It’s quite debatable whether carbohydrates are essential for human nutrition, but for most people, they’re the fuel their body runs on. Going on an extreme low-carb or no-carb diet causes some folks to have barely enough energy to hoist a coffee cup in the morning. At the opposite end of the scale, overdoing it on carbs, even the good ones, ends up having a negative impact on mood, weight, energy, digestion, immunity, and more. In my practice, I would say most people seem to eat more carbs than their metabolism can handle.
How to locate the healthy middle ground? Listen to your body and learn what it needs. Granted, it can be challenging at first to have to pay such close attention, but with practice, your body will teach you how to truly nourish it—not just mindlessly feed it.
To start the process of listening to and interpreting what your body really needs, take this simple Carb Quiz, answering yes or no to each question, and track your responses:
1. Do you gain weight easily when your diet includes a lot of “healthy” carbs such as whole grains, legumes, and even fresh fruit?
2. Do you feel foggy-headed or tired shortly after consuming carbohydrates?
3. Do you frequently crave sweets and/or starchy foods?
4. Do you feel light-headed, shaky, irritable, or anxious if you don’t eat every 3–4 hours?
5. Do you turn to sweets or carbs when you’re feeling anxious, tired, or depressed?
6. Do you have a difficult time controlling how much sugar or carbs you eat?
7. Do you have dramatic energy ups and downs throughout the day?
8. Does your weight fluctuate easily?
9. Do you tend to gain weight in your face and around your abdomen, more so than on your hips and thighs?
10. Do you have a fasting blood sugar level higher than 95, a HbA1c higher than 5.5, or a fasting triglyceride level higher than 100 mg/dL?
11. Do you have a family history of diabetes, heart disease, or obesity?
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be carbohydrate intolerant or eating more carbs than your system can handle or process efficiently. To combat the negative effects, your first order of business is to cut out the sweet and starchy “white” and refined foods. If you’ve already done that, take it a step further. Try cutting back on or avoiding all grains (including whole grains), legumes, and high-sugar fresh fruits. If you must have a daily treat, a small amount of low-sugar berries like blueberries may be OK for you—but you’ll have to monitor how your body reacts to know for sure.
Next, you’ll need to experiment a bit to find the right amount of carbs for your body and to find out how your life circumstances affect your ability to tolerate carbs. Stress, sleep, exercise, and other factors can all affect your tolerance, so you’ll need to find your individual balance and tipping points. For example, you may be able to enjoy oatmeal and a little fruit for a relaxed Sunday brunch but need to avoid those on high-stress work days. Perhaps you can manage sweet potatoes for dinner when you’ve had a good night’s sleep but might feel better if you switch to broccoli or cauliflower after a sleepless night of dealing with a colicky baby. By tuning into how carbs are interacting with what’s going on in your life, you’ll be able to zero in on the carb balance that makes you feel energetic, calm, and craving-free.
If you don’t have the bandwidth initially to closely monitor how carbs are affecting you every time you eat them, then you may find it simpler—or perhaps necessary—to cut out high-carb foods altogether for two weeks and see how you feel.
So, are you ready to take on the carb monster? Here are three ways to rise to the challenge:
- Start fresh. Cut out all sugars, beans, and grains for four weeks, including brown rice, corn, oats, and even quinoa. Let your grain-free experience help guide you towards finding the right carb level for you.
- Eat more green leafy vegetables and healthy fats. These foods will fill you up while providing you with vital nutrients. You’ll have a better chance of finding your healthiest level of grains if you’re also getting enough of other types of food.
- Exercise. You might be able to tolerate more carbs if you give your body the vigorous movement that it craves. A sedentary life and a high-grain diet burdens your body with the worst of both worlds.
Lastly, no matter where you fall on the carb spectrum, don’t forget to inspire your palate. For a few delicious ways to manage your carbs wisely, take a look at our favorite low-carb swaps and dig in!