Carbs – them comfort foods we all know and love. From cheat day overindulgence to falling completely off the wagon, every person who’s started on a diet has surely at some point found themselves in an unintentional binge of their favourite carb-laden and sugar-filled foods. But while often demonised and blamed for blunting our weight loss goals, I also think that carbs can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet, and that even the junk has it’s value too!
For me as a weight loss coach, it’s important to try and help clients stay consistent with their plan. That includes appreciating that cravings are very real and can be hard to tame, but at the same time that most people need their fix to look forward to in order to enable them to stay on track. So how do we find the balance then? How much carbs and what kind are best? And can we really enjoy our favourite treat foods and still move in the direction of our goals? I hope that by the end of reading this article, if these are questions that you have been seeking answer to, that you’ll be confident you’ve found your answer to many of them.
Which carbs are best to eat?
Personally, I believe that we should have no issue including all of the carbs we enjoy in the context of a healthy lifestyle. As mentioned above, even treat foods have their place. They can provide enjoyment, relaxation and a momentary change from the diet to keep it from becoming monotonous. That being said, of course if we want to reach our weight loss goals, we do however need to ensure that we strike a good balance and eat the right proportion of healthy carbs to treats and snacks.
A great tool to help you decide where carbohydrates fall on this spectrum is the Glycemic Index (GI) scale. The GI scale is a rating of how quickly a particular food causes our blood sugars to rise (1). By controlling our blood sugars, we better control our weight (2). This means that low scoring GI carbs are the best ones that we consume as part of a weight loss plan and can therefore be enjoyed often. These include:
- Sweet and baby potatoes
- Buckwheat pasta and soba noodles
- Chickpeas, beans and legumes
- Most fruits
- Dark chocolate
- Low carb veggies — Eg. greens, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions etc.
Medium GI foods should be enjoyed occasionally, perhaps between two to three times per week. Some include wild and basmati rice, cous cous, sourdough bread and tropical fruits such as banana, mango and pineapple.
Be cautious to consume high glycemic carbs only sparingly as treats. These are the ones that will cause the most damage if eaten too often, but should be enjoyed now and again for pleasure and satisfaction. Some that fit this category are both white and brown rice, white and wholemeal bread, most traditional breakfast cereals, rice cakes and jelly beans (1).
If there’s a food you aren’t sure about, the tables in this link may help: https://documents.hants.gov.uk/hms/HealthyEatingontheRun-LowGlycemicIndexFoodList.pdf
How many carbs should we be eating?
The amount of carbohydrate needed will vary from person to person and be determined upon factors such as body composition, activity levels (including the type and intensity) and carbohydrate tolerance. For example, light walking and short jogs require more fats and less carbohydrates for fuel than strength training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which are more carb-demanding (3). For those who aren’t exercising at all, they’re likely not going to need nearly as much carbs as someone who exercise frequently.
In order to give a general perspective, let’s think about a common issue happening when people diet. Often calories are considerably low and portion sizes are reduced drastically. Generally speaking this leads to a drop in content of all three macro-nutrients, including carbohydrates. Whilst it’s not necessarily a bad thing to drop carbohydrate intake in an attempt to shed some pounds (which I do think is a great strategy when we’re consuming far too much and more of the problematic ones), the issues arise when we drop our intake too low.
Unless one is following a well-structured ketogenic diet where carbohydrate intake is lowered consistently to around 50g or lower per day to achieve a state of nutritional ketosis where they are burning primarily fats rather than carbs for fuel, then a low carb diet is not desirable or sustainable. While most are not following a ketogenic diet, it is estimated that on average about 150g of carbohydrates will be required to provide enough glucose to fuel the brain and so if someone is caught in an “in-between state” they are likely going to feel constant fatigue and hunger. Crying out for more nutrients, the result can be binge eating and also the break down of muscle and protein to be converted into the glucose that the brain is lacking (4). Neither of these results are of course desirable.
So here is a general guideline to aim for that I think might be helpful:
- For most not exercising, roughly 150g carbs per day will probably be sufficient.
- If exercising lightly, 150–200g of carbs is a reasonable amount to consume.
- Intense exercise may require up to 250g of carbs per day.
When should we eat them?
When it comes to timing your carbs, there’s no hard and fast rule. This will depend upon and likely be influenced by your goals, your lifestyle and the structure of your day. But here’s some factors that are worth considering to work out what best suits you:
1) Circadian rhythm effects
Our circadian rhythm is essentially our body’s own internal clock. It operates based on light and darkness, morning and night. In the morning, our circadian rhythm functions to promote a more insulin sensitive response meaning nutrient absorption is improved when compared to evening time. Therefore, if we eat a high carb meal in the morning, our body is more able to handle them and store them as glycogen in the muscles and liver where desired, rather than as fat which is more likely to occur later in the day (5).
2) Post-exercise feeding
Just like earlier in the day we are more insulin sensitive, so too are we after exercise (6). Another benefit that comes as a result from being more insulin sensitive is that it helps lower our blood sugar levels, meaning the glycemic index of the meal gets lowered. And remember, lower blood sugars equates to better weight control. So another great time to get most of our carbs in would be shortly after exercise.
Based on the two factors above, it would make sense that if you’re main goal is weight loss that the ultimate combination would be to exercise in the morning and then eat most of your carbs for the day afterwards. This seems to make sense right? But unfortunately, there is one caveat to this. When we eat a whole bunch of carbs at once, even though this effect will be lowered, we’re still likely going to feel the some of the brunt of a blood sugar rise and fall leading to fatigue and cravings (7). Perhaps a more optimal approach is needed?
I personally came across a great alternative that I used in the past that proved to be extremely helpful, leading to me eventually reaching my weight loss goal — which others report works very well for them also. It basically looks like this — eat low carb during the day, then feast on your carbs at night. This allows us to stay full, have lower cravings (8) and more focus throughout the day (9). Then after eating all the carbs at night, it’s fine if we get that energy dip a few hours later since it’s bedtime anyway. Repeat! You can even throw in your workout right before you eat your big carb-loaded meal to get the added benefit of nutrient absorption. Have a dessert if you want, for example some Greek yoghurt with berries, a healthy snack bar or a treat night now and again for comfort.
All being said, what it really boils down to is whatever foods you eat, quantity of them and pattern that works best for you. As long as you’re enjoying your food, have good energy levels and are losing weight, then you’re likely on the right track.
(1) Low GI Health (2010) ‘Glycemic Index Food List’, Low GI Health. Available at: https://documents.hants.gov.uk/hms/HealthyEatingontheRun-LowGlycemicIndexFoodList.pdf (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(2) Hyman, M. (2014) ‘The Key to Automatic Weight Loss!’, Dr Hyman, 19 May. Available at: https://drhyman.com/blog/2014/05/19/key-automatic-weight-loss/ (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(3) Greenfield, B. (2014) Beyond Training, Victory Belt Publishing, Inc., Canada.
(4) Volek, J, S. and Phinney, S, D. (2012) The Art And Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance, Beyond Obesity LLC.
(5) Hyman, M (2018) How to Die Young as Late as Possible with Dr. Michael Roizen. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vbH93cYZ1s (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(6) Aragon, A., A. and Schoenfeld, B., J. (2013) Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/ (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(7) SHN Staff (2019) ‘Sugar crash effects and how to fix them’, Sanford Health, 19 December. Available at: https://news.sanfordhealth.org/healthy-living/sugar-crash-effects/ (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(8) Gunnars, K. (2018) ’10 Health Benefits of Low-Carb and Ketogenic Diets’, Healthline, 20 November. Available at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-benefits-of-low-carb-ketogenic-diets (Accessed: 14 May 2020).
(9) Spritzler, F. (2016) ‘How Low-Carb and Ketogenic Diets Boost Brain Health’, Healthline, March 26. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/low-carb-ketogenic-diet-brain#section6 (Accessed: 14 May 2020).