Let’s establish the definition of “carbs” first. Carbohydrates are foods that break down to sugar that the body will use for fuel or store excess as fat. So while you may think of “carbs” as being bread and pasta, we’re going to say carbohydrates also include fruits and veggies. Since bread, pasta, and starchy carbs like rice and potatoes break down to sugar more quickly, our general recommendation is to stick with mostly fruits and veggies.
Some camps such as people who do keto or carnivore will say carbs are unnecessary. Others who are focused on performance or are in the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) camp will say you can have any kind of carb as long as your calories are within range. In my experience, both are right and wrong.
Unlike protein and fat, there’s no such thing as an essential carb in order to live. Yes, your body and brain need glucose to function, but your body can actually produce sugar from protein through a process called gluconeogenesis. However, we also know that there are a great deal of vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies and anyone doing high intensity exercise seem to do better when they consume carbohydrates.
On the other hand, just because someone counts their macros doesn’t mean we should throw quality out the window. It can be a good start to become more aware about things like just how many carbs are in a piece of bread, but there are other factors that can play into your health such as how it affects your insulin levels, what other macro and micro nutrients are in that food, and more.
In terms of how many carbs to have, here are some general recommendations:
-If you’re coming from a Standard American Diet (SAD), then chances are you are consuming 300+ grams of carbs a day. The food pyramid was a joke which is why the USDA moved to the “My Pyramid” and eventually “My Plate” which still has work to do. Simply try and add in more fruits and veggies which will most likely push out some things like bread and pasta which we know break down to sugar quickly.
-After that, try the Plate Method (not to be confused with the “My Plate” method from USDA). This is where half your plate are veggies like leafy greens, a quarter of your plate is protein, and a quarter is starchy carbs or fruit. Here’s a video of me talking about the Plate Method and how it would look.
-After that, you might play around with counting macronutrients. This can be a pain, but once your quality is dialed in, weighing and measuring will help you be more precise. If you’d rather just skip to this step of weighing and measuring because that fits your preference, go for it.
-The more active you are, the more your body may need carbohydrate. For most people, around 150 grams per day is probably about right depending on your size and activity level. (bigger and more active people will have more, smaller and less active people will have less) Those looking to minimize insulin response and increase fat metabolism might want to look at going to 100 grams or less per day and then ramping back up to 150g once you’re at your desired leanness level. Competitive athletes or those looking to gain mass will be in the 250g+ range. These are people who are working out for 2-5 hours a day though! Just because you see a ripped CrossFit athlete talk about how they eat 300 grams of carbs doesn’t mean you should.
One thing to consider is that for every gram of carbohydrate your body stores, it also stores 3 grams of water. This is why people who switch to a low-carb diet lose a lot of weight in the first month – it’s mostly water! (This is why our InBody scan machine helps determine what’s water weight, body fat, and muscle mass)
At the end of the day, minimize your processed carbs and get in a good amount of veggies and some fruit. Or in more complete terms of Greg Glassman, “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake levels that support exercises, but not body fat.”
Even though that wrapped up an initial discussion on protein vs. fat vs. carbs, later I’ll go through a couple of examples of how different macronutrient breakdowns can look for different people and their goals.