Carbohydrates – Everything You Need to Know

Carbohydrates, otherwise known as simply “carbs” are being unjustly demonized today much like fat has been for nearly four decades now. Today, more reliable nutrition science is providing clear evidence that like Fat, Carbohydrates are not all created equal. In fact, some carbohydrates can be hugely beneficial; supplying our bodies with the health promoting micronutrients it needs to thrive, while others can be downright destructive, promoting weight gain, inflammation and a host of metabolic issues.

Carbs, in general, is a very efficient macronutrient. In essence what this means is that carbs are much easier for our bodies to breakdown and process than protein. Efficiency relates closely to what is known as the thermic effect of food: a measure of how much different foods increase energy expenditure, due to the energy required to digest, absorb and metabolize the nutrients. (1)

Outlined here is the thermic effect of carbs vs. protein:
  • Carbs: 6-8% thermic effect.
  • Protein: 25-30% thermic effect

There are slight variations on the exact percent, but if we take the acceptable lower limit of 6% for carbohydrates and 25% for protein, what this tells us is that 100 calories of carbohydrates would end up being 94 calories to our body, while 100 calories of protein would only end up being 75 calories.

This clearly proves that carbohydrates require much less energy by the body to metabolize making them much less stimulating to our metabolism. (2)

This also provides fairly sound evidence that all calories are NOT created equal, demonstrating that the calories from bread and pasta are not the same when it come to our body’s biological processes, as the calories from eggs and beef. (3)

In our bodies, all carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides, or simple sugars, before they’re absorbed by the body, regardless of whether the food source is table sugar or a bowl of slow cooked oatmeal. These monosaccharides (sugars) are then used by the body for energy.

When the body doesn’t need to use these sugars for immediate energy, it stores the remainder in the liver and muscles through the process known as Glycogenesis. When the liver and muscle reserves are full (approximately 500 grams or 2000 calories since each gram of carbs supplies the body with four calories) excess sugars broken down from carbohydrate ingestion will then be shuttled off to our adipose tissue to be stored as body fat. (4, 5, 6)

Carbohydrates are usually divided into two types: complex and simple. This is based on their chemical structure and reflects how quickly they’re digested and absorbed.

Complex Carbohydrates

These carbohydrates are mainly referred to as starches and are made up of three or more sugar molecules linked together. These carbo­hydrates are found in whole grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and certain fruits. They differ from simple carbohydrates, which are only made up of one or two linked sugar molecules. Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to break down than simple carbohydrates, helping to maintain a steadier blood-sugar level.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars and are made up of one or two sugar molecules linked together. Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits and milk prod­ucts. Simple carbohydrates also include fruit juice, table sugar, honey, syrups, soft drinks, candy, baked goods and all other processed and refined foods. These foods have very little to no nutrient value and are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly. A majority of these items will fall into the empty calorie category and are very easily converted to body fat.

No matter if you’re choosing complex or simple carbs, if over consumed the likelihood of you losing weight (no matter how much you exercise) is slim. In fact, even if you are exercising, if you are over-consuming your carb intake you will most likely gain weight.

4 Point Carb Picking Overview

How should you be picking your carbohydrate intake to maximize nutrient density while optimally regulating blood sugars, energy balance, stress, mood, satiety and cognitive function while minimizing the risk of weight gain, hormonal disruption and metabolic abnormalities?

  1. Maximize your carbohydrate intake from high leafy green and cruciferous vegetables like: cauliflower, cabbage, Rutabaga, turnips, Arugula, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, spinach
  2. Moderate your carbohydrate intake from complex starches such as beans, tubers and whole grains.
  3. Minimize processed bread, cereal, rice, pasta and fruit.
  4. Eliminate sugar and refined flours.

Debunking the Carb Controversy

As outlined above there seems to be a ton of controversy today around the subject of carbohydrates. How much do we really need? What’s the ratio for a healthy diet? Can we actually take in too little? How much is too much? Do they make us fat?

Depending on where the information is coming from you will get various answers, but none of the information seems to stem from any real hard scientific evidence. In fact, most of the information you are receiving is based purely on speculation, and to be blunt, it’s just old, outdated, and in my opinion, wrong.

First of all, just to set the record straight, the lower limit of dietary carbohydrates compatibly with life is ZERO provided adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed. (7)

To prove this fact, look up the term essential protein. You will find there is a list of 21 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, meaning you absolutely must get them from your diet or your body will break down. (8)

Then look up the term essential fat. You will find that there are two fatty acids you absolutely must get from your diet or your body won’t function properly. (9)

Now try to look up the term essential carbohydrate. You will be amazed to know that (scientifically) there is NO SUCH THING. You’ve heard me correctly, carbohydrates are not essential to our survival.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I said carbohydrate, not glucose. You see, we are lead to believe that we need carbohydrates for energy, especially brain function. The fact is, the brain runs on about 120 grams of glucose per/day to function and operate, but it’s a huge misconception that we need to get that supply through our dietary carbohydrate intake.

Our body has the amazing ability of converting fatty acids or certain glucogenic amino acids to glucose through a process called Gluconeogenesis or “GNG” (gluco = sugar) – (neo = new) – (genesis = creation). Therefore, even on a diet made up of ZERO carbohydrates (which I am not advocating at all) our body would still produce plenty of glucose to meet the brain and other energy demands.

Look, I agree, some carbohydrates in our diet are healthy especially vegetable based or low glycemic fruits and starches in proportionate amounts, but not forty to sixty percent deriving mostly from sources like breads, cereals, rice, and pasta.

How Many Carbs Should You Eat Per Day to Lose Weight?

Simply put, reducing the amount of carbohydrates in your diet is one of the best ways to lose weight. Reducing your carb intake tends to reduce your appetite and cause “automatic” weight loss, without the need for calorie counting or portion control. In essence what this means is that you can eat until fullness, feel satisfied and still lose weight, while never being hungry.

Although there is no clear definition of exactly what constitutes a low carb diet (and what is considered low for one person may not signify low for another), the truth is that an individual’s optimal carbohydrate intake can depend widely on these components: age, gender, body composition, activity level, personal preference and current metabolic health.

For instance, people who are physically active and have more muscle mass can tolerate more carbohydrates than people who are sedentary. This particularly applies for those who do a lot of high intensity, anaerobic work like lifting weights.

Metabolic health is also a very important factor. When people get metabolic syndrome, become obese or become a type II diabetic, the rules then completely change. People who fall into these categories can’t tolerate the same amount of carbohydrates as those who are healthy. Some professionals refer to these metabolic issues as “carbohydrate intolerance.” (10)

So the bottom line here is an optimal carbohydrate range varies between individuals, depending on activity levels and current metabolic health.

Carbohydrate consumption guidelines:

By simply removing the unhealthiest carbohydrate sources from your diet, including sugary drinks and juices, refined flour and added sugars you will then have taken a huge step toward improved health. However, to enjoy the full metabolic benefits you will need to go one step further, restricting other carbohydrate sources as well.

Although there is no scientific paper that explains exactly how to match carbohydrate intake to individual needs, I have personally found the guidelines I am going to outline for you here to be very beneficially effective.

200 – 300 Grams Per/Day

This range is optimal for athletes who are lean, extremely active and simply want to stay healthy and maintain their weight.

  • Consume all the vegetables you desire.
  • Consume 3 to 4 pieces of fruit per day.
  • Consume moderate amounts of healthy starches like potatoes, sweet potatoes and healthier whole grains like long grain rice and oats.
100 – 150 Grams Per/Day

This range is adequate for people who are lean, active and simply want to stay healthy and maintain their weight.

  • Consume all the vegetables you desire.
  • Consume 2 to 3 pieces of fruit per day.
  • Consume moderate amounts of healthy starches like potatoes, sweet potatoes and healthier whole grains like long grain rice and oats.
50 – 100 Grams Per/Day

This range works well for people who are metabolically healthy but are looking to drop some weight. It is also a great maintenance range for people who are carb sensitive.

  • Consume plenty of vegetables.
  • Consume 1 to 2 pieces of fruit per day.
  • Minimize the amount of starchy carbohydrates you consume.
25 – 50 Grams Per/Day

This range is for those who are 50 plus pound over-weight and/or are battling with metabolic abnormalities like obesity, metabolic syndrome or type II diabetes. When eating less than 50 grams per/day your body will eventually slip into a kenotic state or what is known as ketosis, supplying you brain and body energy via ketone bodies. At this point your body will be forced to burn body fat as its main energy source.

  • Consume an abundance of cruciferous and dark leafy green vegetables.
  • Consume moderate amounts of foods like avocados, nuts and seeds.
  • Minimize your starches and fruits only picking from low glycemic sources until you are within (below) 50 pounds of your healthy weight. (11)

Be aware that a low-carb diet is NOT a no-carb diet. There is room for plenty of low glycemic choices available. Glycemic Index Chart