In Thursday’s post, I outlined how to start the process of determining your individual optimal carbohydrate intake. You’ve followed those directions and have chosen your carbohydrate start point. You formed a plan and you stuck with it for 4 weeks (or 2 days, but I know you’re eager to know the next step). You recorded how you felt and now you are ready to tinker to see if you can feel better. For Round 2, do you try more carbohydrates or less?
It’s not actually easy to give you rules like “if you aren’t sleeping well at your current carbohydrate level, try decreasing carbohydrates”, because each of these “symptoms” can be improved either by going up or by going down with your carbohydrate intake depending on how carbohydrates are affecting them. Yes, even your blood glucose can be elevated by either too many carbohydrates or too few. This is because high cortisol levels can look alot like too many carbohydrates. If your cortisol levels are poorly managed to begin with (say you’re under alot of stress these days or you have a history of metabolic derangement and/or adrenal fatigue), eating too few carbohydrates can cause an exaggerated increase in cortisol. Your body may adapt over time (it will for most, at least partially), but for others it drives the train toward adrenal fatigue (and that is just not worth it!).
Okay, so let’s look at what how your last 4 weeks affected you and then come up with a plan for Round 2. For simplicity, I’m going to refer to each of the following as “carbohydrate levels”: 30g, 40g, 50g, 60g, 75g, 100g, 125g, or 150g per day. Going up a level means eating more carbohydrates; going down a level means eating fewer carbohydrates. The steps are 10g per day at the lower end of the spectrum because you are likely to see a bigger difference with a smaller change at these lower carbohydrate consumption levels.
If you started with fairly low carbohydrate intake (≤50g per day), you have three choices. You can increase your carbohydrates; you can go even lower in carbohydrate (you can even try a ketogenic diet, but this is beyond the scope of this post series); or you can stay at this level (no one ever said you hadto change if you happen on a level that you think is working for you). If you aren’t completely happy with any of the criteria that you were recording (energy level throughout the day, sleep quality, body weight, energy and milestones when you exercise, mood, food cravings, and blood glucose), then I suggest trying 1½-3 weeks of the next level up (go through the same steps as outlined on Thursday for determining what types of carbohydrates you will eat and when). Record all of the same data plus anything else you might think is relevant.
If you started with a moderate carbohydrate intake (60-100g per day), you also have three choices. You can increase your carbohydrates, you can decrease your carbohydrates, or you can stay at this level. If you were having difficulty sleeping, feeling sluggish and tired throughout the day, or feeling stressed or moody, I suggest trying 1½-3 weeks at the next level up compared to what you did last month (this is assuming that cortisol is more likely a factor than too many carbohydrates, but if you really want to try going down instead of up, then by all means do!). If however, you felt pretty good (for example you have okay energy and sleep is alright but maybe you aren’t losing the weight you want to), I suggest trying 1½-3 weeks at the next level down from what you did last month.
If you started with a higher carbohydrate intake (125-150g per day), you again have three choices. You can decrease your carbohydrates, you can stay at this level, or you can increase your carbohydrates. I think that the only people who will really need more than 150g of carbohydrates per day are the extremely active (of course, there is an exception to every rule). If you do not fit into this category and you weren’t completely happy with this level of carbohydrates, I suggest trying 1½-3 weeks at the carbohydrate level lower what you did last month.
For those of you measuring blood glucose (as outline in Thursday’s post), you have a little more data to go on. If you are eating regular meals and your blood glucose levels are higher than optimal, this will most likely indicate that reducing your carbohydrate intake is the best next move. However, if you drink alot of coffee, if you skip breakfast, or if you don’t sleep well, then try and address these factors while either keeping your carbohydrate intake the same as last month or increasing your carbohydrate content to the next level up.
Now for Rounds 3, 4, 5… You can use the above criteria as a rough guide for determining what you will try for Round 3, 4, 5 etc. until you feel like you are at a carbohydrate level that is right for you. However, I suggest you go in the same direction as you did between Round 1 and Round 2 for you next step (unless Round 2 really didn’t work for you). So, if you decreased your carbohydrates in Round 2, try decreasing again. If you increased your carbohydrates, try increasing again. Give your body a couple of weeks to adapt to each change before you decide how that change affects you. Be critical of each change. Try not to have a set idea of how you will feel with each carbohydrate level. In general, I think you should continue in one direction (either increasing or decreasing) until it doesn’t work for you. Then switch directions and proceed until that doesn’t work for you. Each time you change, only change by one level of carbohydrates (some people may even want to make smaller iterations, especially as you narrow in closer to your optimal carbohydrate intake). Once you are finished the process in one direction, you will be repeating certain levels of carbohydrate consumption as you now experiment in the other direction. That’s okay. You may find it affects you much differently the second time around (try not to use “the last time you ate this many carbohydrates” affect your anticipation of the next Round). Also, if you aren’t sure how the current carbohydrate level is affecting you, instead of jumping to the next Round, try sticking with your current carbohydrate consumption for another week or two. Your body may need more time to adapt and it will be easier to decide what to try next.
Here’s what to look out for as you gradually decrease your carbohydrates: You may have found that it was hard at first, but you got used to eating lower carbohydrates than you used to. You still weren’t losing weight as quickly as you wanted so you went lower for round 2. Then you went lower again for round 3 and noticed that your energy really picked up and the weight started melting off. You went even lower for Round 4, but started to have to pee in the night and really crave coffee in the morning. At this level the weight loss is slowing down and you are starting to have food cravings. That’s where to stop.
Here’s what to look out for as you gradually increase your carbohydrates: You went too low and now you are increasing your carbohydrates. You felt great as soon as you increased a little. You started sleeping better and noticed more energy. You might want to stop here. You can also try increasing again and see if you feel even better. If you do, you will be tempted to increase again! You start to notice that your appetite is increasing, you want to snack between meals, you feel hungry when you go to bed, you starting to have food cravings. You went too far. Back up a step (and then maybe another one). That’s better!
As you tinker with amount of carbohydrates, it is natural to also tinker with type of carbohydrate. This is because as the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming increases, it becomes easier to incorporate more fruit and/or starchy vegetables in your diet. You may choose to stay at one carbohydrate level but try different types of carbohydrates (more fruit versus more starchy-vegetables versus more non-starchy vegetables). Once you can narrow in on a type of carbohydrate that your body tolerates well, then you can either stay where you are or play with amount of carbohydrate again. Once you are really close to having everything nailed down, then you can start to play with time of day of carbohydrates, post work-out carbohydrates, and other aspects of your diet and lifestyle.
As you continue this process, make only one change at a time. If life is getting crazy, just stay where you are (or go back a step if you felt the previous step was working much better for you). Be prepared to take months to really have all the details of your individual optimal carbohydrate intake worked out (although you should be able to get pretty close within the first 3 months).
Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate. What was right for you a few months or years ago might not be right for you now. Many lifestyle factors that are not part of your diet can negatively or positively affect your health. Seasonal variations in sun exposure, increases or decreases in stress, changes in your exercise routine, changes in toxin exposure, hormone changes and even changes in your bodyweight all affect how your body handles (and needs) carbohydrates. Especially if you are losing weight, this is likely to be a moving target. You may have to settle with “I feel pretty good at this level” rather than the ideal goal of “I feel awesome at this level”. And if you have health issues, this may be tricky too. However, you should find that as you continue this process of self-experimentation, that you can begin to predict how you will feel after a certain carbohydrate intake, that your estimates of how many carbohydrates you are consuming are pretty darned accurate, and that you can understand what your body needs much better than you could before.