Carbohydrates… So irresistible yet so fattening…Not to mention that they are non-essential and increase the risks of diseases like cancer, neurological disorders, heart disease and diabetes! That must be true, right?
I mean with the innumerable articles on the wild, wild web claiming that carbohydrates make you fat and sick, there must be some universal truth that all carbohydrates are bad. (I really don’t like classifying a food as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but unfortunately that’s how most of us seem to view foods nowadays…) But then you have others (including dietitians) claiming that carbohydrates are crucial for optimal health and should make up the bulk of your calories! So which is which? I’ll set the record straight in this article. Plus I’ll also help you figure out how many carbohydrates YOU want to be eating. So keep reading and spread the word.
The world of nutrition is rarely black and white. And lumping all carbohydrates together in the ‘villain food group’ is kind of like saying that all the Baldwin brothers are the same. Keep scrolling to get what I mean.
‘Bad’ carbohydrates a.k.a. ‘refined’ carbohydrates
The following are examples of refined carbohydrates:
- Products containing high fructose corn syrup, any form of sugar or syrup
- All desserts
- Breads and crackers made from grains
- Most cookies, cakes, muffins
- Most commercial sauces (most of them contain some form of added sugar)
- Sweetened beverages like sodas and commercial fruit juices or smoothies
- Most breakfast cereals
Refined carbohydrates are unhealthy because (just to name a few reasons):
- They cause blood glucose levels to increase and this glucose reacts with proteins in the body to form advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These AGEs prevent cells from functioning normally and render them more vulnerable to oxidative damage – this, in turn, increases inflammation in the body.
- Chronically high blood glucose levels will force the body to produce more insulin – this can cause the cells to become insulin resistant. In fact, consumption of refined carbs has been linked to a greater risk of diabetes.
- The more insulin your body produces, the greater your risk of cancers.
- They trigger the release of various hormones including leptin, a hormone that makes you hungrier.
- They increase triglyceride levels which increase the risk for heart disease.
- They can worsen gout and depression.
‘Good’ carbohydrates a.k.a. ‘whole’ carbohydrates
To put it simply, whole carbohydrates are those your grandmother would recognize. These include:
- Acorn squash (30g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Butternut squash (44g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Breadfruit (60g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Cauliflower (5g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Jicama (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Plantain (8g of carbohydrates per cup, cubes)
- Pumpkin (46g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Rutabaga (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Sweet potatoes (37g of carbohydrates per 1 large)
- Taro (46g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Yam (37g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Yuca (78g of carbohydrates per cup)
As you can see, wheat flour didn’t make the cut. But this doesn’t mean you have to forego pizza. Try the following recipe and let me know what you think.
- Banana (1 medium: 27g of carbohydrates)
- Grapes (16g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Orange (1 medium: 18g of carbohydrates)
- Pear (1 medium: 27g of carbohydrates)
- Strawberries (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
Here are some reasons (just to name a few) why you might want to consider consuming a diet that includes carbohydrates from real, whole foods:
- Quality carbs can improve cortisol levels (you’ll see why this is important in myth # 4 below) as well as increase GABA, the calming hormone.
- High quality carbs improve sleep quality and help reduce stress.
- The diet will provide you with microbiota-accessible carbohydrates – inadequate consumption of this type of carbs can lead to various inflammatory diseases. That’s because, without these carbs, your body will be unable to produce sufficient short-chain fatty acids that help control inflammatory processes in the body.
- These carbs are beneficial for fertility.
Myth 1: Carbohydrates are inherently fattening.
To understand why this is a myth, it will help to understand the basics of carbohydrate metabolism – don’t worry; I’ll keep it very short and sweet (pun not intended).
You see, when we eat carbohydrate-containing foods, the body will break down the carbohydrates into various types of sugars including glucose. As blood concentrations of glucose increase, the pancreas will secrete insulin which will then allow glucose to enter the cells (especially in the liver and muscles) where the glucose will be used as energy.
Now, another function of the hormone insulin is that it is involved in body fat storage. And this is why low-carb advocates will tell you that carbohydrates make you fat.
But that’s over-simplifying stuffs since, again, not all carbohydrates are equal. If you’re still not convinced, then consider an apple and one plain, old-fashioned doughnut (both contain about 25g of carbohydrates).
Which one do you think will cause your blood glucose levels to increase faster? The doughnut? That’s correct because, unlike the apple, the doughnut does not contain much fiber (4.4g vs. 0.8g of fiber to be precise). And as you probably know, fiber helps delay glucose absorption in the bloodstream.
Which one is more likely to keep you full? That’s right; thanks to its higher fiber content, the apple is much more satiating than a piece of doughnut. Plus processed foods such as donuts tend to contain various types of additives that really mess with the hunger-suppressing hormone leptin.
Myth 2: Humans are not supposed to eat carb-rich diets.
Those who perpetuate this myth will usually back their claim with the argument that traditional hunter-gatherer societies consumed very low carb diets. This is exactly what we call cherry-picking – while it is true that some populations did get only 3% of their total energy intake from carbohydrates, others got as much as 50% of their total calories from carbohydrates depending on the latitude where they lived.
For instance, fruits, vegetables, honey and starches were not readily available to populations living at latitudes that are far from the equator. As such, these populations were likely to get fewer than 20% of their calories from carbohydrates.
Another argument that doesn’t seem to want to die is that hunter-gatherer populations that lived in very cold environments – such as the Inuits – remained in nutritional ketosis for extensive periods of time. The reasoning behind this claim is that if the Inuits couldn’t get access to fruits and other carb rich foods, then it would mean that their carbohydrate intake was very low and this would put them in a recurrent nutritional ketosis state. Well, in theory, the reasoning makes sense but those who propagate this claim fail to realize that Inuits also consumed a high protein diet. This prevented ketosis from occurring as reported by various studies.
And did you know that the traditional Inuit would also:
- Chew the skin of the unicorn-whale which contains an impressive amount of glycogen (and thus supplies an adequate amount of carbohydrates)?
- Consume walrus liver which is also rich in glycogen?
- Gather berries, seaweeds, nuts, corms and tubers when available?
- Eat the seeds and roots gathered by mice for the winter season?
Myth 3: The only way to lose weight is by going on a ketogenic diet.
While ketogenic diets can be useful for those individuals trying to lose weight, it does not mean that anyone who needs to lose weight has no choice but to go on a ketogenic diet.
It is commonly thought that the less carbohydrates you eat, the more weight you’ll lose. While moving from a high carb diet to a low carb one will definitely help you shed body fat fast, trying to eat fewer and fewer carbohydrates will not necessarily lead to faster weight loss.
In fact, in a recent study, eminent researchers aimed to test the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis (which goes something like the more carbohydrates you eat, the more your insulin levels rise and the more fat you gain). To do so, they kept 17 volunteers who were either overweight or obese in a metabolic ward for eight weeks and proceeded as follows:
- During the first 4 weeks, the subjects consumed 2,739 calories on a high carbohydrate diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 35% fat.
- After these 4 weeks, the participants were then switched to a very low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet comprising of 5% carbohydrates, 15% protein and 80% fat. They consumed 2,738 calories per day.
- Every two weeks, the participants’ body composition was measured using the gold standard method known as dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA).
- The study participants did not have access to non-study foods and exercised for 30 minutes every day.
The results of the study indicated that:
- Despite supplying enough calories to prevent weight loss, both diets caused weight loss.
- The participants lost an average of 1.1lb of body fat over the last two weeks of the high carbohydrate diet.
- The ketogenic diet promoted rapid weight loss but this was due to a quick decrease in water weight as can be expected from a low carbohydrate diet.
- The participants lost body fat much slower on the ketogenic diet than on the high carbohydrate one – during the first two weeks, they lost only a total of 0.4lb. This increased to 0.7lb over the last two weeks.
- During the one month on the ketogenic diet, the participants lost the same amount of body fat (1.1lb) as they did during the two weeks on the high carbohydrate diet.
- Insulin levels dropped by 47% on the ketogenic diet.
But people do lose a lot of weight when they try a ketogenic diet!
I hear you and this is exactly the point I’m trying to make. Some people do lose weight on a ketogenic diet and that’s usually because, when they consume ketogenic diets outside the lab, they typically end up decreasing their caloric intake. That’s often because they either eat more protein-rich foods or high-fiber foods – both have a high satiety effect – or they tend to eat less than they need to because many are still uneasy about eating a lot of dietary fat.
However, there are others who don’t lose much weight when they try ketogenic diets. This could be due to regulation of various hormones, including cortisol, which inevitably increases when you go low carb. That’s because the body needs to create glucose for those few cells that cannot run on ketone bodies. While this is a normal mechanism, cortisol production can go awry if you:
- Have adrenal fatigue
- Don’t get enough sun exposure
- Are under too much stress
- Do not get sufficient quality sleep on a regular basis
Myth 4: Low carbohydrate diets cannot harm anyone.
While numerous individuals do great on a low carbohydrate diet, some people can actually adversely affect their health if they don’t eat enough carbohydrates. These include:
- Pregnant women – If you’re pregnant, you might want to avoid restricting your carbohydrate intake unless you have diabetes or a serious neurological condition. You see, sufficient carbohydrates are needed during pregnancy to ensure that your baby’s brain will develop and grow optimally. Plus if you cut out carbohydrates, you’ll probably also be increasing your protein intake – this can be a problem if your protein intake is greater than 25% of your total calories as this can cause your baby to be born underweight. A high protein intake during pregnancy has also been linked to increased perinatal morbidity and mortality for the baby.
- Athletes – I agree that some athletes thrive on low carbohydrate diets. However, there are many others who don’t. If you’ve been on a low carbohydrate diet for months and you notice that (i) your weight isn’t budging (or it is increasing) and/or (ii) your performance is dwindling, and/or (iii) you need more time to recover from your workouts, then it might be that you’re not cut out for a low carb diet in addition to regular intense training. Your best bet: experiment with various amounts of carbohydrates and observe how your weight, performance and recovery time change.
- Individuals with hypothyroidism – When you eat a low carbohydrate diet, your insulin levels will usually be quite low. And if you have hypothyroidism, you may want to remember that, for your thyroid to function properly, your body needs insulin to convert the inactive T4 hormone to the active T3 hormone. So, if you’re on a low carb diet and you notice that hypothyroid symptoms are suddenly popping up, you might want to consider increasing your carbohydrate intake (and, of course, getting your thyroid tested).
- Individuals with adrenal fatigue (HPA axis dysregulation) – In adrenal fatigue, cortisol is the primary hormone that gets out of balance. And guess what? Low carb diets have been found to increase cortisol levels! In other words, low carbohydrate diets can be an additional stressor in susceptible individuals who might be at even greater risk of adrenal burnout if they are exercising too much, have a stressful life or are not enjoying enough quality sleep. Plus individuals with adrenal fatigue often have low GABA levels – this hormone helps you feel calm.
- Individuals with impaired gut health – When you eat a very low carbohydrate diet, your intake of soluble fiber and resistant starches (prebiotics) will probably be low since these fibers and starches are found in foods containing moderate to high amounts of carbohydrates. And without these probiotics, your gut flora will not be able to flourish optimally and produce vital gut-healing substances such as butyrate and other short chain fatty acids. In the long run, this can lead to gut dysbiosis which can pave the way for various conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to autoimmune disorders and skin disease.
Very important note: If you really need to be on a low carbohydrate diet and you cannot consume more prebiotics for whatever reason, then you may want to supplement with FOS powder or resistant starch-rich unmodified potato starch (unless you have an autoimmune condition).
Note: I’ll help find out how many carbs you need at the end of this article.
Myth 5: Low carbohydrates diets are dangerous and useless.
Both research and my professional experience have shown that low carbohydrate diets can be powerful therapeutic tools for conditions such as:
- Overweight and obesity (remember that a decrease in carbohydrate intake is also usually accompanied by a decrease in the overall amount of food consumed)
- Diabetes types 1 and 2 as well as regularly high blood glucose levels
- The metabolic syndrome
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as well as other neurological conditions
- Anxiety and depression
Note: Yes, these conditions can be treated with a low-carb approach. And it is likely that a diet high in refined carbs contributed to the development of these conditions. However, we cannot put all carbs on the same boat and say that all carbs are bad.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
Please note that the following is just a rough guide based on my professional experience – you would greatly benefit from working with a dietitian to determine exactly how much carbohydrates your body needs. Because everyone is different and we all have varied needs.
Let’s start by considering the following vulnerable populations:
- Women with fertility issues: 30% of total calories from carbohydrates.
- Pregnant women and nursing mothers: 30% of total calories from carbohydrates and about 15% of total calories from protein.
- Athletes: Usually a minimum of 20% of total calories from carbohydrates especially if training more than 4 days a week.
Now, let’s move to the various carbohydrate ranges you can consider experimenting with:
1. Very low: 30 to 50g per day (ketogenic or extremely low carb diets).
Indicated for: Neurological disorders and severe blood glucose disturbances.
Note: Avoid going below 50g of carbohydrates per day for an extended period of time and keep 30g of carbohydrates per day for an occasional day.
2. Low: 50 to 75g per day (typical low carb diets).
Indicated for: Weight loss, regulating blood glucose levels, mood disorders and digestive issues.
Consider starting at 50g if you aren’t consuming more than 75g of carbohydrates now and need to lose weight. If you’re used to having carbs at all your meals, then start at 75g.
3. Medium: 75 to 100g per day.
Indicated for: Weight maintenance, adrenal fatigue, familial hypercholesterolemia, hypothyroidism.
This range is also a sustainable level for most of my patients.
4. High: 100 to 150g per day.
Indicated for: Highly active individuals, those trying to gain weight or muscle, people with a high metabolism and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Compared to the Standard American Diet on which people consume at least 300g of carbs per day, this is low carb. If you need to gain weight or are moderately to highly active, go for 125 to 150g of carbs per day.
Once you’ve selected your starting level, follow the following steps:
- Determine which type of carbs and how many carbs you want to eat – this includes the number of fruits you’ll have per day as well as your daily number of servings of starchy vegetables.
- Think about when you’ll consume the carbs – I suggest you try distributing your carbs evenly between each meal.
- Stick to a routine (for at least 5 weeks) in terms of meal size, meal timing, number of meals and the distribution of macronutrients in your meals.
- Evaluate the following throughout the day: your energy levels as you go through the day, how well you sleep, your weight, your performance level when you exercise and how you feel emotionally.
- Monitor your blood glucose levels when you wake up in the morning, 1 hour after each meal and just before going to bed.
And here’s how to interpret and act on your data.
- You’re happy with your weight, you’re not tired or stressed out and your blood glucose levels are optimal – by all means, continue with the amount of carbs you are currently eating.
- You need to lose weight and/or your blood glucose levels are high, then decrease your carb intake provided that you’re getting enough quality sleep and eating regular, healthy meals. If that’s not the case, instead of reducing your carbohydrate intake, try to remedy to these other factors first.
As you can see, there is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to carbohydrate consumption (and overall nutrition). In fact, we can adjust to a broad range of carbohydrate intake and be perfectly healthy if we consume an anti-inflammatory diet that protects the gut.
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