Updated: Oct 9, 2018
This might seem like a silly question to many of you! But hear us out, as you may realise you are eating too many, or too few carbohydrates like we did! It’s more common than you might think to under eat, as opposed to over eating. Those who are most at risk for not eating enough are busy people, anyone suffering from stress of Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation (formerly adrenal fatigue), females, hypothyroid disorders, athletes, highly active people, and pregnant women.
There is no one size fits all approach to diet.
Some people thrive on a high carb diet, others on a high fat diet. Food is more than calories, it’s powerful information for our body. Good quality food will nourish us, and optimise metabolism, gut health, and conversely bad food will negatively impact cellular health, inflammation, blood sugar levels, etc. Good quality food is more nutrient dense, and thus more satisfying and tends to satiate us more than poor quality food, even if it has the same calories. To read more about why quality matters, click here
Quality over quantity
While food quality is substantially more important than merely counting calories, for some specific populations we do need to hone in on calorie intake to promote or regain health. Because carbohydrate has the biggest impact on insulin and blood sugar, (followed by protein, and then fat with the least impact), carbohydrate intake is the most important macronutrient for most people to address. Protein doesn’t typically require as much adjustment, and it also tends to be self limiting whereas our body either craves it if we need more, or becomes averse to it if we are eating too much. Some health conditions compromise the digestion of protein, say in cases of poor gut health, and conditions like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or low stomach acid, or when a female is pregnant.
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs
This is pretty common sense, Anything processed, packaged with a big list of ingredients, or made from white flour (which raises blood sugar more than table sugar!) is probably a bad idea. Whole grains are also not the best solution as they are void of nutrients, and high in empty carbohydrates which drives up blood sugar, creates cravings and digestive problems. And then there is the gluten issue.
Better choices for healthy carbohydrates come from real foods and plants. Fruit, plantains, starchy vegetables like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, potatoes etc are better, more nutrient rich choices. And then there is white rice (rather than brown), gluten free oats which tend to be less of a problem for most people, high in carbohydrate content but again low in nutrients.
Which carbs count?
It’s good practice to only count carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, starchy plants and fruit. Non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber or lettuce contain carbohydrates, but they contain a very low number of carbs, usually just a few grams. Additionally carbohydrates from fibrous vegetables are challenging for humans to break down, and it cost us energy to do so, so the net gain of carbohydrate is probably pretty minimal, if not zero.
As people become health conscious and switch from a standard processed diet to a lower carb, paleo style diet which is generally healthy for most people in good health, there is a common tendency to under eat. So for example say you switch up your diet to cut out the carbohydrate loaded pastas, breads, pastries and sugar / flour products to a cleaner whole foods, paleo style diet of fiberous vegetables, healthy fat and protein. By cutting many of the carbohydrate rich foods from the diet, really all that is left is fruit, vegetables, rice, and starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. In the above example you can see how a well intentioned nutrition upgrade can accidentally end up low-carb.
Counting Calories is not an exact science
Even the world’s best calorie counter cannot accurately tell you your exact calorie intake from your food, or your precise energy expenditure. There are far too many variables and if you wrong by 100 calories a day, it would mean that over the course of a decade you would gain over 20kg. And so daily energy intake, and calorie estimates are merely guidelines that can help push us towards our goal, and help us adjust and course correct from there.
Addressing carbohydrate intake is best sorted into the 4 categories below. Very low, low, moderate and high carbohydrate categories. If you fit into the weight loss/gain or maintain goals or specific populations on the right of the table, you should ideally aim to match that level or carbohydrate intake for best results. Generally if you are gaining weight, or overweight you are eating too many carbohydrates for your body type or current situatio
Image courtesy of Kresser Instituute ADAPT framework
Lower carbohydrate intake is important for neurological and cognitive conditions, obesity, Diabetes, mood issues, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and digestive problems. Low carb can also be useful for the healing benefits of ketosis, IF there are no underlying health issues. Some people really thrive on intermittent fasting approaches, and high fat diets, others do not. Low carb diets can be really helpful in reducing inflammation, enhancing healing, and helping the body become more energy efficient to utilise ingested calories.
Is a good option for those who are generally healthy and active who want to maintain their weight. Because carbohydrates are needed for Conversion of T4 to T3, many people with hypothyroid may need to increase their carb intake, especially if they are following the Auto Immune Paleo diet. This category is super important for people with classic chronic fatigue and HPA-axis dysregulation (HPA-D) which is very common in modern society due to chronic stress. People suffering from Familial Hypercholesterolemia do not do well on high fat diets and often need to plan for a moderate carb intake. People with the above conditions often lose weight and feel more energised rapidly after increasing carbohydrate intake.
Not Enough Food Ignites the Stress Response
If you go don’t eat enough, then you will likely engage your fight and flight survival mechanisms.
When blood sugar is low, the brain perceives it as a stressful event and the adrenal glands produce cortisol to boost blood sugar. Seeing as though many people who are stressed or have HPA axis dysregulation have blood sugar issues, it’s important to eat a moderate carbohydrate diet, and every few hours to prevent blood sugar fluctuations and additional stress. Meals should be balanced of macronutrients to include carbs, fat and protein, never just carbohydrate alone. Increasing meal frequency and carbohydrate content can have dramatic results for stressed individuals!
Tends to work best with extremely active people or athletes, or those who are attempting to gain weight and or muscle. Pregnant women also need an increased carbohydrate diet, given their aversion to protein during pregnancy because or reduced urea synthesis.
Certain sports and activities benefit from differing carbohydrate intake:
- High-intensity sports benefit from higher carb intake (40 to 50% of calories)
- Endurance sports may benefit from lower carb intake (7 to 20% of calories)
- Majority of athletes will do best between 20 and 50% of calories from carbohydrates
The most important determinant of muscle building is total calorie intake, combined with . protein intake throughout the day. Fasted High Intensity training can cause increased muscle breakdown and impair recovery so pre workout meals are important for those who are highly active, seeking to build muscle. Most athletes will eat within the 3 hour post workout anabolic window workout anyway, so consuming carbohydrates 30 to 45 minutes pre-workout is more important for building muscle.
The ideal pre-workout meal would contain about 30 grams of carbohydrate and 15 grams of protein. The average person doesn’t need a pre-workout meal or post-workout meal if they are generally healthy and the goal is weight loss or leaning out.
Many people still think that carbs are best eaten in the morning and not at night. The opposite is true, and we are generally best suited to avoiding carbs in the morning. When cortisol levels are the highest in the morning, we are least insulin sensitive, meaning it’s the worst time to eat them. A high protein and high fat breakfast has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar.
At night our cortisol levels are the lowest (or should be!) Eating quality carbs at night will help improve sleep because carbohydrates help produce serotonin at night to calm the brain. Gelatinous cuts of meat at night like chicken off the bone with the skin, bone broth or turkey can help provide the body with L-tryptophan, the procurer to serotonin, and melatonin which helps with relaxation and sleep. Many people who are undereating carbohydrates sleep much better by increasing carbohydrate intake through their day, and before bed.
So how do you calculate?
Once you have determined which category you should fall into, you can work off rough percentages and estimate based on what you are currently eating, and take note of how your body responds. If you want to get more mathematical and precise method, you can calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) HERE.
You’ll need to enter your height, weight, age, gender, activity level and body composition goals to be provided with your total daily calorie requirements. From there you can go back and estimate you daily macros (how much protein, fat and carbohydrates you might need.) If you have a specific condition, or weight loss goal, or are aiming to eat high/low carbs or fat etc., you can play around with the ratios to then estimate how many grams of each will get you to your need. So if you know you want to eat around 30% of carbs, you’ll tweak the protein and fat intake on the calculator till your percentage estimates match.
If you need a hand, let us know and we hope this takes you closer towards health!