There’s been a lot of talk about the right amount of carbohydrates to eat lately. Laura Schoenfeld started us off with her article about the possible detriments of eating a low-carbohydrate diet for too long, and Chris Kresser followed this up with his discussion of the common misconceptions people tend to have about low-carb diets. They’ve done the heavy lifting here and provided lots of scientific evidence to back up cases where a higher or lower carbohydrate diet might be beneficial.
What I want to get into today is the practical aspect: how do you determine the amount of carbohydrates that’s right for you?
To do this, I’ll walk you through the step-by-step process that I take with clients so you can start to think about it for yourself. While many people find it easier to work with a professional on this, I think it can also be done on your own. The important thing to remember is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
When most people start a Paleo diet, they typically start a low- (and sometimes very low) carbohydrate diet. They get in the habit of not including starchy tubers and fruits. Some people will thrive on a diet like this, which is fantastic. Others might feel great for a while, but then slowly start to feel more fatigued, have more difficulty during workouts (and even more problems recovering), and overall just don’t feel so great. Guess which clients I’m going to be seeing?
I see the clients who don’t thrive on low-carbohydrate diets. They come to me wondering what they’ve done wrong and why they’re feeling sick when all they’ve done is followed the Paleo diet to a T – and that’s why this conversation is so important to have. We need to make sure that folks starting the Paleo diet understand that there’s a range of carbohydrate levels that can be consumed, and that everyone will feel best at a different level. I can’t tell you how many of my clients have come to me legitimately scared to eat carbohydrates of any kind. I don’t think any diet should cause people to be afraid of an entire macronutrient. All of us here at ChrisKresser.com believe in personalization, and that’s exactly what I’ll be teaching you about today.
Let’s go through the 3-step process I use to help clients determine their ideal carbohydrate intake.
Step 1: Consider Underlying Diseases/Conditions
This is critical. If you have diabetes, you’re likely going to do better on a lower carbohydrate diet (though check out some of the comments under Laura’s article – even diabetics don’t all thrive on low-carb). If you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, you’ll probably want to limit your carbohydrate consumption while you treat the SIBO. Note the emphasis there: for someone with a gut dysbiosis issue, a low-carbohydrate diet is used as a therapeutic intervention and isn’t meant to be continued for life. I see so many clients who started a low-carb diet because they wanted to use it therapeutically, only to never try reintroducing those foods again.
If you have adrenal fatigue, you’ll likely feel better on a more moderate carbohydrate diet along with eating snacks to keep your blood sugar stable. Breastfeeding? You’ll definitely want some carbs, too. The point here is that there are many conditions that affect how your body deals with carbohydrates, so you need to take these into consideration when thinking about how much carbohydrate you might do well with.
Chris discusses the different levels of carbohydrates that work best for a variety of conditions in his book, Your Personal Paleo Code (published in paperback as The Paleo Cure in December 2014). I’ve listed them in the chart below:
Step 2: Get Started!
If you are an overall healthy person (and you either don’t exercise or exercise moderately), I suggest starting on a moderate carbohydrate diet and experimenting from there. When I first start working with a client who has no underlying health issues and wants to find their ideal carbohydrate intake, I often have them begin by implementing what I like to call “The Rule of Thirds”. That is, their plate should be ⅓ protein, ⅓ starchy tubers, and ⅓ non-starchy vegetables. It ends up being a moderate carbohydrate diet (though it depends on their calorie intake of course) – not astronomically high like the Standard American Diet, and nowhere near a ketogenic diet. Eating three meals a day like this also means they’re less likely to skimp on calories (and I’ll work with them to make sure this is the case).
If you do have a condition that would affect your carbohydrate intake (diabetes, hypoglycemia, thyroid disease, adrenal fatigue, etc) and/or you exercise a lot, refer to the chart in Step 1 to know what carbohydrate level you should begin with.
If you have multiple conditions that place you in seemingly opposite carbohydrate levels, I suggest working with a practitioner to help you craft a diet that will suit you best.
Step 3: Experiment! (And Take Notes)
From there, we experiment. Sometimes the carbohydrate intake will feel too high. It might trigger cravings for sweets, or perhaps increase their blood sugar too much.
I’ll have my client track their meals and take notes along the way with how they’re feeling so we can really see what’s going on. This is a crucial (and often overlooked) part of the process. If you’re not taking notes and keeping track of your meals, the experimentation phase can feel downright overwhelming. Being able to look back and track how your symptoms change with a concurrent change in carbohydrate intake is vital to figuring out the right level for you. If there’s a disease we’re dealing with (i.e. diabetes or adrenal fatigue), we focus on tracking those symptoms (blood sugar and fatigue, respectively) to see how they change. I have my clients use an app called Meal Logger for this task, where they can take pictures of their meals and keep notes on their symptoms.
If the carbohydrate level seems to be a bit high for the client, we bring it down. If it feels too low (perhaps they’re still feeling sluggish and are having trouble with their workouts), we’ll try bringing it up and monitoring their reaction. Eventually, we settle on the sweet spot.
So there you have it – my step-by-step process for determining your ideal carbohydrate intake. I hope seeing this helps you start this experiment for yourself and find what’s right for you. Don’t feel like you need to put yourself in a low-carb or high-carb camp – you just need to do what works for you! There’s a huge spectrum of carbohydrate intake; it’s just a matter of finding where you should lie on it. This is something I help clients with all the time, so if you’re having any trouble, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Now I want to hear from you. Have you found your ideal carbohydrate intake? What’s the process you used?
This is a guest post written by Kelsey Marksteiner MS, RD. Kelsey is a Registered Dietitian with a Bachelors degree in Nutrition from NYU and a Master’s in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. She works in private practice and recommends individualized dietary therapy focusing on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in losing weight, gaining energy, and pursuing continued health. She is a firm believer that everyone is different, and she tailors her plan for each and every individual. Through her work, she aims to meld the dietary wisdom of traditional cultures with the latest science in integrative and functional medicine to create plans for her clients that work in the modern world. You can learn more about Kelsey on her staff bio page, or by visiting her private practice website. Join her newsletter here!