Do Carbs Make You Gain Weight?

Types of carbs

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Carbohydrates (carbs) can be downright confusing. Some sources claim that eating carbs can hinder weight loss and cause weight gain while others say carbs are an essential part of every diet.

Despite the conflicting advice, the fact is that carbs themselves don't make you gain weight—excess calories do. So, when it comes to carbs and weight gain, what really matters is the kind of carbs you eat, how much you consume, and what you replace them with if you choose to cut back.

Read on to learn more about carbs and how to enjoy them as a part of a healthy diet without gaining weight.

What Are Carbs?

Carbs play an important role in your diet. When we eat carbohydrates, our body converts them into glycogen (sugar) supplying our bodies with energy. In fact, carbs are your body's main fuel source.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that 45% to 65% of an adult’s daily calorie intake come from carbs, with the remainder of calories coming from protein and fat. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that your body needs for optimal functioning. 

Types of Carbs

Different types of carbohydrates exist in various foods. Complex carbs are found naturally in whole foods, while refined carbs are manufactured to be included in processed foods. Although there's really no "good" or "bad" food, not all carbs are created equal. Certain carbs are better for your health than others.

Complex Carbs

Complex carbs tend to be high in fiber. They take longer to digest than other carbs, so they keep you satisfied and feeling full for a long time. Most of the carbs you eat should be complex ones. Examples of foods containing complex carbs include:

  • Beans
  • Green veggies
  • Oats
  • Potatoes
  • Whole grains

For example, whole-wheat bread has more complex carbs than white bread, and brown rice more than white rice.

Refined Carbs

It’s important to limit refined carbs, which are prevalent in foods like processed white bread and cakes. The process of refinement removes much of the fiber and nutritional value and leaves you with sugary carbs and empty calories that can lead to weight gain. Because your body processes refined carbs so quickly, you're hungry again sooner, which means you're likely to eat more throughout the day.

Examples of foods containing refined carbohydrates include:

  • Bread
  • Cereals
  • Fruit
  • Grains
  • Pasta
  • Pastries

How Carbs Impact Weight

The fact is, carbs don't cause instant weight gain. However, starchy carbs do have a tendency to be calorie-dense. Consuming these extra calories is what causes weight gain. Even some complex carbs can be calorie-dense, however, so be mindful of your serving size if you wish to avoid weight gain.

Some research also suggests that consuming fewer carbs can lead to reduced cravings for unhealthy foods. This can be helpful when it comes to managing weight gain.

Finding a Healthy Balance

When it comes to eating carbs, the name of the game is balance. Sure, it’s a problem if your diet consists only of carbs, but it’s also problematic if you’re skipping them completely.

Low-carb diets have gone through periods of being popular for weight loss, but these types of diets are not without their drawbacks. Plus, none of them are guaranteed to make you lose weight. Many experts actually question the safety of very low-carb diets because of fears they can contribute to complications like heart disease.

When you follow a diet plan that requires restricting carbs, it is possible that your body will experience what is commonly known as the "carb flu," or "keto flu," which draws its name from the popular ketogenic diet. When you restrict your carb intake, your body burns fat for energy instead, but unfortunately, this can lead to the feeling of flu-like symptoms and more.

Side effects of severe carb restriction can include:

  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

Consuming Carbs

To manage your carb intake, always read nutritional labels, practice portion control, and be mindful of proper serving size guidelines. You can enjoy carbs in moderation and add healthy, low-calorie vegetables to round out your meals.

If you eat too many calories, you can gain weight whether those calories are from carbs or not. If you decrease the intake of carbs, which are likely your most significant source of calories, you may decrease your caloric intake overall, but this really depends on what you replace those carbs with. Choose lean protein and healthy, unsaturated fats, and consider tracking your calories.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to include more fat in your diet to avoid weight gain, some fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, help your body to function more effectively and may contribute to a decreased risk of heart disease. Overall, moderation is key.

A Word From Verywell

Carbs are a necessary part of your diet, and they can be a delicious addition to any meal, but consuming too much of any one type of food group or nutrient is not recommended for a healthy diet. It's important to stick to a well-rounded meal plan, rich in key nutrients for optimal health.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition.

  2. Ludwig DS, Hu FB, Tappy L, Brand-Miller J. Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ. 2018;361:k2340. doi:10.1136/bmj.k2340

  3. American Heart Association. Carbohydrates.

  4. Ferretti F, Mariani M. Simple vs. complex carbohydrate dietary patterns and the global overweight and obesity pandemic. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(10). doi:10.3390/ijerph14101174

  5. Martin CK, Rosenbaum D, Han H, et al. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011;19(10):1963-1970. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.62

  6. Bostock ECS, Kirkby KC, Taylor BV, Hawrelak JA. Consumer reports of “keto flu” associated with the ketogenic diet. Front Nutr. 2020;7. doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.00020

  7. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids epa and dha: health benefits throughout life1. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1-7. doi:10.3945/an.111.000893

By Lisa Lillien
Lisa Lillien is a New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Hungry Girl, where she shares healthy recipes and realistic tips and tricks.