The Carbohydrate Debate: How Many Should You Be Eating?

Carbohydrates…wow…what a doozy of a topic to try and write a comprehensive blog post on. I kind of feel like I’m setting myself up for failure because there’s so much to say about them yet I’m also aware no one besides my mum will read anything much longer than a page of whatever I write anyway. And let me tell you, she only reads them if and when I force her to. Her last comment was “gee you do a lot of babbling Nat” …*long pause* …”it’s a compliment, I could never babble like that!”. Wow thanks mum. You know how to boost a gals self esteem.

Anyway clearly she’s right. I do “babble”. I like to babble. Its healthy and I like healthy.


Moving on. I’m going to skip the whole ‘carbs 101’ blurb and assume you know what they are and where they come from, or assume that you’re adequately familiar with “googling”. However since there is varying ideas and definitions of what low carb, moderate carb and high carb is I will tell you the definition I use so as to put some context to the rest of the post. Now please note this is not an agreed range in the medical community. It is also referring to net carbs i.e. carbohydrates after your fibre intake has been taken into account.

Very low carb=<50g/day
Low carb= 50-75g per day
Moderate Carb=75-150g/day
High carb= >150g/day

* These figures are more geared towards females, males I would usually add in slightly more for you.

A lot of people moving to a more paleo/primal style of eating end up by default eating a lot less carbohydrates overall and can sometimes end up falling into the very low carb category by accident (or by will/carbophobia). Often it feels great to go very low carb at first but then for a lot of people it stops working so well. Now before anyone takes that out of context, I want to acknowledge that this isn’t true for everyone. Some people eat very low carb and it works well for them even after an extended period of time. But in my experience, they are a minority.

Thank you Green Day for that appropriately timed musical interlude (refresh the page if you missed the video).

Moving on…How do you figure out how many carbs you should be having? Well the first thing I do when a client asks me is shoot right back at them with a rather extended list of questions…something along the lines of this:

1. What is your goal?
2. What do you do during the day? i.e. do you have a desk job, do you move around a lot, do you work shift work etc.
3. Do you exercise? If so, how many days a week, what type of exercise, how long does each session last, and do you recover well?
4. Do you have PCOS, fibroids or endometriosis?
5. Are you dealing with any blood sugar regulation issues  i.e. diabetes, hypoglycaemia, constant hangry-ness etc.
6. Do you have any thyroid or adrenal problems?
7. Do you have a normal cycle (females)? and what is your sex drive like (males and females)?
8. Are you under a lot of stress? (physical, emotional, financial) and how/are you managing this stress?
9. Do you have any G.I. issues? (dysbiosis, yeast overgrowth, parasites, constipation, diarrhoea, gas, bloating etc)
10. Do you have any neurological conditions? e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Epilepsy…

As you can see, the carbohydrate story is VERY individual because not everyone is going to have the same answer to all, or any of those questions. And all are important in piecing together how many carbohydrates will be optimal for you. And that’s not even getting into the timing of your carbohydrates which can be another handy thing to play around with to help achieve your goals and optimise your health.

I’d like to point out here that going too low in carbohydrates can be particularly problematic for females. An issue that’s close to my heart and that is slowly gaining some more much needed attention is hypothalamic ammenhorea (HA) (see here for amazing blog posts on this topic). Without getting too technical it basically means that your brain stops communicating effectively with your lady bits (aka your female reproductive system for those of you with a higher level of maturity). This results in the cessation of your menstrual cycle, among other things. And no this is not a good thing. Hello infertility and dry skin and goodbye baby making and a healthy sex drive.

There are several reasons why someone may get HA with the most common reasons being under eating, overexercising, being under too much stress or being at an unrealistically low body fat percentage (usually its a combination of all of the above). Sure a six pack might look great at the beach in Summer and you’ll get a nice ego boost as you turn a few heads but not every female can get to a low enough body fat percent to see their abs and still have a regular menstrual cycle and healthy functioning adrenals. And is it worth it? I don’t know about you but I’d much rather be able to have children who I can create memories with, share laughs, tears and adventures with, and who will love me unconditionally over a few envious glances from strangers at the beach and some extra likes on an instagram bikini photo #strongisthenewsexy #fitspiration #absaremadeinthekitchen #imactuallyreallyunhappyandhavenosexdrive #nobabymakingoverhere. Sorry, I really like hash tagging today apparently. But seriously, do you think the people who love you most and who enjoy spending time with you do so because you’re “ripped as”. Of course not, and if so, I think maybe you need some new friends. If you’re a female reading this who has undoubtedly dieted on and off, gone from 5-10kgs overweight, to a healthy weight, to being too thin and back again, did the opinion or amount of love and respect your loved ones have for you change at all? NO it didn’t, so stop letting it dictate the opinion you have of yourself. Now don’t get me wrong, if you can be hormonally healthy and happy and still have visible abs then more power to you! But if not then its time to reassess whats really important. What is going to bring substance, fulfilment and true happiness to your life?

Ahh shucks, that was a little bit of a side track. My apologies.

Back to the carbohydrates…

When is it a good idea to go out of your way to include or increase the amount of carbohydrates in your diet?

– If you’re doing any form of HIIT, or if you’re doing a significant amount of training of any sort.
– If you’re an active person in your day-to-day life.
– If you’ve been doing low carb or very low carb for a while and have hit a plateau.
– If you have any form of adrenal insufficiency.
– If you have low thyroid function.
– If you’re having difficulties with sleep despite all other factors being dialled in.
– If you’re under a lot of stress
– If you have menstrual cycle irregularities

The other thing that’s important to keep in mind is that if you starve yourself of carbohydrates, you will be starving your gut bacteria too. That’s a no bueno if you ask me. Over 70% of your immune system lies in your gut and your gut microbiome is also responsible for contributing to the regulation of your metabolism amongst countless other regularity processes in your body. They need a certain amount of dietary fibre (from carbohydrate based foods preferably fruits and vegetables) to survive and thrive. If you want to be optimally healthy you have got to look after your little friends.

I realise I’ve sounded like a bit of a pro carb natzi for most of this post so as previously mentioned I’d like to point out that there are definitely situations in which sticking to a low carb or very low carb diet may be more beneficial than not. This includes those of you with neurological conditions, Cancer, Diabetes, yeast or parasitic infections, dysbiosis or PCOS. If you’re wanting the benefits of both low carb and higher carb, in some instances, carbohydrate cycling can be used. As I said though, this is not a blanket recommendation. More on carb cycling in future posts.

So whats the underlying message in all of this?

There is no one size fits all approach. 

Just because something worked great for lean and mean Jenny from pilates or big bad Mike from cross fit (yeah I know, I have to work on the names vocabulary), doesn’t mean its going to work for you. And just because something worked for you once, doesn’t mean its going to be the right way to eat forever. I believe good old Einy (aka Albert Einstein, we’re on nickname basis these days) put it nicely:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Well said champ. Well. Said.

So now that you’ve been made utterly confused, I will let you scroll back through the posts and try answering some of those questions. If you can’t then contact someone who can help you! I usually find most (but not all) people do well in the range of 75-150g carbohydrates/day. Whether you do best at the lower end of that range or the higher end will vary significantly from individual to individual so don’t be afraid to experiment! As mentioned before, timing of these carbohydrates can be another strategic way to optimise results and help you achieve your goals. But that’s another post for another day.

Until next time,
Nat X