last updated March 24, 2021

Carbs: quality before quantity

by Rob Arthur

Have you ever wondered how much carbohydrate you should eat?

Or what are the best sources of carbohydrate?

Or what a carbohydrate even is?

Read on to find out, and please comment with any questions you have that aren’t answered 🙂

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen – the most basic of which are the monosaccharides glucose, galactose, and fructose – found in food as sugar, starch, or fiber (1):

  • Sugars include the monosaccharides listed above, as well as disaccharides like lactose, found in milk, and sucrose, which we call “sugar”, commonly found in fruit and processed sweets
  • Starches are long chains of glucose, typically found in grains, roots, tubers, and legumes
  • Fibers are long chains of indigestible carbohydrate, found in nearly all plants to varying degrees

What are the health benefits of carbohydrates?

Sugar and starch, which we break down for use and storage as energy, may benefit moderate- to high-intensity physical activity, such as resistance training (2), improve certain aspects of sleep (3), and support a healthy hormonal stress response (4).

Dietary fiber, which we do not break down for use or storage as energy, may improve insulin sensitivity, type 2 diabetes risk, glycemic control, lipid profiles, body weight, abdominal adiposity, gut microbial viability and diversity, cardiovascular disease risk and mortality, depression risk, colonic health and integrity, and colon cancer risk (5).

Throughout this post, we’ll generally use the term “carbohydrate” in reference to sources of sugar and starch.

What are the best sources of carbohydrates?

One way to assess the quality of a carbohydrate source is looking at how much it’s been refined, ground, or turned into a flour.

Refined flours, sugars, and processed foods, whose cell walls have been destroyed in processing, may have higher potential for promoting obesity and chronic disease through an inflammatory gut microbiome than unrefined fruit, tubers, roots, legumes, or grains, whose cell walls are still intact (6).

Another popular and long-used method for assessing the quality of carbohydrate sources is the glycemic index, a measure of how certain foods affect blood sugar levels (7).

Diets with lower glycemic indices have been linked to reduced risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression, chronic inflammation, and some cancers (8,9,10,11,12,13,14).

However, the utility of the glycemic index has recently been called into question.

We’ve been learning recently that we can have different blood sugar responses to the same foods, depending on factors like sleep, physical activity, and differences in our gut microbiomes (15,16).

Additionally, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that lowering a diet’s glycemic index might not be as beneficial as steps like increasing dietary fiber or replacing refined grains with whole grains (17).

That said, even whole grains may be overrated, so far as your carbohydrate options are concerned.

Grains contain a handful of anti-nutrients that might contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease by increasing intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut” (18).

Like grains, beans and legumes also contain anti-nutrients that may have adverse health effects (19).

If you’re going to eat grains or legumes, consider soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them to increase the bioavailability of beneficial nutrients and decrease the effects of potentially detrimental anti-nutrients (20).

If you’re looking to maximize nutrient density, though, you might want to stick with fruit, berries, root vegetables, and tubers over legumes and grains (21).

Ultimately, there’s much to be said for experimentation and paying attention to how different carbohydrate sources affect you personally.

For example, some folks with digestive or autoimmune issues have benefited from excluding carbohydrates higher in FODMAPs (22), reducing or eliminating fiber (23), or implementing an autoimmune protocol (24,25,26).

How much carbohydrate should you eat?

When you take care of the quality of the carbohydrates you eat, you just might not have to pay so much attention to the quantity.

A 2020 observational study of 37,000 people found that neither low-fat nor low-carbohydrate diets were superior for mortality risk, and that food quality appears to be a more important factor (27).

A 2018 randomized clinical trial found that participants achieved similar improvements in weight and health, regardless of whether they restricted carbohydrates or fats, when they prioritized minimally-processed foods and found an approach they could stick to consistently (28)

Trials in 2003, 2005, and 2009 all found that the relative fat, carbohydrate, and protein content of a diet do not appear to be as important of a factor in health improvements compared to simply being more consistent with improvements in general (29,30,31).

This all suggests that if you emphasize minimally processed, nutrient dense carbohydrates, and find an approach you can maintain consistently, you might be able to look and feel awesome at a wide range of relative carbohydrate intake.

How to optimize your carbohydrate intake

First, consider generally improving the quality of your carbohydrates.

Focus on shifting away from refined grains, sugar, and flour.

Prioritize whole fruit, berries, tubers, and root vegetables.

If choosing legumes or grains, consider soaking, fermenting, or sprouting them.

From there, tinker with the quantity and sources of your carbohydrates.

If you’re training intensely, for example, you might feel better with more carbohydrates.

If not, you might feel better with less carbohydrates.

As you dial up your carbohydrates, you’ll generally want to dial down your fat, and vice versa.

You might feel better with more carbohydrates and less fat.

You might feel better with more fat and less carbohydrates.

You might feel better with an even balance of the two.

Consider a similar approach with your fiber intake.

You might feel your best with lots of fiber.

You might feel your best with none at all.

Pay attention to other ways different carbohydrate sources might make you feel.

How do they affect your appetite, mood, and cravings?

How do they affect your performance, sleep, and stress?

How do they affect your digestion, skin, and mental clarity?

You might find keeping a food journal to record your observations helpful.

Master the basics, prioritize consistency, and change one variable at a time.

Make an adjustment, see how it affects your progress, and repeat.

Start where you are.

Do what you can.

Find what works for you.

You’ve got this.


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