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Bread or Butter: Are Carbs or Fat Causing You Weight Gain?

Fitday Editor

For a while, it was generally recommended to eat a diet that is low in fat and high in carbohydrate-rich grains to be healthy. The food pyramid, which has since been replaced by MyPlate, advertised breads, grains and other starches at its base. The message it gave was to eat more wheat, corn and other grains. Since then, Dr. Atkins has gained notoriety and studies showing that fat may not be the "bad guy" have shifted the blame onto carbohydrates. This has left many feeling confused about the role that carbohydrates play in maintaining a healthy body and a healthy weight.

Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. With the exception of fiber, all carbohydrates are eventually broken down into glucose, which our body uses to fuel cells such as those in the brain and muscles. When this glucose reaches your blood it causes a rise in blood sugar, signaling your pancreas to excrete the hormone insulin. This helps your body convert glucose into glycogen, which is stored in our muscles and liver, to supply our bodies with an extra boost during periods of low energy such as in between meals or during exercise. However, we can only store so much. Once glycogen stores are full, the extra carbohydrates are stored as fat.

So the answer seems simple - cutting the carbs means cutting the fat, right? Well, maybe.

If we were to take the simplified calories-in/calories-out approach to weight loss, we would see that the average piece of bread contains about 80 calories. If you have two slices with your sandwich, that is a total of 160 calories. On the other end, one pound of weight loss is equivalent to a 3,500 calorie deficit. So, if you're cutting out those 160 calories and not replacing them with other sources of energy (this is key), then over time you would get to that 3,500 target and start to lose weight.

It's a simple concept and makes dieting straightforward (in theory) and highly marketable. However, this over-simplified equation fails to take into account a few things. One, due to the fact that human beings are incredibly complicated biological machines, the equation is far more complex than that. Two, on a simpler note, it fails to take into account that as human beings, we like food.

If you've ever tried resisting tempting food for long, you'll know that it's not easy. It's important to note that any restrictions imposed during a diet, even in the most dedicated dieter, can eventually lead to craving. And this ultimately leads to caving. Bread is often an everyday food in people's diets. Therefore, suddenly going go cold-turkey can be a challenge. Instead, making smaller changes such as swapping white bread for its whole wheat alternative, or simply consuming smaller portions may be a better option. Making small changes can lead to longer-lasting differences and a more maintainable lifestyle.

So while it's easy to blame a single food group like carbohydrates, or a single food, like bread, the devil here is in the details. It's all about the type and amount of food that you're consuming that matters. Too many carbohydrates can lead to weight gain. But so can too much protein or too much fat. Your body does need carbohydrates, and so long as you're consuming the right amounts and types, you can give yourself permission to eat that slice of bread.


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Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.

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