Why Carbs Matter…

Mmmm…tasty carbs…

tl;dr

There are two main types of carbohydrates (carbs):

1 – Simple (think sugars)

2 – Complex (think starches, like those found in rice, pasta or potatoes)

Generally favour consuming more complex types from sources like vegetables, whole grains, legumes/beans, fruit, root vegetables and yes there is even some in nuts/seeds.

I recommending getting to a baseline of ~100-120 grams of average daily intake. This is the high end of a low carb diet or the low end of a moderate carb diet. A nice moderate balance.

This should be enough to avoid any pitfalls of very low carb diets (not that VLC diets are bad or anything). It should also be low enough to take you towards fat loss if that’s your goal.

~1 serving (a scooped handful =~25g of carbs) of starchy carbs with 3 meals should generally be sufficient for most people. If you include 5-6 servings of vegetables (as you should).

Think of this as a foundation point. Then tweak your intake based on activity and goals.

If you’re less active, or seem to thrive on higher intakes of fat, you may want to tweak your intakes down.* If you’re trying to lose weight, consider slowly pulling a serving or two out of the mix.*

If you’re more active, you may want to add more on active days or more total intake. Upwards of 1–2g/lbs (2.2–4.4g/kg) of your bodyweight.

You want about 1 serving (25g) of a starchy carb per 10 work sets of resistance training in a ~6–15 rep range).

If you’re trying to add muscle mass and still not succeeding, add more carbs.

<5% of your total food intake should come from added/free sugar, but definitely <10% of total intake. That does not include naturally occuring sugars that exist in whole food sources.

Simple sugars can be good during long durations of exercise or after intense exercise. See specific exercise recommendations, along with other specifics, below.

*Unless your protein intakes are quite high (~2.4-3.2g/kg bodyweight) it may be advisable to stay above ~50g per day.

Just like the 1970’s and 80’s demonized fat for a generation to come, I fear that we are currently doing the same thing to carbohydrates. AKA carbs.

More and more often I hear people offering up colloquialisms like, “there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate.

Which makes me fear for our future from a nutrition standpoint, when will we learn from our mistakes?

No good has ever come as a result of demonizing anything.

In fact, demonization of foods is probably a major contributor to modern problems like eating disorders and cognitive dietary restraint.

Glucose is what runs your body; Your brain at 2% of your mass consumes 20% of your energy, all of it in the form of glucose.

When you don’t have sufficient glucose your body must inefficiently produce it from fats and proteins.

That explains the foggy head most people experience when they try out an extremely low carbohydrate diet. And the generally low energy levels until they have adapted to using ketones more efficiently as a fuel.

Side Note

Before any low-carb advocates lose their minds…

I don’t have a problem with low-carb eating and it works especially well for some people. Usually people who aren’t overly active. Or people only involved low-moderate aerobic intensity activity, like ultra-endurance sports or just weight lifting.

In fact my baseline recommendations might be considered ‘low-carb’ by some. I generally skew slightly more active people higher to a more moderate range.

If you want to do higher intensity forms of exercise like HIIT or power sports, the evidence repeatedly shows that carbs are absolutely necessary.

That being said, you can effectively offset the typical side effects of low carbohydrate diets by cycling it with moderate carb consumption diet. Or carb dense refeed meals, and refeed days.

Essential Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Need Anything Else

Yes carbohydrates might not be ‘essential’ in the same way that we have essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (the building blocks of fats).

However, that doesn’t mean your body doesn’t benefit from non-essential amino acid or fatty acid intake either.

You need to eat something, and it may as well be carbs in certain instances. Not that you could remove them entirely from your diet anyway.

Your body still needs to produce glucose as a fuel somehow. Glucose is needed for many bodily functions, especially brain function, but also digestion and muscle function.

Whether that’s through carbohydrate consumption (the most efficient) or protein or fat consumption, it doesn’t really matter. Your body will find a way to manufacture glucose.

In that way glucose (a carbohydrate and your main fuel source) is actually very important to health and function.

Just not in the nutritional sense many people confuse.

Essential, in the world of nutrition, means that we can’t actually physiologically manufacture those amino acids or fatty acids ourselves within the body. Or in some instances we can’t do it as well as ingestion.

In this context, it doesn’t mean that all other nutrients aren’t important.

We can’t just eat essential nutrients. You’d never meet your minimum energy requirements if you just met your minimum essential nutrient intakes.

You get get nutritional benefits from the consumption of carbohydrates, that stretch beyond the glucose usage by your brain. Let’s dive in.

Warning:

This post has a lot to discuss, so it’s going to be on the long-side. There are details you may miss if you only read the summary or tl;dr.

What’s a Carbohydrate?

The reader’s digest version; Is that there are 2 main types of carbohydrates (similar to the 2 main types of fat: unsaturated: saturated): Simple and Complex, or Sugars and Starches.

This is immediately where many people get confused.

Simple carbohydrates are molecularly smaller and are referred to as either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Typically we just call them sugars.

Glucose falls into this category as a monosaccharide, and if you combine it with fructose you get table sugar or a disaccharide.

The other monosaccharide is galactose. You may recognize the lactose part of that word, which is a disaccharide (galactose and glucose combined) commonly found in dairy.

Still with me?

Sugars tend to digest quickly. While also generally spiking insulin and blood sugar levels higher than their complex cousins.

This is also why they are often vilified, but we’ll get to why that tendency can sometimes be advantageous.

Glucose is the preferred fuel source for your body in most cases — which may explain why so many of us crave simple forms of it evolutionarily speaking and why the taste sensation of ‘sweet’ is distinct on our tongues.

We are quite literally biologically geared to consume carbohydrates as a fuel source.

That’s also why food companies pack it into foods, sugars are not particularly satiating. This encourages us to eat more food overall.(

W.H.O. Sugar Recommendations

The World Health Organization recommends that a maximum of 10% of your diet comes from free sugars.

Ideally though, they think no more than 5% of your total intake should come from free sugars.

Free sugar = Added Sugar (basically)

This does not include naturally occuring simple sugars found in foods like dairy or fruit.

This specifically refers to the added sugar to manufactured foods or adding sugar to your own food. Such as sugar added to your coffee/tea or maple syrup drizzled on your yogurt.

Added sugars include so-called “natural” sources like honey or maple syrup.

Glucose floats around in your bloodstream and can be found in a lot of various tissues.

Every carbohydrate (even starches) you digest eventually ends up as glucose because that’s the only simple sugar your body can really use. With the exception of your liver, it can use other sugars.

If the glucose isn’t needed then it can be stored as glycogen. Which you can think of as compressed glucose. It’s how your body efficiently stores glucose when not needed.

Glycogen is a Polysaccharide (complex) of glucose and is analogous with the plant-based ‘starch.’ About 400g of glycogen can be stored in your muscles, with another 100g stored in your liver. Give or take.

If you need glucose and you having ingested any carbohydrates in a while (ie. blood glucose levels are low) glycogen stores can be converted into glucose with ease.

When you consume carbohydrates again, if you have room in your glycogen stores, your body will prioritize refilling glycogen stores first.

If your glycogen stores are full, and you have sufficient circulating glucose, your body will convert and store excess carbohydrates as fat. Fat or adipose is a more efficient storage medium — 9 kcal per gram vs 4 kcal per gram.

And this is why carb overconsumption can be an issue. Like anything else. Over-consume anything, even coveted protein and you can gain fat mass as the body stores excess absorbed energy for later use.

Complex Starches

Starches are the storage format of carbohydrates in plants and generally the types of carbohydrates we get from all the whole plant-based foods we should be consuming.

That’s why it’s more accurate to say complex carbohydrate, because similarly densely structured carbs exist in animal foods too. Like Glycogen.

‘Fiber’ falls into the starch or polysaccharide department too. But is unique in that it is not absorbed by the body.

Though one type of fiber does ferment and break down into short-chain fatty acids in the stomach, the calorie energy contribution that provides is negligible.

Basically the more complex the carbohydrate chemical structure, the harder it is to digest.

Thus it does not impact blood sugar and certain hormones with the same ‘spiking-effect‘ as more simple carbohydrates generally do.

This is why ‘complex’ carbohydrates get all the love. And rightly so, these are the forms of carbohydrates your body should be mostly consuming.

Hold on though, we’re not done yet with your chemistry 101 lesson yet…

You also have the slightly more complex than mono or disaccharides, but generally less complex than polysaccharides; The oligosaccharides.

These typically involve long-ish chains of monosaccharides three to nine chains long — polysaccharides are generally considered longer than that.

All you really need to know is that they fall somewhere in the middle and that there are a few different types of carbohydrates, you can’t just lump them all together.

And let’s be honest though. You weren’t looking for a chemistry course when you clicked on this article, were you?

If you’re interested in learning more about the chemical properties of these carbohydrates click through to some of the links.

What are Carbs Good For?

We’ve already established that glucose is what your brain primarily runs off of (seems kind of important right?).

Only certain ketone bodies can penetrate the brain blood barrier and act as fuel. Even then, ketones can only contribute a relatively small amount of energy to the process.

If you consume next to zero carbs, your body still has to make a certain amount of glucose from fats/protein. A process called gluconeogenesis.

Beyond that obvious association, there are other carbohydrates that may yield significant benefits to your health, waistline and athletic performance.

For instance oligosaccharides like inulin are associated with improved gut health. Improved gut health can actually improve your digestion. Improved digestion alters how your body absorbs nutrients and utilizes them. Increasing markers of health like circulating levels of minerals/vitamins.

Carbs like this might literally change how your body uptakes energy from the food you eat. Affecting the ‘energy-in‘ side of the fitness equation too.

Beta-Glucan, is a polysaccharide found in significant quantity in grains like oats, barley, rye and wheat (and also other foods like fungi/mushrooms and algae/seaweeds).

Research shows that intake positively improves cholesterol, enhances immune function, reduces inflammation and may positively affect arthritic conditions.

Fiber

Fiber is perhaps one of the most well researched and health boosting carbohydrates we’re aware of. Most people, simply put, don’t get enough!

The minimum recommendation is 25 grams of fiber per day. This may be rather easy to hit if you consume the recommended daily intakes of vegetables.

Males likely need a minimum of 35 grams a day, which means you may need to bolster your intake further with something other than veggies.

Even smaller females may benefit from with one or two servings of starch rich carbohydrates (which includes fruit).

Although your body doesn’t actually break fiber down and use it for energy (readily – it is a small byproduct). Fiber is still important to consume for health reasons, especially digestive health.

Fiber can be found in abundance in starchy-rich foods like raspberries (8g per cup), blackberries (6.3g/cup), legumes/beans, and whole grains like barley, buckwheat, and oats.

Fiber helps keep you feeling fuller for longer. It’s satiating. In turn, this helps you manage hunger better. Managing hunger can help you control your food intakes better. This is especially important if weight/fat loss is your goal.

Nobody wants to be Hangry right?

Hungry + Angry = Hangry 

It’s been my experience that severe energy restriction for weight loss purposes does not work well long-term.

You may get a quick result but you risk nutrition deficiency during the process. In addition to a quick fat gain rebound immediately upon stopping.

It might be a motivating way to get started but a much more gradual approach of exercise combined with a slight overall energy restriction seems more optimal in the long run.

Managing hunger in that process is key and fiber rich starchy foods can certainly help

That is, if you’re serious about maintaining your new fantastic bod for years to come.

When it comes to athletic, muscle mass gain and workout performance, carbs might be the ergogenic aid too. Well them and creatine, if we ignore performance enhancing drugs. Let’s ignore them.

Here are some of the positive benefits of having carbohydrates in your diet:

  • Increased cognitive functioning (and energy levels)
  • Better sleep
  • Better workout/training performance
  • Improved workout/training recovery
  • Improved Immune System Support
  • Improved Gut Flora (and consequently ‘digestion’)
  • Improved Gastrointestinal Emptying (yep, I’m talking about bowel movements…)
  • Access to certain vitamins, minerals, fiber that can contribute to the maintenance of overall health (namely avoiding malnutrition or nutrient deficiency)
  • In some cases improved health markers (like better cholesterol and triglyceride profiles)
  • Can increase satiability and fullness feeling (mostly from the fiber and protein found in more ‘whole’ sources, sources void of fiber are easily over consumed)

People also tend to forget that many carbohydrate sources (hello: Vegetables?) are fantastic delivery tools for vitamins and minerals (though not the only ones…).

Carb Restriction

If you’re carb phobic these days, this section is for you…

When we reduce or eliminate carbs in the diet, we tap carb stores (glycogen) and deplete them eventually.

Someone only eating 50 g of carbs a day (or less) as many keto diets recommend these days, will deplete their stores in a matter of days.

One gram of glycogen is stored with ~4 grams of water. If you store more than a pound of glycogen and more than 4 lbs of water with that, you often see a really sudden change in weight.

People like this, and it’s often why they turn to low carb diets. There are so many stories floating around online of people dropping 10 lbs in a week or so.

The catch is, that this is mostly water weight, not true fat loss. By reducing your carb intake, you’ve lost the water that gets stored with them.

Why tell you this?

So that you don’t fall victim to what seems like a miracle but is actually easy to explain with basic physiology. Glycogen depletion masks true fat loss.

Your weight loss will likely slow once your glycogen is depleted, so if you’re going this route make sure you account for this change.

Stick past it and remember when you start eating carbs again, that five pounds will reappear.

Here is another general thing about ‘dieting.’

Restricting energy intake, particularly by a lot, can have some negative attributes on health and metabolism in the long run.

It’s been shown that severe restriction can reduce metabolic rate, disrupts thyroid hormones, affects the nervous system, reproductive systems and can generally mess with your hormones.

Ignoring an entire macronutrient can easily lead to a big energy deficit.

This another reason low carb diets can be so attractive for weight loss purposes. Big deficits result in faster weight/fat loss.

Creating a negative energy balance is the name of the game if weight/fat loss is your goal.

Cutting out carbs can wipe out 30-50% of the average person’s current daily energy intake overnight. If they don’t make the up the difference somewhere else (and some people do). That’s a big change.

The larger the deficit, the faster you start seeing those hormonal and metabolic changes I mention above.

Periodic carb intake can help manage those issues. If you do decide to go low carb, which I’d classify as ≤100-120 grams per day.

You may want to periodically cycle larger amounts back into your eating plan. The specifics of that are beyond the scope of this article.

However, here are a few viable energy control options:

  • Use caloric restriction over a short period of time and permit a carb-rich refeed (AKA ‘free meal’) meal once (maybe twice) a week.
  • Use caloric restriction over a longer period of time (week or three) and permit a refeeding window of a day or two
  • Use caloric restriction over a longer period of time (several weeks up to 2-3 months, maybe longer) and permit a full diet break featuring carbs for a week or two, to let your body recoup/catch-up

Some people like to refer to these kinds of meals or days as ‘cheat’ meals or days but I personally hate that term.

I like the terminology of a re-feed or ‘free’ better. It gives the indication that you are intentionally restocking the pantry with energy via generally more carbohydrate consumption (though also perhaps total consumption).

‘Cheat day’ has a negative context and people will that attitude have a tendency to overdo it on processed foods, sugars and refined fats on cheat days.

Something about the terminology ‘cheat day’ that lets people think they can just eat whatever they want. In whatever quantity they want.

When really the idea is to relax a little on your diet. Add some good carbs (rice, oats, beans, etc…) at maybe 2-4x more volume than you were eating when low carb. But… not go too crazy.

It’s about restoring balance to the system.

Note: If you’re using a ‘cheat day’ and not seeing any results, you may want to reconsider your strategy; You’re probably overdoing your refeed. 

I’m just putting this into this article because I believe cyclical low-carb eating is generally a better strategy than a constant one.

You can post a comment or join the Skill Based Fitness Facebook group if you want more details.

My Very General Recommendations

100-120 grams of carbohydrates is a decent minimum starting point for most people. Not necessarily your end point.

Obviously smaller people can consider less and bigger people should consider more.

If you’ve opted for more fat in your diet, then you may want/need less carbs. And vice versa, if you’ve opted for less fat, then you may want/need more carbs.

There are reasons to deviate from this first number, detailed further down.

100-120 grams represents the high end of a ‘low carb’ diet, or the low end of a ‘moderate carb’ diet.

At this level you won’t feel (m)any of the issues associated with very low carb diets, things like brain fog, bad breath, fatigue, keto crotch, mood swings, etc…

100-120 g per day is enough to maintain reasonable glycogen stores. And it provides enough glucose for the brain without relying on ketone bodies to fill in the gaps.

If you’re at the recommended veggie intake levels, this will translate to ~3 or so additional servings of a starchy carb. Or approximately (~) 75 grams, with your veggie intake providing ~25-45 g.

And yes, I’d count root vegetables as both for simplicity. Sweet potatoes or potatoes in particular are both excellent sources of starchy carbs.

Other good starchy sources include fruit, whole grains, or legumes. I’d even make some concessions for periodic bread, tortilla (get good corn ones though) and pasta consumption in the mix.

Just remember that a serving size is smaller than most people think. One scooped handful is about 1/4 cup raw of most grains/legumes (i.e. not cooked) and will yield ~25g of carbs per serving when cooked.

Scooped Handful of Lentils
~1 scooped handful (~1/4 cup raw) at 3 meals seems to be a good starting point if we break starchy carb into down on a meal by meal basis.

Servings/Portions Quirks

Make sure that most of your carbohydrate consumption in a typical day comes from vegetables (ideally 5+ servings averaged out daily, closer to 8+ for large males if you can manage) as a starting point.

This might include the generally more starchy root vegetables options as well. Consider counting those as both but they only contribute ~25g of carbs per serving still. It’s just that we want to highlight that they also count towards your veggie intake.

Similarly whole fruit is an excellent carb choice for people who want to double count a starchy carb source with a high fiber content (particularly berries).

Consider a serving of fruit much like root vegetables. Fruit does generally behave like a veggie. That’s why it was the fruit/veggie food group for so long.

Quick Note

I tend to encourage people to count veggies separately. Due in part, to their typically inadequate intake. Veggies for “health,” carbs/fat manipulation to find the right balance of total intake. Protein as a relative constant.

The amount of carbs that most veggies provide (save root veggies or fruit) is negligible and 5-6 servings may only yield the equivalent of 1-2 starchy carb servings. +3 starchy carb servings and you can see where I’m going with the 100-120g/day recommendation.

The reason I’ve pulled them out is because they do tend to have considerably more carbohydrates per serving than most veggies.

You can count fruit towards your veggie intake, but to get to a baseline of 100-120g, you’d still be limiting intake to ~3 servings of fruit in a day. Not including any other starches you choose to add.

That means you’re trying to find a balance of other starchy carb sources in your diet. Mostly this will come from whole grains and legumes/beans. And most of the time, my scooped handful recommendation applies more so to raw. Cooking just adds water.

Here’s what a cupped handful of white short-grain rice looks like:

Fitnack Handful of Uncooked White Rice
Pretty similar to the dry lentils above…

Here’s what that same 1/4-1/3 cup scooped handful looks like when cooked:

Fitnack Handful of Cooked Rice
The brown colour is because it was cooked in soup stock.
Little bit bigger right? Something to consider…

There are other considerations beyond a scooped handful if that doesn’t jive with you.

If serving of veggies is generally about the size of your fist. It stands to reason that the more calorically dense a food is, the smaller the serving size needs to be.

So another serving size of starchy carbohydrates could be 1 medium or 1/2 a large potato or apple. Not the size of your fist, if it’s the size of your fist, a serving is no more than half that.

Two pieces of bread is two servings, not one. Pasta works very much the same as rice.

You can always resort to 1/4-1/3 cup of raw (~50g uncooked) in a measuring cup. Water will generally double or triple the volume of raw ingredients, so 1/4 cup of raw rice will be ~3/4 cup of cooked rice (~150 grams cooked).

When you cook consider that pasta typically absorbs the least (1/4 uncooked = 1/3 cup cooked). Beans tend to absorb a little more than that, but less than grains (~1:2 ratio). Grains tend to absorb more (~1:3 ratio).

Generally speaking, I believe legumes are underrated here. They provide so much fiber and a decent amount of protein (as plant sources go), I try to get a serving most days.

Still with me?

How to Tweak Carbs

Once you’ve found your baseline intake it’s time to tweak based on your size, activity, and goals.

If you’re more active, especially higher intensity forms of activity, you’re going to want more carbohydrates in your diet to maximize your workouts.

If you’re smaller, less active, or more insulin-resistant you may want less. Though at 100-120 g/day, there isn’t a ton of room for too much less.

The simplest way to do this, is to get to my recommended baseline (~3 scooped hand servings), and then adjust up or down.

Start adding servings one or two at a time. Or reducing servings, probably only one at a time.

Hold it at a similar level of a few weeks to see what happens and track the outcomes you’re chasing. Tweak further based on outcomes.

If your goal is weight gain, and your tracking isn’t showing you’re gaining it, add one serving of carbs. Trying to gain weight and actually losing it? Add two servings.

If you’re just trying to maintain and you’re gaining weight, remove one serving. Losing weight? Add one serving.

If your goal is weight loss, and tracking shows you maintaining, remove a serving. Trying to lose weight, but you’re gaining it? Think about removing two servings.

If your performance in your sport or at the gym has been suffering, add one or two servings. If you’re gaining too much weight for performance improvements, remove one or two. Find your sweet spot.

Every 2 weeks you should be tracking a relative metric. If a tweak doesn’t reveal the desired change, reassess and make another tweak based on the above recommendations.

If it’s working, keep doing what you’re doing. This is the only way to get good feedback if you don’t have a coach.

If you can afford to do so, or this process is too painful for you to stick with alone, you might want to consider hiring a coach.

#1 – Based on Size

I’m generally not wild about using somatotype as a reference point for nutrition — for reasons best discussed in a separate article.

Empirically however, carb intake may be the exception. I’ve noticed a trend specifically among “endomorphs” to display a lower tolerance to carbs versus the other two types.

For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, look at this image:

Male Somatotype
CC Granito Diaz
  • Ectomorph – Classic thin bone structure, narrow hips/shoulders, can’t gain weight individual. think Keira Knightley or Michael Cera
  • Mesomorph – Medium bone structure, fairly broad shoulders, characterized by ease of gaining muscle (can shift to ecto or endo tendencies though). Think Will Smith or Halle Barry.
  • Endomorph – Thick Bone structure, characterised by ease of gaining weight (not necessarily muscle), wide hips, thick thighs, carries more weight in the mid-section. Think Jennifer Lopez or Jon Favreau.

Give or take, what that chart doesn’t tell you is that nothing is set in stone and I’ve seen people transition between them. Though rarely from ecto to endo or vice versa.

Sorry ladies I couldn’t find a CC female version of this chart.

Endomorph women tend to display either a similar apple-esque shape to the male on the far right. Or they tend to display that kind of classic hourglass, big hips, larger breasts and thighs.

This may explain why Kim Kardashian claims to thrive on a keto diet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Any truth to my observation in all honesty, may have nothing to do with ‘being an endomorph.’ This isn’t necessarily something you just are or aren’t, with no control over. There is still a great deal of variance to body/bone structure.

Instead (and I believe more likely) the better explanation is that an insulin resistant person is more likely to be an endomorph. They can end up there in a variety of ways I won’t get into.

You still see some endomorph people get jacked like mesomorphs and they can look pretty damn good too like Jennifer Lopez or Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Anyway, this is getting into more detail than I need. The point is that people who display more endomorph-like tendencies, are likely more resistant to carbs, and are less likely to be active.

Combine those two factors and this individual likely thrives on 100-120g of carbs or less.

Smaller people in general may also tolerate or be able to thrive on less (if they are more insulin resistant). They may just need less based purely on size. A <100lbs inactive woman doesn’t like many carbs.

A functional absolute minimum to avoid muscle wasting is ~50g per day. Unless your protein intakes exceed ~2.4 g/kg of bodyweight per day (~1.1 g/lbs).

I still prefer the 50g minimum recommendation most of the time even if protein intakes are high because nearly anyone can achieve a calorie deficit with it.

Not Sure If You’re an Endomorph?

You could just stay at 100-120 g and see how it works. It has worked for a lot of endomorph-like individuals that I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

If it doesn’t, you could try lower and see how that works. Self-experimentation is the easy way to figure it out.

You could be insulin-resistant even if you don’t look like a classic endomorph. Inactivity can do that.

By being more active slowly overtime, you may find your tolerance and seeming need for carbs goes back up. Carb intake just goes hand in hand with activity most of the time.

If you want to be more specific about it, you can always talk to your doctor about blood tests.

#2 – Based on Activity.

This is, in part, why I recommend the baseline starting point that I do. It’s pretty low (relatively speaking).

I’m giving this recommendation based on the assumption that you’re an average person and you’re mildly active at best.

Now we adjust from my initial assumption. If you’re more active, you’ll tolerate carbs better, and thus can or should consume more. Maybe even a lot more.

There is a saying in exercise physiology: fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.

Not that fat can’t oxidize on a low carb diet. Moreso, the phrase tells us that if you’re not that active, you likely aren’t burning many carbs as fuel.

You may be better off getting more of your calories from fat and less from carbs as a result.

Meaning my 100-120g/day recommendation might not apply to you specifically. Maybe you’re more like 75-80g, or maybe even more like ~50g.

The best way to know (again) is a little self-experimentation.

Get to 100-120g, and hold it for a few weeks to see how that works. If it’s not working, remove a serving. Hold that for a few weeks and see how it works.

Still not working? Finally drop it down to 50g for a few weeks and see how that works. If you don’t see the changes you want after that, then really low carb may not be for you.

Again, I think a good absolute minimum to consider is ~50g per day. Depending on protein intake, which is more likely to be elevated in specific situations with specific kinds of people. i.e. advanced dieters and lifters.

You can still easily achieve ketosis with that number. In fact, anything under 100g will likely yield at least a mild form of blood ketosis.

If You Like Sports or Lifting

Anyone regularly participating in any kind of high intensity activity (martial arts, soccer, basketball, etc…) will likely feel better on more than 100-120g of carbs.

If you train frequently, as in a power/mixed sport athlete or an endurance athlete, you may even want to average closer to ~4.4 g/kg or ~2g/lbs per day.

For a 160 lbs person that’s ~320g per day.

While people attempting to gain muscle mass gain, may want to consider substantially more (2.2-6.6g per kg of bodyweight, or 1-3 g per pound). Particularly if they are struggling to gain muscle.

For a 160 lbs person that’s up to 480g per day! Frankly unless you’re a professional athlete or carb loading for an endurance event, there is little other reason to consume that much.

Resistance training individuals will likely want to add some carbs into the mix to account for work sets too.

Insulin Sensitivity

Activity changes insulin sensitivity — honestly better than dietary changes do — and as a result likely your tolerance to carbohydrate ingestion too.

Insulin sensitivity is the opposite of insulin resistance.

The more sensitive your cells are to insulin, the less circulating insulin you need to pump nutrients into the cell. The lower your circulating levels of insulin need to be or tend to be.

The more resistant your cells are, the more insulin is needed for the same effect. The higher your circulating levels of insulin tend to be.

Fasting insulin levels can help determine where you are on the spectrum.

Granted, it’s not solely as simple as insulin. Part of the problem with this explanation is that it’s overly simplistic.

That’s why your doctor would likely check for more than just fasting insulin levels (triglycerides and A1C for instance) to determine sensitivity or diabetes risk.

Yet, this correlation is still why insulin gets blamed for obesity. Carbs, especially the simple variety, spike insulin levels.

What people often miss in blaming carbs solely for this, is that protein also spikes insulin. As insulin is a storage hormone, it’s effectively trying to shuttle amino acids and glucose first into cells for repair and restoration.

It’s a significant contributor in glycogen restoration, protein synthesis and exercise recovery. See, there is a yin to every yang. Insulin isn’t just a villain hormone.

All that being said, eating a lower carb/higher fat diet can help some people with insulin sensitivity. Usually around where I’m recommending will work. Especially people who have no inclination to exercise.

Again, I think everyone should make some weekly exercise a part of their routine but if you can’t start there, maybe a dietary change is in order first.

Some people may also just feel better on low carb/high fat. I try not to rely too much on feelings, but it’s up to you to determine if that route is for you.

Make sure you fill in the gaps appropriately with good quality fats. This is doubly important if you want to exercise on a high fat diet.

High fat diets lend themselves better to only long-slow endurance activity and to some extent lifting only activity.

Common Additions Based on Type/Duration of Activity

If you’re mostly lifting weights (AKA resistance training), research estimates that you utilize about ~5g per 2 work-sets. A lot less than you may have thought?

That’s one additional complex carb serving for every 10 sets.

It may be more for compound movements and less for isolation movements. Higher rep, shorter rest training (like circuit training) might also deplete glycogen glycogen stores more. As opposed to high load, longer rest, ≤8 rep training, but especially ≤5 rep training.

However, it’s a good starting point for adjusting your intake based on training days.

Note:

You could also opt to add more starchy carbs to the day after you train.

It ends up being the same total amount of carbs and that’s the important thing. You only need restoration before you lift again.

I prefer day-of, just because it’s easier to keep track of.

If you do 4 sets of each exercise in my 2×2 training program, that’s only 16 sets or an extra 40g of carbs.

For the same 160 lbs person, that means only 140-160 g per day or ~1g/lbs (2.2 g/kg). That’s only ~2 more servings on training days.

Add 2-4 more exercises of 2-3 sets each to the end of a 2×2 workout. You’ll still only need 50g-70g above your baseline to replenish glycogen stores.

That same person is looking at maybe ~3 additional servings for the training day, instead of ~2.

If you add in some conditioning, you will likely need to add a similar amount. Perhaps 0.8g/kg (0.36g/lbs) per hour of moderate intensity work.

An hour of aerobic running or rowing for that 160 lbs person would yield maybe 58 g (let’s say ~60g for simplicity) of glycogen loss. An extra ~2.5 servings of carbs on that day.

While intense conditioning (like HIIT) might yield a need of more like 1.2g/kg (0.55g/lbs) per hour of training.

Assuming your following my advice and not doing more than 30 minutes of that kind of work.

My theoretical 160 lbs person, needs 44 g (~45g for simplicity) of carbs for glycogen restoration. An extra ~2 servings of carbs for a 30 minute session.

I’d emphasize more starchy carb intake after workouts. You are more insulin sensitive at this time. This appears to aid recovery to some degree. Mainly due to glycogen storage restoration.

Keep in mind that don’t have to race to your gym locker chug down a sugar-rich shake or anything immediately afterwards. Best advice is to consume a carb/protein rich meal within about 2-3 hours of training.

An Example:

Let’s take a 60 kg individual. They do 28 sets of resistance training 2x a week.

They do one 30 minute HIIT session per week, and they run for 45 minutes 2x a week.

  • Each resistance training session warrants an additional ~70g of carbs that day (~3 additional servings)
  • The interval session warrants an additional ~36g of carbs (~1-2 additional servings)
  • The two moderate training day runs warrant an additional ~36g of carbs per run (~1-2 additional servings)

I know math sucks. This yields:

  • 2 days of likely a minimum carb intake of 170-190 grams (~6 servings, not including your veggie intake)
  • 3 other days of ~136-156 grams (~4-5 servings per day, not including your veggie intake)

This creates a basic cyclical approach to eating, that caters to your activity levels. Frankly, the more I learn, the more I’m in favour of cyclical approaches. Carb manipulation is at the foundation of all cyclical approaches to eating.

That’s another topic for another day though..

The key to all of my recommendations is that you’re monitoring your progress. Then adjusting your intakes based on the real world results.

My approach is designed to first get you to a baseline and adjust from there.

#3 – Based on Goals.

Of course where you are and where you want to be may change. This may require further changes in your approach.

If your goal is weight loss and the above strategies only help you maintain, you have to adjust something down to reach an energy deficit. Carbs may be the better place to start.

Assuming protein is a relative constant, the only other big change you can make it fat intake.

Likewise if your goal is muscle mass gain, and you’re not gaining, you will have to adjust something up, for an energy surplus. It’s even more likely this will be carbs as a starting point.

If your training or sport performance is suffering look at your carb intake first. As it’s likely the biggest contributor.

For Weight Loss:

A weight loss focus may also warrant less intake, especially if you’re not budging at 100-120g/day. And especially if dropping fat intake lower can’t work.

Try the strategy from the previous section.

Remove 2 servings if you’re gaining weight. Remove 1 if you’re holding constant.

Track the result, if it works, keep doing that. Once it stops working, think about other possible changes.

Pro-tip: You may have to look at other things in your diet if it’s still not budging at ~50g a day. That may include taking a break from such restrictions.

As the majority of people are typically looking for fat loss, I’ve found that dropping them down to 100-120g/day works a lot of the time.

Unless you’re tiny or really really sedentary.

If you’re exercising regularly, that baseline recommendation should be close for most. However, you may still need to make even smaller, more minor tweaks.

For instance, maybe you don’t add extra carbs based on training, because you want to achieve a deficit for weight loss.

Even if you are training ≥70 minutes at a time, don’t use the performance recommendations below by adding carbs. Your goal is fat loss, not performance improvements, the two are different. Prioritize accordingly.

You may even need to look for less calorie rich sources of carbs. I can’t say for sure and this article is already super long.

For Muscle Mass Gain:

At an absolute minimum you’re probably going to need 1g/lbs or 2.2g/kg of bodyweight of daily intake to gain muscle mass.

This is more likely to be your baseline intake or starting point.

If you’re hardgainer double that figure. Still not gaining? Add even more to training days.

Otherwise, this works the same as I indicated above.

Losing weight instead of gaining it? Add 2 servings. If you’re holding constant, add 1 serving.

On days you train you’re probably looking at an extra ~3-4 servings above those figures. That’s assuming you’re only lifting.

If you add in some aerobic work for recovery, keep it to <30 minutes and only 1-3x a week on a non-weight bearing piece of equipment (or walking).

This adds another ~1-2 servings for those days. Adjust accordingly.

For Performance:

This is where carbohydrates really shine.

If you’re an athlete or are aspiring to become one, carbs are your primary fuel source for training anything other than a fast walk.

Generally athletes have an energy output so high, they need more carbohydrates in their diet.

You may even need simple sugars if you’re training at higher intensities for ≥70 minutes at a time. If you’re less than that, ignore, this next recommendation.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends ~30-60g* of carbohydrates per hour of endurance activity.*

This yields about 150-175 ml every 10-15 minutes of ideally a liquid based source of carbohydrates.

That translates as a 6–8% carbohydrate-electrolyte solution, so something like gatorade or powerade or cut those with water bit further to get a better ratio. Even better make your own mix with some added protein.

*Note: That linked paper is where a lot of my more specific sport/exercise recommendations have come from. Adding protein to the mix at a 2:1-4:1 (carb:protein) ratio seems to help even further (8-30g per hour).

For the Day

You may also be consuming upwards of 8-12g/kg (3.6-5.5 g/lbs) per day, of your bodyweight worth of carbs, if you’re doing a lot of long-distance training!

However, more realistically speaking, unless you really compete at a high level, you’d be at the lower end of that spectrum.

A functional max limit is likely about 15g/kg (~7g/lbs), even if you were carb loading, which I’ll discuss below.

Once more, the key to this objective is to monitor your performance periodically and body composition. Being too heavy or too light can also be detrimental to performance, depending on the sport.

You may need to prioritize one element over another at various points in your year. For instance, there may be some benefit to spending an off-season finding your ideal body composition for performance.

Being an athlete won’t give you permission to just eat whatever you want all the time, but it gives you more room than most.

Generally you’ll need carbohydrates with every meal and more after training.

If you’re male, consider 2 servings with each meal, if you’re female try 1 at first and scale appropriately.

If most of your training is ≤70 minutes, you don’t need a liquid supplement.

If you are training ≥70 minutes, but your goal is still weight loss, you don’t need a liquid supplement.

However, you may still want to fuel your workouts appropriately and the recovery process. Roughly, 2-3 hours before training and within 2-3 hours of training, consume something protein and carbohydrate dense at a similar ratio (1:2-1:4) mentioned above.

If you want to learn more about special approaches to sport nutrition, the best book written on the topic to date in my opinion is:

Practical Sports Nutrition by Louise Burke.

Special Circumstances:

I just want to talk briefly about carb loading. This is more applicable to endurance athletes than anything else. If you’re not that, please ignore this blurb.

During a carb load you effectively over-indulge in carbohydrates over a short period of time (2-4 days) in an attempt to over-saturate muscle glycogen. Upwards of that 7g/lbs (15g/kg) per day max threshold discussed above.

While the average person may carry about 400 g in their muscles at any given time. Carb loading can effectively oversaturate your glycogen stores up to 700 g in some people.

This may significantly improve endurance sport performance. When the event lasts longer than 70 minutes but is probably shorter than about 3-4 hours, depending on your level of competition. The more you have stored, the less likely you are to bonk in certain sports.

If your activity is well beyond that mark, as in ultra-endurance, you may benefit from a higher fat diet. At such low intensities, for such long durations, you will likely burn considerably more fat as a percentage of fuel, than carbs.

Those types of events are more similar to walking, than a half marathon or marathon.

Summary

Let me remind you for the upteenth time, you eat food, not carbs, not protein and not fat.

Everything you eat generally has a little bit of each in it. Breaking foods down into these subcategories as I have. Is just one way to make day-to-day food selection easier on yourself.

The majority of reasonably active people likely end up between 100 g to 2.2g/kg or 1 g/lbs of body weight.

Breaking it down to a per meal delivery system makes that even easier.

The total numbers I’m using as a starting point just don’t have the same level of imagery when you go to apply them.

100-120 grams translates into roughly 3 servings or 3 scooped handfuls of starchy carb food sources.

Working up to 1g/lbs (or 2.2 g/kg yields a chart like this:

  • 135-165 lbs (~60-75kg) = ~4-5 servings per day
  • 165-195 lbs (~75-90kg) = ~5-6 servings per day
  • 195-230 lbs (~90-105kg) = ~6-7 servings per day
  • 230-260 lbs (~105-125 kg) = ~7-8 servings per day
  • And so on…

If you’re active and your goal is maintenance. You will likely get to my recommended baseline, and then slowly add servings.

If you’re trying to gain muscle mass you may need even more, perhaps double or triple that.

Every 2 works sets of resistance training (6-12 or 8-15 reps anyway) means you may want to add ~5g to your intake.

There are 25 g in ~1 serving, which is ~1 scooped handful, or 1/4-1/3 a cup, or a medium sized banana/apple/potato (1/2 a large one). Therefore, 10 sets of resistance training is an extra serving.

Endurance athletes may have specific supplementation recommendations or special intakes, so read that section above in detail.

Do not make the mistake I see a lot of average people make. You do not need liquid carb supplementation unless your primary directive is improved endurance performance lasting ≥70 minutes.

If you’re not that active, then the recommended baseline might be spot on or you may even need to remove a serving or three.

The same be said for people who appear to do better on low-carb eating (insulin resistance individuals in particular).

Despite no real physiological need for carbohydrates, I typically don’t recommend less than ~50g a day.

A number that sufficient veggie intake should be able to meet. Even a serving of fruit or root veggies can likely keep you at around that number.

Starvation research just shows that it can lead to muscle loss when protein intake isn’t high. Higher than the average person is likely to consume.

The key to all of this is that you’re tracking progress and then tweaking your carb intake based on real world results.

Find a baseline, and adjust based on size, activity and your goals.

Knowing how to adjust your intakes accordingly is an incredibly useful skill for managing your weight, athletic performance and gym performance.

It’s a Spectrum

Remember, carbs aren’t good or bad. No macronutrients are good or bad.

Instead, it’s important to think of food as existing on more of a spectrum of choice, or a continuum.

Worse Food <———Neutral Food———> Better Food

Ya, white bread, cookies, muffins, etc… may all be low spectrum sources of carbohydrates. Keep intakes low.

Maybe whole wheat bread is relatively neutral, while couscous or bulgar would be better spectrum choices for health.

That’s a quick spectrum of wheat based carb food quality.

Low spectrum types, tend to come with excess fat, more overall calories and lower satiety. While high spectrum offerings contain less fat, more protein/fiber and higher satisfaction.

Simple sugars digest very easily, with very little energy required to digest. They are not particularly satiating so they are easy to overeat.

More complex sources are actually very satiating (filling); Foods like steel cut oats, beans, buckwheat, and quinoa. They are harder to overeat and provide the greatest nutrition benefits as a result.

A good rule of thumb is the more processed it is, the less you want to eat of it overall. WHO recommends less than 5% of your daily intake come from added sugar. However, <10% is their top end threshold.

Generally you want to displace foods on the worse side of spectrum with foods on the better side of the spectrum. Don’t get too anal about it, or you’ll drive yourself bonkers.

The focus should lie simply on improving the overall quality of the foods your eating. In conjunction with finding the right balance of intake for your size, activity and goals.

At the end of the day actively think about your daily quantities (scooped handfuls). Then be mindful of the quality of the source.

Leave a comment below (or Join the Facebook Group) if you have a question about the details.

I tried to cover a lot in this post, and for that I apologize. Thanks for staying with me and I hope you got a lot out of this post.


Also published on Medium.