Carbs 101: When Carbs Are Stored As Fat

by | Jan 12, 2015 | Blog, Nutrition

When it comes to weight loss or fat loss, carbohydrates don’t have to be the enemy. However, for most of us, they are. Why? Because we don’t understand how they can work against us, how they can put us in fat storing mode, how they can keep us from fat burning mode and what we need to do to  make sure those things don’t happen. When we understand this, we can begin to focus on the right carbs for fat loss, the right time for carbs for fat loss and all the other little nuances. Today I want to cover the basics. I want everyone to understand what carbs are, what types of foods fall into that category beyond the obvious bread/pasta and most importantly, I want us to understand when carbs are stored as fat and how we can avoid that scenario.

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient, which means that they provide energy in the form of calories. Other macronutrients include fat, protein and alcohol. Micronutrients – things like vitamins & minerals – provide nutrients but do not provide energy in the form of calories. All of our macronutrients are chains of smaller building blocks and the type of building block is different depending on which macronutrient we’re talking about. For example, the building blocks of proteins are amino acids. This means that all proteins are chains of various shapes and sizes made up of amino acids. The building blocks of fats are fatty acids. The building blocks of carbohydrates are sugars. It’s important that we always remember that carbohydrates – whether in the form of a pretzel, an apple, a teaspoon of sugar or a bowl of oatmeal – are chains of simple sugars.

Little side note here: fruits and vegetables are not macronutrients. You can’t argue, “That’s not a carb! It’s a banana!!” Sorry my friend, that is a carbohydrate. Fruits and vegetables (with a couple of exceptions) are carbohydrates. Sure, their chains are quite different from pasta or the carbs found in a donut, but the building blocks are the same: sugar.

Food is fuel for our body. When we eat it, it has to be broken down so that fuel can be accessed and utilized by our bodies. To be utilized, it has to be broken down to its smallest part. In the case of carbohydrates, our bodies will break them down to their sugar building blocks. Compared to fats or proteins, most carbs can be broken down pretty quickly by the body. They are a fast-access fuel source, comparatively speaking.  I like to use the analogy of fueling a fire. If you’re trying to keep a fire burning, can you expect to keep it burning hot for a long time with just twigs, kindling and newspaper? No way, right? Sure, those are a good way to fan the flame but only for a couple mintues at best. The burn hot and fast but fizzle out quickly. They provide an immediate fuel surge but it doesn’t last. That’s how carbohydrate acts in your body. Yes, it can be an rapid acting fuel but won’t last for long. Fat and protein, however, are slower to metabolize and therefore are more like the hefty logs on the fire – they burn more slowly, providing sustained energy (fuel) over time.

Alright, now here is where it gets really interesting. Here is where we can  understand how and when carbs are stored as fat. We have to understand the basics of carbohydrate metabolism and storage. We have to understand, at a high level, what happens after the carbs are broken down into their building blocks: simple sugars. These simple sugars which result from the breakdown of carbs we eat are either immediately used for fuel or taken for storage. For most of us, unless we’ve been fasting or we’re super active, most of it will be taken away to be stored. Enroute to storage, this sugar enters the blood stream. The hormone insulin is released when sugar enters the blood. Why does insulin have to get involved? Because insulin is the usher that shuttles the sugar from the blood to its final storage site. Insulin has a few drop off options for the sugar. The first place its going to try to take it is to the muscle. Storage space there is limited, but its easily accessible for your next workout or the next time you get chased by a bear. So, if you’re eating carbs regularly and not exercising regularly to tap into that fuel, chances are that the storage space in the muscles is all full. Next stop? The liver. Again, easy access in case your body needs to generate fuel, but limited storage. And I’m talking seriously limited space, only about 400g between the muscle storage and liver storage combined.That is not a daily storage max or a storage max per meal. That is TOTAL storage space. Like I said, if you’re not working out regularly or if you’re eating carbs on a regular basis, chances are that both of those storage sites are FULL. No vacancy. But insulin has another storage option. And this is what we call “carbohydrate spillover”. Carbohydrate spillover can also be referred to as lipogenesis or creating fat. This is when carbs are stored as fat. The muscle and liver storage space is full because we eat carbs with most meals and we aren’t that active. It has to go to the final option…

The excess sugar (glucose) is converted to fat. That fat either continues to circulate in your blood (this is where we see things like elevated triglycerides) or it is stored in your adipose tissue (body fat). And, lucky us, this storage space is UNLIMITED and it is NOT easily accessed. Once it gets stored as body fat your body considers this its emergency fuel reserve and doesn’t give it up without a fight.

Think about that the next time you eat a carbohydrate rich meal. Where will that sugar be stored? Will your body need it for immediate fuel while you sit on the couch and watch Lost for the 10th time? Have you been active enough to deplete those muscle stores so there is somewhere for that glucose to go or is it destined to be stored as body fat??

In our next post we’re going to be talking about the 2nd half of this equation – how constantly flooding our blood with sugar by eating carbohydrates tells our body to stop any and all fat burning and instead store all fuel as body fat. And, most importantly, we’ll talk about what you can do about it!

Want more info about carb strategies for fat loss? Check out this quick video!

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