…but quality and quantity definitely matter

Of all of the recent food trends, “keto” has been my least favorite as a healthcare professional. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that, strictly speaking, most of the people I have spoken with aren’t actually on a ketogenic diet – that is, a diet that promotes the formation and utilization of ketones in the body. To do that, you have to eat a LOT of fat, a small amount of protein, and maintain the most microscopic amount of carbohydrates. Most people in the recent keto trend have been eating too much protein to maintain an actual state of ketosis (which, did you know, that protein by itself in high amounts can also be converted to glucose?), and have likely missed out on the benefit that some carbohydrates can bring to energy, performance, blood sugar and cortisol regulation, and stress resilience – to name just a few things. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Standard American Diet – full of highly processed carbohydrates and proportions that far exceed what is needed in a modern and sedentary lifestyle. That’s one of the things that this modern formulation of “keto” has attempted to rectify. Though most often in practice, I see people undertake a very restrictive way of eating, only to have binges, rebound weight gain, and really struggle with cortisol and hormone health and balance as a result when they finally reintroduce this beneficial macronutrient. 

So where do we weigh in on carbs? How do we find the balance with this macronutrient in a way that supports our physiology? Follow along here for a few thoughts on why we need carbs, and finding the right dosing for you.

Carbs 101

Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that provide energy to the body. They are found in a wide range of foods, including grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and dairy products. Carbohydrates are the primary and preferred source of energy for the body. When carbohydrates are consumed, they are broken down into glucose, which is then used by the body for energy. An excess of carbohydrates results in storage of energy (as fat) for a later use – a time of starvation. And insufficient carbohydrates causes the body to look for glucose sources elsewhere, typically in breaking down muscle for energy. 

Our brains need glucose daily to function well – and brain fog can sometimes be a sign of inadequate carbohydrate intakes. And, as many of the foods that contain carbohydrates also contain valuable sources of fiber, they are beneficial in supporting healthy digestive function. Starches break down to feed beneficial gut bacteria, and help prevent constipation. 

The type of carbohydrates that tend to be the most problematic are the ones that are absorbed very rapidly – causing massive spikes and crashes in blood glucose. This leads to altered hunger cues, inflammation, insulin resistance, among many other issues. Our current food environment is poised to provide these “fast carbs” all the time, as processed carbohydrates and foods with added sugar make up an abundance of what we find in grocery stores today. The best sources of carbohydrates will always be whole food forms of carbohydrates – sweet and regular potatoes, beets, beans, lentils, berries, fruit, and sometimes, whole grains like wild rice and quinoa. 

So how do I know what I need? 

When  it comes to getting the right amount of carbohydrates, there are definitely tools to help. One of the signs I look for in patients that I work with is often intense sugar cravings – especially for someone with a really active and intentionally healthy lifestyle. Oftentimes, in the attempt to pursue health, people will unintentionally reduce the amount of carbohydrates – especially as recent health trends have given carbohydrates a bad rapport. Hunger for sweet foods can be the body’s first sign that you’re not getting enough of the energy that you need. 

For others, stalled progress at the gym can be a sign of suboptimal carbohydrate intakes. After all, our muscles utilize glucose for energy. And, if our muscles aren’t getting glucose from food, we will begin to break down our own muscle mass to provide the energy needed. Talk about swimming upstream! 

And for people who are high performers in the workplace, brain fog can absolutely signal needing more carbohydrate support. It’s a little known fact that grandmaster chess competitors’ burn about 4,000 calories during a tournament. Their brains are working that hard! When we are required to solve high-stakes problems in the workplace, we need fuel for our brains to use. 

All of these scenarios point to needing a bit more carbohydrate support. But remember- the TYPE matters, too. To get the most benefit from carbohydrates, pair them with protein, fat and fiber to prevent unnecessary spikes in blood glucose.

And, if you’re unsure about how certain foods or patterns affect your glucose levels, you can always purchase a continuous glucose monitor(CGM), or join us for the next round of blood sugar bootcamp. CGMs are a great tool to help find patterns of both too much – and not enough – carbohydrate support for your lifestyle. 

All in all, carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that provide energy to the body, support brain function, aid in digestion, regulate blood sugar, and support athletic performance. Eating the right amount of carbohydrates for individual needs is crucial for optimal health and wellbeing. Don’t hesitate to consult with us to help you determine the appropriate amount of carbohydrates for your individual needs and goals.