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How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?

 A perennial question, argument and debate in the field of nutrition has to do with how many carbohydrates people should be eating. While the nutritional mainstream is still more or less advocating a large amount of daily carbohydrate (with fat being blamed for the health problems of the modern world), groups often considered at the ‘fringe’ of nutrition are adamant that carbohydrates are the source of all evil when it comes to health, obesity, etc. They advocate lowering carbohydrates and replacing them with dietary protein, fat or both.

Arguments over recommended carbohydrate intake have a long history and it doesn’t appear to be close to ending any time soon. Typical mainstream recommendations have carbohydrates contributing 50% or more of total calories while many low-carbohydrate advocates suggest far fewer (ranging from the 40% of the Zone diet to close to zero for ketogenic diets).

It’s safe to say that most carbohydrate recommendations that you will see are put in terms of percentages, you should be eating 45% of your calories as carbs, or 65% or whatever number is being used.

In that context, a typical ketogenic/low-carbohydrate diet might contain 0.5 g/lb (~1 gram/kilogram) of carbohydrate. An average moderate carb diet (such as The Zone or Duchaine’s Isocaloric Diet) might contain 1 g/lb (~2 g/kg) of carbohydrate or slightly more.   A typical high-carbohydrate diet would, of course contain more than that (perhaps 2-3 g/lb or more).  Typical recommendations for endurance athletes are in the 3-4 g/lb (6-8 g/kg) range and carb-loading may require 5-8 g/lb (10-16 g/kg) of carbohydrate.

Still, whether you’re looking at carb recommendations in terms of percentages of g/lb (g/kg), there is still a huge discrepancy between different experts. Some recommend lots of carbs, some recommend medium amounts, some recommend almost none.

Who’s right? Well, I am. Because rather than giving some single carbohydrate recommendation (that can’t possibly take into account all possible situations), I look at the individual and their needs to decide how many carbohydrates should be consumed daily.

 The punchline, of course is that I’ll end up concluding that how many carbohydrates someone needs (or should consume) daily depends on the same factors that affect other nutrient recommendations: goals, preferences, types and amounts of activity, and our old friend, genetic variation. By the end of the discussion, I’ll have set both minimum and maximum intake values depending on different conditions that might crop up. Let’s start with minimum amounts.

Are Carbohydrates Essential?

Despite oft-heard claims to the contrary, there is no actual physiological requirement for dietary carbohydrate. Even the RDA handbook acknowledges this, right before recommending that a prudent diet should contain a lot of carbohydrates.

To understand why carbs aren’t essential, I need to discuss the concept of an essential nutrient briefly. And, in brief, an essential nutrient is defined as:

  1.  Any nutrient that is required for survival.
  2.  Can’t be made by the body.
Quoting from my own Rapid Fat Loss Handbook:

    The second criterion is the reason that dietary carbohydrate is not an essential nutrient: the body is able to make as much glucose as the brain and the few other tissues need on a day-to-day basis from other sources. I should mention that the body is not able to provide sufficient carbohydrate to fuel high intensity exercise such as sprinting or weight training and carbs might be considered essential for individuals who want to do that type of exercise.

Practical Applications for Low-Carb Diets
  • Lower carb diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for severely overweight, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations.
  • Give your body just enough carbs to support liver glycogen stores and fuel the brain and central nervous system at rest, have good cognitive function, energy, and mood, etc., without overshooting your daily energy needs and gaining fat.
  • Shoot for 100-125 grams of carbohydrates per day.
  • The balance of your calorie requirements should be made up of protein and healthy fats.
Practical Applications For Moderate-To-Higher Carb Diets
  • There's a wide range of appropriate carbohydrate intakes for performance athletes, strength trainers, and bodybuilders.
  • A good ballpark starting point would be in the range of 1-3 grams of carbohydrate per pound (2-7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram).
  • Those with good insulin sensitivity or on the higher end of training intensity or volume who want to maximize performance or gain muscle mass would lean towards the higher carbohydrate range.
  • Those with poor insulin sensitivity or on the lower end of training intensity or volume and/or looking to lose fat would lean towards the lower end.
  • Test, assess, and refine until you find your sweet spot in the carbohydrate continuum.

Make small adjustments during the assessment period (10-20%) rather than extreme changes. For example, if you start with 250 daily grams of carbs, increase or decrease by 25-50 grams, depending on the goal, rather than cutting to 50 grams or ramping up to 500 grams.