In part one of The Carbohydrate Debate, we discussed some of the benefits of ketogenic and low carbohydrate diets as well as some of the possible drawbacks of ketogenic diets specifically. However, we did not discuss what amount of carbohydrate is best for us. Hint…it depends on biochemical individuality.
Carbohydrate Quality vs Quantity
To further clarify the debate on ideal carbohydrate amount, let’s review the diets of some of our ancestral populations who experienced limited to no modern disease (1). Surprisingly enough, what we find is that these groups experience robust health on a wide range of carbohydrate intakes. For instance, the Masai exclusively eat milk and meat, the Tokelau eat a high fat moderate carbohydrate diet (2, 3), and the Kitavan and Okinawa diets are 70-85% carbohydrate, yet the occurrence of modern diseases in these populations is absent (4, 5). Therefore it seems that there is no one size fits all amount of carbohydrate that is best for everyone.
However, what differentiates these populations from modern diets is their carbohydrates come exclusively from whole foods such as fruits and tubers (high quality), not refined grains and sugars (low quality). So, we may be able to more accurately state that, in most cases, the quality of carbohydrate sources is more important than the amount.
Determining a Carbohydrate Intake Starting Point
Clearly, both carbohydrate quality and quantity are important factors and there is no one size fits all approach. Based on current evidence it is clear that a “lower” carbohydrate diet is beneficial for most people and a ketogenic diet can be beneficial for certain people. It is also clear based on ancestral population diets that moderate to high carbohydrate diets may also be healthy. So, in light of all this information, the question is, how can we determine a carbohydrate intake that is right for each individual?
Well, it depending on a number of factors and requires individual experimentation, but here are some general guidelines.
Ketogenic Diet: Those who are overweight, have metabolic syndrome, diabetes, neurodegeneration, epilepsy, arthritis, other inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases, polycystic ovarian disease, brain injury, or cancer may consider experimenting with ketogenic and very low carbohydrate diets. Depending on the person and the condition, it may be a short or long term intervention. Some generally healthy individuals also do very well on long term ketogenic diets but monitoring of the drawbacks of ketogenic diets mentioned in part 1 is suggested.
Low to Moderate Carbohydrate Diet: Most of the general public and athletes who do not have any of the above conditions would fall into this category. Given that low to moderate consists of a wide range of carbohydrate intake (50-200 g/day) experimentation is important to determine the amount of carbohydrates that allow one to feel and perform optimally.
High Carbohydrate Diet: This is most often reserved for high-level athletes that cannot optimize their performance with lower carbohydrate intakes.Strategic Carbohydrate Timing: Some people feel better by controlling the timing of their carbohydrate intake. Some examples are before or after a workout, only in the morning, or only at night. Obviously, this also requires individual experimentation.
Cyclic Ketogenic Diet: There are many ways to implement this but the idea is a rotation between ketogenic and low to moderate carbohydrate intake. Two of the many examples are 5 days on ketogenic and 2 days off or a seasonal ketogenic diet during the winter months. Some believe that cyclic ketogenic diets may most closely match our ancestral eating patterns.
Net Carbohydrates and Non-Starchy Vegetables
Once you identify a good starting place for yourself or your client based on the above guidelines, some consideration about net carbohydrates and non-starchy vegetable intake in necessary.
Remember, net carbohydrates are the total amount of carbohydrates minus the fibre content (see part 1). For those who fall into the category of a strict ketogenic diet, net carbohydrates should be counted on every food that contains carbohydrates, including non-starchy, fibrous vegetables (ex. leafy greens). However, for anyone falling in the low to high carbohydrate range, I suggest that non-starchy, fibrous vegetables should not be counted towards net carbohydrate intake. This is simply because on a strict ketogenic diet, entering ketosis is the goal and this requires detailed control over net carbohydrate amount for most people. However, for all other categories, such strict regulation is not required and the energy necessary to digest fibrous vegetables essentially negates any amount of net carbohydrate it may contain. The key point here is that non-starchy vegetables are an important dietary component of any diet, including all the above categories, the only difference is whether or not net carbohydrates from these vegetables are counted.
In light of the above, you may still find the carbohydrate debate clear as mud. Ultimately, self-experimentation is essential for anyone to determine what is ideal for them and the above information can be used to identify a starting point.
The final take away is that there is a wide range of optimal carbohydrate intakes based on biochemical individuality; however, the connecting factor is that carbohydrates must mainly come from starchy tubers and whole fruits, not refined grains and sugars! And don’t get so wrapped up in counting carbohydrates that you forget to eat those non-starchy vegetables.
Andrew Aussem holds a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition from Hawthorn University and an Honors Bachelor of Kinesiology. A personal change in his lifestyle 8 years ago led Andrew to pursue further education in holistic nutrition and as a recent graduate he looks forward to starting his own practice at Optimal Being. Andrew also operates the wellness blog thebarefootgolfer.com where he combines many of his passions in articles covering topics such as ancestral nutrition, exercise, wellness, and obviously golf.