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Making Carbohydrates Work For You

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Carbohydrate intake plays an integral role in your health and fitness. Deciding how many carbs is right for you can be confusing, but understanding what your goals are and where you are in your fitness journey can help simplify this for you.

The number of carbs each person needs in a day will vary. Body composition, genetics, goals, training volume and gender all play a role in this. For example, if you are trying to decrease body fat, reducing the amount of carbohydrates along with some other factors may get you closer to your goal. In contrast, if you are an athlete chasing performance, not having enough carbs may negatively impact your ability to recover from high intensity training sessions.

With so many things to consider, where do we begin?

This article offers some broad guidelines to help you determine your ideal daily carb intake. Start by identifying which group aligns with your current fitness status. Then, try to implement the carb intake recommendations within that group to improve your overall health. Please note that these are general recommendations and that nutrition is very individualized to each person.

Group 1: You are overweight and DO NOT workout

If you are overweight and sedentary, it is likely that you have high degree of insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that allows your body to use glucose (sugar) for energy. Insulin resistance means that your body has trouble using the glucose that is absorbed from the food that you eat. Furthermore, this results in a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream and can lead to prediabetes. If you fall into this group, a good place to start would be to decrease your carb intake to less than 50 grams a day. This will lead to the production of ketones and, ultimately, allow for significant improvements in insulin sensitivity.

Try getting most of your carbs from leafy greens and vegetables while staying away from the starchy carbs like white rice and potatoes. Limit fruit intake to one piece of fruit daily, preferably in the AM.

Keep in mind, when you cut carbs you need to increase proteins and fats. If you’re going for a ketogenic diet that increases the use of fatty acids for energy, you need your fat intake to be high because this will “shift” the body to burn more fat. Also, make sure that your proteins and fats are coming from healthy sources. This will reduce your appetite and keep you from getting hungry shortly after eating.

If you have poor eating habits it can be very challenging to improve them while, at the same time, slashing carbs. Depending on how your body adjusts to changes, it may work better to focus first on removing the unhealthiest carb sources from your diet and eating high-quality meals consistently. This process should be gradual so that you are able to build and maintain good eating and lifestyle habits. Speak with an experienced coach or nutritionist about the best ways to make sustainable changes.

Group 2: You are overweight and DO workout

You would also likely benefit from more insulin sensitivity. Try to keep your carbs between 50-150 grams per day. This range can be useful for sustaining body composition without much struggle once you’ve improved your insulin health. Additionally, try increasing your training volume. If you currently train 2-3 times per week, increasing your workout volume to 4-5 times weekly will help you create some metabolic stress ultimately improving insulin sensitivity. If you are unable to add more training in throughout the week, then try adding in longer easy sessions like walking, biking or swimming.

Get most of your carb from vegetables and some fruit. You could also add in more card-dense starches post workout. In order to replenish glycogen stores, eat things like white rice, sweet and white potatoes after high intensity sessions, like CrossFit. To do low-carb right, you need to be eat unprocessed foods like vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, some dairy, and select fruits and nuts.

As with every lifestyle change, know your baseline and ask for advice when making changes to food and training routines.

Group 3: You are lean and have a regular workout routine

If you’re active and fairly lean (8-12% body fat for men, 10-16% for women), but want a way of eating that makes sustaining body composition easier, then INCREASING your daily carb intake volume may benefit you. This method is most appropriate for people who lift weights intensely or do a decent amount of physical activity throughout the day because , for this to work effectively, you need to be fairly insulin sensitive.

Getting 200+ grams of carbs from vegetables is nearly impossible. Therefore, if you fall into this group, you have to add in things like potatoes, oatmeal and rice to your diet. Make these increases gradual and note how your body feels. If you start to experience joint pain, inflammation and/or an increase body fat then you may have added carbs too quickly or are not as resilient to these changes. If this is the case, find a coach you trust to advise you.

Group 4: You are coming from a low carb or carb free diet

If you’ve been restricting carbs for a while and have either plateaued, or don’t feel great, you may benefit from changing up your carb intake.

Factors such as net calorie intake, unbalanced hormones, and unhealthy gut bacteria could be at play causing your stall in progress or lethargy.

Depending on your current physical activity and body fat percentage, you could try increasing your carb intake to 100-150 grams per day. Also, if you have been following a strict low-carb diet, you could cycle in days in which you consume significantly more carbs (possibly up to 200 grams).

Final Thoughts

  • Carbs can be beneficial around workouts, depending on your goals and training volume.
  • Do you need carbs at every meal? No, not always.
  • For the average person, the majority of our carbs should come from low-starch, high-fiber, water-rich veggies as to prevent excess glucose and the storage of sugar in our cells.
  • As for athletes in training, some more carbs can find a place in your diet to support muscle growth and recovery. 
  • Elite athletes require more carbs as a primary fuel source, and to replenish glycogen stores due to the high volume of training they require.