Low-carbohydrate diets are having a moment.
From shelves lined with keto products, to low-carb options popping up even on restaurant menus, it's clear: the rise of keto and paleo diets in recent years has increased the focus on protein and fat, while causing us to ask the big question, how many carbs should we actually be eating?
The result is that we’ve begun to slash our carb intakes wherever possible. Bread has gone to the wayside, sugary sweets are out, and pasta? Forget it.
Carbohydrates shouldn’t be completely villainized, however. Carbs are an often-misunderstood macronutrient that can definitely have a place in a healthy modern diet when eaten correctly. They serve as the main source of energy for our body, powering our brain to carry out its most essential functions.
So why the bad rap?
In essence, carbs are often villianized because of the effects that occur when we eat too many, or choose low-quality options (i.e.: breads, pastas, pizza, etc...).
Namely, they can have an intense effect on our blood sugar, causing it to rapidly spike. When this happens, our body stores the excess blood sugar as fat, which can lead to weight gain.
Now, keep in mind that all forms of carbs and sugar (and even protein) can spike your blood sugar. The difference is that processed carbs, like those low-quality ones listed above, are missing the fibers and enzymes that slow that blood sugar spike, helping to reduce fat storage.
At the end of the day, when it comes to responsibly consuming carbohydrates, it’s all about the amount and quality that you’re eating.
How many carbs should I be eating?The answer to this question will vary based on your personal needs and calorie intake.
Someone who is sedentary, for instance, won't need as many carbohydrates as an elite athlete, since they don’t expend as much energy. In addition, someone who is looking to lose weight will probably want to eat fewer carbs than someone who is maintaining a healthy weight, since lowering your carb intake encourages your body to burn fat stores for energy.
The first step is to determine how many overall calories you need to be eating every day based on your activity level and resting metabolic rate. There are plenty of online calculators that can do this for you.
From there, you can calculate your carbohydrate needs in grams by multiplying your daily calorie intake by 0.45-0.65, depending on what percentage of calories you want to come from carbohydrates. You can then divide that number by 4 to see how many grams of carbohydrates you should aim for in a day.
Again, the amount truly depends on your activity level. For some people following a diet of 2,000 calories, you'll see this average out to about 225g-325 grams of carbohydrates per day.
This is in the slightly high range for many people who aren't doing intense training several days per week, but gives you an idea of range based on calories.
Always, always keep in mind that the quality of these carbs matter immensely. Eating 200g of carbs in the form of things like quinoa, squashes, and starchy veggies like carrots and pumpkin is massively different than if you're consuming 200g of carbs from pastas, granola bars, and cereals.
It's always a good idea to grab a calorie tracker app and log your meals to see where you're averaging, then adjust based on how you feel and the results you're getting. Some people do very well at around 150g, while others function better at 100g or less.
Don't be afraid to experiment with the number and the type, and adjust up or down as needed.
How many carbs should I eat if I want to lose weight?
If you're aiming to lose weight, you might consider decreasing your carbohydrate intake. In addition to helping you cut down your calories, eating a smaller ratio of carbohydrates can help you to lose weight on a molecular level.
Like we mentioned earlier, when you decrease your intake of poor-quality carbohydrates like sugar and refined grains that are taken up quickly by the bloodstream, you may experience lower insulin levels which can then reduce the amount of fat your body stores.
Typically, low-carb diet numbers can range anywhere from 50-150 grams per day.
The key to low-carb is aiming to increase the quality of the carbohydrates you do eat, while focusing on increasing your fiber and nutrient intake to get the most out of them, while still paring down the calories and carbohydrates.
Some diets, like the ketogenic diet, take it a step further and decrease your overall carb intake even further. Eating very low carb can put your body in a state of ketosis, meaning that your body starts using its stored fat as its primary source of energy because of the lack of available glucose.
If you’re following a keto diet, you might aim to eat only 20-50 grams of carbohydrates per day to get to this level. Again, make sure that the carbohydrates you do choose to eat are of a higher quality and come with nutrition rather than artificial fillers.
Think: lots of leafy greens, non-starchy veggies like cabbage, broccoli, summer squash, etc ...
How many carbohydrates should athletes be eating?
As mentioned above, carbohydrates are your body’s primary and most easily accessible form of energy.
Because of this, some elite athletes or extremely active people who perform high-intensity and endurance exercise may increase their carbohydrate intake to power their performance. This is where the idea of carb-loading before a major game or competition comes from!
Studies about the effect of carbohydrate intake on athletes suggest that you may benefit from eating 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour of exercise in order to maintain your blood glucose levels. It’s also been suggested that eating 200-300g of carbohydrates a couple of hours before major exertion can also
give you a boost.
As mentioned, people who perform high levels of activity will burn more calories than others, so their calorie intake is probably going to be much higher than the average person’s and therefore will reflect in the grams of carbohydrates they eat.
What type of carbohydrates should I be eating?
Let's dive further into good carbs vs. bad carbs.
Carbohydrates can be divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbs are easily taken up in your bloodstream and include some of the foods that give carbohydrates a bad name; namely sugar, overly-processed grains, and dairy.
Complex carbs take longer for your body to process due to their higher levels of
nutrients like fiber and are the preferred sources for your carb intake.
Overall, in any healthy and balanced diet, you should be focusing on consuming more complex carbs than simple sugars. This will ensure that your carbs don’t spike your blood sugar quite as quickly, and also provide you with essential micronutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Some examples of high-quality, whole-food carbs to reach for:
- Starchy veggies like carrots, pumpkin, rutabaga, and beets
- Legumes (beans) and small amounts of grains like quinoa and buckwheat
- Low-sugar fruits like berries
- Sweet potatoes
During the process of eliminating processed carbs and swapping them for whole-food sources, pay attention to how your body feels. Do you have more energy? Has your performance improved? Are you sleeping better?
Let these questions guide you as you determine your optimal range, and shop with this always in mind: quality matters!