With all the talk about carbs in recent years and the rise of eating strategies to consciously cut them (e.g. ketogenic, paleo, etc.), there are two things we need to keep in mind: one size absolutely does not fit all and all carbs are not the same. For some of us, carbs are our metabolic Achilles heel, while for others, carbs seem to pose considerably less of a problem. So, it falls on each of us as individuals to figure out where we fall on the carb-o-meter — what’s too little, what’s too much. The idea is to find that carbohydrate ‘sweet spot’ where your weight, blood sugar, and blood pressure are on a healthy, even keel, and your body and brain have the energy they need to function well. Here are a few tips to help you find the carb lane that’s right for you.
Carbs — one size does not fit all.
A while back, I was surprised to discover I was carbohydrate intolerant! Though I ate what I thought was a very healthy diet, I was putting on weight, struggling with late-afternoon fatigue, and generally feeling out of sorts. When I checked my labs, I found that my blood sugar levels were in the pre-diabetic range, though I ate very little sugar, sweets, or “white” foods. I realized then that the culprit was the number of so-called “healthy” carbs I was consuming. It was an all-too-clear reminder that for me, overdoing it on these “healthy” carbs was a problem for my metabolism.
Turns out, my body simply wasn’t able to comfortably process the brown rice, quinoa, beans, sweet potatoes, and fruit that had been my mainstays. I just couldn’t handle all the sugar they released into my bloodstream, whereas my wife Janice had no problem with complex carbs. She thrived on root vegetables, black beans, garbanzos, and fresh fruit. I, however, didn’t. Once I cut the aforementioned “healthy” carbs, I lost the excess weight, regained my usual energy, and achieved healthy blood-sugar levels. The moral of the story: we are each individuals, each with our own unique tolerance — some low, some high — for carbs.
Processed carbs are trouble — and whole food carbs can be too.
I’m not saying no carbs at all for everyone, but many of us are eating far too much for our bodies to deal with. And if and when we do eat carbs, we carbohydrate intolerant folks should be eating complex carbs — as in slowly-digesting, whole, unprocessed foods that are loaded with fiber and devoid of added sugar. Berries of all stripes are a classic example of a fruit that ticks all the boxes, but again, don’t go overboard and keep track of the quantity. If the carbs in low-sugar fruits, root vegetables, and beans are messing with your metabolism — remember, even too many of these so-called “good guys” can cause problems — then try cutting portions down to size (say to a quarter of your usual intake or less) until you hit the amount you can tolerate. And if you think you can game the system by taking in smaller amounts of crappy (aka simple) carbs — like the ones that come from processed foods, be it white bread, pasta or a Coke — think again! All you’re likely to do is run out of gas faster while sending your metabolic markers headed in the wrong direction.
Got a touch of the carb creep or metabolic malaise?
Since my own experience, I’ve frequently noticed that my younger patients, especially the ones who exercise regularly, are more likely to be able to tolerate carbs. But with age, tolerance shifts. Why this happens is a topic of debate in nutritional circles, but it’s likely a combination of factors: a genetic predisposition combined with a sedentary, stressful, and sleep-deprived lifestyle, decades of processed foods and medications that have altered the microbiome, or even (unfortunately) over-consuming the healthy-seeming multigrain breads, bananas, and beans, which all turn to sugar in the blood. As time marches on, all of these factors can set off a carb intolerance that produces weight gain, fatigue, and excessive appetite, along with a host of other inflammatory symptoms: aches and pains, skin eruptions, hormonal issues, and digestive problems. The result? Blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar numbers start to creep upward — all of which are big clues that your ‘metabolic syndrome’ switch has been tripped, your personal threshold for tolerating carbs has lowered, and you need to act fast.
Defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a cluster of conditions (increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels), metabolic syndrome is the canary in the coal mine and it’s singing that you’re setting the table for killers like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. For most people, the simplest way to turn the ship around? Switch to a low-carbohydrate diet, nix sugar (added or otherwise) and reduce complex carbs dramatically, replacing them with plenty of non-starchy vegetables and generous amounts of fat. And, while you’re at it, start taking sleep seriously, work on repairing the gut, and increase the amount of movement you do. The low-carb diet, along with these other fundamental improvements, can often help restore order where there was previously metabolic chaos.
Curb your carbs and be accountable.
If you’re carb sensitive or intolerant, and tend to gain weight easily, tracking your daily ‘net carbs’ — that’s grams of carbs minus grams of fiber — is an excellent way to keep yourself accountable. So what’s the perfect number of carbs per day? It varies from person to person. But you’ll know for sure you’ve got to cut back when your doctor gives you what’s become the state-of-the-art test for metabolic health: hemoglobin A1C. A reading of 5.5 or above should be your wake-up call. Though you will need to experiment a bit, for some, the ideal carb count may be as low as 25 grams a day, while for others, as many as 100 grams. But again, you’ll need to monitor how your body reacts. If you’ve zeroed in on the carb balance that makes you feel energetic and craving-free then you’re on the right track. If you’re feeling lethargic, foggy, or down, then you probably have some more adjusting to do. Bottom line: cutting carbs lowers insulin levels, and when that happens, fat gets released and burned for energy, so switch that furnace on by turning off the carbs.
De-Carbing Your Life 101.
One of the interesting things about cleaning up your carb act is that it yields a really simple and clean way to eat. And lowered weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar are major bonuses as well.Nix any and all processed foods, low-fat or sugar-free faux foods, factory-farmed meats and fish, and so-called “healthy” vegetable oils like canola, corn, grapeseed, or soybean — they’re anything but. Also, stay far away from the following:
- Starches and grains, including whole grains, processed foods, and baked goods
- Starchy or high-carb veggies, high-sugar tropical fruits, dried fruits, and fruit juices
- Franken-sweeteners of all kinds, like Splenda, Equal, Sweet ’N Low, etc.
- Low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free processed foods
- And if necessary, cut back on legumes too
So what’s on the menu? Quite a bit, including:
- Grass-fed meats and pastured poultry, local, and/or certified organic
- Wild-caught fish and low-mercury fish
- Full-fat butter, cream, cheese, and eggs, from pastured or grass-fed animals
- Oils like avocado oil, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, lard, duck fat, goose fat
- Non starchy veggies, like leafy greens, avocados (technically a fruit), tomatoes, radishes, olives, zucchini, some cruciferous veggies
- Low-sugar fruits like raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, in small amounts
- Nuts and nut butters like almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans, walnuts
- Seeds like chia, flaxseed, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower
- Tea and coffee, preferably organic, non-GMO (with or without a touch of raw stevia)
Some extra tips
- Trade bread or tortillas for crunchy, fiber-rich leafy greens like collard greens, romaine and butter lettuce ‘wraps’
- Swap pasta noodles and layer your sauces over healthy, raw or lightly sautéed zucchini, kelp, or spaghetti squash noodles
- When you do drink alcohol, go for the lowest-carb options. Pure spirits like whiskey, vodka, and tequila are carb-free, and wine is better than beer. Avoid sweet drinks and mixers, which may contain a lot of sugar
Bottom line: We are all as different metabolically on the inside as we look on the outside. The fact that your spouse, best friend, and any number of cultures around the world thrive on high-carb diets doesn’t mean your individual metabolism can — even “healthy” fruits or root vegetables may be too much for your body to tolerate. So, it’s essential for you to discover the amount of carbs, even the “healthy” ones, that are right for you. When it comes to carbs, one size does not fit all.
Check out this blog to see how a low-carb diet can literally change your life.