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Are High Carb Diets Really Bad?

Based on the current collection of popular diets, one might think that high-carb diets are bad. Some of the most popular diets, like the Keto diet, seek to minimize carbs as much as possible. Other diets, like the Paleo diet, allow fruits and vegetables, but eliminate all grain products.

Diets like Paleo do not target carbs per se. Rather, a diet like Paleo seeks to model what our ancestors ate. Those dieters think that the caveman probably didn’t harvest wheat or make bread or harvest rice, of any color. Cavemen (and women) were hunter-gatherers.

However, while the Paleo diet allows for simple carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, and nuts; eliminates a tremendous source of complex carbohydrates. And to be fair, Paleo is less of a weight loss diet than a lifestyle diet. Perhaps the best comparison would be with a lifestyle diet like the Mediterranean diet.

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

After all, while carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, the body can’t use what it doesn’t have. Thus, the body enters a state where it begins to use 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 carb, high fat, high protein is the key to weight loss, how come countries like Korea and Japan produce some of the “thinnest” and healthiest people in the world?

One 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 throughout the day. However, as a society, Koreans are a skinny bunch. The same is true for Japan, maybe more so.

Besides white rice, Koreans love sweet potatoes. Street vendors roast sweet potatoes in converted 55-gallon drums with a wood fire burning underneath. Grabbing one on a cold, wintry day is one of life’s true pleasures. 1 cup of sweet potato has 30 grams of carbohydrates, just 0.2 grams of fat, and 2.5 grams of protein.

The question to ask is why. Why aren’t people whose main staple foods are high in carbohydrates and low in fat with moderate levels of protein overweight? Because if the answer to weight loss is to cut out carbs, then it stands to reason that carbs caused or contributed to weight gain in the first place.

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

And looking at lifestyle diets, pasta is a key component of the famous Mediterranean diet. Although the term pasta is pretty broad, a cup of “regular” pasta yields about 43 grams of carbohydrates, 1.3 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein. Again, another tremendously successful and healthy lifestyle diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat with moderate protein.

The answer to this dichotomy is that carbohydrates are not appreciably stored or converted to fat. Generally speaking, the body burns carbohydrates until there are no more carbohydrates to burn or the body no longer needs to burn carbohydrates for energy.

Excess carbohydrates are stored as glycogen. It is not initially converted (or stored as fat). The average person has the ability to store up to 1500-2000 calories of stored glycogen. Once you are full, carbohydrates are stored as fat. But glycogen is constantly being converted to glucose and is therefore constantly being depleted. And yes, “constantly” in need of replenishment.

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

The FDA recommended total fat intake 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 huge. One cup of cooked white rice yields less than half a gram of fat. 65 grams of fat a day translates to a lot of rice and potentially a lot of happy Koreans!

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

Not gaining weight means not eating fat. Staying fat means eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass. Staying fat means eating enough carbohydrates to fuel the body and glycogen stores. Protein and carbs don’t turn into fat (maybe a little), it’s the fat that turns into 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.

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