What About Carbs?


Picture How many carbs should I be eating?  In a short answer, it depends. 
That sounds like an evasion of the question, so to make it simpler.  For most people, not many.  Only the extremely active need to eat a significant amount of carbs.
Most people, in fact, eat too many carbs, particularly of the processed variety. 
It seems like every few years a new fad diet comes out.  100s of Books have been written about the subject of carbohydrates alone, not including all the other 100s of diet books.  I like the “paleo” diet and it has merit for sure.  But I don’t subscribe to any one diet, nor should you, ever!
Plain and simple, the problem with carbohydrates is that they raise your insulin, and insulin promotes fat storage.  Raising your blood sugar also causes a lot of other problems too.  Simple carbohydrates like white bread, crackers, chips, white rice and potatoes are digested quickly, causing a rapid increase in your blood sugar and insulin.  Whatever sugar (glucose) is not immediately used is converted to glycogen (stored carbohydrate) or fatty acids and stored as fat.  Over time, your insulin receptors wear out from all that glucose (blood sugar) and related inflammation. Diabetes, or uncontrolled high blood sugar, is like a microcosm of aging poorly, unhealthy eating, and lack of regular activity: more insulin, higher blood sugar, more inflammation, more fat storage, more cellular gunk and destruction, and thus more disease and degeneration.
Ironically, we are less likely to become obese from overeating and more likely to overeat because we are obese. 
It takes a minute to think this through, but once we get into pattern of poor eating and weight gain, the extra weight takes on a life of its own.  It’s metabolically active and it doesn’t want to go anywhere.  To feed it and maintain it, and to just feel normal when we’re carrying extra weight, we must overeat.  Overeating itself, especially on occasion, does not cause obesity. 
Monitoring calories is important, but is a real drag! Let’s be honest- it’s no fun. 
I do love Weight Watchers and it works very well for most people, but counting calories is not the best way long term (think in terms of years) to keep your weight in check, because most of us don’t want to constantly monitor intake.  So how do we avoid prematurely aging ourselves and giving ourselves disease by the way we eat?
Controlling simple carbohydrate intake really is one of the primary keys to eating healthy, if not the most important one because:

  1. Simple carbohydrates give you a relatively high number of calories with little in the way of nutrient value.
  2. Simple carbohydrates raise your blood sugar insulin and make weight loss difficult by blunting fat metabolism.
  3. Simple carbohydrates have very little fiber, and leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.
  4. Simple carbohydrates are cheap ubiquitous – you can find them anywhere, everywhere, and they have a long shelf life.
  5. Simple carbohydrates are addictive because they give you an energy rush. 
  6. Unfortunately, because they digest so quickly, they also leave you feeling irritable, and tired due to energy crashes.

How Many Carbs?

So, we’ve concluded that we need to mostly avoid simple carbohydrates if we want to eat well.  But what if you are trying to figure out how many carbs you need?
Not all carbs are bad for you, and you might be able to and need to eat a fair amount of carbohydrates.   When trying to decide how to eat, you need to consider several things:

  • Age– Older people have a slower metabolism, so sugary foods are even more detrimental.
  • Sex– Women tend to crave sweets more, and eat emotionally more, whereas men just have a bigger appetite and a larger stomach and so can take in many calories at one time. 
  • Activity level– If you are more active, particularly in athletic competition or activity that persists for a long amount of time, you will need to eat more complex carbs. 
  • Goal– If you want to lose more than 15-20 pounds, you may want to take a prolonged period of 12 weeks or so to cut back on carbs completely, even on good carbs, just to give yourself time to adjust to lower blood sugar and insulin levels.  This will prime and train your body to use protein and fat as an energy source. If, on the other hand, you just want to maintain your weight, it’s fine to eat a fair amount of healthy carbs.
  • Body type- If you are naturally very lean, or athletic, you may be able to eat moderate to high carbohydrates.  If not, you may want to stay on a low to low-moderate carb eating plan.
  • Current health and fitness level- If you are overweight and unfit, you may need to do something extreme, like going on a low carb, intermittent fasting program mixed with walking and weight training, to really change your body. 

The problem with most diets is that they aren’t practical.  They’re too dogmatic and too strict.  How many carbs you can eat will depend on the previously mentioned factors.  It’s ok to eat some pasta or the occasional pizza, but it’s better not to eat simple carbs like those very often. 
For most people, 20-50% of calories as carbs are appropriate, and many people find success at around 33% fat, 33% protein, 33% carbs. I eat a relatively high percentage, but I am very active. 
For example, I normally eat somewhere around a 2000 calorie diet, and it would look like this, though I think it varies for me from day to day:
2000 calories total
50% carbs= 1000 calories, or 250 grams of carbohydrates
25% protein= 500 calories, or 125 grams of protein
25% fat= 500 calories, or 55 grams of fat
250 grams of carbs sounds like a lot, but if you consider how active I am, and how much fruit I eat, this adds up quick.  250 grams of carbs is too much for most people, but because I’m active, and weigh 180 pounds, I can do it easily and not gain weight. 
Good Carbs
Aim to eat these types of carbs so that your insulin and blood sugar levels stay low and steady. 

  • Barley
  • Whole Wheat Pasta (cooked al-dente)
  • Squash
  • Legumes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans 
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Apples* I love apples for many reasons
  • Cherries
  • Blackberries
  • Broccoli
  • Blueberries
  • Sprouted Bread
  • Peas
  • Homemade Popcorn* great snack compared to chips
  • Chickpeas
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Brown Rice
  • Bananas* add a dab of peanut butter or almond butter to slow down the blood sugar response

Overall, unless you’re an athlete, eat less carbs, and make the ones you eat healthy.  If you think, you might have blood sugar issues, see your doctor about testing your fasting glucose levels. 
Healthy carbs in moderation are not the enemy, but be smart!

This is part of a year-long series, “52 Weeks to Eating Better Than Ever

Click on the sidebar to read the previous essays.  By the end of the year, you’ll be eating healthier than ever!

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