The #1 Carb for Weight Loss, According to a Dietitian
If your goal is to lose weight, what's the first thing you think you have to do? The common answer: Ditch the carbs. And while some people may feel fine doing it, avoiding carbs can have potentially harmful outcomes in the long run.
If you are a carb-lover, you can breathe easy: carbs can play a starring role in a healthy weight-loss diet. And while all foods can fit—even when you're trying to lose weight—eating more of certain types of carbs that support weight loss can help you get closer to your goal—and be happier, more content and less distracted by cravings while doing it.
Why Carbs Can Help with Weight Loss
Carbs have an (unearned) reputation as being the number one culprit behind weight gain. "Carbohydrates offer so many health benefits," says Caroline Susie, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Carbs are found in an array of foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils and dairy—not just bread, pasta and cake.
Many of these sources of carbs are rich in fiber. "The fiber found in complex carbs can help keep you fuller, longer, which is great news if you are trying to manage your weight," says Susie. She adds that these are fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, and whole grains. Research published in 2019 in The Journal of Nutrition shows that eating more fiber alone promotes weight loss in adults on a diet compared to those who ate less of the nutrient over six months. Another perk? Those who increased their fiber intake also ate healthier, more nutrient-dense diets. It can pay to carb up smartly. What's important for weight loss is that you go into a calorie deficit, which is easy to do if you avoid entire food groups (like carbohydrates). However, this isn't sustainable for the long term and can be pretty harmful. A balanced approach to weight loss means that all foods can be included in your diet as long as you reduce calories in a healthy way.
The Best Carb to Achieve Your Weight Loss Goals
Answer: Whole grains, says Susie. Yes, that is an entire food category, but foods like brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa are too good to choose just one. Whole grains are grains that contain the entire grain: bran, germ and endosperm. "Whole grains taste delicious, are extremely satisfying and are a good source of fiber," says Susie.
Here's how whole grains can fit into your diet and help you get closer to your weight loss and health goals:
Can Help You Stick to a Weight Loss Plan
The key to managing your weight is consistency, says Susie. "It's hard to be consistent when you're on a restrictive meal plan and feel deprived," she explains. Some people can thrive on a low-carb diet, while others feel limited and crave some of their favorite foods they've cut. (And so often, that's carbs.) When you incorporate sources of healthy carbs into your diet, you can decrease the likelihood of deprivation. "Including healthy whole grains can help you stick with your game plan better to manage your weight," she says.
May Protect You Against Chronic Diseases
People who eat more whole grains also consume more fiber—and the whole grains also help replace refined grains in the diet, which protects against diseases like heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, according to a 2019 meta-analysis of research in The Lancet. In addition, the study noted that increasing whole grains has been shown to support healthier body weight. The authors suggest consuming 25 to 29 grams of fiber daily. Furthermore, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend between 25 and 34 grams for adults. For reference, a cup of cooked whole wheat pasta packs about 4 grams of fiber, while one slice of white toast has less than one gram.
Support a Healthy Weight
People who eat more whole grains are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight. Research finds that whole grain eaters tend to have a healthy weight, according to a 2019 meta-analysis published in Nutrients. Why? Just like previously mentioned, whole grains may help control appetite, but these foods may also improve the health of your gut microbiome, which, over time, could affect your weight.
May Help Reduce Visceral Fat
Here's another reason to lean into—not away from—whole grains: Middle-aged and older adults who eat the greatest amounts of whole grains also had minor increases in visceral fat compared to those who ate the least, per 2021 research in The Journal of Nutrition. Here's why that's important: Visceral fat hugs your organs and is associated with inflammatory processes that play a role in disease—and excess visceral fat may be an indicator of metabolic disease. The authors of this study conclude that replacing refined grains with sources of whole grains—a simple swap from white bread to whole grain will do—not only limits visceral fat but also helps prevent high cholesterol and high blood sugar.
Other Things to Consider
Susie says that those who restrict carbohydrates as part of a weight loss plan lose weight quickly. "Anytime you restrict, you will see weight loss," she says. But Susie points out that the goal is long-term loss, which means finding an eating plan that you can stick to for the long haul.
In addition, when you're managing your weight, Susie also recommends paying attention to the timing of meals and snacks and the amount or portion size. She says that eating on a regular schedule will help regulate hunger, decreasing cravings throughout the day, so you're less likely to overeat.
In addition, pair your whole grains (or any carbohydrate source) with a protein source, which will also improve satiety. For instance, eat a couple of hardboiled eggs alongside oatmeal for breakfast. Add rotisserie chicken to your whole-grain pasta. Or toss in some shrimp into fried rice with veggies. Here's everything you need to know about cooking whole grains.
The Bottom Line
If registered dietitian Caroline Susie had to choose a specific type of carbohydrate that was best for weight loss, she would go for whole grains. Foods like brown rice, whole grain bread and pasta, farro, bulgur and others are rich in fiber that promote satiety and satisfaction and can help you stick to a healthy diet to lose weight. Best of all, this balanced approach is one that you can continue over time to maintain your weight loss success for the long haul.