Carbs aren’t the only cause of belly fat, but if you eat a lot of them, they can certainly play a role. “If you eat any type of macronutrient in excess, you will gain weight,” Robert Milanes, MD, founder of Luminary MD in Irvine, CA, told POPSUGAR. Still, the way carbs are digested makes them particularly risky when you’re trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
“Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which may be used as an energy source by our cells, tissues, and organs,” Aastha Kalra, DO, founder of Weight Zero MD, told POPSUGAR. When eaten in excess, “glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver,” Dr. Milanes added, which can be converted back to glucose and used for energy when few or no carbs are consumed.
The real trouble begins when even your glycogen stores are at maximum capacity. “When we eat carbs, insulin levels rise,” Dr. Kalra said. Insulin is tasked with taking glucose from the bloodstream to areas of the body that need energy, but it’s also a fat storage hormone. Dr. Milanes explained that, if you eat too many carbs and there are no areas of the body that need energy, the glucose has nowhere to go and will be stored as fat instead.
How to Eat Carbs Without Gaining Weight
There are two types of carbs: simple carbohydrates (found largely in processed foods), which are made up of simple sugars and digested by the body quickly, and complex carbs, which are high in fiber and digested more slowly. Complex carbs keep you feeling fuller longer, but they also keep insulin levels stable, which encourages energy burning and prevents fat storage.
While you can’t spot-reduce fat from your midsection, eating more complex carbs — especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts — can also help kick-start weight loss. At the beginning, you may need to monitor your total carb intake, including grains and sugary fruits, in order to reduce the amount of insulin in the body, Dr. Kalra explained. That means eating a low-carb diet (this meal plan can help get you started) until you can shift to a weight maintenance stage, when you can add some more complex carbs, such as whole grains, to your plate.