Overconsume carbohydrates, and you could incur unwanted weight gain, blood sugar issues, and a long list of chronic diseases. Eat too little, and you could experience hormonal imbalance, weight loss resistance, and major drops in athletic performance.
To add to this conundrum, what is one person’s high carb can be another’s too low carb – making mainstream “general” intake recommendations entirely inadequate.
While both sides of the coin project carbohydrates in an unpleasant light, rest assured – your right carb does exist, and eating the appropriate amount of this macronutrient can help you achieve health, longevity, and natural leanness.
The big (and quite controversial) question now becomes… What is your right carb? (Sounds like a t-shirt. I call dibs on that one.)
Carbohydrates in the Human Diet
As with anything related to food intake, looking to evidence we have on traditional indigenous peoples can provide extraordinary insight.
For example, it’s well know that traditional Inuit cultures in the Arctic consumed 90% of their calories from fat, and were almost entirely free of the chronic and degenerative diseases that plague our modern society. We also see this with Maasai tribes in Africa, who get about 60-70% of their calories fat. Observations show these cultures rarely encountered a vegetable, and all fat came from animal sources.
Sounds like limiting carbs is clearly the way to go.
Buuut, not really. If we look at the Kitavans in the Pacific Islands, we see they’re thriving on a diet which includes 70% of calories from carbohydrates sources like starchy tubers, fruits and vegetables.1 Similarly, the Okinawans in Japan consume 85% of their calories from carbohydrates, mostly in the form of sweet potato.2 Like the Inuit and Maasai peoples, these cultures are lean, healthy, and show almost no sign of chronic or degenerative disease.
At the surface, these evidences seem conflicting; however, they all have one massive underlying commonality:
A diet of real, whole, human food – void of the processing that dominates our modern culture.
This similarity brings attention to the fact that the standard western diet is nothing like what humans have been consuming for thousands of years. Processed carbohydrate foods have only been a part of the food chain for the past three generations, and sugar consumption has rapidly doubled in that same time. As a result, things like Alzheimer’s, autoimmune conditions, obesity and heart disease have gone from nonexistent to epidemic.
The Baseline: Whole, Human Carbohydrate Food
Recently, too many carbohydrates has been labeled as the driving force behind the development of disease in humans – fearlessly taking the reigns from saturated fat. Some of this has been catapulted by the “low-carb” movement, but much of it is due to the compiling evidence in medical literature that shows refined sources of carbohydrates, specifically processed grains and sugar, is a major cause of disease in the body.
While it’s evident processed carbohydrate bombs like bagels, pretzels and dinner rolls do nothing for your health, it doesn’t mean that real, whole carbohydrate foods like potatoes or fruit should be placed in the same category – and quite frankly, the research doesn’t support it.
In fact, some people actually don’t do well when they limit their carbohydrate intake – especially women or those suffering from thyroid or adrenal issues.
In short, just like fats – all carbohydrates are not created equal. By following a more human food diet like our ancestors did, you’ll effectively eliminate the overconsumption of nutrient-poor, processed carbohydrates. From this baseline, you can make adjustments to your carbohydrate intake depending on how your body responds.
How to Find Your “Right” Carb
In case you didn’t remember, your carbohydrate intake will vary greatly from your spouse, neighbor, best friend, daughter, son and dog.
Finding your personal right carbohydrate intake depends on your current activity level, metabolic health, hormonal status, stress levels, body composition goals – and a just a little bit of genetic predisposition thrown it. Let’s explore.
Eating “Low” Carb: When it Works
Reducing the percentage of calories from carbohydrates can provide significant benefit for those with fat loss goals. Studies show that low-carb diets improve mood, energy and sleep, and result in greater weight loss when compared low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. This is most likely due to the “natural” reduction in caloric intake that occurs because of increased satiation.
Low-carb diets have also been shown to greatly improve markers of metabolic syndrome, including insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and triglycerides. Significant improvements to cholesterol were also reported in those following a low-carb diet “despite a threefold increase in saturated fat intake.” 
When blood sugar is balanced and metabolic derangement is resolved, endocrine disorders like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), low testosterone and infertility can rectify as hormonal imbalances are normalized. Other negative side effects of blood sugar dysregulation like sleep troubles, mood swings and energy dips can also be effectively managed, leading to a much more productive and happier life for you – and most importantly, those that have to live with you.
Struggling with digestive distress like IBS or constipation? Reducing specific types of carbohydrates can be used therapeutically to resolve conditions such as Candida and Small Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), the root cause of many problems in the gut. In addition, while research is still limited, ketogenic diets (i.e. very low carbohydrate diets) are being used to treat a wide variety of diseases, including those with certain types of cancer and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. (For future investigation, I recommend picking up this book.)
As a side note, because low-carb diets are used therapeutically for specific conditions doesn’t mean they are beneficial long-term, or provide the same benefit for already healthy individuals. MMkay?
When to consider reducing carbohydrates in your diet:
Eating “More” Carb: When it Works
Hearing about the potential benefits of going low-carb, many health seekers (like you!) have lowered overall carbohydrate intake in hopes of leaning out and gaining health. Initially, our body adapts to burning fat for fuel which feels awesome, and we may even be tempted to lower carbs even further.
But alas, things can change. Overtime, especially for those who are very active, going too low-carb can send signals to the body that it is under stress, affecting both thyroid and adrenal gland function. Glucose is needed for the conversion of T4 to T3 (the active form of thyroid hormone), and long-term carbohydrate restriction may reduce this conversion, causing symptoms like decreased metabolism, sluggishness, and increased complications for women dealing with conditions like cystic ovaries.
If you’re already overloaded with stress, eating too low-carb can add fuel to the fire by increasing the demand on the adrenals to provide glucose. Our adrenals are responsible for producing hormones that control our stress response like cortisol and adrenaline. If this stress response is kept in overdrive, raw materials needed to create hormones like estrogen and progesterone are diverted to support cortisol production, and HPA Axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal) communication can go haywire.
And while it’s probably obvious, impaired steroid hormone production from the adrenals can cause a variety of hormonal imbalances – none of which I’d recommend trying out.
To add to this complexity, two other hormones, insulin and leptin, can also affect hormonal balance, especially for women. As addressed in our discussion on grains, insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas after we eat carbohydrates in order to take glucose from the blood stream and put it into cells. Insulin also stimulates the synthesis of leptin, a hormone secreted by our fat cells.
Leptin’s job is to communicate to master hormone conductor in the brain, the hypothalamus, that we have stored energy available, and that we are fed, not starving – and healthy enough to make babies. The hypothalamus then takes this message, and sends the signal to the pituitary to stimulate sex hormones that control our fertility and menstruation.
Drastically cutting carb intake for too long can potentially mess with leptin signaling to the brain – and can result in the hypothalamus not relaying the message to make sex hormones. Following a low-carb diet can be a double whammy – especially for lean women with lower body fat stores.
Reminder: This does not happen for everyone. Some people can continue a low-carb diet successfully without the previously noted conditions.
And lastly, while the jury is still out, some research suggests that prolonged low carbohydrate intake may starve our good gut bacteria of it’s primary fermentable substrate (starch), leading to an increased risk of dysbiosis. As with everything – there is much more to be discovered!
When to consider upping your carbohydrate intake:
What Carbs Can I Eat?
The best, nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates include: all varieties of potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini, yellow squash, parsnips, and fruits like berries, cherries and bananas. With people who are metabolically healthy and not suffering from any gut-related disorders, properly prepared, organic grains like rice can be supplemented into the diet – especially for athletes engaging in endurance-related activities.
Now it’s your turn. I want to know – do you do better with a low or high carbohydrate diet? What did you see resolve with your dietary changes?