Carbohydrate intake can be so confusing!
Should we limit our intake? What type of carbs should we focus on eating?
Are carbs essential to our health?
How are low-carb, therapeutic and nutritional ketosis levels of carbs categorized?
Which level would benefit me?
Should I follow the standard nutritional guidelines for carbs?
I answer the questions below, but in addition, I have developed a quick, 7-question CARB QUIZ to help YOU determine what is an appropriate level for YOU! Take the quiz RIGHT HERE!
All these questions answered, plus more!
I want to preface this blog post by saying, we are all different and unique and it's really tough for me to give general guidelines on carbohydrates because there are a lot of different factors that go into carbohydrate metabolism. I am not your medical professional and I'm not giving you medical advice, I'm just giving you some standard guidelines that I see when I work with a lot of clients.
I believe carbohydrates are llikely the most confusing of the macronutrients. When I say macronutrients, I'm talking about carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They make up the bulk of what we are eating in our food, and provide all our energy. What's interesting about carbohydrates is that they have been touted as the go-to macronutrient that we should eat the most of, right?
In the last 50 to 60, even probably 70 years, we have been told to take in about 55%-60% of our caloric intake from carbohydrates. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a diet very high in carbohydrates. However, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that we don't need to survive, meaning they are NON-ESSENTIAL.. This might sound shocking to you if you have never heard this before.
I used to believe that I needed to eat carbohydrates in order to fuel my brain, and that the brain burns only glucose. I was taught that your brain needs glucose to function properly. But this is not true. I remember telling clients this misconception years ago, and I wish I could go back and change that information.
We can use another fuel source for our bodies. This fuel source is called ketones. Your brain will use glucose first because it's a quick and easy energy to use. But if there is no glucose available, your brain will start using ketones instead., which are by-products of fat metabolism.
When there are no carbohydrates available, your body will use the protein that is in your bloodstream to create carbohydrates. This process is called gluconeogenesis, but it is a lot of work for the body compared to burning glucose. If circulating protein is not available, your body will turn to fat. This means that you don't need all these carbohydrates to fuel your body and your brain. Your body can use different types of energy. It won't break down your muscles, or your heart tissue, or any other organ for protein (unless you are severely malnourished, and that is another issue).
Your body is going to use what carbohydrate stores you have, which is in the form of glycogen. We store glycogen in our muscles and our liver. The body will use the small amount of protein that is circulating and then turn to the body fat for more energy, which is what we want it to do if we are overweight. We want to use up our extra body fat stores. When we do, we can use the fat for energy. We produce ketones as a byproduct of breaking down fat to use as energy.
Your brain loves using ketones for energy!
I've worked with a lot of people who, after lowering their carbohydrate intake and starting to use ketones for energy, feel better. They say they have less brain fog, have more energy, and don't see swings in their blood sugar balance.
I can tell when I am using ketones for energy, because I feel more energetic and my thinking is clearer.
It is optimal for our bodies to use different fuel sources, so that we can comfortably go long periods of time without eating. Most people don't even go more than a few hours without eating! As humans were evolving, they had to do more hunting and gathering. They sometimes went days without eating. What did they use as a fuel source? They didn't use carbohydrates. Their glycogen stores burned out within a day or two and then their body had to tap into fat and convert the fat into ketones.
There is a lot of confusion around carbohydrates. How many should I eat? What type should I eat? Should I eat starchy vegetables? Should I eat non-starchy vegetables?
Most Americans eat a lot of carbs on the Standard American Diet (SAD). On average, Americans eat around 300 to 400 grams of carbohydrates every day. This is the equivalent of 1200 to 1600 calories from carbohydrates. Way more than we should be eating, when you consider carbohydrates are non-essential! Some people might think that this is a lot of carbohydrates. If you look at the flawed standard guidelines from over the last few decades, this is what has been suggested. If following the 55-65% guideline for carbohydrate intake, it would work out to be around 300-400 grams of carbohydrates per day.
With that being said, protein and fat are essential. Your body cannot create protein or body fat from other fuel sources.
The body needs both fatty acids and proteins to create certain neurotransmitters and hormones. Most of your body, other than water, is made from proteins. The amino acids are the building blocks of our body. Proteins are essential, but carbohydrates are not.
It can be tricky to understand why our food system is so flawed and backward. Where did the guidelines for our food come from? You can check out a recent podcast I did with Michelle Hurn, who does a really good job of explaining where our nutritional guidelines came from. You can check that out or listen to the podcast episode that I did with her.
But the guidelines didn't come from where you would think they would come from.
If you look at any grocery store, 80% of the food is processed. This means that it is not real food. It is mostly made up of carbohydrates, and basically junk food. This is where the confusion lies.
Which carbohydrates should I focus on? I heard that it's the processed carbohydrates that are the problem. I've heard it's the starchy vegetables that are the problem. I've heard I just need to keep sugar out of my diet.
I like to simplify things when I work with clients. I teach them how to set up their plate in a way that reduces their carbohydrate intake and focuses on eating first protein and natural fats, and then, whole, intact carbs.
Most people are confused by the idea of intact carbs. What I mean is that intact carbohydrates come from fruits and vegetables, and additionally legumes, and dried beans and grains. Those are the main sources of carbohydrates, plus all the unhealthy processed food and sugar people are eating and drinking. When I'm talking about intact carbohydrates, I mean that the food has not been changed at all.
If you focus on eating most of your carbohydrates from sources that have not been processed, like an apple picked right from the tree or a potato, that is best. This includes eating leafy greens and vegetables in a salad or any type of fruit that has not been touched. These are called intact carbohydrates.
I further recommend eating the bulk of your carbs from non-starchy plants that grow above ground. This will provide fiber without so many carbs.
What should be on your plate?
When I work with clients, I ask them to eat foods that contain 1-2 servings of natural fats, and 1-2 sources of natural protein. If you want to add an intact carbohydrate, you should do it in a way that balances your plate. These simple steps will help improve your health.
Processed carbohydrates can get us into trouble because they drive up our insulin levels and promote insulin resistance. But that doesn't mean we should avoid all carbohydrates. I promote carbohydrate reduction because it is a good way to manage blood sugar levels and improve overall health.
Some of the people I work with are very ill. They have had a lot of trouble losing weight and keeping it off. This is because they have PCOS, a mental health issue, a metabolic issue like diabetes or pre-diabetes, or heart disease.
A majority of the time I'm dealing with people who have "tried everything" and are simply looking for a new solution. They've tried every program, every system. They've weight cycled for decades or maybe they are dealing with weight gain for the first time in their life and wondering what the heck is going on. However, a lot of the people I know or work with have been feeling sick for a while. In these cases, I find it necessary to reduce their carbohydrate intake.
One of the main reasons people get sick and gain weight is because they have too much insulin circulating (Insulin Resistance) in their system. This is often due to eating a lot of unhealthy foods over time or eating too often.
We've been told that we should eat all day, every day. We should eat when we get up, and continue to eat until we go to bed. If we eat every time we feel hungry and put something in our mouths, we're stimulating our insulin. Over time, the insulin levels in our bloodstream can become too high. This is because our bodies produce too much insulin in an effort to get the extra energy out of our bloodstream and into our cells. But usually, your cells are full. You only have so much space to store carbohydrates. As I said before, you can store carbohydrates in your muscles and in a small amount in your liver. After that, you can't store an infinite amount of carbohydrates; but you can store infinite amounts of fat, unfortunately. However, carbohydrate stores are limited.
The extra energy that is not used right away will be stored in your body. If you do not use it, your body will turn it into fat. This happens if you do not exercise and your glycogen stores are full. This is why people follow intermittent fasting protocols and reduce their carbohydrate intake. This reduces insulin levels, which in turn reverses insulin resistance and helps the body burn off extra energy.
If someone is very metabolically sick, it might take several months for their body to become sensitive to glucose and carbohydrates again. This means that when they do eat them, their body will know what to do with them and they can store some in their liver and muscles. When you reduce your carbohydrate intake, start exercising regularly and go long periods of time without eating, your body can burn all that off.
Reducing carbohydrate intake can work very well with intermittent fasting for weight loss and reversing insulin resistance. When you think about it, it's simple. Your body will use up the energy from the carbohydrates first, then it will start to burn body fat. That's why I have people eat a therapeutic, low-carb diet. This way, their body will start burning fat instead of glycogen (stored carbohydrates).
When I work with somebody personally, I always look at their medical history, I look at their medications, and I look at their goals. I look at a lot of different things that come into play. I look at their sleep and their stress and then come up with a plan. These are just guidelines, but in general, for almost all my clients, whether they have prediabetes or not, I usually have them keep their carbohydrates under 100g per day. That is considered a low carbohydrate diet. Most Americans eat around 300-400 grams of carbohydrates per day. When you think about it, if you're drinking a few sodas or sugary drinks, eating sandwiches for lunch, and snacking on high carbohydrate snacks, that number can add up quickly.
I typically eat 2 balanced meals a day. I know that if I stay around 50 grams of carbohydrate per meal or less, I will be under the 100-gram limit. I think this is a great reference point to start with, especially if you're not dealing with severe metabolic disease.
You should stay at this level if you are looking to lose weight or prevent chronic illness. This still means you can eat fruits and vegetables every day. I don't always eat fruit, but I usually have some vegetables on most days. And I also usually have some nuts on most days, but I do focus on eating a higher fat and protein diet.
The next level is less than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day. And this is considered the therapeutic level of carbohydrate restriction. This will allow you to keep glycogen stores lower so your body can burn more fat.
If you eat a lot of carbohydrates every day, your body will store the energy in those carbohydrates. Your body will use that energy first, before it starts to burn any fat. If you eat fewer carbohydrates, your body can start burning fat more quickly. This is where, if someone comes to me with obesity that has been around for a long time or they have done a lot of weight cycling, or they have some sort of metabolic illness. Usually, I start someone at around 50 grams of carbohydrates or less. This is because it is a therapeutic level of carbohydrate restriction. If someone is doing well with this, I keep things the same. If they are not doing well, then we change things up.
The last level of carbohydrate restriction is under 25 grams. This is when you're basically going to be in ketosis all of the time or most of the time. This is pretty low. If you ingest less than 25 g carbs daily, you will likely stay in nutritional ketosis. This means that you will mostly be burning fat for energy. I only recommend this for people who have a lot of trouble with their blood sugar or who are trying to stop taking medications like insulin. I don't take you off of your medications myself. You need to have a doctor or some other health professional supervising you coming off your medications. This is for conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Most of the time you will be in ketosis if you have less than 25g of carbohydrates each day. Ketones are burned when you metabolize fat. Another strategy I use when I work with a person is having them flex in and out of fat burning. I believe that ketosis can be very helpful for a lot of people, but I also think that cycling in some days or weeks of eating more carbs can be beneficial. I don't think we're supposed to be in ketosis or burning carbs all the time-- we need to cycle in and out of those periods. I have a system where people cycle in higher carbohydrate days every four weeks. They can also do one week per month where they cycle in higher levels of carbohydrates.
I don't recommend having those I work with go back up to the standard American 300 to 400. This will get them ill again, and right back to metabolic issues. Instead, I have them cycle in and additional 25-50 grams of carbohydrates one day a week or one week out of the month.
If I'm working with a woman who is menstruating, I usually have her do a high carbohydrate cycle the 5-7 days prior to her menstrual period. This is because she will have more cravings for carb and less insulin sensitivity at that time. During the time when progesterone levels are high in the latter half of the cycle, many women crave more carbohydrates. This can help keep your female hormone balance normal. And men sometimes like to have a higher level of carbohydrates on Saturdays or on one day during the week that works for them.
So you can do it either way. The idea is cycling in and out of some higher carbohydrate times because when you think back to it again, humans hundreds or thousands of years ago, they were eating what was available to them, right? They were eating a lot of animal meat, tubers from the ground, and fruit. They were not eating the same foods as we do now, and they were cycling in and out of days with more carbs. Some days you should eat more fat, and other days you should eat more protein. Protein can help you feel full, so it is important to have enough of it.
You might be hungry all the time if you're not eating enough protein. Protein is important for building things in your body, like muscles. When it comes down to it, we need those amino acids as building blocks.
I have people eat more carbohydrates on some days and not so many on others. I don't recommend carb cycling with processed foods. Better choices would be sweet potatoes or potatoes, beets, starchy veggies, or more fruit. For me, I only have that kind of meal about once a week. Most days I don't eat more than 100 g total carb.
Keep in mind my goals might be different from yours. I know that I am very insulin sensitive and I can handle higher amounts of carbs than someone just starting out. I am also pretty active more days to burn out extra glycogen stores. If you have a lot of weight to lose or a lot of insulin resistance, you might want to have those higher carbohydrate days less often.
In closing, it is important to follow therapeutic carb restriction guidelines, especially if you have a metabolic disease. This will help your body to better process the carbs you do eat, and bring down the levels of insulin in your bloodstream. This is because carbohydrate metabolism is messed up if you have insulin resistance, and it makes sense to lower it for a while, until you become more insulin sensitive. After that, you can cycle in some higher carbohydrate foods.
However, some people do better with lower levels of carbohydrates over the long term.
Now, I want to talk about the keto and carnivore diets before we close out. These diets get a lot of questions from people. There is no one perfect diet for everyone. I believe that people need to be assessed individually and that personalized nutrition is the best way to go. But there are a lot of people who follow ketogenic diets and then do intermittent fasting. And those two strategies can work well together because with keto, you're taking in between 25 and 50 grams of carbs for most people. This approach isn't for everyone, but if you feel good on a ketogenic diet and you know that it works well for you, then go ahead and do it. Even when following keto I think it is reasonable to sometimes have a day where we eat some higher-level carbohydrates, and then we can go back into ketosis quickly after following it for a long time.
As for the carnivore diet, I recommend it for people who are very ill, especially if they have auto-immune issues or a lot of food sensitivities. This also works well with intermittent fasting. The carnivore diet does is not eating any plant foods at all. If you have sensitivities or autoimmune reactions to plant foods, using this diet will help you figure out what your body is reacting to. Take out all the foods that are usually a problem for people with food sensitivities, and then you see how you feel.
The carnivore diet serves as the ultimate elimination diet.
Some people have found that the carnivore diet has been very helpful for them. Humans evolved to eat meat, which is a good source of nutrients. I have followed a carnivore diet for a few days at a time when my gut needs a reset, or if I am struggling with bloating.
If you need more help deciding what level of carbohydrate intake is right for you, I developed a CARB QUIZ that will help you find the carb level right for YOU! You can take the quiz HERE.
I encourage you to listen to the companion podcast episode for this blog post. Click HERE to listen now!
Pass this blog post along if you know somebody who's interested in learning about what type of fasting is best.
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