8 Warning Signs You're Eating Too Many Carbs
Carbs have had a bad rap among dieters ever since low-carb diets, like Atkins, rose in popularity in the early 2000s. Before then, simple carbs formed the base of the now-outdated food pyramid. At the time, diet experts recommended that bread, cereal, rice, and pasta should make up most of your diet, accounting for six to 11 servings per day—which exceeds the recommended servings of the fruit and vegetable groups combined.
Even though they're delicious, carb-heavy favorites like bread, pasta, cereal, and rice are often blamed for our collectively rising rates of heart disease, obesity, and insulin resistance.
Not all carbs are a dietary evil, though, and not eating enough carbs can lead to unpleasant symptoms like headaches, GI irregularity, and fatigue. On the flip side, the fact that your body needs some carbs to function doesn't mean you can go carb-crazy all day, every day.
How many carbs should you be eating per day?
"The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65% of your total daily calories," says New Jersey-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes expert Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. "Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, that's 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates per day."
Palinski-Wade adds that your carbohydrate needs depend on your age, activity level, and individual metabolism. But regardless of exactly how many carbs is right for you, the type of carbs to eat is the same for everyone.
Everyone should aim to consume healthy carbs: slow-digesting carbs like 100% whole wheat bread, steel-cut oats, beans, lentils, and whole fruits and vegetables. And you should avoid fast-digesting carbs such as sugary cereal, white bread, white rice, and processed snacks.
"It's best to get your carbohydrates from whole foods, rather than from added sugar such as cane sugar," says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in the New York City area. "Calories from added sugar should be capped at 10% of your total daily calories."
How to tell if you're eating too many carbs
Because finding the right ratio is tricky, how can you tell if your carb balance is out of whack? Here are eight warning signs to look for that indicate you've been eating too many simple carbs.
Are you seeing the numbers on the scale steadily increasing, despite all your hard work on the treadmill? Or maybe the numbers aren't climbing…but they're not exactly going down, either. You've hit a weight loss plateau.
One possible reason you may be having weight loss woes is that you're eating too many simple carbs and, by default, too many calories. The reason for this is that, by volume, simple carb foods tend to be more calorie-dense than complex carbohydrates. For example, one cup of cooked rice contains about 170 calories and 37 grams of carbs, while one cup of cooked carrots contains only 55 calories and 13 grams of carbs. Plus, those 13 grams of carbs in carrots also includes 5 grams of fiber, a nutrient that will help you stay full for longer.
And never forget the weight-loss-defeating power of simple sugars, which are found in fast-digesting carbs. "Research has found that diets high in added sugars are linked with wider waistlines and increased levels of visceral fat (a.k.a. belly fat), the dangerous fat that can increase insulin resistance and the risk for type 2 diabetes," says Palinski-Wade.
After chowing down on a big bowl of pasta, you might feel great at first—but it won't last long. According to the American Heart Association, when your body digests a simple carbohydrate, glucose is released into your bloodstream in a quick, large dose. This gives you a burst of energy, albeit only a temporary one. What follows is essentially a sugar crash, leaving you feeling less energized than you were before you ate.
"Having too many fast-digested carbs at one meal can put your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride," says Palinski-Wade. "If you feel sluggish and tired after a meal, it may be that you consumed too many carbs…especially the fast-digesting ones."
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Increased sugar cravings
Ever talked to someone who went sugar-free? After a few weeks, they can't even look at a candy bar or can of soda the same way. That's because when you eat sugar your brain releases dopamine, an addicting feel-good hormone, so the more sugar you eat, the more dopamine you crave.
It's an addiction—and also actual science: A 2018 Frontiers in Psychology review likened sugar addiction to drug addiction, a "habituation" that has contributed to our obesity epidemic.
Because simple carbs break down quickly into glucose, eating white bread has a similar effect on your body as consuming sugar. The more white bread you eat, the more white bread (and candy, and donuts, and cookies) you'll find yourself craving.
You had acne in your teen years, but why do you have it now? Researchers have been studying the relationship between acne and diet for years, and many have concluded that a high glycemic diet (i.e. one high in refined carbs) may be the source of recurrent skin breakouts.
In a self-reported 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for example, researchers identified a correlation between moderate to severe acne and consumption of added sugar, dairy, and saturated fat among young adult males and females.
Bloating and constipation
You need fiber in order to keep your digestive system running smoothly, but if you're eating way too many simple carbs, you're not consuming enough fiber to get the digestive job done. Hello, lack of gut motility and constipation!
Bloating is also a side effect of excess carbohydrates: Palinski-Wade says that carbs tend to hold onto water, which is why so many people lose a bunch of "water weight" when starting a low-carb diet.
"Eating consistent amounts of healthy carbs typically will not result in excessive water retention, but eating a large quantity of white flour and simple sugars, especially late in the evening, can result in increased bloat and water retention the next day," she says.
In addition to higher blood sugar levels, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, eating too many carbohydrates can raise your cholesterol levels—which can also cause type 2 diabetes, along with a higher incidence of stroke and heart disease.
"Consuming excess amounts of sugar can lead to inflammation in your body and even damage to your artery walls and an increased risk of heart disease," says Gorin.
Typically, the more high-glycemic foods you eat, the higher your insulin levels LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol will be (and LDL is a key factor in developing heart disease). A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology illustrates the connection: When 15,000 Dutch women between the ages of 49 and 70 were evaluated, researchers found that a high glycemic diet was associated with a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, especially if the women were overweight.
Raise your hand if your mother ever warned you about the tooth-destroying effects of sugar (us too!). Turns out, she wasn't just trying to curb your lollipop addiction: People who consume more sugar typically end up with more cavities.
A 2016 study in Advances in Nutrition reviewed evidence from studies and the World Health Organization, concluding that limiting sugar could reduce, though not eliminate, the risk of cavities.
What does this have to do with carbs? Well, hopefully by now, you've caught on that simple carbs aren't much different than sugar when it comes to how they affect the body. Carbs—especially the starchy variety—feed the cavity-causing bacteria that live in your mouth. Food for thought (pun intended!).
We often think of food as fueling our bodies and forget that what we eat fuels our brains, too. In recent years, some researchers have looked into the relationship between low-carb diets and mental acuity, specifically as it relates to people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
A 2020 study published in the journal PNAS suggests that our brains become less adept at using glucose for fuel as we age. As a result, the body needs to use another kind of fuel for brain function. In the study, participants who maintained a low-carb, ketone-burning diet or who consumed a ketone supplement had more stable levels of brain activity than participants who burned glucose in more traditional diets.
That's one possible long-term effect of consuming too many carbs; in the short-term, we know that refined carbs cause bursts of energy followed by steep crashes, which can lead to feelings of mental sluggishness or fogginess. A low-carb diet may increase your memory and set you up for better brain health in the future.