All carbohydrates, from bread, pasta and chocolate to the more healthy ones like fruit and butternut, convert to glucose in the bloodstream. Since the body doesn’t like having too much glucose floating around, the pancreas releases a surge of insulin to deal with it. The more carbs one eats, the more insulin that is released. The downside of too much insulin is fat storage. So, if you want to lose weight, the key is to keep the amount of insulin in your body as low as possible. The only way to do this is to be careful with carbs. But, what does “be careful” with carbs really mean?
Everyone’s tolerance for carbs is different. The saying “the dose makes the poison” is very true in this context. There are some lucky people who can eat all the sugar and starchy foods they want and never gain weight or become diabetic, but like lottery winners they are few and far between. Then there are those who only have to look at a slice of pizza to send their insulin soaring and their jeans fitting a little too snugly.
The key is to figure out your own personal threshold. In other words, to what extent do you have to limit carbs to lower insulin, lose weight and keep your health in check? There is no need to overly reduce carbs if it isn’t necessary. Extreme restriction often means less variety and dietary compliance issues over time. Don’t be a martyr. The long-term sustainability of a way of eating is very important if you want to lose the weight and keep it off. You need to be enjoying your meals and they must leave you feeling satisfied.
If you are insulin resistant, your metabolic health is already compromised and eating a diet lower in carbs becomes vital to avoid getting type 2 diabetes. Should you already be suffering from type 2 diabetes, carb restriction is critical if you want to halt the progression of the disease. A simple blood test can confirm whether either of these issues are a concern.
Mark Sisson in his book, The Primal Blueprint, provides a very useful explanation and a good starting point for your personal experimentation to find your carb tolerance. He calls it the Carbohydrate Curve.
Please note:The average daily carb levels Mark Sisson outlines in his chart below assumes that you are eating sufficient protein and healthy fats and are exercising regularly.
Let’s get practical.
Here are examples of daily meals which would roughly add up to the number of grams of carbs for the relevant category.
0 – 50 grams of carbs per day: Ketosis Zone.
Excellent for rapid fat loss. Although safe it is not recommended for prolonged periods for most people due to some restriction of plant foods.
- Breakfast – Fried eggs and bacon with avocado slices
- Lunch – Roast chicken leftovers and a mixed salad with olive oil dressing
- Snack –Macadamia nuts
- Supper – Fish, sautéed spinach, asparagus and ½ a gem squash with melted butter
- Dessert – Strawberries and a dollop of coconut cream
- ~ 30 grams of carbs
50 – 100 grams of carbs per day: Sweet Spot for weight loss
Steadily drop excess body fat by minimising insulin production. Enables 0.5 to 1 kilogram per week fat loss with minimally restrictive and satisfying meals.
- Breakfast – Spinach and feta omelette, a peach with full fat Greek yoghurt
- Lunch – Tuna and avocado salad with olive oil dressing + ½ cup of left-over roasted butternut
- Snack – 1 small apple and a handful of raw almonds
- Supper – Pork chops served with a cabbage, broccoli and red pepper stir fry and ½ cup roasted sweet potato.
- Dessert – Mixed berries and whipped cream
- ~ 80 grams of carbs
100 – 150 grams of carbs per day: Primal Maintenance Zone
Once you have achieved your weight loss goals, you can maintain your weight quite easily while enjoying abundant vegetables and a moderate amount of fruits.
- Breakfast – Scrambled eggs, bacon, wilted spinach, fresh blueberries + half a small banana + crushed macadamia nuts with full fat Greek yoghurt or coconut cream
- Lunch – Homemade beef burger patty with salad and a small sweet potato
- Snack – Apple slices with almond butter
- Supper – Salmon, roasted carrots, cauliflower mash, broccoli and a glass of dry wine (or extra veggies)
- Dessert – 2 squares of dark chocolate
- ~ 120 grams of carbs
150 – 300 grams of carbs per day: Insiduous Weight Gain Zone
This is where many people who eat a “healthy diet” find themselves steadily gaining weight despite their efforts due to frequently consuming bread, pasta, cereals, rice, potatoes – even whole grains. Even by trying to reduce calories and cut the fat, people can still slowly but surely gain weight year on year.
- Breakfast – Muesli with skim milk, fresh orange juice, a banana and a cappuccino
- Snack – Apple and a bran muffin
- Lunch – Tuna mayonnaise sandwich on whole-grain bread with fruit juice
- Snack – Sweetened fat-free fruit yoghurt
- Supper – Roast lamb and gravy, rice, butternut and peas and a glass of wine.
- Dessert – Fruit salad and “lite” custard
- ~ 270 grams of carbs
300 + grams of carbs per day: Danger Zone
At this level, all but the most extreme exercisers will tend to produce excessive insulin and store fat. In this zone you increase your risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
- Breakfast – Coco Pops with milk
- Snack – Blueberry muffin and a banana
- Lunch – Spaghetti bolognaise, a bread roll and a Coke
- Snack – Packet of crisps and a chocolate bar
- Supper – Pizza and beer
- Dessert – Chocolate brownie with ice-cream
- ~ 450 grams of carbs
Hopefully Mark Sisson’s Carbohydrate Curve has been helpful in identifying how you might need to adjust what you eat in a day to achieve the goals you have set for yourself. If you are very active and enjoy fairly intense exercise sessions daily, there might be some leeway to enjoy a few more carbs, especially if consumed around your workout. If you know or have a sense that your metabolic health is struggling, consider starting in the ketosis zone and moving up from there once blood sugar is under control. Assess progress on a regular basis. Keep tweaking and experimenting with carb grams to find your own personal “sweet spot”, bearing in mind that this might be a moving target.
- Spread your carb intake out over the day’s meals to avoid a massive spike of blood sugar and insulin from one meal containing your entire day’s allotment.
- Avoid too much snacking between meals.
- Buffer your carbohydrates with fat, fibre and protein. For example, if you are going to enjoy some sweet potato, include a piece of meat and a salad dressed with olive oil to slow down the absorption of the glucose into your blood stream.
- Use a tracking app (at least initially) like MyFitnessPal to obtain a realistic picture of how many carb grams you are actually consuming. They can add up very quickly.
- Only eat when actually hungry and stop when satiated.
- If wanting to lose weight, don’t over-consume fats. Rather eat them to satiety and then stop. Extra calories from too much fat can hinder fat loss.
Article written by Nicky Perks for Lose It magazine. (Volume 28)