Carbohydrates have been debated heavily in the world of nutrition as of late. Many still believe that you should avoid fat and that carbs are what you should be eating, while others say that you should cut carbs completely. When we talk about carbohydrates in this sense, I am not talking about vegetables. I am talking about carbohydrates that cause a significant spike in insulin. Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for storing glucose; whether that be in the muscles, or as fat. This is fine except that when it is released too much and too often it can increase the risk of issues including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and overall inflammation. This is why many people are shunning carbs completely. After my many years of studying nutrition inside and outside of college, here are four things to think about when deciding your carbohydrate intake.
1. Choose The Best Ones
If carbohydrates are going to be a part of your diet, they should be from real foods. White rice, sweet potatoes, and fruits that aren’t as high in sugar is where most of your carbohydrates should come from. There should be no added sugars in your diet. Added sugars are present when a company takes some type of food and simply adds sugars to it. These foods are usually clearly unhealthy ones like cookies, cakes, and sodas. It can be tricky though because sugar tends to be hidden in many foods you would not expect. Protein bars usually contain high amounts of added sugar even though many consider them “healthy”. In fact, many so-called “health products” are secretly loaded with sugar. It makes it taste sweet and stimulates a nice release of hormones like dopamine. It can actually be addictive so it makes you want the product more. And just because it is “organic sugar” doesn’t make it any better. It may be slightly less toxic, but the spike in insulin will be the same. Simply put, these added sugars cause inflammation, and spike insulin much more than real food ever will.
2. Carb Timing
Timing your carbohydrates can be extremely valuable as well. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
- Don’t eat carbohydrates in the morning. Many people complain of a midday crash. If you ask them what they ate for breakfast it is usually something like; “toast with jelly, and orange juice.” That meal is basically pure sugar. This causes a massive insulin spike to store all of the sugar, and it leaves you in the opposite state after. You now have low blood sugar, and you are tired and craving…you guessed it: more carbs and sugar! So instead of eating carbohydrates first thing in the morning, save them for later in the day when your glucose stores need to be replenished. Timing them this way may even help you sleep better too!
- Don’t do the six-meals-a-day thing. Sorry to say, but the entire “eat six meals a day” thing is kind of bogus. If you want to be a 300 pound bodybuilder maybe you need to eat six meals. But to be a high performance healthy person it is not the way to go. It doesn’t “keep your metabolism running”. The idea behind this is something along the lines of “eat every two hours so your metabolism is constantly running, and this way you are constantly burning energy”. There are many issues I have with this. First, you are spiking insulin all day, and we talked above about the issues that can cause. Second, if you are constantly digesting and storing food, your body is not going to be in a state of burning it. This is not optimal for someone with a job that requires their brains to be working at high performance. This is why things like intermittent fasting work so well. You are burning stored energy all day, your insulin stays low, and your digestive system isn’t constantly running.
3. How Many
This is the hardest one to answer since everyone’s body is different. Some people can eat plenty of carbs and have no negative issues, while some will have issues with just one serving. So first I will say that what is recommended in many textbooks is flat out stupid. Some books recommend eating up to 65% of your total calories from carbohydrates. That is way too much. Ever since we have shunned fat, and made recommendations like the one above, the rate of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease have skyrocketed. This is because everyone is constantly spiking their insulin and it is doing massive damage. The amount of sugar consumed by the average American has increased about 30% in the last three decades (link below), and as you can guess, so have metabolic diseases like, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
So do not eat 65% of your diet from carbohydrates, because it will leave you sick, tired, hungry, and broke from medical bills. Instead, look at how much you really need. If you are an athlete training everyday, then having extra carbohydrates will benefit you in recovering and restoring your energy. Maybe doing up to 25% of your caloric intake from carbohydrates could be beneficial. On the other hand, if you are someone who works most of the time and doesn’t exercise nearly as much, a ketogenic diet may be something more suited to you since your glucose demand is not nearly as high, and ketones (and energy source created from fat when you don’t eat carbohydrates) can be a high performance fuel for the brain. The Bulletproof Diet (link below) is something that would be geared towards that as well.
4. Have Them With a Meal
Having your carbs with meal instead of having them on their own is a great way to slow the digestion of them, and to buffer the spike in insulin. Many people who do six meals a day will have “energy bars” as meal replacements. In reality they are literally just sugar bars and will give you a huge insulin spike when eaten by themselves. Instead, eating a real meal with vegetables and fats to complement your carbohydrates is a great way to buffer the insulin spike. Adding cinnamon to your meal can also ensure that your body can properly regulate the blood sugar.
I hope this clears up some of the confusion with carbohydrates, and allows you to make healthy decisions when adding them into your nutrition protocol.
*Note I am not a doctor and am not telling you to do anything. This blog is simply a representation of my life experience. Always consult your doctor before trying anything.