Carbs seem to be everywhere. They are in “bad” foods like bread, pasta, cookies, and beer. Carbs are also in “good” foods like vegetables, fruits, sweet, and grains. Are carbs something to avoid at all costs, or is their bad reputation unwarranted? What is the science behind all of these low-carb fad diets?

Are carbs responsible for rapid weight loss?

For the average American, eating fewer carbs results in weight loss, but carbs are not always the sole cause of weight loss. The American diet is full of carbs from processed foods. Processed food is a dietary staple for millions of people. These foods have way more carbs than anyone needs, and they are full of other ingredients like excess sugar, unnatural fats, and chemical fillers that can also be responsible for weight gain.

When the body digests more carbs than can be used for energy, these water-soluble molecules attract water. A bunch of carbs attracting a bunch of water results in what seems to be visible excess fat in areas like the belly, thighs, and buttocks. As soon as a person stops consuming such a high amount of carbs on a daily basis, the water weight practically falls off. That is why carb reducing diet programs can accurately boast about customers who lost inches from their waistlines in a relatively short amount of time.

Carbs can seem like the “bad guy” when a person sees how avoiding them results in such dramatic weight loss results. In reality, fruit, meat, and vegetable are the most readily available food groups in a reduced carb diet. It only makes sense that people are lighter and healthier while consuming less processed foods and empty calories.

The high-carb diet

On the other side of the spectrum, there are many diets where high carb consumption is encouraged. Athletes have long practiced carb loading (i.e. eating as many carbs as possible) before major competitions to build up stores of glucose. Many in the fitness world vouch for the great results of a high-carb, low-fat diet. Most foods in high-carb diets are pasta, beans, and starchy vegetables that also have nutritional value. Is eating too many or too little carbs really a healthy choice?

How the body responds to carb intake changes

The body turns carbs into glucose, a valuable energy source that the body needs to function. Just as electricity powers a computer, glucose gives the body the necessary energy for muscles to move, for the heart to beat, and for food to be digested. When the body cannot get glucose from carbs, the body will overtax the adrenal glands to get glucose. This can lead to chronic health problems if it happens too often over a long period of time.

Regularly consuming too many carbs is just as dangerous. Excess carbs cause excess sugar in the body, which increases blood sugar and body fat. The increased blood sugar levels can throw off the body’s insulin levels, and this easily leads to type II diabetes over time. Even if a person does not develop diabetes, high blood sugar levels cause excess sugar to travel through the bloodstream, damaging organs and blood vessels along the way.

Where’s the balance?

The human body functions best on a delicate balance of carbs, fats, proteins, and plenty of vitamins and minerals. The sudden removal of any of these food groups can cause dramatic weight loss, but it can also leave the body starved of nutrients and energy. People on a very strict diet are more likely to gain weight again because it is difficult to avoid an entire food group. These kinds of diets are also not always sustainable from a nutritional standpoint. When it comes to carbs, moderation and an understanding of personal mental and metabolic circumstances are key.