As I outlined in Tuesday’s post, carbohydrate requirement is probably the most individual aspect of a paleo diet. Many people happen on a good carbohydrate level for themselves simply by adopting a paleo diet and listening to their bodies. Others (like myself) need to tinker and experiment to figure out how many carbohydrates my body needs to be healthy. Today’s post will outline how to choose a starting level of carbohydrates for your own self-experiment and what to look for to evaluate how it is working for you. Saturday’s post will give you some guidelines on modifying your carbohydrate up or down to see if a different level may work better. This process of self-experimentation is completely based on my own experience both as a scientist and as a person who treats myself as a constant n=1 experiment. I hope that these strategies work for you. However, if this method doesn’t resonate with you, you can try adopting strategies outlined Sweet Potato Power or just sticking with one of the many versions of paleo diets that you know works for you (The Paleo Answer, The Paleo Solution, It Starts With Food, Perfect Health Diet, The Primal Blueprint).
I am going to ask you to count carbohydrates for the duration of this experiment (I’m generally opposed to counting macronutrients, but accuracy is important here). So, you are going to need to have a rough idea of how many carbohydrates are in the foods you are eating. There are literally thousands of “calorie counter” type books, websites, and phone/tablet apps that you can use. Have a look at the carbohydrate content of your favorite and most often consumed fruits and veggies (and don’t forget nuts and seeds and any sweeteners or paleo baked goods you may consume) and keep a “cheat sheet” of these somewhere handy.
First, select a starting level of carbohydrate consumption. Depending on how many carbohydrates you eat now and what your goals are, read this post and select a level to start with. As a rough guide, consider starting at 50g if you have weight to lose and don’t consume tons of carbohydrates now; consider starting at 75g if you have weight to lose but consume a very carbohydrate-dense diet currently; consider starting at 100g if you are very athletic, older, or don’t have weight to lose (or maybe need to gain weight). I suggest starting at one of the following carbohydrate levels: 30g, 40g, 50g, 60g, 75g, 100g, 125g, or 150g). The reason for the 10g spacing at the lower levels but 25g spacing at the higher levels is because the relative difference at the lower levels is much higher (40g is 33% more than 30g, but 150g is only 20% more than 125g). The impact on your body will very likely be obvious even with that 10g difference. Of course, you may disregard this guide and pick whatever level you want to try first.
Second, select what types of carbohydrates you are going to consume, which means choosing how much fruit you will have each day, how many servings of starchy vegetables you will have each day, and figure out how much non-starchy vegetables will be required to top up to your carbohydrate level. This choice will be greatly influenced by your activity level, your health history and your weight loss/gain goals. If you have a history of metabolic derangement, limiting your fructose intake will be useful (say limit to 1 serving of fruit per day). If you are dealing with health conditions related to gut dysbiosis such as SIBO, you may choose to eat 2 or 3 servings of fruit per day but limit all starchy vegetables. If you are very athletic, you may choose to eat more starchy vegetables and high-glucose fruits (like bananas, figs and apricots) as post work-out fuel. If you have selected a higher carbohydrate consumption starting point, you will have more room for fruit and starchy vegetables in your diet. If you have chosen a fairly low carbohydrate consumption starting point, I recommend getting the majority of your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables to ensure that you are getting the vitamins and minerals that you need.
Third, figure out what time of day you will consume your carbohydrates. I suggest starting with carbohydrates evenly divided between each of your meals, although natural human tendency is to have a larger portion at dinner. If this makes more sense for you, then by all means go ahead, just decide when you are going to eat your carbohydrates and stick to the same pattern every day. You may also choose to have a larger portion of carbohydrates immediately after exercise.
Stick to a routine. It’s important to keep everything else fairly consistent day to day: how many meals you eat a day, how big those meals are, how much protein you eat at each meal, how much fat you eat at each meal (okay, I’m not saying that you should measure everything, just that you should try to not vary any other factors wildly while you are trying to narrow in on a good carbohydrate range for your body). If you are wondering just how much protein and fat you should eat at your meals, I like the It Starts With Food guidelines for protein and fat at each meal, which can be summarized as 4-8 oz of meat at each meal, which is similar to Robb Wolf’ssuggestions of 1g of protein per pound of your current bodyweight (note that this amount of protein is too high for your body to enter ketosis), and 1-2 Tbsp of fat at each meal. It will be pretty obvious the first few days how much protein and fat will keep you full until your next meal. Once you figure that out what, keep it consistent for the duration of each round of this experiment (it’s okay to adjust protein and fat a little for each round of your self-experimentation as you increase or decrease your carbohydrates, but you shouldn’t have to make drastic changes in these).
This is not the time to experiment with intermittent fasting, meal frequency, or launch into P90Xfrom a previously sedentary lifestyle. The only variability that you may have to allow for is increased food consumption on work-out days versus more sedentary days. You may choose to keep your carbohydrate level the same on work-out days compared to other days (this depends on how hard you exercise and what type of exercise you do). If you enjoy exhaustive workouts, either strength-training or cardio (or combination), you may allow for more carbohydrates post work-out. I suggest that the difference between a work out day and a non-workout day shouldn’t be more than 25% of your carbohydrate intake (so if you are starting at 100g of carbohydrates a day, you can have an extra 25g of carbohydrates divided between your snack immediately post-workout and the next meal that you have afterward; whereas if you are starting at 50g of carbohydrates per day, you can have an extra 12g of carbohydrates on workout days). If you prefer less strenuous exercise or if you exercise almost every day, you should be able to keep your carbohydrate levels on work-out days much closer to the level on non-workout days .
Now stick with this for 4-5 weeks. Keep your days as consistent to each other as possible and don’t cheat. If you find yourself having very strong cravings and falling off the wagon, start over again with a higher carbohydrate level. If you know you are going to be traveling, attending several social events where you are likely to overindulge, wait until afterward to start (since you won’t learn much about how this carbohydrate level affects you if you spend more days “cheating” than sticking to it). You won’t need to do every iteration of this experiment for a whole month, but you want to make sure you’ve given your body adequate time to adapt to this carbohydrate level before making any changes (if it’s not that different from how you eat now, you can do this first step for 2-3 weeks). It is much more important to know how you feel 2-4 weeks after making a change than during the first few days.
The things you want to evaluate. I suggest keeping a written record of how you feel each day (or at least most days). It can be just a quick note in a notebook and doesn’t need to be a full journal entry. In addition to whether or not you stuck to your carbohydrate consumption plan for that day, you may wish to record a couple or all of the following:
- Energy level throughout the day, especially your energy level in the afternoon when many people experience a dip in energy.
- Sleep quality, including how easy it is for you to fall asleep, how deeply you sleep, whether you wake in the night, how rested you feel in the morning, whether or not you routinely have to pee in the night, and how long you sleep for if you don’t set your alarm clock.
- Body weight, including whether you are losing, gaining or maintaining your weight (and whether or not that is in line with your goals). If you have a scale that measures body composition, you may wish to record your body fat and lean muscle mass as well.
- Energy and milestones when you exercise: are you seeing improvement? Do you feel good when you exercise? Do you look forward to exercise? Do you have energy left over for the rest of the day afterward?
- Mood. Do you experience mood swings? Do you feel happy? How do you handle unexpected stress? Do you laugh easily?
- Food Cravings: These will likely be strongest when you are first adapting to a lower carbohydrate level and then settle down completely. However, increased food cravings, especially beyond 2 weeks after a change in carbohydrate consumption, can be a sign of increased cortisol.
- Blood glucose: If you have a glucometer (fairly inexpensive and requires no prescription; you’ll need a Starter Kit, Test Strips and Lancets ), you can measure your fasting blood sugar first thing in the morning (it should be below 90), your glucose 1 hour after the start of each meal (it should be below 120, although under 140 is technically considered normal), and even your pre-bedtime glucose (it should be below 90).
When you are finished this month, you will have some good data showing you how this starting carbohydrate level is working for you. In the next post in this series, I will guide you through evaluating what this data means and how to choose the next step.