Most diets focused on fitness recommend a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in protein and moderate in fat. There is plenty of research to link low-carbohydrate diets with weight loss, reduced blood glucose levels and increased HDL or good cholesterol. Not to mention, low-carb diets can produce some pretty awesome results when it comes to your physique transformation. It’s also been shown that women tend to do better on low-carbohydrate diets that are higher in fat versus high carbohydrate diets, specifically when it comes to getting into super lean condition.
Regardless, each individual is different. In actuality, the amount of carbohydrates you should be eating is more dependent on a number of factors, including your goals, your activity level, and your own personal biochemistry— how efficiently your body uses carbs. In this post, I lay out some guidelines when it comes to carbohydrates and how much you really need.
What Does The Body Do with Carbs?
When you eat carbohydrates, the blood glucose levels increase, which causes the release of the anabolic-shutting hormone insulin. Insulin clears the blood of glucose by storing it in the muscle as glycogen. But once those glycogen stores are at capacity, insulin shuttles glucose to fat to be stored as triacylglycerol in fat tissue. When you work out, the body uses up any readily available glucose in the bloodstream, then shifts to its stored reserves of glycogen in the muscle, and lastly to fat.
Do You Really Need Them?
Technically speaking, we don’t need carbs, since the body can make them from other sources, such as gluconeogenesis— where the liver converts protein to glucose. However, if your diet is very low in calories and carbs and you are performing a substantial amount of exercise, it is possible to tap into protein or lean muscle for fuel. This can leave your muscles starved of protein and in a state of amino depletion, and if not replaced, the muscles will not have enough raw building blocks to facilitate recovery or maintain or grow new muscle.
It should also be noted that carbs not only help provide energy for muscles during workouts, their presence also has an anabolic or muscle-building effect, inhibiting cortisol, a hormone that breaks down muscle, and also stimulates the shuttling hormone insulin, which drives not only glucose to muscle cells but also amino acids.
Can You Spare Your Muscles with More Protein?
Most of the protein that is taken up by the body gets converted into glucose. In fact, more than half of all ingested amino acids are broken down in the liver, and a good percentage of those can be made into glucose, especially when carbohydrates are restricted. If you eat the right amount of protein, but are low in carbohydrates, then amino acids from protein will be burned as fuel in preference to being used to repair or build muscle tissue.
To ensure that amino acids are used to build muscle and you have enough energy to train, it is important to get the right amount of carbohydrates, as well as the right amount of protein! Be sure to get in at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to start with. Protein may be 40 to as high as 50 percent of your daily calories depending on the level of carbohydrates you need.
Do Women Need Fewer Carbs?
It has been shown that although women and men do not have a difference in muscle glycogen storage ability or the transporters that facilitate glucose moving into our cells, we do utilize lipids more and carbohydrates less for energy than men do. This is primarily due to our hormones! Estrogen increases glycogen sparing and increases lipid utilization during exercise. This means women can effectively store carbohydrates and use them sparingly while tapping into fat more effectively. So filling up on carbohydrates, if we are not so easily giving them up, is probably not a good idea.
How Many Do You Need?
The amount of carbohydrates an individual needs will be dependent on numerous factors including your amount of fat weight, your genetics, your metabolism, your ability to process carbohydrates, your insulin sensitivity and the amount of activity you are performing. It may take some time to understand your body completely, become aware of how you function depending on the carbohydrate level, and experiment with what fits with your goals. Here are three different carbohydrate ranges to consider:
Moderate Carbohydrate Diet: Moderate carbohydrate diets are optimal for maintaining your body’s condition. Carb ranges are generally in the range of 100 to 200 g of carbohydrates, or more depending on the individual. Above this is bordering on a high carbohydrate diet. Moderate carbohydrate diets can help sustain activity levels, while supporting your muscle glycogen needs, without excess storage of carbs in fat.
Low Carbohydrate Diet: Low carbohydrate diets are commonly used for weight loss and fat burning if not for an entire diet duration, or at least part of a diet. Low carbohydrates provide enough carbohydrates to sustain blood glucose levels in the brain, which means less brain fog, and less cravings then ultra low carb ketogenic diets. This balance can allow the carbs that are taken be used up efficiently, without allowing for sufficient fat storage. Carbohydrates are usually kept within 50 to 100 grams per day.
Ketogenic Diet: This is a diet based on a very low carbohydrate intake of less than 50 grams per day to put the body into a state of ketogenesis, where the body uses ketones for fuel instead of glucose. Protein requirements for a ketogenic diet are high to allow the body to make glucose in the liver, while also supporting protein synthesis. Ketogenic diets are super hard to maintain for long periods, because the reduced availability of glucose can cause brain fog, lack of energy and severe sugar cravings that the body doesn’t ever seem to adjust to! When used for short durations, however, the ketogenic diet can be very effective for losing fat fast. Often a ketogenic diet can be used in a depletion phase of a diet, or when an individual is not responding to a low carbohydrate diet.
When Do I Eat Carbs?
No matter if you are following a low carb or keto diet, there really are only two times of day that are best for eating carbs— first thing in the morning when your muscle glycogen is at it lowest, or immediately following your workout to help shut down muscle breakdown and refill lose muscle glycogen used up during a workout. However, breaking up your carb up-takes into small amounts throughout the day can also be helpful to maintain a steady flow of energy!
Wismann J, Willoughby D. Gender Differences in Carbohydrate Metabolism and Carbohydrate Loading. J ISSN. 2006. 3(1): 28-34.
Zehnder M, et al. Gender-specific usage of intramyocellular lipids and glycogen during exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005. 37(9): 1517-24.