Low carb? No carbs? Healthy carbs? Carb cycling?
With all the conflicting viewpoints and philosophies, the “right” carb approach for you can be totally confusing!!!
Recently I heard a quote about the state of our bodies that went something like this:
We are as different chemically on the inside as we are physically on the outside.
This couldn’t be more true for your body and its unique dietary needs—carbs included.
I find the whole “Do I need more carbs or lower carbs” debate in particular to baffle a lot of women!
Guys, generally speaking here, are pretty simple minded with a three-step process.
- They come to me with a goal: be it weight and body fat loss, weight gain, performance enhancement or boosted testosterone.
- I give them a template for fueling their goals—often lower carb for the body fat loss/weight loss approach, and a bit more starchy carbs for the performance and muscle gain approach.
- And they take the ball and run with it—reaching their goal within a matter of weeks or months.
Women on the other hand?
We are complicated.
Some women I work with find that the highly touted ‘low carb’ approach to losing body fat or balancing hormones actually works in the reverse—making them gain weight, hold on to body fat, experience a rollercoaster of emotions, or go crazy in their heads!
Other women, completely thrive off of a higher intake of lower-starchy vegetables, paired with protein and healthy fats.
And still other women need a variable mix—depending on that time of the month, their exercise levels, stress that week and emotions!
If there is a couple things I’ve learned though in the whole carb debate they are:
- Every BODY is different, and;
- Low carb diets are for couch potatoes (i.e. if you’re moderately to highly active—as in, you don’t sit on your butt for 12+ hours per day; you move about and perform daily physical activity—like walking, gardening, lifting, building, nursing, etc; and exercise is a regular part of your lifestyle anywhere from 3-6 days per week, carbs can do a body good).
Let’s touch on both:
First things first: What is a carb?!
Carbs, or carbohydrates, are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
In layman’s terms: Carbohydrates are macronutrients that are your body’s easiest, quickest go-to source of energy.
Carbohydrates are comprised of sugar, starch and/or fiber—ranging from simple and more complex, depending on the type of food it is (fruit contains fructose sugars, which are single molecule sugars and therefore simpler; a sweet potato on the otherhand is comprised of complex low-glycemic starches, and more complex in form).
Carbohydrates also all contain glucose—translated in our bodies as: “Energy.”
When we eat carbs, regardless of the type of carb, our bodies welcome energy to the mix, and deliver this energy to all of our cells and muscles via the hormone INSULIN (the ‘bus’ or transporter that delivers all that good energy).
You’ve probably heard of insulin before.
Insulin is often associated with diabetes and those susceptible to diabetes.
“High insulin” is viewed negatively in our society, and when we have too much insulin (i.e. from eating too many carbs, sugars, and food in general), our bodies have NO idea what to do with the excess glucose in our systems…hence why insulin has become known as the “fat storing hormone.”
However, did you know that insulin is ALSO a “muscle building hormone”?!
Yup that’s right.
In short: Having insulin in your system actually helps you BUILD lean muscle mass and LOSE body fat,.
By consuming adequate carbohydrates and promoting an insulin response in your system, you boost your body to rebuild depleted energy stores in your muscles from daily wear and tear and you’re your workouts; while also promoting healthy body fat loss if necessary.
The bottom line? Carbs (and insulin) are not a bad thing, They are necessary if you want to build lean muscle and actually lose body fat or maintain your lean mass at the same time (if consumed in an adequate amount for your body).
If you go too low on carbs, you actually risk building lean muscle and losing healthy body fat (since your muscles can’t grow leaner and toner and stronger because they don’t have enough carbs).
And, it’s all about balance.
On the flip side, if you go too high on carbs, you risk shorting yourself on fat loss.
What’s the ‘just right’ amount (as Goldilocks would say)? Read on.
How many carbs do I need per day?
Generally speaking, 40% of your intake should be from carbs—both fibrous, non-starchy vegetables, 1-2 servings of fruit per day, and moderate starches (depending on activity levels, sweet potatoes, tubers, potatoes, and if you are active, even rice, oats, and for some, even a gluten-free bread can be a part of a balanced diet).
For the average woman, who’s goal is to attain or maintain a lean, healthy body (and stay sane), this comes out to approximately 150 grams per day.
And while I personally don’t incorporate much counting into my food philosophy and education, this rounds out to ensuring your are of course, getting plenty of veggies (half your plate at least) at each main meal, approximately 1-2 servings of fresh fruits per day, and 1-2 starchier carbohydrate sources (such as a sweet potato/potato, rice, oats, tuber veggies, carrots, beets)—again, depending on your activity level.
Again, this is a GENERAL rule of thumb here, and if you want your personalized approach, a knowledgeable nutritionist or holistic dietitian can help you problem solve you’re ‘just right’ approach.
How about around workouts? How many carbs do I need?
More individualized answers for this one, but generally speaking, the type of workout you do determines the necessary fuel you need to re-fuel your energy and muscles.
For instance: A weight training session can deplete up to 40% of your glycogen stores (carb stores).
A 45-60 minute Barre or pilates class? Probably not that much. In fact, for low-intensity exercise, that 30-minute “post workout window” may not apply.
If you worked pretty hard during your weight training sesh, CrossFit class, boot camp, sprints or a moderate run (say 3-5 miles), about 20-30 grams of carbs should do the trick, paired with some protein, to refuel after a workout.
That could look like a post-workout snack of a banana, handful of berries, or apple with a serving of clean protein powder in water, a hard boiled egg, some chicken or turkey/ham roll-ups.
And if a meal happens to be next on your agenda, there is not necessarily a need for a snack.
Come breakfast, lunch or dinner, ensure you have a balance of starchy carbs, protein and yes, even fat, at your meal to refuel your muscles (and help you towards your fitness and health goals).
Protein: Ground turkey or grassfed burger patties, chicken, pulled pork, grass-fed steak, turkey or fish
Carb: A medium sweet potato or potato, white rice, steel-cut oats, a piece of fruit, squashes, carrots, Moderate green veggies (not as priority as the starchy carb in the post-workout window, but I think they make you stronger—like Popeye)
Fat: 1 TBSP coconut oil, coconut butter, sesame oil, olive oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, unsweetened coconut flakes, avocado, olives
What if I feel better on a low carb diet?
For those of you who may have been eating a lower-carb diet, and perhaps higher fat diet, and find it’s working for you (i.e. energy and blood sugar balance, digestion and hormones feel good, your performance in the gym is to your liking, you’re not at war with your body or feel like you are depriving yourself)…by all means, this can work for you.
I think the fine line with the “low carb” vs. “moderate/higher carb” approach is more so a matter of a genuine self-reflection: Where are you (and your head) really?
For some, going “keto” or low-carb is more than just a diet they follow—it is an ego, a sense of pride, an identity, a philosophy they “have to follow” (or else!).
For others, a lower carb approach actually does promote more mental clarity, good digestion and blood sugar balance—particularly if you have wired your body to become more of a fat-burner, rather than sugar-burner (i.e. your body gets its major energy needs from the healthy fats you eat, rather than “needing” sugar or carbs for energy).
I can totally relate to the first attitude (the pride). At one time in my ‘eating real food’ journey, I began to identify myself with being able to eat low carb (and earn my brownie points doing so) in a society who found it completely difficult to abide by.
If I so much as even thought about adding a starchy carb of any sort, or fruit, to my diet, I instantly shut the thought down (how dare I think that?!).
My oh my, how far I’ve come.
Today: I DO eat carbs and listen to my body. I’ve have learned to gauge my carb intake through my use of intuitive and mindful eating—understanding more about when my body particularly thrives upon starchier sources of carbs and eating them like my ‘medicine’ in order to build my body up (no longer break it down).
How can I practice intuitive and mindful eating too?!
I’ve coached individuals around this exercise many times, but I will include it again.
Try this simple exercise during your next meal to begin practicing the art of intuitive eating:
- Prior to the meal, rate your hunger level on a scale of one to ten (one being famished, ten being Thanksgiving-stuffed).
- Acknowledge and note how are you feeling going into the meal (mood, physically, mentally, etc.). Are you shaky? Sleepy? Irritable? Worried or anxious? Emotional? A little nauseated?
- During your meal, try to enjoy it. Chew your food thoroughly. Allow for twenty to thirty minutes to enjoy at least one meal a day. Put your fork down between bites. Check in with your hunger and fullness cues throughout. Notice your hunger dissipate.
Following the meal, rate your fullness level on that same one-to-ten scale.
Acknowledge and note how you feel now. Energetic? Sluggish? Content? Bloated? Headache-free? Can you see or feel a distinct connection between when you eat a banana and how your workout goes in the gym? What about the meal of chicken and broccoli that you paired with half an avocado? Did you notice longer-lasting energy and clearer thinking? As opposed to when you just ate the chicken and broccoli dry and alone?
Begin to practice this exercise. Like anything, the more you do it, the more second nature it becomes. Ultimately, only you can listen – and determine – what your body is saying. Are you listening?
How do I KNOW if I do better on lower, moderate or higher carb diet?!
This is a loaded question.
Essentially, as mentioned above, every BODY is different, and the best way to determine what you need is through trial and error.
Experiment! There’s no hurt in doing so.
The main point of this article though is to remind you of this key fact:
Low carb diets are for couch potatoes.
And if you are an active individual, embrace the fact that you do need carbs!
To do a bit more digging, consider taking this self-inventory quiz from Paul Check to find out if your Primal Pattern (i.e. based on your genes and ancestors) is more of an:
- Equator type: A little bit higher carb , moderate fat and lower protein
- Polar type: Higher protein, higher fat, lower carb
- Variable type: A balance of protein, carbs and fats
Also, if you like podcasting, check out this podcast from Diane Sanfillipo at Balanced Bites—some intriguing insights to spark your interest.
Lastly, want to get to the bottom of the best approach for you?
Schedule an “Ask Me Anything” session today and we will talk you, your nutrition and problem solving a meal template that works best for you.