Few nutrition topics cause as much controversy as carbs. We love them and we love to hate them. There’s no shortage of strong opinions and advice, but how often do we pause to ponder what WE need?
Because, dear friends, that is what truly matters – how do we feel good, enjoy life, and rock our personal goals, whatever they may be?
After many years of experimentation, I’ve landed in a happy place with carbs. I’ve even developed my own carb-rule-of-thumb I’m excited to share. But my purpose here is not to reveal the carb “truth” with a capital “T” for all to benefit. Sorry, but what works for me will probably not work for you.
The point is the process, and more specifically, a few helpful tools that can guide the way. These include:
- Embracing flexibility – being ok with no perfect answer
- Friendly investigation – being a diet detective
- Watching what happens
- Practice and repetition
Let’s examine each one.
Embracing Flexibility – Mental Yoga
If yoga makes our bodies flexible, mental yoga gets our minds in a bendy, open place.
This is healthy because it opens us up to possibilities. Just like physical yoga, though, mental openness is a practice that takes time and patience to develop.
When I was a dietitian, I saw a desire for rigidity again and again – everyone wants exact answers. Is a particular food “ok”? Just fill in the blank: can I have ____? Can I have fruit juice? What about bread? And how much? Half a teaspoon, a cup?
This sort of thinking has the staying power of exactly 30 minutes to 30 days, depending on the person.
I was a practicing dietitian a long time ago. Judging from what I see on the internet more than 20 years later, precision is still very much on our minds.
I think it speaks to our very natural desire for certainty. If a particular food is acceptable, then we can check that box off and not worry about it any more. If we believe our efforts are guaranteed to lead to a certain result, we feel we’re on the “right” path, and that comforts us.
Dear friends, this sort of thinking leads us astray. Let’s acknowledge our natural desire for nutrition certainty and then throw it into the pond. Think of it as a shiny pebble we can examine with interest but don’t need to hold onto.
The Art and Science of Investigation
I believe strongly in science, but also enjoy trying new things and experiencing foods and nutrition strategies first hand. A few years ago I did a number of personal experiments with carbs.
In my 20s, my diet was very high in carbs. It was the 90s, and gulp, fat was “bad” and the USDA Food Pyramid was king. And the base of the food pyramid was all carbs.
Flash forward to a few years ago, when I started getting interested in the bodybuilding world. Bodybuilding and physique athletes go for extreme fat loss and are on the opposite end of the carb spectrum. Having experienced a diet with as much as 65% of my calories from carbs, I was interested to try a lower carb approach.
I did Paleo, which was starting to get popular at the time. I also explored a general bodybuilding-style “low carb” strategy with carbs ranging from the very low levels (30-40 grams daily) to moderate (maybe 70-80 grams) to a tad higher (100-125 grams).
To help put this in perspective, mainstream nutrition advice would be to get 45 to 65% of calories from carbs daily. For a 2000 calorie diet, that’d mean 225 to 325 grams of total carbs daily. The absolute lowest amount of carbs officially recommended is 130 grams a day – this essentially is the level that many experts would tell you never to fall below in order to maintain a healthy brain function (your brain runs on carbs, specifically glucose).
I know the mainstream recommendations and feel they have their place, but like I said, I enjoy experimenting. So I gave each approach a good try. I did a strict Paleo diet for three months and controlled general carbs pretty tightly for several years. (Side note: Paleo is not technically “low carb” but does restrict grains, so there can be overlap.)
Curiosity – The Most Underused Tool
Curiosity is one of the most powerful tools we have. Put it to good use, and there’s no end to the things we can learn.
I did my carb experiments because I was curious to see what might happen, and I learned a lot about myself and carb balance. For example, lower amounts made me feel lackluster and unsatisfied. This really shouldn’t be too surprising, given the mainstream recommendations, though I know some people feel they thrive on consistently low levels.
The Paleo experiment was fun, but my energy levels were similarly low. Workouts were difficult and I missed certain foods (particularly oatmeal) more than I expected. Also, even though Paleo doesn’t restrict carbs per se, it includes only a handful of starchy foods. Sweet potatoes can get really old after a while, and the sustained energy from a food like oatmeal can feel totally different from, say, a fruit smoothie made with almond milk.
I did learn to make some mean hash browned sweet potatoes during my Paleo experiment, so that was nice.
At higher levels of intake, carbs have always made me feel a certain sleepy sluggishness. It’s really noticeable after a period of lower intakes.
So what lies between lackluster and sleepy sluggish?
I won’t say I was a superhero or broke any world records, but I did find a place that feels good to me. Alert, balanced, upbeat. For me, that nice state of affairs coincides with a taste of carbs at most meals. As I tried different amounts – from next-to-nothing to as much as a half cup – I found I did really well with about 1/3 cup of foods like oatmeal, rice, or potatoes. When I ate foods like sweet potato fries, about 15 bites seemed good.
In most cases, a 1/3 cup serving of carbs was just the thing to help me feel energetic while chasing fat loss goals.
It was an interesting discovery for me. Before I really thought about low carb diets, my portions were a function of custom and habits. They were probably more a result of the size of the dishes I used than anything.
This is a recipe for unthinking, unbalanced meals. You see this all the time in restaurants because carbs are so cheap. There’s a certain trendy fast-casual restaurant where I work in Chicago that makes a burrito bowl with beautiful ingredients and flavors, but disappoints because it’s 80% rice.
To give you a sense of how this plays out in real life, I recently got take-out from one of my favorite restaurants. They make this really delicious Grecian-style chicken, Greek salad, and rice. The rice comes in a ginormous tub that I know has too much for me, so when I got home, I spooned the amount of rice I wanted into a little cup. Like so:
I just eyeballed it, but after taking this picture, I measured it to see how much I had spooned out. It was just about 1/3 of a cup.
Practice Makes Perfect
We may like the idea of experimenting in theory but struggle actually doing it because it’s not immediate. Ironically, the fastest trip to lackluster fitness results is to board the instant gratification train. Everything worth having takes time.
There’s a saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I look at many mornings:
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
I think of the asparagus patch that graced our front lawn in my childhood home. Asparagus patches can take three years to get established, but once they are ready, they can be productive for decades. And there’s just nothing that compares to home-grown asparagus.
If asparagus can be patient enough to take three years to provide veggie awesomeness, surely we can be patient too.
Tools for Food Adventures
The beauty of these tools – openness, investigation, curiosity, and practice – is that they work across nutrition philosophies. We can use them to test all kinds of ideas to see if they help us, from professional nutrition advice to commonsense adjustments we make on the fly.
Let’s not wait, though – let’s get going today. Hire an expert, buy a credible DIY program or book, or just cut back and watch what happens.
Food is as simple or as complex as we want to make it. I love it every which way, but I’m a little weird.