The 3-Step Process to Determining Your Ideal Carbohydrate Intake

The 3-Step Process to Determining Your Ideal Carbohydrate Intake

by Chris Kresser

Last updated on

Cathy Yeulet/Hemera/Thinkstock

This is a guest post written by staff nutritionist Kelsey Marksteiner, RD. Click here to read her blog or join her newsletter!

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:

Carbbohydrate Intake Chart

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?

kelseyrd03This 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!

160 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. What do you do when you fit three out of the four categories? I feel schizophrenic! Adrenal issues, trying to gain muscle (hardgainer), SIBO, not so great one hour postprandial numbers.

  2. Hi
    I am a 28 year old woman and am 152 cm. Who is on 1300 cals 105 carbs 130 protein and 45 fat and while I gained muscle on this plan I have been struggling to lose the visceral fat and am always tired and foggy headed so decided to try something else. I have decided to change my macros to 1430 cals with 40% carbs (143grams) 35% protein (125grams) and 25% far (40 grams) Are these macros healthy and am I on the right track? I don’t want to gain more fat or lose the muscle I have worked hard to gain but am also scared to make a change from my routine or be on the wrong plan for me

  3. Hi,

    I currently am training at the gym 40-60 minutes 4 days a week weight training, and 2 days a week 30 minute cardio HIIT preferably. However, ive not lost any body fat as of yet, and i have been doing it for 5 weeks. I am 54kg 24 year old female.

    I have not been working out this week due to flu, and i am currently on 1,200 calories 40% Protein (130G), 30% Carbs (90G) and 30% fat (45G).

    while i am not active at all is this percentage range ok?

    also what range do you recommend for weight training and cardio fat loss not muscle loss.

  4. Howdy

    The article advises carbs amounts depending on lifestyle/conditions.

    However it doesn’t detail the split between main category of carbs: safe starches, fruits, sweet veggies [carrots, corn, beets,etc..] and carbs from non-sweet/non-starchy veggies.

    I guess it matters? 200g of carbs from fruit would have a different impact than 200g of carbs from potatoes?

    Thanks
    Mick

  5. Tired all the time my legs hurt,my back hurts and my chest hurts.i have lost interest in things I love to do like golf

    • I found when I went low carb I needed to dramatically increase my fat intake.

      Breakfast scramble egg in butter and sautéed spinach in butter

      Snack-6 almonds

      Lunch handful of shredded chicken half an avocado over a salad with olive oil and red apple cider vinegar (home meade with ITALIAN seasonings

      Snack peanut butter filled celery sticks

      Dinner, filet mignon, Brussels sprouts sautéed in butter, salad.

      Lost 28 lbs in 70 days and kept it off with same diet.

  6. After trying to implement diets to accomodate my numerous medical conditions, it seems there is no solution. Autoimmune hepatitis with periportal duct damage, type 2 diabetes, hashimotos with an isthmus nodule that exceeds acceptable limits, hypertension, venous insufficiency and osteoporosis/ osteopenia are taking their toll.

    Several years ago I tried a LCHP diet and the toxins overwhelmed my body causing venous insufficiency. The Paleo diet resulted in little weight loss and 135 lbs on this 5’5″ frame is unacceptable. Visceral fat is impossible to lose and prescribed steroids have caused my arms and legs to decrease in size and bruise easily.

    Though my bloodwork has improved greatly, the AST/ALT fluctuates constantly and is rarely in the low – normal range. I believe insulin resistance is driving inflammation throughout my body. Fasting readings are usually below 110 and A1C is below 6, but daily blood glucose readings are often high.

    Genetics along with Southern cuisine throughout previous years have exacerabated my conditions, but an elimination diet helped me identify many inflammatory triggers. My beloved fried foods, legumes along with other staple carbs, and extreme desserts are but a memory. Gluten is out, as is dairy, peaunuts, soy, sugar, and MSG. With the number of supplements I take, one would think food shouldn’t even be necessary. However, the fire still rages and I need assistance.

    If you can direct me toward a diet to improve my health, you will be my hero. Thanks!

    • Really suggest you look into candida overload as well as other parasitic issues. Getting probiotics in the billions as well as cleansing the bowels from candida and parasites will be extremely helpful for these conditions.
      Also consider that having a large amount of probiotics maintained in the body will help tremendously with inflammation issues. Adding more roots to your diet will also go a long way in supporting, rebuilding and maintaining organ health. Ginseng, turmeric, ginger are a few extremely valuable roots to use on a daily basis. There are also specific organ cleanses that can be done to help the digestive organs rebuild themselves.
      A heavy metal detox is one of the first steps in this overhaul, as well as looking deeply into the spiritual, emotional metaphysical aspects of these conditions. Look at Dr. Jon Barron’s Metal Magic tincture.
      I’ve been working with people all over the world for about two decades, and have had great success in this type of approach to disease.
      It is my experience that once we look at the emotional energies that lie beneath the physical body, such as is done with biofield technology, great healing occurs within the physical, especially when we restore bowel health, as microbiology dysfunction affects all of the organs.
      Look up Hanna Kroeger, as her work has become a standard for herbalists world wide when looking at working with any disease.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I love the table and how it puts the most important information in an easy to read format. This has helped me a lot.

  8. Great article! Would love your ideas for adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, and unfortunately now candida overgrowth. For three weeks I’ve stopped all sugar, including all fruits and sweet potatoes. The last couple of days I’ve gotten really anxious with other symptoms from the anxiety. Somehow I need to up my carb counts without feeding the candida. I may go ahead with sweet potatoes. Any help would be appreciated!

    • Probiotics, one or two a day, one hour before my meal took care of my candida overgrowth and I had horrible anxiety/panic attacks that was due to vitamin D deficiency. I take two 2000 mg vit D3 a day and it has helped tremendously! Hope this help you too

  9. Carbs only give 1/3rd picture 🙂
    It would be great if you can also suggest what the rest of the calories should like. i.e. fat and protein ratio as well. not just carbs.

  10. Hi
    How do I work out my carb intake, is it total carbs in the food or is it carbs that sugars?

    Thank you

  11. I an wanting some advice at this point anything helps. Heres a little about me… I found out I had hypothyroid a few months after my last (third) child was born as I was working out but unable to lose weight. I tried weight loss pills, portion control, watching what I ate, and no progress. I have a very high stress life kids, work, school, relationship issues that have only gotten worse because of my lack of self esteem. I also have had depression for many years and always felt fat whether i was 130 or what not. I was then diagnosed with fibromyalgia and two years later have almost non existent vitamin d deficiency, and iron deficiency. I am trying to correct those but its hard and takes a long time. My endocrinologist who i see for my thyroid issues says its stress and thats why I cant lose weight but I dont believe that. My levels with my thyroid are not stabalized and also are a work in progress. She also told me that I could see the best trainers, and dieticians in the world and wouldn’t lose weight because Im too stresses out. My symptoms from it all are intense and there are many including hair loss, weight gain, chronic pain, anxiety, brain fog, headaches etc. I tried a keto diet & lchf but found it hard to eat fooda higher in fat as i had trained myself not to for so many years. I dont enjoy those foods and they make me feel sick as I prefer lean meats or steak occasionally. I was doing 105protein grams daily, under 20 g carbs daily, fat intake around 75-90g daily. I lost almost 30 pounds in 3 months and thats with having cheat days almost every Saturday and sometimes sundays too. More of my hair fell out because of it so I now have extensions as it became so thin. It caused my cholesterol to go up which i never had an issue with before and i blame on the bacon and higher fat foods. I dont want to eat the same 5 things only the rest of my life and want to find something that will work as a permanent life change and help me lose weight. I would like to lose 75/80 pounds.

    • If you were having cheat days once and twice a week, that’s most likely the reason your cholesterol went up. If you were following a keto diet consistently, it would have gone down. The thing about a keto diet is you have to be committed to it. There are lots of great keto recipes and a variety of foods you can eat. Obviously if you lost 30 pounds in three months doing the diet in a sort of halfway fashion, if you follow it all the time you should get phenomenal results. Good luck on your journey!

    • Try Thyroid Support herbal supplements from Gaia Herbs. They have been really helping me. I also cut out all gluten.

  12. I read “The Metabolic Typing Diet” by William Walcott, the knowledge in there saved my life. I started with a low carbohydrate ketogenic approach at 25 grams carbohydrate. The book recommends starting low carb .. not necessarily ketogenic but I felt amazing on lower carb high fat. I felt so good going even lower in carbohydrate that I actually decreased my carbohydrate from 25 grams down to 10 grams and Voila !!!!!! All my life long symptoms vanished !!! I increased my carbohydrate in 5 gram increments weekly until my symptoms reappeared and then titrated down. I always knew I didn’t feel healthy but I actually didn’t know I had any health problems at all until I started eating a ketogenic low carb diet. I then went to the doctor and had blood tests and stool samples taken to see what was going on .. and was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a relentless parasite called blastocystis hominis and a candida overgrowth in the gut. All which required a low carbohydrate diet to treat. The body’s intuition is unsurpassable.

    • Hi I was just curious to why you would move up your carbohydrates 5 grams a week if you felt great at 10? My doctor had told me that I should start a low-carb diet eating only meats and vegetables to lose weight but then he mentioned something about moving up my carbs and I couldn’t understand why you would do that? So maybe you can help me out there.

  13. What would you recommend for someone with Reactive Hypoglycemia (possibly pre-diabetic) and peripheral neuropathy?

  14. Great points to consider! I find many of my clients that are younger woman were having issues with low carb intake. Especially coming off birth control and trying to regulate their cycles. I have seen incredible changes when they go from low to moderate carb intake on their energy, and fertility.

  15. I am hypothyroid and believe I also have adrenal fatigue. So I think your 75 – 150% carb recommendation sounds good to experiment with. I don’t eat grains, I love fruit, but need to moderate. I am trying to include sweet potatoes every day, and am eating squash and beets as well as leafy greens. I eat flaxseed, coconut, nuts, I think they have some carbohydrate content too?

    I really want to increase T4 and T3 levels. And heal adrenals

  16. I have been on paleo for several years now and after reading this article am really thinking I need more carbs. I usually eat a high protein breakfast for lunch 3-4 egg omelet and just meat and veggies for both lunch and dinner. I try to limit fruit. The prob is I have reactive hypoglycemia so Im worried about adding in carbs. What carbs should I avoid if I have this? I have struggled with energy and anxiety for some time now and Im wondering if this is why! Also, the paleo diet (even with lots of ghee and coconut oil) does not help my hypoglycemia at all. I have to still eat every 2 hours. Could low carb be adding into this? Ive read that if your thyroid is too low in T3 it can cause hypoglycemia….and that also too little carbs adds to this problem with the T3. Have you heard of this? Thanks!

  17. So, you’re saying that any diet above 30% carbs is a high carb diet and that a person eating such a diet will gain muscle or weight. What if they’re restricting not their carbs but their calories? Will they gain weight even so?

  18. Hi Kelsey,
    I’ve been dealing with carb issues the past few years. I was doing competitive crossfit when I decided to try a ketogenic diet which was a disaster. Ever since since trying to cut out carbs I developed insomnia and anxiety. I was following a very paleo/zone diet for years while crossfiting, and then tried to foolishly “lean out” by cutting carbs…Within 3 days I had developed severe insomnia and anxiety that have stuck with me. I did reintroduce carbs but it’s been 3 years, and I still suffer with insomnia when I do any sort of high intensity training, or don’t seem to eat enough in a day. I stopped crossfit all together, and try to keep my exercise mellow, since anything too intense will cause anxiety and insomnia that just won’t seem to go away.. Right now I will eat a oatmeal and have a sweet potato or rice at dinner, but it feels like I’ve permanetly broken my system. Is there anything I can do ?
    Any help is appreciated,
    Mandy

    • Hello Mandy.
      I used to suffer from almost the same (only difference is that I used to be an athlete and was working HIIT) What I did (and have been doing) is doing yoga and walking regularly, and it actually works! To be honest, I was underestimating yoga and those light exercises, but, they make one a lot of good! Do not believe in my word, you should give them a try.
      I suppose, your cortisol levels may have increased due to intense exercise routine and eating habits. The result is usually anxiety, burning muscle and fat gain, unstable mood, problems with sleeping and so on. So, I recommend you to include oatmeals (as you already do) to your diet. Plus Rhodiola (a herbal supplement) will help. You can also get more omega 3. I hope it helps. All the best

    • Sounds like you have hypoglycemia, which I also have. I believe it was the low carb diet and other factors that caused it in my case. Low carb diets can negatively impact the hormonal balance over time. I now see Dr. Diana Schwarzbein in Santa Barbara who is an endocrinologist and has a few books that discuss the importance of balancing protein and carbs. Our society went from too many carbs to too few carbs. Add overexercising to the equation and other lifestyle choices and the problem is compounded. Good luck finding the answers!

[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]