Carbohydrates are controversial in the diet and nutrition world.
While there is technically no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, humans have shown a proclivity toward consuming them – and even being addicted to them, if those carbohydrates are largely sugar and/or wheat.
This is controversial, because increased carbohydrate intake has been linked to dementia – perhaps the world’s greatest collective medical fear.
Adding to the controversy is the obesity pandemic we are currently in. If we leave out carbohydrates (some will argue) – we will be healthier and happier. But is this an oversimplification? The answer is not clear.
Which Type of Carbs – Does It Matter?
At the heart of this matter is the amount and type of carbohydrates consumed. Is 50 grams of carbohydrate per day ideal? How about 100 grams per day? 300? The answers vary and no one can seem to agree across the board. Food quality, however, is fairly unanimous.
Part of the popularity of the Paleo diet (and other nutritional approaches) is that the consumer eliminated processed foods, which automatically increases the dieter’s nutrient consumption and lowers their sugar intake. These are two of the most important aspects of any successful diet.
Should You Lower Carb Intake?
Carbohydrate intake should definitely be limited in those who struggle with overeating, and especially in those who are very sedentary. There is very little (if any) need for a large amount of carbohydrates in these situations.
By focusing on more nutrient-dense foods (which are less calorically-dense) we achieve satiety, maximize our intake of vitamins and minerals, and avoid empty calories from carbohydrates. It is also important in these scenarios to replace these carbohydrates with healthy fats, which will serve as your new source of energy.
How Does Stress Impact Carb Consumption?
However, where things begin to get murky is in active or highly stressed individuals. Should they too, be low carb? The answer, generally, is no. But some will argue yes. Why is this? Where is the discrepancy?
Dr. Peter Attia has undergone a long-term ketogenic adaptation, and his athletic performance seems to have remained intact (after the initial adaptation period, at least). There is also little doubt that a lower carb approach appears to be better, neurologically.
So, depending on your goals, food preferences, and willpower, you may choose one option or the other here. The problem is, both sides have data, and neither set of data has a clear-cut answer.
What About Cortisol?
One of the best arguments against a low carb approach for athletes is the increased cortisol. When cortisol (your stress hormone) is increased, your testosterone plummets. This is bad news.
There is even a measurement, called the free testosterone/cortisol ratio (FTCR), which is a biological marker of overtraining. If one is to go low carb, they must limit their exercise accordingly. And this is where the math comes in.
How Active Should You Be?
If you are going very low carb, you have to limit activity to walking and lifting weights, basically. If you’re adding in some carbs for what would now be referred to as “moderate intake,” you will want to increase your activity levels to include some jogging, sprinting and maybe some light endurance work.
And if you’d like to go high carb? You better get moving, and do some heavy activity, or be on your feet all day at your job. Otherwise, there is very little scientific evidence that you need to be taking in large amounts of carbohydrates.
More Carbs = Weight Loss?
What is revelatory about more carbohydrate consumption for most people is that they actually start losing weight again. This can occur through a variety of mechanisms, and indeed your metabolism and physiology can get severely out of whack when you go too low carb.
This is especially true when one does not work with a professional, and simply partakes on an extremely low carbohydrate diet on his/her own. This can cause severe problems.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
The type of carbohydrate consumed is also very important, and this factor is actually becoming more accepted (though gluten-free diets still get their share of unfair mockery in the mainstream media).
Vegetables, starchy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, and a small amount of fruit is really an ideal template here, and this part of the diet can be very hard for many to stick to.
People typically crave for more sugary carbohydrates, or wheat-based products (believe it or not, I’ve had new clients binge on bread!) This is not ideal, no matter how many carbs you want to consume.
What About Thyroid Issues?
Another reason people consume lower or moderate amounts of carbohydrates is a thyroid issue. What is important to remember is that a Paleo approach (stricter here) is ideal for almost any thyroid condition, so really start by focusing on food quality before getting more specific. You will also want to work with a practitioner, and avoid trying to navigate the difficult pathway of thyroid health on your own.
As mentioned before, those with lots of stress should also avoid very low carb diets, since this type of diet increases cortisol even further. Cortisol is not ideal in excess, no matter what the scenario, so it is good to also undertake practices like meditation, if you are highly stressed.
As you have no doubt begun to see, the question of how many carbs to eat per day is highly individual. There is not a single blanket answer. There are, however, some troubleshooting tips one can sift through, to see if they’ve disrupted their delicate HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis balance with too few or too many carbohydrates.
Simple Questions That Help
The following are some good questions to ask yourself, if you suspect some form of diet miscalculation has impaired your health. Are you abnormally tired? Are you drinking lots of coffee, just to feel “okay?” Are you able to consistently exercise? Are you having trouble sleeping? How are your moods?
The effects of too few or too many carbohydrates can be subtle and hard to detect, especially if we are the only ones judging our health. A good test for too much sugar in the diet is the hemoglobin A1C test.
Always Eat Good Carbs
Since most of us are leading somewhat unhealthy lifestyles to begin with (not enough sleep, too much/too little exercise, too much screen time) optimizing your carbohydrate intake is vital to achieving a better level of health.
Remember to focus on the sources of carbohydrates, as well, and stick to the Paleo-friendly choices of sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables. Whether you are moderate carb, high carb or low carb, the foods themselves should not change.
Don’t Forget About Your Microbiome!
Interestingly, another common downside to too few carbohydrates in the diet is a decreased diversity of gut microflora. Since your microbiome is essential to good mental and physical health, this should give people serious pause who are thinking of cutting their carbohydrate intake drastically. Paleo diets have been scientifically studied to help improve gut microflora populations – but this only works when enough carbohydrate is consumed.
Watch this video – Are Carbs Really As Bad As We Tend To Think? | The Truth About Carbs | Tonic
The Bottom Line
After all this, you may be wondering “just how many carbohydrates should I consume per day?” There is, again, no single answer, but 100 to 200 grams per day is a safe, healthy starting point. If you are worried about going too low carb, err on the higher end. If you are more active, err on the higher end. If you’ve never done a low carb diet before, err on the higher end.
Then, once a baseline has been established, experiment with lower amounts of carbs, and see how you feel. It would be best to work with a doctor or other healthcare practitioner here, and replace these carbs with healthy fats, not more protein.
I know the world is riddled with many debates about carbohydrate intake, but the real, honest truth is that there is no one single answer. Ketogenic diets (extremely low carb intake) definitely have their place, but they are not to be taken lightly, and can cause severe problems if done incorrectly.
The answer of how many carbs you need to be taking in is ultimately highly individualistic, and takes some self-experimentation. No matter what level of carbs you try, make sure you are eating Paleo-friendly foods in general.
Written by Casey Thaler
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS is an NASM® certified personal trainer and NASM® certified fitness nutrition specialist. He writes for Paleo Magazine®, The Paleo Diet® and Greatist®. He is also an advisor for Kettle and Fire and runs his own nutrition and fitness consulting company, Eat Clean, Train Clean®.
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