The question of how many carbohydrates one should consume is a hot topic these days. I see it in the media very frequently and I hear it live even more often.
- Should I eat low carb?
- Carbs make you fat right? They’re the devil!
- Is a ketogenic diet healthy?
- Carbs are healthy because fat is evil….right?
- All carbs are fine, because only total calories matter…..I think. Wait, is that right?
Clearly, there is an abundance of confusion. Let’s try to clarify this issue for you somewhat. I say somewhat, because the only true way to know what is right for you is to do your own homework and figure it out. If you’re not willing to do some homework and true self-reflection, and you’re simply looking for me to give you a number, then you may be disappointed. Let’s delve in.
The Role of Carbohydrates
In order to keep the length of this article reasonable, I am not going to provide a lot of science. If you want detailed information about the science of carbohydrates, please google it. With that stated, to keep it simple, carbs one of the three macronutrients that we consume in our diets (the others being protein and fats). Carbs are molecularly different from proteins and fats, and thus serve a different role in human nutrition and metabolism.
The main role of carbs is to provide energy for the human body. Carbs are primarily glucose (sugar) molecules, so the type of energy provided is fast energy, which is in contrast to fats. Fats also provide energy to the body, but for longer periods of time. With respect to carbs, the human body can generally store approximately 500 grams of muscle glycogen (stored glucose) at any one time. However, the human brain needs a good chunk of that, and the body prioritizes the brain, so not all of that glycogen is available for exercise, etc… Depending on your activity levels, the remaining glycogen could be burned fairly quickly.
Type of Carbs
Carbohydrates can be broken down into various categories or types. The most common categorization is to distinguish the food as either a simple carb or a complex carb. Simple carbs get digested very quickly in the body and cause a very fast spike in the circulating blood sugar levels. When this happens, the hormone insulin is secreted because if blood sugar gets too high too fast, the human body would shut down, with very negative health consequences. Insulin’s role is to manage blood sugar.
On the other hand, complex carbs digest much slower, thus causing a slower rise in blood sugar and hence, a minor amount of insulin release.
Examples: Simple carbs – candy, pastries, most breakfast cereals, white bread, most processed foods Complex carbs – whole grains, beans and lentils, vegetables, whole fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa My Take on Carbs
Carbs are not evil. While carbs are not essential for human life (as opposed to protein and fats), they are essential for optimizing life.
Benefits of Carbs – fruits, vegetables, beans and potatoes contain ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols. These are very important substances that keep us healthy and can help to ward off disease when eaten in proper amounts.
Detriments of Carbs – in a word…..sugar. Sugar is not inherently good or bad, but science has shown quite clearly over the past decade that excess sugar consumption is detrimental to human health. It is linked to dental disease, type II diabetes, stroke, cancer and many more diseases. Knowing this, the trick then is to figure out the optimal amount of carbs for your body. The key questions to ask follow:
- Do I have body fat to lose?
- How active (or sedentary) am I?
Clearly, not all sedentary people are overweight, but most sedentary people become less insulin sensitive over time.
A good indication of insulin insensitivity, which is defined as your insulin not working properly to clear excess blood sugar from your circulation, is excess body fat. The best ways to improve insulin sensitivity are intense exercise and eating a low-sugar diet. When insulin gets to a point where it is not just insensitive, but becomes downright resistant, that is known as Type II Diabetes. As you all know, we are currently embattled in a full blown Type II Diabetes epidemic in the U.S. It’s actually very important to maintain and/or improve insulin sensitivity as one ages.
Sedentary people, by definition, do not exercise and thus, their overall activity levels are low. Generally, even when they exercise, it tends to be of a low intensity. Certainly, low intensity exercise is better than no exercise, but for insulin sensitivity, intensity is key.
In order to prevent the onset of future disease or improve your current condition, if you already have a health issue, my recommendation would be to keep carbs as low as possible. Now, this doesn’t mean zero carbs. However, there is really excellent scientific data showing the effectiveness of ketogenic diets in preventing and curing (in certain cases) various diseases.
Ketogenic diets are characterized by low carbs, moderate protein and high fats. Typically, it breaks down as 75% fats, 20% protein and 5% carbs.
The ketogenic diet, while surely effective, is not reasonable or practical for many people. This is understandable. However, choosing to eat a low carb diet is certainly within everyone’s ability. This would typically mean eating less than 100 grams of carbs per day and largely avoiding sugar and processed foods. Depending on gender and size, one should probably eat between 80-100 grams of carbs, focused primarily on vegetables and legumes (beans and lentils), with small amounts of fruit, whole grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice and quinoa. The focus is on complex carbs to keep blood sugar levels steady and keep insulin spikes at bay.This plan would serve sedentary people well.
Athletes / Active People
I mentioned above how one of the best ways to improve insulin sensitivity is exercise. That’s actually a huge advantage for active people. However, as you know not everyone is a super lean, elite athlete. There are active people who are overweight with poor insulin sensitivity. It’s important to be honest with yourself and understand which category below you fall into, A or B.
- (A) Athletes / Active People with Excess Body Fat
- (B) Athletes / Active People who are already Lean
If you fall into category A (think sumo wrestlers, NFL lineman, some age group endurance athletes), the best dietary strategy for you is likely going to be to eat most of your carbs around your workout and then go low carb the rest of the day. Total carb intake will vary based on your size/gender, but in general terms, this group of people should probably shoot for 100 – 150 grams of carbs per day.
Carb timing becomes important, in order to maximize your athletic performance, so I recommend striving to eat about 30% – 50% of your daily carbs around the workout. This might mean having a small pre-workout meal with carbs and then a larger carb-based post-workout meal (and always with protein to maximize tissue recovery). You can be a little looser in your carb choices post workout, meaning simple sugars would be OK within reason. And then, for the rest of the day, focus on smaller amounts of complex carbs only. This will optimize your training and keep blood sugar and insulin low and constant while not in a state of exercise.
Category B people, who are already lean, obviously have the most leeway with respect to their carbs. Once again, total intake will depend on size and gender.Many athletes and active people, who live in this category, can regularly eat in excess of 200 grams of carbs per day, with no health related issues and without gaining any body fat.
Clearly, we would all love dearly to fall into the Athlete/Active Category B. Why wouldn’t you? Carbs are delicious, right?
However, if you want to optimize your health, then you need to do some homework and self-reflection, as I mentioned above. What type of person are you on the spectrum that I outlined above? And do you care about your future health? If you do, think deeply about this issue and then find someone to help you create a nutritional strategy that will optimize your health, happiness and longevity.