Carb confusion – how much is enough?

2nd May

I have always enjoyed my carbs but for a good while remained at a loss not knowing how much I actually needed to achieve my goals, and I didn't like it at all. Satisfyingly, on a long and delicious journey as a nutritionist and bodybuilder, I figured out simple ways to tell what's the right amount of carbs. A priceless cue for anyone who wants to improve their body and performance - carbohydrates are a supreme regulator of metabolism; so let's take a look.

A lot has been written about the notorious C of the Big Three but do you really know your macros? Did you realise that you would not be able to stay alive if you stopped eating protein? Or fat? Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are not essential to anyone's diet, meaning you could live happily without them. This is not to say you should. As much as non-essential to survival, having the right amount of carbs will get you what you want faster - losing fat, running longer or lifting more.

The nitty-gritty

Would it shock you if I said that if you're a male with more than 10% of body fat or a female carrying more than 15%, you don't deserve your morning porridge or post-workout bananas? Or any fruit at all for that matter? If Abs for the Summer is your plan, this is, brutally perhaps, your reality. And even if shredded abs are not on your mind but you could really do with dropping a few sloppy pounds, facing the low-carb hard-facts is the first thing I recommend you do.

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I promise, it's not as painful as you may think. As much as eating too many carbs is The Fastest way to get fat, you need some to maintain good energy levels and a sexy body. Just know how many.

How much carbohydrates should I have?

First, realise that there are no two identical metabolisms (unless you have a twin or a clone) and the exact same diet (and amount of carbs) may work for one person but cause someone else to gain fat. The differences are this significant.

State of the art research shows that people with a certain genetic type can only tolerate 20 g of carbohydrates in a day. That's one serving of veggies! Other types (Chinese or Croatians, for example) handle 500 g a day easily. A person with this type of genetics needs a good amount of carbs in their diet to loose body fat efficiently. Most people are, nevertheless, at the other end of the spectrum and carbs are simply not their friend.

These differences are the reason why a skinny vegan with a massive social media following seems to thrive on grains and fruit but you (just like the other 75% of the population) may need steak and butter instead to achieve similar (slimming) results.

Now, if you can't pop over the the US and get genetically tested by the leading researcher in the field Dr Lucia Aronica, below are 3 simple methods to determine how much carbohydrate is right for you.

Step 1

Perform a 'morning carbohydrate test' courtesy of the most successful strength coach in history, Charles Poliquin of strengthsensei.com. It's easy to do and correlates very well with insulin sensitivity (carb tolerance, that is) results you would get in a dedicated laboratory. It goes like this:

  1. As you wake up in the morning, rate your energy level on the scale of 1 to 10. '10' meaning you can't wait to start the day, you feel happy and motivated; '1' meaning you experience brain fog, lack of motivation and all you want to do is go back to sleep.

  2. Now, have a high-carb breakfast, such as pancakes with maple syrup or porridge with bananas and honey, you can add another great source of sugar - orange juice.

  3. If, an hour later, you feel sleepy, tired and irritated, carbs are not for you, especially not this early in the day. Instead, you should wake up to a good portion of protein and fat - no juice or fruit! If, to the contrary, your energy level increases and you're ready to smash the day, you can enjoy carbs guilt free and anytime.

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Step 2

To find out the exact number of grams of carbohydrates that works for your metabolism, you will have to invest a little patience to experiment and observe:

  1. Start a food diary and log the amount of protein, fats and carbs in each meal you consumed.

  2. Next to each entry write down your energy levels and mood experienced an hour after each

    meal.

  3. Experiment with lower carbs (but higher fat) days (or weeks), then switch to higher carb

    periods - observe and write down what happens. You will need a food scale and some perseverance but it's worth the effort. In a few weeks you will know exactly how well you tolerate carbs and how to structure your diet with the right proportions of all three macronutrients.

Step 3

You can also get hold of a metabolic typing questionnaire. It's extensive but once you've answered all the questions you will know, with pretty good approximation, what amounts of carbs, fats and protein work the best for you. If you leave a comment below this article, we will get you a copy of the questionnaire.

Wrapping it all up, your goals are an important fact to consider in this process. Wanting to lose body fat quickly means going low-carb. Unless you belong to the minority of genetic types who thrive on carbohydrates. Introducing occasional higher carbohydrate days here and there (so called carb cycling) is a good idea when getting lean, too. When you're focused on a specific performance goal or maybe gaining some muscle, the story becomes much more complex and goes beyond the scope of this little write up. In any case, you now know, carbs matter. 

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