I may receive a commission if you purchase through links in this post. I am not a doctor; please consult your practitioner before changing your supplement or healthcare regimen.
While the title of this post uses the words weight loss, this article is really about general health and wellness. The conversion guide (below) and discussion are tools to help us understand the relationship between carb intake and fat storage. And perhaps even more importantly, the guide below is designed to help us understand insulin’s role in the body, so we can create safe blood sugar levels for ourselves.
Carbs, weight loss, blood sugar, insulin and exercise
After reading an article by Tom Cowan from the Weston A. Price Foundation website, I created the chart below to correlate movement with complex carbohydrate intake. If you’re curious how many carbs you eat contrasted with how active you are, this chart allows you to see at a glance if you’re likely to be storing carbs as fat.
Are you eating more carbohydrates than your body needs for the energy you expend each day, and thus making more insulin than your body needs?
This can not only be a weight loss and exercise tool; it can also increase our awareness of what foods deliver energy and how many of those foods we need according to our level of movement each day!
This post was not written to encourage you to start a low-carb diet. But reducing one’s carbs and modifying one’s diet may be necessary for many of us. For example, I have found it helpful to temporarily eliminate unrefined sweeteners like raw honey and pure maple syrup, and to increase my green and other brightly colored vegetables as I balance my blood sugar levels.
(Last night we had a big salad for dinner topped with sauteed purple onions and asparagus, topped with poached eggs and sausages, with sides of fermented vegetables and olives. That saute of purple onions and asparagus stole the show– sooo good! The veggies were cooked in bacon fat with sea salt. How can we increase our vegetable fiber intake by making veggies shine?!)
Carbohydrate intake and insulin
Back to Tom Cowan’s post. I LOVE this insightful description of insulin’s role in the body:
Insulin production is the body’s way of saying that it is overfed with sugar…So if something you are doing in your life is causing you to make more insulin, you will store more fat. If you want to understand why you get fat or why you create fat in your body, then you simply need to look at what is happening with insulin.
…we eat carbohydrates to make fuel to do activities. From an energy standpoint, all carbohydrates—whether in white sugar, brown rice, carrots or any other carbohydrate-containing food—are the same…Carbohydrates break down into glucose and pass into the bloodstream.
…for a person sitting on the couch all day, a balanced diet would mean lots of fat, modest protein, lots of non-starchy non-carbohydrate vegetables and about sixty grams of carbohydrates…your carbohydrate intake should entirely depend on your activity level. The problem in the U.S. and the world is that we eat like marathon runners but never get off the couch. That means that people eating like marathon runners can end up with two hundred and forty grams of carbohydrate that serve no physiological function. (source)
While low-carb protocols like the Atkins Diet miss the mark, Cowan points out the important correlation between carb intake and energy output!
I began working last month (and achieved encouraging success!) on creating balanced blood sugar levels in my body; (I was noticing hypoglycemic symptoms that concerned me). I love what I learned from Cowan about insulin as it relates to the macronutrients we choose.
Proteins and fats don’t affect insulin levels. Insulin is not required to digest them.
When we eat carbs our bodies must process the resulting glucose in one of two ways: by producing insulin (insulin is the key that allows glucose into cells to then produce energy) or through exercise. If blood sugar levels get too high on a regular basis the body starts producing more and more insulin to compensate. Over time the person becomes insulin resistant; the insulin becomes less effective. One added point in favor of regular exercise and weight lifting? Insulin is more effective at transferring glucose into muscle cells than fat cells. The more fat cells one has the more likely to become insulin resistant.
As many of you know, I love eating paleo waffles for breakfast every.single.morning. I always eat them with protein, like a fried egg or sausage/bacon. The change I’ve made? I’ve stopped putting maple syrup on my waffle! I have true sympathy and empathy for any of you who have to give up your favorite foods! I’ve done it many times, and I understand it’s hard. The actual week or two of getting started and adjusting to new foods is the hardest part, and then a new routine sets in, and it gets easier.
I still eat waffles! My body does need the complex carbs found in the cassava flour I love so much. But the simple carbs provided by the maple syrup were too much: too much insulin in my bloodstream all at once. So now it’s either just butter. Or I love a fried, runny egg on top. And I’ve started sauteing veggies more often in the morning, especially onions and asparagus, both high in fiber. I also add sprouted nuts to the batter or put cheese on top. The point is: find new favorites. The change is worth it for your health!
Before glancing at the chart below, it should be noted that correlations are educated guesses based on exercise and nutrition experts from various fields, which I site and give links to at the bottom of the post. The numbers below are NOT meant to be limiting to your eating freedom or enjoyment, but rather to elucidate, give us all an idea of how much energy specific foods are designed to produce, to heighten our awareness. I give examples in the third column partially so we can all see some surprising facts. For example, 3 dates have as many carbs (produce as much energy) as two apples + half an avocado. Carb intake is highly individual based on gender, weight, insulin sensitivity; so this chart gives ranges and averages.
Also noteworthy, the more intensity in one’s workout the more carbohydrates are needed by the body to yield energy. So low impact workouts don’t necessarily require more carbs, although having lots of healthy fats in the diet is important. Most high intensity workouts require an increase in carb consumption.
Disclaimer: Experiment with your own carbohydrate intake to find what works best for you. Health conditions weigh in, too. For example, someone with adrenal fatigue or hypothyroid may need to eat more complex carbohydrates to feel well or to heal, whereas someone with SIBO may need to cut back on their carbs in order to improve. There are many variables, so this post is not intended to be one size fits all.
The following chart does NOT apply to children or teenagers, especially not to active teens. As long as kids are eating lots of whole food sources of protein and fat they should not be limited in their consumption of complex carbs. (However, teens who struggle with weight and blood sugar issues may benefit from reducing carbs and their glycemic load, as well as eliminating refined sugars and processed foods.) Simple carbs, on the other hand (sweets and treats), should be limited for humans of any age. To give you a quick idea of how much energy kids use, the average active teenager can easily eat 250-300 grams of carbohydrates in a day. Whereas you’ll see below, that carb intake for adults is reserved for marathon runners! Adult lifestyles are more sedentary by nature, and we’re not still growing. (source)
Where to begin? Start by increasing your awareness about what you eat and how it makes you feel. Notice how active you are throughout the day. Do certain meals/foods make you feel shaky or sluggish? Note which meals give you energy and which ones make you feel like taking a nap! If you already exercise, which foods give you more energy when you work out, and which foods weigh you down?
What kinds of exercise do you enjoy? If you need more energy for exercise but don’t want to increase your carbs, consider adding in MCT oil (I like THIS one) or supplements like this which help to deliver cellular energy and improve brain-muscle connection.
Does making dietary changes feel daunting? The healing process is a journey, and remember, on any journey the scenery changes. If you’ve gotten used to favorite foods and rituals of living that are difficult to replace, think of life as an adventure; invite longevity by being open to a new view. Focus on moderate portions (look closely at your portion sizes) and the beauty of healthy foods: wild salmon, grass-fed meats of all kinds, lovely lettuces and sauteed/roasted/grilled veggies, your favorite fats like bacon fat or butter, raw milk and cheese, rich foods like avocados.
For added support of healthy blood sugar levels, keep stress low. Support natural circadian rhythms (consider getting a happy light), and focus on great sleep hygiene.
While making changes initially may feel hard, whether your goal is weight loss or blood sugar regulation, ultimately the process is encouraging; our success snowballs and helps to propel us forward into more good choices.