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Carbohydrates – how much do you need?

Your age, level of physical activity, muscle mass, medical history and lifestyle preferences should all play a role in determining your carbohydrate level. If you have more muscle mass, you will metabolize carbohydrates much healthier and need carbohydrates to build muscle – yes, it’s not just protein building those bulging biceps. On the other hand, if you have Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance or obesity, you may struggle to metabolize carbohydrates and need to be more cautious.

The problem and confusion around carbohydrate intake is that the diet industry has learned that removing carbohydrates results in quick weight loss by shifting your metabolic systems and shedding water. So, even if your lifestyle doesn’t warrant a low-carbohydrate diet, almost all of the modern diets will still advise it because it will likely bring about quick weight loss.

It’s important to first understand what a serving size is for carbohydrates. Fifteen grams of any carbohydrate food is one serving. Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t 15 grams weighed out on a food scale. It’s the scientific nutrition amount of carbohydrate you digest, that goes into your blood and ends up in your cells for energy. It’s found on the nutritional label.

Carbohydrate levels per day for weight loss:

  • Moderate carbohydrate level is 100 to 150 grams per day or seven to ten 15-gram servings. This level of carbohydrates is healthy for most people, isn’t too restrictive, is sustainable long term and will still push you toward healthier choices. If you are moderately active and don’t suffer from diabetes or insulin resistance, this level is good for you. Foods to focus on at this level are: all vegetables; several pieces of fruit per day; moderate amounts of healthy starches such as potatoes and sweet potatoes; and grains such as brown rice, quinoa and oats.
  • Moderate to low carbohydrate level is 50 to 100 grams per day or three to seven 15-gram servings. This range allows you to lose weight quicker, while still enjoying some carbs. It can also help your body function well if you have metabolic diseases such as diabetes or insulin resistance. Foods to focus on at this level are: plenty of vegetables; a few pieces of fruit per day; minimal amounts of healthy starches as potatoes and sweet potatoes; and grains such as brown rice, oats and quinoa.
  • Low carbohydrate level is 20 to 50 grams per day or one to three 15-gram servings. This is similar range to a keto diet where you seek to burn ketones for energy instead of glucose from carbohydrates. You’ll see quick and significant weight loss at this level, but you should proceed with caution. Maintaining this restrictive level of carbs is not sustainable for most people long term. If you are an endurance athlete, lift heavy weights, are extremely active or suffer from thyroid dysfunction, this level is not for you. Foods to focus on at this level are: plenty of low-carb vegetables; some berries; trace amounts of carbs in foods like avocados, nuts and seeds; and no healthy starches such as potatoes, sweet potatoes or grains.

If all this makes your head spin, find a dietitian with the skillset to personalize your carbohydrate level for your metabolic type, medical history and lifestyle. Understanding carbohydrates doesn’t have to be confusing. The amount of carbohydrates you either include in or exclude from your diet will generally result in a corresponding weight gain or loss. However, it’s important to find a healthy balance and relationship for your unique situation.

Fran Sutherlin, RD, MS is a local registered dietitian, specializing in using digestive wellness to prevent or manage chronic disease. She has a master’s degree in nutrition, is a personal health coach, speaker, and owner of Sustainable Nutrition. She can be reached at 970-444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.