The carb myth part 2: It’s the calories, stupid

June 21st, 2008  |  Published in How to eat  |  12 Comments

In the first part of this series, The Carb Myth Part I, I pointed out that people often replaced the fat in their food with carbs, primarily in the form of refined sugar. I also stressed that controlling carb intake was critical to ensuring successful fat loss and appetite management. I’d like to expand on this a little bit because currently, the low-carb mania is echoing the stupidity of the low-fat mania ten years ago. People are buying “carb-free” carbs just like we bought “fat-free” candies. In neither case do you really learn how to eat properly, or even why you are doing the low carb thing in the first place.

Refined carbs—processed sugars and simple starches—are still bad for you

No matter how you slice it (no pun intended), refined carbs are bad news. They’re essentially nutritional pollutants (one nutritionist refers to them as “fat fertilizer”), and they are found in most processed foods. They wreak havoc with your appetite and satiety, turn your blood sugar into a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and cause a variety of nasty things to happen throughout your body. I’m being a little hyperbolic, of course — one cookie isn’t going to make your liver shrivel, but when you start reading labels and realize how much junky crap is in your food, it’s a real wake-up call.

Here’s an example. This comes from a box of granola cereal. This cereal is marketed as “healthy” and “low in fat”. In fact, the slogan on the box reads “Good for You never tasted so good”. Supposedly it’s a “wholesome, crunchy multigrain blend”. Well! Wholesome! Low fat! No hydrogenated oil! Granola! Hippies like granola, right? So it must be awesome for me! Shazam!

And then reality hits like you like a warm wet baby diaper across the face. One serving is 2/3 cup. Go and measure out 2/3 of a cup of cereal. I would bet $20 that most people haven’t eaten a 2/3 cup serving of cereal in their lives, except to pass it as they keep on trucking to a 2-cup serving. This 2/3 cup serving has 220 calories, 3 grams of fat (well, at least they weren’t lying about that part), 4 grams of protein (eh, not great, but what can you expect — it’s not a steak cereal)… and 44 grams of carbs! The second ingredient is brown sugar. And just in case that wasn’t enough there’s also honey, y’know, a belt-and-suspenders kind of sweetener deal. Healthy, my ass.

One particular culprit is high fructose corn syrup. That stuff is everywhere: ketchup, juice, breakfast cereals. Read your labels! If there are more than, say, three ingredients and at least one of them ends in “ose”, don’t eat it, or restrict yourself to a small portion. White flour is also included as a refined carb, so limit your intake of this stuff too. Potatoes are often put into the refined carb group, although they are technically a vegetable. This is because they tend to stimulate a similar kind of response as other refined carbohydrates. But it’s a matter of degree: eating a baked potato is still much better than eating a pop tart.

refined carbs include:

Baked goods: muffins, donuts, pastries, cookies, cakes
White flour and white flour products such as white bread and bagels
Snack foods: candies, chips, pretzels
Sweetened dairy products: ice cream, chocolate milk
Drinks: pop/soda, juice
Processed grain products: Pasta made from white flour, white rice, rice cakes, many breakfast cereals

Remember: when you read the labels, look for the “ose” to denote a form of sugar, especially sucrose, glucose, and fructose, as well as their cousins maltose and dextrose. Think “OSE”: “Omigawd, Sugar Everywhere!”

For the geeks in the crowd, some reading material on glucose, fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome that notes, in part:

“The intake of dietary fructose has increased markedly as a result of the steady increase in added sugars in the American diet… In terms of feedback to the central nervous system (CNS) regarding energy status in peripheral tissues, fructose consumption results in decreased production and, therefore, decreased signaling to the CNS from 2 hormones (leptin and insulin) involved in the long-term regulation of energy homeostasis and body adiposity… Thus, the long-term consumption of diets high in fat and fructose is likely to lead to increased energy intake, weight gain, and obesity. The potential for weight gain from increased fructose consumption may only represent one aspect of its metabolic consequences.”

(Sharon S Elliott, Nancy L Keim, Judith S Stern, Karen Teff and Peter J Havel. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(5): 911-922 (November 2002).)

By the way, many women have written me about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), so I thought I would include a brief mention of it here. PCOS is characterized by several different symptoms, including higher than normal levels of circulating androgens, irregular menstruation, and persistent weight gain (or stubborn fat loss). It is correlated with insulin resistance and can be managed, in part, by weight training and a low carb diet (Glueck CJ, Papanna R, Wang P, Goldenberg N, Sieve-Smith L. “Incidence and treatment of metabolic syndrome in newly referred women with confirmed polycystic ovarian syndrome.” Metabolism. 52(7): 908-15 (July 2003).).

For more reading check out sites such as SoulCysters and PCOS Support.

Substitute whole grains and/or fruit and vegetables for refined carbs

Whole grains and fruit/veg are higher in beneficial fibre, vitamins, and in the case of fruit/veg, other useful phytonutrients (“phyto” = plant). This means that not only are they more nutritious in general, but they help control energy levels and appetite more effectively. Plus, they taste better! I give some ideas on the site about how to cook whole grains, useful if you have never incorporated them into your own cooking. The more you reduce your refined carb intake, the less you will probably crave the stuff. You’ll likely find that your appetite diminishes, and you have fewer blood sugar swings, but more consistent energy.

instead of:

White bread
Regular pasta
Ramen noodles
Fruit juice
Sugary breakfast cereals
White rice


Whole grain bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread
Whole wheat pasta
Buckwheat noodles (soba)
Brown rice or wild rice
Seed flours such as hemp and flax seed

Folks concerned about inflammation and food intolerance might consider going one step further, and eliminating grains such as wheat from their diet altogether. Grains such as wheat and oats contain proteins known as lectins, which may interact with the gastrointestinal tract to cause local and systemic inflammation and an overactive immune system response. This can manifest itself as upset stomach symptoms along with a host of other autoimmune-type symptoms, such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. If this sounds familiar, check out the Paleo diet. But if you’re just starting out with this whole project, begin with small steps.

Some people will say that fruit should not be eaten while dieting, because fructose is easily converted to fat. This is a misconception. First, fruit is relatively low in fructose compared to things like high fructose corn syrups (HFCS). Fruit contains a mix of fructose and other sugars like glucose. HFCS is essentially a shot of pure sugar right into your veins, while fruit is much more slowly digested because of its fibre content.

Second, the amount of total sugar in fruit is very low. While the body lacks the ability to convert large quantities of fructose to muscle glycogen effectively, it would be very difficult to consume enough fructose in the form of fruit to make this happen. Compare:

8 oz orange juice: 110 calories, 27 g carbohydrate, maybe a bit of vitamin C. Oh yeah, and some glucose-fructose.

1 orange: 62 calories, 15 g carbohydrate, 3 g fibre, 116% of daily RDA for vitamin C plus a ton of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients. Nothing else.

Fruit has an important place in a well balanced diet, no matter what your goals are. It’s loaded with vitamins and fibre, and it tastes great!

Lowcarb diets are not magical

They work in large part by inhibiting appetite (largely through their effects on regulatory hormones) and lowering calories. Total caloric intake is the prime determinant of weight loss. It’s just that many folks find that lowering carb intake also reduces their appetite, so they eat less. Or, because they’re told they should restrict a food group, they eat less. In any case, they’re eating fewer calories.

There is evidence that diets lower in carbohydrate do seem to work better than diets low in fat for both weight loss and improving overall health indicators (e.g. blood chemistry), and that people may not need to restrict calories quite so much when restricting carbohydrate, because of the ways in which the body handles the different macronutrients. Generally, one of the first things I do is have clients cut way down on their carb intake, simply because most people eat too many carbs to support their levels of activity, and they eat a lot of sugary and starchy junk. For the average person, just cutting out the foods in the “eat less” column below will produce noticeable results.

Personally, I strongly recommend clients and trainees cut way down on carbs, simply because the average North American eats so much. When they cut out the junk and focus on consuming whole unprocessed foods, good fats, plenty of lean protein, and heaps of vegetables and fruit, a lot of this just takes care of itself. No carb-free bread required.

It’s the calories, stupid

This bears repeating. Any diet that involves you eating fewer calories than you burn will result in weight loss. Any diet that includes eating more calories than you burn will result in weight gain. Nobody’s body breaks the laws of physics. It just looks that way sometimes, because we haven’t accurately calculated or understood some part of the equation. Some people report eating more on a lower-carb diet and still losing fat — great. It doesn’t mean their bodies have violated the rules of the universe; it just means that their systems are handling the nutrients in a particular way that isn’t exactly comparable to a different macronutrient ratio. If they kept on eating more and more and more, regardless of what that “more” was, eventually it’d catch up.

Now, the quality of that weight loss, and how you feel while doing it, depends on your macronutrient intake. How your body handles the calories it takes in will depend on your activity levels and your ability to effectively use the carbs you do ingest.

But in general, a diet which has adequate lean protein, good fats, adequate fibre, and lots of fruit and veggies is the best choice for general health for the average person. The actual percentages will vary from person to person, depending on individual needs, but this plan is a good basic overview.

Cutting carbs drastically is not appropriate for everyone

No diet, no matter how great it is, is a one-size-fits-all prescription. People doing lots of endurance activity will likely find their performance decreases when carbs dip too low, as will people trying to gain muscle. Carbs, especially good carbs, have a role to play in a balanced diet which is sustainable for the long term. In addition, even people who aren’t very good with carbs can benefit from timing carb intake around their workouts.

Most folks can benefit from reducing the amount of refined sugars and starches they eat, but cutting down drastically on good quality carbs is not necessarily always the best thing for everyone.


  1. Dave Dixon says:

    June 9th, 2009at 5:17 am(#)

    What evidence is there that fiber has any health benefit? For that matter, what evidence is there that whole grains are healthy? They may be better than highly refined grains, but compared to other whole foods, seem to be nutritionally unimpressive.

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    June 9th, 2009at 7:09 am(#)

    Dave, it sounds like you have some data you’d like to share. Care to elaborate?

  3. Dave Dixon says:

    June 10th, 2009at 8:20 am(#)

    I used to rank foods by nutrient in 200 kcal servings. Results can be found here:

    Grains are largely absent. Note that these are “whole” foods, so I left off things like breakfast cereal.

    I haven’t been able to find any clinical studies that show any health benefit to fiber as an independent variable, e.g. replacing high-fiber foods with meat. The positive results seem to come by replacing refined carbohydrates with whole food sources, which counfounds the cause (is it less refined carbs or more fiber?) If you know of other studies, I’d be very interested. Thanks.

  4. Laura says:

    June 14th, 2009at 11:09 am(#)

    Great article. I’ve recently been doing a lot of reading and have cut out dairy, grains and starches out from my diet (for the most part). My carbs are coming only from fruits and veggies. My one issue, though, is I do have a sweet tooth and making the transition from plenty of carbs to moderate carbs (50-150g) isn’t easy. Thus, i’ve been eating fruit 3x a day or so. I understand that the sugar in fruit is still sugar. Is this amount of fruit detrimental to fat loss?

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    June 14th, 2009at 2:07 pm(#)

    Fruit 3x daily isn’t an issue if you’re active and not overly sensitive to sugar (e.g. pre-diabetic, etc.). Total calorie intake/expenditure balance is still the most important determinant of fat loss (in other words what goes out via activity vs what comes in from food). However, the best time to consume fruit, as with other simpler carbohydrates, is around your workouts.

  6. Dave Dixon says:

    June 15th, 2009at 8:01 am(#)

    @Mistress Krista,

    Could you explain how total calorie balance is regulated at the cellular level? In particular, I’d like to know how and animal like a dog, given an ad libitum diet of their naturual diet, avoids obesity without the ability to count calories. Thanks!

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    June 15th, 2009at 8:32 am(#)

    That’s a pretty long answer that’s better found in a physiology textbook. But the gist of it is that appetite/hunger/satiety (which I understand as that three-part structure, because I think the processes are distinct) are regulated by a complex system of hormonal and chemical signalling. These systems interact dynamically with both what we eat (macro and micronutrients) as well as with our environments.

    Unlike animals we have a fairly complex social and cognitive organization. We have emotional and social associations with food as well as social rituals (e.g. birthdays) and structures (e.g. given mealtimes). So, laid on top of all the chemical processes of actual digestion and assimilation are chemical processes of cognition and consciousness. It’s not accidental, I think, that neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are also involved in regulation of food intake and appetite.

    In general terms humans evolved to function with limited and random food availability. This food was higher-fat, largely animal based, higher-fibre, often scavenged and certainly seasonal (where applicable). We also evolved to work for our food, and probably walked several kilometres every day. So we were probably very self regulating too, given the right balance of nutrients and appropriate activity levels. We just don’t look self regulating now because our physiology is a mismatch for our environment and modern nutrition.

    Another point to note is that in fact, pet obesity is a growing (pardon the pun) problem. Inactive owners produce inactive pets. Dogs and cats didn’t evolve to sit around small apartments. Not all animals are self regulating. There is individual variation at both the organism and species level. I knew a dog that would eat kibble pretty much until it exploded. It would eat everything else too, including (one year) an entire giant bar of Toblerone, complete with cardboard and foil wrapper.

    What keeps animals generally self regulated in the wild is food availability and other environmental considerations such as travel, weather, etc. And, when food is easily available, animals do get fat. (Think about pre-hibernating period. The squirrels look like furry basketballs.)

    Finally, animals also have different body fat than we do. Rodents, for example, have much more brown fat than we do. Brown fat is a form of adipose tissue that is involved in thermogenesis, and behaves differently than white fat. Thus, this affects animal metabolism as well. Babies have brown fat, as do adult humans, but as we grow from baby to adult human we lose nearly all of it. There is some individual variation in brown fat, and apparently around 5% of adults do retain a notable amount of it.

  8. Dave Dixon says:

    June 15th, 2009at 9:24 am(#)

    Thanks for the detailed answer. I have a couple of blog posts on the topic you might be interested in:

    The key question raised by your response is whether or not the “conscious mind” can override other parts of the brain. The former is a much more recent evolutionary adaptation than the autonomic nervous system as well as the hormones involved in energy balance. I’ll grant you that it’s an open question, but I think it’s more reasonable to believe that the cerebrum evolved to serve the rest of the brain, not the other way around.

    Squirrels get fat because their hormones tell them to do so at a particular time of year. If you take squirrel in captivity, it will not get fat in the spring, regardless of how much you feed it. It will stay fat in the winter, regardless of how much you starve it, to the point of digesting it’s own heart muscle leading to death.

    I strongly suspect pet obesity (like human obesity) is much more a function of what we feed our pets. For instance, my dog was getting fat and diabetic. The number one ingredient in his food: corn starch. Corn doesn’t grow wild, so clearly was not on the evolutionary diet of dogs. I switched him to all raw meat and a healthy dose of bacon fat, and he dropped 20 pounds. The difference in activity (how much he runs/jumps around in the backyard) is all of his volition, i.e. I didn’t take him out and run him more often. It occurred spontaneously.

    Since energy regulation runs the show, I believe it makes more sense that behavior is a product of the energy regulation system, not the other way around. Behavior leading to unhealthy states (like obesity) would thus imply a malfunction of this system. We certainly see this in obvious disease states in humans, like Cushing’s disease and insulinoma.

  9. Dave Dixon says:

    June 16th, 2009at 7:39 am(#)

    Re: endurance exercise: here’s an interesting interview with champion triathlete Jonas Colting. Colting follows a low-carbohydrate/high-fat diet.

  10. How to fall, and stay in love, with your diet | third culture unleashed says:

    September 29th, 2009at 12:45 pm(#)

    […] Nutrition is key, or as Mistress Krista eloquently puts it, “It’s the calories, stupid!“ […]

  11. Third Culture Unleashed » How to fall, and stay in love, with your diet says:

    May 18th, 2010at 12:14 pm(#)

    […] Nutrition is key, or as Mistress Krista eloquently puts it, “It’s the calories, stupid!“ […]

  12. kim says:

    July 19th, 2011at 1:52 pm(#)

    Dear Dave–fibre gets the bowels moving regularly & helps absorb excess cholesterol(especially when I over indulge in meat)
    Calories in vs Calories out—pretty obvious. If you look at the millions who died in WWII death camps,the POWs that starrved in the Japanese camps,Civil war POWS in Conferderate camps—all skin & bones due to lack of calories,not one was obese still or died normal weight.Were taking here millions

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