Do Carbs Make You Gain Weight? The Truth Explained

Learn about any links between eating carbs and weight gain, how to balance your intake, and tips for healthfully including carbohydrates in your diet.

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by
Sarah Bullard, MS, RD, LD
— Signos
Dietitian and Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 24, 2024
February 15, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Low-carbohydrate diets continue to be marketed as more effective for weight loss than other eating patterns.1 People then view carbohydrates as a nutrient to avoid to prevent weight gain.

In contrast, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume between 45 and 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrate sources for optimal health.2 That’s around 1,000 calories from carbohydrates daily for a 2,000-calorie diet. 

Carbohydrates provide fuel (or glucose) for your body to perform optimally each day. Your brain, kidneys, muscles, and red blood cells prefer glucose as their energy source but can use other sources.3 

In reality, the type and quality of carbohydrates you eat are more important. Priority should be given to complex carbohydrate foods like fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, milk and dairy products, oats, whole grains, and brown rice. 

Refined, simple carbs should be avoided, and the ones people commonly associate with overeating and weight gain. These include snack foods, sugary drinks, desserts, and processed foods. 

This article will discuss any links between carbohydrates and weight gain, how to balance your intake, and tips for healthfully including carbohydrates in your diet.

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The Link Between Carbs and Weight Gain

Carbohydrates don’t lead to weight gain directly. All macronutrients provide energy for the body. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. 

Generally, overeating any macronutrient over a sustained time frame leads to weight gain. Other factors play a role in how your body responds to extra calories. 

Consuming foods higher in fiber and protein can help to fill you up and lead to slower-absorbed glucose, preventing overeating. 

The same is true for the alternative; lower fiber and protein foods (refined carbohydrates) do not satisfy your hunger, increasing your tendency to overeat. 

Consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates is associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

Refined carbohydrates include white bread, baked goods, pasta, sweets, desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweetened cereal, chips, and snack foods. 
Evidence repeatedly shows that regular intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain, risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.4 

Sugar-sweetened beverages provide liquid calories that cause insulin to spike in response to rapid blood glucose level increases. 

Additionally, each daily serving increment correlated to a 0.26-pound weight gain yearly. Drinking four sugary drinks daily would correlate to at least an additional pound of weight gain. While this seems small, this would be in addition to any other weight gain.4 

A review article from 2022, including over 60 articles, found no difference in weight loss amounts for individuals (either categorized as overweight or obese) following a low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) or balanced-carbohydrate weight-reducing diet for up to two years.5 

Researchers modeled the balanced-carbohydrate diets after the ranges recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Both the low-carbohydrate and balanced-carbohydrate diets helped control weight and prevent heart disease. 

Lastly, an increase in carbohydrate-rich foods can lead to temporary water weight gain. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which is transported through your bloodstream. Your body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in your muscles and liver.6 

When glycogen is stored, 3 grams of water is stored for each gram of glycogen.6 Overeating carbohydrates could lead to a couple of pounds of temporary water weight gain until your body regulates.

The type of carbs influences weight gain more than the fact that you are eating carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals are associated with negative health issues. High-fiber and nutrient-rich complex carbohydrates are associated with health benefits.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="are-carbs-bad-for-you">Are Carbs Bad for You? Everything You Need to Know for a Healthy Diet</a>.</p>

The Importance of Balancing Your Carb Intake

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Balancing the amount and type of carbohydrates you eat is essential for optimal health. Choosing complex carbohydrates and complementing them with protein sources and healthy fats allows you to feel full and obtain various nutrients. 

Eating too many refined carbohydrates or eating too many carbohydrates can lead to health conditions or weight gain, as mentioned earlier. 

The opposite can be true as well. Severely restricting carbohydrates can have negative health effects, be challenging to follow long-term, and restrict healthful complex carbs. 

Low-carbohydrate diets, often called ketogenic diets, restrict carbohydrate intake to 5 to 10 pecent of your daily calories. Minimal carbohydrate intake shifts the primary fuel away from carbohydrates and puts you into a state of ketosis.7 

Ketogenic diets can help with weight loss but aren’t considered superior to a balanced carbohydrate diet in the 2022 large review study.5 

During ketosis, your body uses fat stores for energy as long as carbohydrate intake stays below 50 grams of carbohydrates daily.7 

The short-term effects of a ketogenic diet have been studied and reported to be safe for many people. Beyond two years, limited research supports a severely carbohydrate-restricted diet's safety, efficacy, and sustainability.7 

A carbohydrate-restricted diet can lead to what is called the ‘carb flu’ or ‘keto flu.’ It is common for individuals restricting carbohydrates to have these symptoms for a short period while adjusting to ketosis.7 

Symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • Constipation

Keto or carb flu symptoms generally resolve in a few days to a few weeks. Other more severe side effects include:7

  • Nutrient deficiencies from restricting most carbohydrate foods
  • Digestive issues due to a high-fat and low-fiber diet
  • Kidney stones
  • Heart disease from high saturated fat intake and low fiber
  • Muscle loss due to rapid weight loss and depleted fat stores
  • Potential cognitive decline from long-term low-carb diet and intake

Following a ketogenic diet can lead to improvements in weight and health. Work with a health care professional like a registered dietitian to safely follow a ketogenic diet, especially if you have health conditions that may predispose you to side effects. 

7 Tips to Include Carbs in Your Daily Diet

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Try some of these tips to choose beneficial carbohydrates in a balanced manner to achieve blood sugar stability and manage your weight. 

  1. Fill half your plate with vegetables in your favorite forms (cooked, raw, salad, or sauteed). Or make one-pot recipes with a ratio of half vegetables. 
  2. Fill the rest of your plate with a quarter of lean protein (fish, chicken, poultry, eggs, or dairy) and a quarter of starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans, or fruit.
  3. Choose whole grain or complex carbohydrates over refined carbohydrates. 
  4. Aim for 25 grams of fiber for women and 38 grams for men.
  5. Limit your added sugar intake to less than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) daily for men and 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women. 
    <ol class="ol-type-a_second-level"><li>FYI: One 12-ounce can of soda has 32 grams of added sugar.</li></ol>
  6. Eat more beans and legumes (a nutrient-packed complex carbohydrate) to stay full, balance your blood sugar, and prevent health conditions.
  7. Be flexible and enjoy treats containing carbohydrates without feeling guilty. Choosing complex carbohydrates most of the time allows you to enjoy treats without significantly impacting your health. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Carbs Give You Energy?

Carbohydrates are a preferred energy source for the brain, muscles, and red blood cells. The body can switch to different fuel sources (fat and some protein), such as following the ketogenic diet. 

Complex carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, milk and dairy products, oats, whole grains, and brown rice provide sustained energy due to their fiber and/or protein content. 

Refined carbohydrates provide a quick burst of energy but often lead to hunger within a short time due to their lack of fiber and protein. 

Do Carbs Cause Belly Fat?

Various factors cause belly fat. Genetics, muscle mass, stress, and physical activity can influence how and where you gain weight. 

Some people gain weight in their mid-section, and others gain weight primarily in the hips and thighs. Excess intake of any macronutrient, including carbohydrates, can lead to weight gain. 

What Foods Make You Gain Weight?

Eating any type of food in excess can have consequences, like weight gain. 

Certain foods can predispose you to weight gain more than others due to how your body responds. 

For example, refined carbohydrates, like sugar-sweetened beverages, lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes. Insulin spikes can make you more hungry and increase your intake.

Consider limiting or consuming refined carbohydrates alongside protein and fiber-rich foods to lessen the insulin spike and hunger. 

I recommend confining refined carbohydrates to meal times and limiting eating these foods by themselves, where they can trigger you to overeat. 

Do Carbs Make You Look Chubby?

Some people may bloat after eating certain foods they may have an intolerance or allergy to. 

Common food intolerances include carbohydrate-rich foods like dairy (lactose intolerance), gluten, and hard-to-digest foods called FODMAPs that can exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome. 

Bloating is a sign that your body is not digesting food properly. Seek guidance from a healthcare professional to determine if you have food intolerances. 

Is It Better to Cut Carbs or Fat?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a healthy balance of carbohydrates (45 to 65% of total calories), fat (20 to 35% of total calories), and protein (10 to 35% of total calories). 

Consuming a balance of macronutrients and fiber helps you feel satisfied, prevent overeating, and maintain a healthy weight. 

Looking at the whole picture of your eating will help determine if you lack a specific macronutrient. For example, if you lack protein, it can cause you to overeat carbohydrates. 

Making a small change to boost your protein intake may be all your body needs to balance your food intake and achieve a healthy weight. 

Additionally, cutting carbohydrates severely in a ketogenic diet can help you lose weight as you limit many foods. Research shows that after time, weight loss results are comparable to a balanced carbohydrate diet containing 45 to 65% of the total calories from carbohydrates.5 

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

A Signos continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you track blood glucose levels discretely in real-time. 

You can see immediately how different macronutrients like carbohydrates affect your blood sugar. This tool (CGM) can help you make effective changes, such as increasing the protein, fat, and fiber you eat alongside carbohydrates to help you feel your best.

A Signos’ CGM can help you improve your health while trying to prevent or manage type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. A healthcare professional can help you choose the proper medication (if needed) to help manage your diabetes and weight. 

Learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog. Take a quick quiz to determine if Signos fits your needs.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="types-of-carbohydrates">Types of Carbohydrates: Nutrition and Healthy Sources</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Naude, C. E., Brand, A., Schoonees, A., Nguyen, K. A., Chaplin, M., & Volmink, J. (2022). Low-carbohydrate versus balanced-carbohydrate diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 1(1), CD013334. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD013334.pub2
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (December 2020). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th edition. DietaryGuidelines.gov.
  3. Clemente-Suárez, V. J., Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Martín-Rodríguez, A., Ramos-Campo, D. J., Redondo-Flórez, L., & Tornero-Aguilera, J. F. (2022). The Burden of Carbohydrates in Health and Disease. Nutrients, 14(18), 3809. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14183809
  4. Malik, V. S., & Hu, F. B. (2022). The role of sugar-sweetened beverages in the global epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases. Nature reviews. Endocrinology, 18(4), 205–218. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-021-00627-6
  5. Naude, C. E., Brand, A., Schoonees, A., Nguyen, K. A., Chaplin, M., & Volmink, J. (2022). Low-carbohydrate versus balanced-carbohydrate diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 1(1), CD013334. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD013334.pub2
  6. Štangar, M., Štangar, A., Shtyrba, V., Cigić, B., & Benedik, E. (2022). Rapid weight loss among elite-level judo athletes: methods and nutrition in relation to competition performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 19(1), 380–396. https://doi.org/10.1080/15502783.2022.2099231
  7. Masood W, Annamaraju P, Khan Suheb MZ, et al. Ketogenic Diet. [Updated 2023 Jun 16]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/

About the author

Sarah Bullard is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in research and clinical nutrition, personalized nutrition counseling, and nutrition education.

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