Note: This post needs to be updated. I have a much better understanding of the interaction between different types of dietary carbohydrates and a variety of essential hormones (ghrelin, leptin, insulin, cortisol…) than when I wrote this post, as well as a better understanding of nutritional deficiencies that can arise from eating too low carbohydrate for an extended period of time. I will be updating this post soon, but in the meantime, the cliff notes are: I don’t recommend going below 50g per day for an extended period of time for most people, many people do very well up to even 300g per day. The 100-200g per day range is the most sustainable for most people.
Now that you know that you should be reducing your carbohydrate intake, you are probably wondering just how many grams of carbohydrates you should be eating every day. Like so many aspects of paleolithic nutrition, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on what your goals are, how far away from those goals you are, how active your lifestyle is, how well you sleep, how well managed your stress is, and what health issues you might be dealing with. Here are some general guidelines, but I urge you to experiment. Most people just feel better eating fewer carbohydrates (after an initial adjustment period), but some people do better on more carbohydrates. You may wish to consume more carbohydrates only on the days that you work-out and aim for a lower carbohydrate intake on your less active days. Also, carbohydrate quality can be equally important. You may be able to get away with more carbohydrates if you are getting them only from vegetables.
Very Low (30-50g daily): A very low carbohydrate intake is appropriate for people trying to lose weight quickly and for those that are dealing with stress management issues, sleep problems, or unresolved inflammation. I don’t recommend going below 30g of carbohydrates per day for an extended period of time, although there may be some health benefit to having an occasional day where your carbohydrate intake is extremely low. The easiest way to get your carbohydrate intake this low is to limit yourself to 1 piece of fruit or 1 serving of a starchy vegetable (like yams or squash) per day. The rest of your carbohydrates should come a rainbow of non-starchy vegetables. This will be great for your acid-base balance (more on this in a future post) and provide you with very high levels of vitamins and minerals.
Low (50g-75g): A low carbohydrate intake is appropriate for people trying to lose weight who are fairly close to their goal weight (or are in no rush), for people who are lightly to moderately active, and for people who have ongoing issues with auto-immune or inflammatory diseases. Depending on what your lifestyle is like (how stressed you are, how well you sleep, etc.), you might consider this a “maintenance” level, but most people will be able to tolerate higher carbohydrates one they have reached a healthy weight.
Medium (75g-100g): This is an appropriate carbohydrate intake for people who are in a healthy weight range (and don’t want to gain weight) and who are moderately active. This would be a good “maintenance” level for most people.
High (100g-150g): This is still “low carbohydrate” compared to the typical Western diet. This is an appropriate carbohydrate intake for people who are in a healthy weight range (or maybe trying to gain weight) and moderately to highly active. This is also probably a good range for women who are pregnant or nursing (see how you feel and maybe consult with your OB, midwife or a nutritionist). It is also perfectly acceptable to have the occasional day where your carbohydrate intake is higher, but be warned that once your body adjusts to lower carbohydrates, you might feel really lousy if you overdo it.
A note about the adjustment period: Depending on how many carbohydrates your body is used to consuming, as well as how active and fit you are, you will have anywhere from a 1 week to 4 week adjustment period. During this time, you may feel more tired than usual, experience intense food cravings, feel lightheaded, experience headaches, or feel nauseous. I suggest going to bed a little earlier than usual (which is good for you anyway) and finding some fat-rich foods to get you through the adjustment (like steak, coconut, avocado, and bacon). You will probably notice a sudden switch to feeling better (and probably way way better than you felt before reducing your carbohydrate intake). This reflects a change in your metabolism to one that runs more efficiently on fat (and that is a more natural state for your body to be in).