Carbohydrates, protein, and fat make up the three macronutrients that supply your body with energy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of daily calories (via Mayo Clinic). According to WebMD, anyone getting more than 70 percent of their calories from carbs is on a "high-carb" diet, and anyone getting 25 to 30 percent of calories or less from carbs is on a "low-carb" eating plan.
Still, it should be noted that not all carbs are created equal. Carbs are present in whole foods like starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, but they’re also a major component of processed foods. These refined carbs, also called simple carbs, include sugars, like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and refined grains, such as white rice and white flour. Refined carbs lack the fiber and micronutrients of their whole-food counterparts and nutritionists agree we should limit our intake. A study published in JAMA in 2019, however, found that 42 percent of Americans’ calories come from these refined carbs.
So, how do you know if you’re eating too many carbs, especially the refined kind? Here’s a look.
If you’re always hungry, you may be eating too many carbs
There’s a reason people joke about being famished only an hour after eating rice-heavy Chinese food. As Trista Best, registered dietitian, told Health Digest, "It’s almost counter-intuitive that you are more hungry when you overeat carbohydrates. This is because the carbohydrates are digested quickly by the body, leaving you hungry soon after eating them." She also noted that if you’re overeating on carbs, you’re also likely not eating as much fat or protein, both of which digest more slowly and keep you feeling full longer.
And as Kathryn Schwab, health and wellness researcher and coach at Tons of Goodness, explained, you’re likely to be hungry for the same high-carb fare you just ate. "High-carbohydrate foods and drinks are known to stimulate parts of the brain involved in craving and reward," the expert told Health Digest. "Your body tends to crave the quick energy that it gets from these high-carb foods."
The solution? According to Best, "Curb your carbohydrate cravings and stay fuller longer with fiber-rich carbs like oatmeal or quinoa. You can also add an easy protein to your meal or snack like seeds and nuts."
Eating too many refined carbs can lead to weight gain
Considering refined carbs can make you hungry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they can also add unwanted pounds. Based on the energy balance model of weight control, you’ll gain weight if you you eat more calories than you expend, WebMD explained. And one gram of carbohydrate contains four calories. In a paper published in the journal Pediatrics, a research team led by Dr. David S. Ludwig concluded that eating refined carbohydrates encouraged overeating.
However, there’s more to it than that. Refined carbs can also influence hormones that affect weight. As a 2019 paper published by Dr. Patrick Bradley in the journal Medical Hypotheses pointed out, the body deals with the sudden spikes in blood sugar refined carbohydrates cause by secreting the hormone insulin, which allows glucose to be used by cells but also allows any unneeded glucose to be stored as fat. Over time, the body becomes resistant to insulin’s effects and the pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin, leading to weight gain.
Overindulging in carbs could lead to nutrient deficiencies
Sometimes what’s not in a food is just as important as what is. As holistic nutritionist Mira Dessy told Health Digest, "A high carbohydrate diet, especially one that is high in processed carbs, may feel very filling for the stomach, but processed carbohydrates tend to be energy dense (lots of calories for not a lot of volume) rather than nutrient dense (lots of nutrition for not as much volume)." She explained that by filling up on the "empty" calories in refined carbohydrates, people may not feel hungry when it’s time to eat more nutritious foods like vegetables.
According to U.S. survey cited by Oregon State University, 43 percent of Americans don’t get enough vitamin C, 44.1 percent don’t get enough calcium, and 94.3 percent don’t get enough vitamin D. "The prevalence of inadequacies was low for all of the B vitamins and several minerals, including copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, and zinc," the university further explained.
Getting too little of these and other important micronutrients can lead to deficiencies, which have a wide array of negative consequences. A lack of calcium and vitamin D, for example, can lead to brittle bones whereas an iron deficiency (the most common nutritional deficiency) can lead to anemia.
Bathroom troubles can be a sign you’re eating too many carbs
How many carbs you eat can have a big impact on what happens behind closed bathroom doors, thanks to carbs’ fiber content (or lack thereof). As the Mayo Clinic explained, fiber is the key to healthy bowel movements because it adds bulk to your stool and softens it. This makes it easier to pass, preventing constipation. Refined carbohydrates, however, have been stripped of their fiber, which means they may leave you backed up if you overindulge.
Even if you’re eating fiber-rich carbs from whole-food sources, though, you can still overdo it. According to Healthline, consuming too much fiber can cause a number of unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea and (ironically) constipation.
Vegetarians and vegans are at the highest risk for over-consuming fiber-rich carbs. In a 2014 study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers compared the diets of individuals following a variety of eating philosophies and found that vegan participants consumed an average of 41 grams of fiber while vegetarians ate 34 grams daily. By comparison, the omnivores in the study only consumed 27 grams of fiber. When it comes to regularity, the key is to eat high-quality, fiber-rich carbs in moderation.
Bloating may be a serious sign of eating too many carbs
Carbs can cause significant bloating, especially among individuals with certain food intolerances and sensitivities. Wheat, barley, and other carbohydrates containing gluten can be particularly problematic for those with celiac disease (an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own intestinal cells when gluten is ingested). Such ones may experience bloating, gas, and other unpleasant GI symptoms when eating gluten-rich carbs. Additionally, a study published in 2014 in the journal BMC Medicine found that 87 percent of participants thought to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity experienced bloating (via Healthline).
According to Healthline, wheat is also a high-FODMAP food. FODMAPs (aka "fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols") are a group of digestion-resistant carbs that end up being used as fuel by the bacteria in your large intestine. Those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) tend to be sensitive to certain FODMAP-containing foods and experience bloating, gas, and abdominal cramps when they eat them.
Other high-FODMAP, carb-containing foods include barley and rye; legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans; and some fruits and vegetables, including apples, peaches, and broccoli. Even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten or FODMAPs, eating carbs can still cause bloating due to their high fiber content.
Joint pain can result from eating too many carbs
If you wake up feeling achy, inflammatory carbs may be to blame. As registered dietitian Trista Best at Balance One Supplements told Health Digest, "Refined carbohydrates can cause stiff and painful joints because these types of carbohydrates are very pro-inflammatory. This inflammation is widespread throughout the body and specifically the joints, making them difficult to move and painful."
That’s bad news for the one in three Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 living with arthritis. Among individuals with arthritis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 50 percent have persistent joint pain and one in four have severe joint pain. According to the Arthritis Foundation, refined carbohydrates are indeed one of the food groups responsible for inflammation.
Just like carbs, though, inflammation can be both a good and a bad thing. According to Harvard Medical School, acute inflammation occurs immediately after an injury and produces warmth, redness, swelling, and pain. This brings white blood cells to the area, where they can begin the healing process. But if the inflammatory response becomes chronic, the body becomes confused and begins attacking healthy tissue.
Your love of carbs may be responsible for recurring yeast infections
Yeast infections are an uncomfortable fact of life for many women. According to the Office of Women’s Health, 75 percent of women will have at least one yeast infection in their lives, and nearly 50 percent will have two or more.
Although the gastrointestinal and reproductive systems aren’t directly connected, what you put into the former can have an impact on what happens in the latter. As nutritionist Lisa Richards told Health Digest, "A diet filled with refined carbohydrates can create a state of bacterial imbalance in the gut, leading to a host of health issues as a result of Candida albicans overgrowth. Candida albicans is a form of yeast and in some cases can multiply out of control." Richards explained that this out-of-control yeast overgrowth, known as candidiasis, can cause both oral thrush and vaginal yeast infections.
In an article for Intermountain Healthcare, Marysa Anderson-Cardwell, registered dietitian nutritionist, confirmed the connection between refined carbohydrates and recurrent yeast infections. She advised abstain from or reduce your intake of white flour, white rice, foods or beverages fermented with yeast, and foods containing simple sugars to help prevent against yeast infections.
Is your skin breaking out because you’re eating too many carbs?
Unfortunately, acne isn’t always just a passing adolescent phase. According to a 2014 paper published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, between 12 and 22 percent of women and 3 percent of men have adult acne.
The Mayo Clinic highlighted four underlying causes of acne breakouts: excess oil production, clogged hair follicles, bacteria, and overactive androgen hormones. The clinic noted that diet, particularly dairy products and carbohydrate-rich foods, may worsen acne. This connection has been noted in a number of studies, as revealed by Healthline. The researchers found that individuals with moderate to severe acne ate more refined carbs than those with no or mild acne.
This may be explained by "the effects refined carbohydrates have on blood sugar and insulin levels," according to the publication. Refined carbs cause blood sugar levels to rise, thus also raising insulin levels. In turn, insulin raises oil production and, therefore, acne.
Dental cavities may be a sign that you’re eating too many carbs
We’ve all been told that sugar rots your teeth — and the bad news for carb fanatics is that there’s plenty of research backing that up. One paper, for example, published by Dr. Paula Moynihan in the journal Advances in Nutrition in 2016, noted that the World Health Organization’s recommendation to keep added sugars to less than 10 percent of daily calories (and, ideally, less than 5 percent) was based largely on the connection between sugar and cavities.
But how exactly does sugar damage your teeth? According to Healthline, dental plaque is actually a waste product created by bacteria in your mouth after they feed off of the sugar you consume. When this plaque builds up, it makes your mouth more acidic, which erodes tooth enamel and creates cavities. Soda (which is already acidic) and any sugary treat that stays in your mouth a long time (such as a hard candy) are particularly damaging.
According to data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 92 percent of Americans have had at least one cavity in their permanent teeth and 26 percent live with untreated cavities.
Are too many carbs to blame for your brain fog?
Do you feel like you spend your days in a mental haze, unable to concentrate or remember things, lacking clarity and focus? If so, refined carbs may be the culprit.
In a 2013 paper published in the journal Appetite, Dr. Heather Francis and Dr. Richard Stevenson explored the link between the "Western diet" (high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates) and long-term brain health. The researchers found that such a diet negatively impacted memory, learning, cognition, and hedonics (the ability to experience pleasure and displeasure). This diet also appeared to be linked to conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and neurodegenerative diseases. It’s important to note, though, that the researchers relied on data from animal studies and didn’t examine refined carbohydrates separately from saturated fat.
Additionally, a paper published in 2018 in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care noted "recent findings" showing that exposure to refined carbohydrates early in life may be particularly damaging to cognitive health. It was also noted that the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotion, seemed to be the most severely affected by carbohydrate intake.
Depression could be a sign that you’re eating too many carbs
While it may be tempting to turn to sugary treats and high-carb comfort foods when you’re feeling down, these may actually make the situation worse. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that postmenopausal women who consumed the most high-glycemic foods (foods full of refined carbs that get absorbed quickly and spike blood sugar) had the greatest incidence of depression. The researchers also found that those who consumed the most dairy, fiber, vegetables, and whole fruits had the lowest incidence of depression.
Yes, refined carbohydrates may be fueling common mental health disorders. A study published in Scientific Reports in 2017 concluded, "Our research confirms an adverse effect of sugar intake from sweet food/beverage on long-term psychological health and suggests that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health."
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 16.1 million American adults (6.7 percent of the U.S. population) have major depressive disorder. While simply cutting out refined carbs should not take the place of antidepressant medication or therapy, it may be a helpful step.
If you’re struggling with energy crashes and fatigue, you may be eating too many carbs
Do you always feel like taking a nap after you eat? Your high-carb diet may be the reason. According to Healthline, carbohydrates help the body absorb tryptophan, an amino acid found in many protein-rich foods. Your body uses tryptophan to create the neurotransmitter serotonin, which in turn makes you feel sleepy. Side note: This means your post-Thanksgiving dinner sleepiness isn’t because you pigged out on turkey, it’s because you pigged out on turkey and mashed potatoes. To avoid these slumps at Thanksgiving or any other day of the year, you may want to keep your protein-rich meals relatively low in carbs.
Although any type of carb can contribute to serotonin-induced sleepiness, high-sugar refined carbs can do their own special type of damage: a sugar crash. The Sanford Medical Center explained that these crashes occur because our bodies are flooded with tons of simple sugars, which in turn requires the pancreas to pump out lots of insulin. This sudden spike and then drop in blood glucose leaves us feeling tired, irritable, and shaky. To avoid these crashes, Sanford recommended eating fewer simple sugars and finding a good balance of carbs, fiber, fat, and protein.
Is your love affair with carbs to blame for your high cholesterol?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 95 million U.S. adults have high cholesterol (greater than 200 mg/dL) and approximately 29 million of those individuals have very high cholesterol (greater than 240 mg/dL). The CDC noted that high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.
But, while dietary fat is often blamed for raising cholesterol, carbs may have just as big a role to play. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology followed more than 15,000 women for nine years (plus two additional years for follow-up data) and concluded that those who ate more refined carbs had higher cholesterol levels and were at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
It also appears that the reverse is true: A diet low in carbohydrates, especially refined ones, may lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. A 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that, after two years, participants following a low-carb diet had larger reductions in triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) levels than those following a low-fat diet.
Eating too many refined carbs can increase your risk for diabetes
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 34 million Americans have diabetes, of which as high as 90 to 95 percent have type 2 diabetes. If poorly managed, the disease can lead to a number of complications, including vision loss, kidney failure, and nerve damage.
According to Healthline, eating a diet high in sugar and too many refined carbs can increase your risk for diabetes both directly and indirectly. Fructose, a type of simple sugar that gives high-fructose corn syrup its name, can damage the liver, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance. This makes it difficult for your body to properly control blood sugar levels. Eating too many sugar-rich foods can also lead to weight gain and more belly fat, both of which are risk factors for diabetes.
A paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2015 concluded that reducing intake of added sugars to less than five percent of total calories would improve individuals’ glucose control and lower risk for diabetes. But that may be easier said than done; one study published in 2013 found that 74 percent of packaged foods sold in the United States contain added sugar.