missing. Diets that include a healthy balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat (in particular, high-fiber, plant-based diets), have been associated with improved weight management, body composition, and insulin sensitivity (resulting in better blood sugar control).
Here’s the thing—your body is smart and will adapt to its environment, so if you’re “cutting carbs,” other fuel sources such as protein and fat will be used. The result is fat loss, yes, but it can also mean muscle loss, which can decrease metabolism and the ability to sustain weight loss long-term.
4. Carbohydrate may decrease the release of hunger hormones
Hormones help to regulate metabolism, reproduction, mood, and so much more. Hunger hormones are especially important for weight management because these hormones tell us when to eat and when to stop eating. More specifically, the hormone ghrelin is known to signal the body when it’s hungry. It increases before eating and decreases after eating. Studies have shown that carbohydrates are the most effective macronutrient (compared to protein and fat) in decreasing ghrelin after consumption because carbohydrate digests more quickly. What this means is that if you consume a meal containing only protein and fat, ghrelin may continue to be high and you might still feel hungry after that meal. However, if you add carbohydrates to that meal, ghrelin has a better chance of decreasing and telling you when you’re full.
5. Carbohydrate is just as important as protein
Gram per gram, the caloric content of carbohydrate and protein are the same (four calories per gram). While protein is often portrayed as the superstar in media-centric diets, protein isn’t necessarily any better for you than carbohydrate. Both protein and carbohydrate are essential macronutrients, and they both have their own unique and important functions in the body. Whole food plant-based diets with a balance of carbohydrate and protein have been shown to decrease lifestyle diseases, improve body composition, and support gut health.
6. Gut health is important Too
There are trillions of bacteria and microorganisms living in the body, however the majority of these bacteria live in the gut. Gut bacteria is essential for producing certain vitamins, communicating with your immune system, and influencing how you digest foods. The gut also has the ability to produce chemicals that help you feel full. This point is key to weight loss and weight management because the bacteria in your gut may very well influence your weight. Your gut produces a number of different hormones such as those that control your “hunger cues” known as leptin and ghrelin. Studies have shown that different bacteria in the gut can influence how much leptin and ghrelin are produced. A study conducted on 77 pairs of twins discovered that the gut bacteria in the twin that was classified as obese, was different from that of the twin that was not obese. Other studies conducted on mice suggest that certain bacteria can lead to weight gain. As mentioned earlier, fiber not only helps you feel full, but also has the ability to stimulate the gut bacteria to produce a number of chemicals that are great for the gut, and potentially weight loss too. A number of studies have shown that individuals with high fiber intake, typically also weigh less. On the topic of carbohydrates, foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables are plentiful in fiber and can help support a healthy and diverse gut.
7. B-vitamins are your friend
A well-functioning metabolism will make weight loss easier, and B-vitamins can help make that possible. B-vitamins are super important for the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. For example, vitamin B-12, which needs the help of vitamin B-6 and folate, is essential for metabolizing proteins and fats. Thiamine, or vitamin B-1, on the other hand, helps the body convert carbohydrates into energy. This process of providing the body with energy lets us feel fueled for a workout, and in turn, allows us to burn some additional calories. Make sure not to cut your B-vitamins short, as this can tamper with the function of your metabolism. B-vitamins are found in carbohydrate-rich foods such as bananas, potatoes, whole grains, and lentils. If following a plant-based diet, note that vitamin B-12 is not found in plant products and does need to be supplemented through fortified foods or B-12 supplements. There are plenty of plant milks, soy products, and breakfast cereals that are in-fact fortified, and can provide you with ample amounts of vitamin B-12, but a B-12 supplement is good reassurance.
The bottom line—carbohydrate is a macronutrient that fosters healthy digestion and supplies energy to our bodies and brains. It can be an important part of a healthy well-balanced diet for weight management. Fiber, an important type of carbohydrate that plays a pivotal role in weight management, is found only in plant-based foods. The recommended dietary intake of fiber is a minimum of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Gradually increasing carbohydrate-rich foods through beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds (more ideas here) can improve overall health.
Recipes to increase fiber intake throughout your day:
For Breakfast Pumpkin Spice and Maple Pecan Smoothie Bowl
For Dinner or Lunch Chickpea Pasta with Garlicky Mushrooms, Spinach and Tomatoes or Lemon Miso Farro and Vegetable Bowl
Do you have any questions? Leave them down below!
Hi! My name is Tatum Nolan and I'm a dietetic student in the Coordinated Program at Georgia State University. My passion for nutrition has inspired me to pursue a career as a registered dietitian. I have many interests in nutrition and specifically love the individualized care to patients that RD's provide! I'm excited to learn about blogging and the benefits of plant-based eating.
Gropper, S., Smith, J. and Carr, T., 2018. Advanced Nutrition And Human Metabolism. 7th ed.