Whether you are prepping for a weightlifting competition or just want to dial in your nutrition, what kind of foods we consume are game changers. One of the biggest questions we get is, should I be eating more carbs? Or fats? While it depends on your health and even competitive athletic goals, we broke down the science behind these nutrient choices.
Does Fat Store in Your Body as Body Fat, Easier than Carbohydrates?
The simple and short answer here is: yes. Let’s keep in mind though that what will determine weight change is primarily calories in versus calories out. So, if you are in a caloric deficit (aka consuming less calories), it doesn’t really matter if you are taking in high carb/low fat or low carb/high fat… as long as calories (and protein) are equated, you will lose weight (this is literally the meaning of a deficit). If you are at a maintenance calorie intake, you will maintain your weight. The ratio of macronutrients doesn’t change the fact that energy balance matters.
The body is extremely flexible in the fuels that it uses, and it will base its preference on the fuel source it’s exposed to. So, if you’re eating a lot of fat, such as in the keto or Adkins’ diets, you will be burning a lot of fat. Insulin will be low, because carbohydrate intake is low, so that allows for more fat oxidation (burning). However, you’re also going to be storing more fat if you are not in a caloric maintenance or deficit. On the flip side, if you’re eating a higher carbohydrate diet, the body will then prefer to utilize glucose for energy, and you’ll be sparing dietary fat for storage. So, eat more fats = carbs get stored as energy in the muscle as glycogen; eat more carbs = fat gets stored in, well, fat, to be used for energy when needed.
“But carbs spike insulin and that causes fat gain!” Well, not so fast… Carbohydrates do cause more insulin to be released into the bloodstream in order to maintain a normal blood glucose level (typically we like to see this as 70-100 in normal healthy adults upon waking, within about 2 hours after eating, according to the American Diabetes Association). However, these carbohydrates get taken via insulin to the muscles and liver to be stored as glycogen for later use as fuel for the muscles, brain, and many other bodily functions. Carbohydrates are also less likely to be stored as fat. This can happen, and there’s a really fun fancy name for it: de novo lipogenesis, which occurs in the liver and adipose (fat) tissue. Buuutttt… this contributes to a very small percentage of fat to body fat storage. So again, if you are not in an energy surplus, we shouldn’t fear carbohydrates. Excess fats are just more readily stored as body fat because there’s less conversion required.
Do carbs cause us to gain weight?
Carbohydrates do carry water into the muscle with them. For every 1 gram of carbohydrate stored as glycogen, there’s about 2-3 grams of water that’s coming right along with it. That’s just the reality of it. The cool part is that it does help the muscle bellies to look a little fuller, and some people may even get compliments such as “you look more jacked today” or “you look leaner” (this is because the muscles appear to be ‘popping’ more, which gives a look of increased definition). The part that gets some people is that the number on the scale may go up, and although this isn’t in the form of body fat, many people have a body image connection with the scale. As we can see, carbohydrates do not inherently cause one to gain body fat just from eating them.
The underlying factor here to look at first and foremost is energy balance – so calories in versus calories out. There may be certain populations that do better with higher fats due to insulin sensitivity issues. That’s another topic to dive into as well. If you are someone that prefers higher fats and eating that way is manageable and sustainable for you, then it’s perfectly fine. If you’d prefer a higher carbohydrate ratio and you are someone that performs weightlifting and some high intensity exercise, you would likely benefit here and be absolutely fine. The main point here is that both fats and carbohydrates can be included in someone’s daily diet (diet meaning food intake).
There may be times in your life when you’re more sedentary and have lower energy output, so you include a higher amount of fat in your daily intake than carbohydrates. Again though, this goes back to the foundation of energy (calorie) balance. If you then change to a more active lifestyle and want to begin adding in more carbohydrates, the key would be monitoring calorie balance as you are adjusting the ratio of carbs and fats. We see many people who just start adding back carbs while still taking in about the same amount of fat and claiming the carbs made them gain weight… well, sort of. The added calories made you gain weight if you didn’t allow your body time to adapt to the higher intake so you may have put yourself into too large of a surplus too fast. Remember that carbohydrates will carry with them water into the cells.
So there’s always a balance and that part shouldn’t be forgotten.
Other areas to take into consideration when determining if you should go higher fat or carbohydrates would be consulting with your Primary Care Physician, your general health and well-being, medical history, medications, and hormonal profile. Our bodies are all different, so how we process certain food and nutrients will vary. The important thing to remember and to prioritize is making sure we are fueling our bodies with plenty of delicious and nutritious foods.
To dive deeper in understanding carbohydrates or fats, we suggest that you sign up for Grown Strong where are you will get access to our Grown Strong nutrition guide, fitness programs, plus A LOT of other amazing info that we talk about inside our private community.