The carb myth part 3: Low carb vs lower carb

After I wrote Part 2 of The Carb Myth: It’s the Calories, Stupid, I got some interesting email.

One person was insulted that I had called her stupid, as if by putting the word “stupid” into an article I had personally reached into her living room in Peoria or Sudbury and pointed an accusing finger at her. She may not have been aware of the now-famous line from the U.S. Presidential race, “It’s the economy, stupid”, or even the KISS principle that my math teacher used to promote, which means, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Hell, there are at least two lines of publications which explicitly reference the less-than-optimal-cranial capacity of their readership, but who shall both remain nameless since last time I titled an article F*r D*mmies, I got a snide letter from a legal bean counter. I admit it was a blatant five-finger discount. I guess they’ve never heard of the principle about ripoffs being the sincerest form of flattery.

Anyway. I wasn’t calling any of you stupid. Let’s have a group hug before we move on.

Okay, now that I’ve validated all of you and your diverse yet equally valuable intellectual fortitude, let’s move on to the next group of emails. I received some worried correspondence from people who were trying to sort out the mess of information surrounding lowcarb eating and ketogenic dieting. Many wanted to know how I felt about the Atkins diet, or whether high protein was the same as lowcarb, and whether I really was an oppressor of bread.

As usual, we need a road map through Crap Swamp. As I said in Part 2, there is a mountain of mythology about lowcarb that now equals the mythology produced about low fat ten years ago. It can make anyone without a biochem degree tear their hair out.

Allow me to suggest some simple principles that should be your guide.

how NOT to eat

I am addressing my comments here primarily to folks consuming a North American and UK type of diet. The eating habits of other regions, particularly Continental Europe and Asia, tend to be better, although the prevalence of processed food is increasing, especially among younger consumers. This diet is characterized by:

  • Lower intakes of fruit and vegetables
  • Lower intake of fibre
  • High intakes of saturated fat or trans fats
  • Frequent consumption of highly processed foods that contain not only “de-nutritionalized” ingredients but often also chemicals and various types of sweeteners
  • Higher intakes of refined sugary and starchy foods
  • Rapidly increasing serving and portion sizes

Often there are subsets of this type of diet, especially among health conscious young women:

  • An obsession with purging all fat in the diet to its detrimental exclusion
  • Vegetarianism with no attention to adequate protein, nor to actually eating vegetables
  • High carbohydrate intake, especially as an attempt to substitute for fat intake, or also as a result of a vegetarian lifestyle
  • Excessive and ongoing caloric restriction, often accompanied by episodes of bingeing on “forbidden” foods
  • High consumption of caffeinated beverages, which can trigger increased perception of symptoms of hypoglycemia and consequently disordered eating, especially of carbohydrates
  • Insufficient protein, fat, and/or calories to support an active lifestyle

how to eat

Most people consuming the type of diet above could benefit from making the following changes to their diet.

  • Reducing intake of simple, refined, and highly processed carbs
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Increasing intake of soluble and insoluble fibre
  • Reducing intake of bad fats: saturated fats from animal products and trans fats, usually found in highly processed foods, cooking sprays, and artificially solidified oils such as margarine
  • Consuming sufficient quantities of good fats from fresh oils, nuts and seeds, oily fish, avocados, etc.
  • Limiting portion sizes of calorie-dense foods specifically but also of meals in general

Now here’s the thing. These are principles, not specific instructions. These principles can be implemented in different ways depending on individual need.

A nutritional plan which says that everyone must eat exactly the same way all the time is not a good plan. Each person has different requirements, though just about everyone can think of a way that they can make positive changes in their nutritional plan.

Here are ways in which one can manipulate the role of carbs in their diet, from least to most dramatic.

  1. Reducing sources of “junk food”: soda/pop, candy, sweetened baked goods like cake and cookies
  2. Reducing sources of refined carbohydrates and sweeteners (read food labels! food manufacturers hide the stuff everywhere! it’s like cat hair… years after the cat dies you’re still picking fur off yourself)
  3. Reducing and/or eliminating fruit juices, sugary sauces, white breads, white rice, white noodles
  4. Looking at the glycemic index of the carbs that are eaten, and eating primarily low GI carbs
  5. Eliminating all refined carbs entirely
  6. Reducing overall carb intake to a moderate level, say 50-100 g daily
  7. Cyclical change in carb intake, e.g. eating fewer for a set time, then more during a “carb-up” or “reefed”
  8. Reducing carb intake to ketogenic levels, usually around 20-30 grams of carbs per day

how do i know what choices are right for me?

The easiest thing to do is start with the first type of change, which is reducing junk food in the diet. Quite likely after you get over the cravings from habitual use you will feel better. Remember that quite often, a craving does not represent an actual biological need. It represents a habitual pattern of use. Rip that bandaid off the junk food scab and don’t look back.

Then think about the following things.

Activity type. What kinds of activities do you habitually do? Are they endurance-based, strength-based, low-intensity, high-intensity, etc.? Endurance athletes generally need a higher carb intake. Also, consider timing your carbohydrate intake around your activity: consume the bulk of carbohydrates immediately before and after exercise.

Personal response to eating. After a big plate of pasta or a couple slices of bread, do you have the urge to snooze? Do you eat and eat without feeling satisfied? Or do you eat sporadically, alternately fasting and feasting? Research suggests that people vary in their carbohydrate tolerance as well as their response to changes in blood glucose. Ectomorphs (aka “beanpoles”, “Skinny Minnies” or “tall drinks of water”) typically do much better with a higher carbohydrate intake. Endomorphs (aka “built for comfort, not for speed”, “Weebles” or “sturdy”) typically benefit from lowering their carbohydrate intake and substituting a higher protein and fat intake. Mesomorphs (aka “those naturally muscular bastards”) are usually somewhere in the middle.

Blood sugar symptoms. Do you demonstrate symptoms of hypoglycemia? True hypoglycemia is rare but many of us exhibit symptoms that I would call “blood sugar issues”. When the brain perceives glucose levels falling it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” system — which results in similar symptoms as a stress situation.  These can be things like faintness, irritability, the shakes, heart palpitations, or problems concentrating when blood sugar drops. Ever been really scared? And then the scary thing passes and you feel all weak and funny, maybe even a little nauseated? Same deal.  These symptoms doesn’t necessarily represent true hypoglycemia (although in diabetics they can precede full-blown hypoglycemia, often quite rapidly), but they’re correlated with cyclical changes in blood sugar. I sort of glaze over when I get really hungry and need to eat. I space out and get bitchier than normal. After a snack, I’m fine.

Family history. Do you have chronic diseases in your family history that are linked to blood sugar or insulin resistance problems? These can include obesity, thyroid disorders, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and diabetes.

Body composition. Are you lean? Normal? Overfat? Is your fat distributed more around your middle? If so you might be insulin resistant, although not only apple-shaped people are insulin resistant. The higher your bodyfat level, the greater the chances of you having or developing some form of insulin resistance and possibly even diabetes.

Appetite. What is your appetite like? Are you always hungry? Boy, I was when I was on the low fat, high carb diet. I thought about food constantly, and at night I would lie in bed listening to my tummy growl.

Personal medical history. Some medical conditions can change your responsiveness to insulin and thus require a lower carb approach. Two of the most common ones, as I have noted, are polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and thyroid disease, but emerging research is showing that a lower carb diet can assist with many other chronic disorders, particularly those of an inflammatory nature such as IBS and rheumatoid arthritis.

You could benefit from further reducing your carb intake if you:

  • are not doing large amounts of endurance based exercise
  • get sleepy after a carb-rich meal
  • demonstrate symptoms of blood sugar fluctuations
  • have a family history or a personal medical history that includes Type II diabetes, blood sugar issues, obesity, PCOS, thyroid
  • have difficulty controlling your appetite
  • carry a lot of excess bodyfat
  • have bodyfat which is preferentially distributed around your midsection (though other types of bodyfat deposition needn’t exclude you)

Even if you have all of these characteristics, you need not go fully ketogenic. There is a lot of middle ground between a high-carb and a low-carb diet. Macronutrient proportions can vary according to your individual preference and your response to them.


High fat: greater than 40% of calories from fat
Moderate fat: 30-40% of calories from fat
Low fat: 20-30% of calories from fat
Ultra low fat: lower than 20% of calories from fat

In general, fat intake should not drop too low. With the right kind of fat, fairly high intakes, even as high as 40%, can in fact be beneficial. Dropping fat lower than about 20% will probably start to have a negative impact on wellbeing and athletic performance. Thus somewhere between 20-40% is the right range for most people.


Moderate carb intake: 50-100 grams daily (can be up to 150 for some people)
Lowish carb intake: 20-50 grams
Ketogenic levels: below 30 (may be as low as 10-20 for some people)

Most folks will feel pretty good and perform well in the gym with an intake somewhere around 50-150 grams daily, especially if this is timed to coincide with activity, and if most of it comes from low-glycemic or fibrous carbs: fruit, veggies and small portions of whole grains. A ketogenic diet is very well tolerated by some people, but it is not for everyone, and it is not even necessarily best for folks with insulin resistance symptoms. A moderate to low carb intake is a plan that works very well for most people.

Another approach is to keep carbs fairly low, below 50 grams or so, during the week, and then raise carb intake for 24-48 hours on weekends. This is known as a carb up or refeed.


Anyone who is weight training should ensure adequate protein, and particularly so if they are dieting, as a healthy protein intake helps to retain muscle mass. For active women, protein should be at least 0.7 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight regardless of whether one is losing or gaining mass. This usually works out to around 30-40% of total nutrient intake, depending on overall caloric intake. Males might consider consuming a baseline that is slightly higher.

200 lb. woman = 140 to 160 grams daily
150 lb. woman = 105 to 120 grams daily

This is a minimum level. More can be consumed if desired. Contrary to myth, protein is not harmful to healthy people. Clinical studies on athletes show that active people can assimilate quite a lot of protein with no ill effects, and indeed, an adequate protein intake is essential to performance.

how do i track all of this?

Well, you needn’t get too fussy if it doesn’t suit you. Fitday is a helpful tool that will give you all the information you need. However you don’t even have to track your macronutrient ratios if it’s too much work and you’re getting the results you want, either in terms of athletic performance or body composition. Just follow the principles of good eating outlined above. Pay attention to how you feel after eating certain things. Notice the results you are getting. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it is broke, tinker a bit until it works! There is no one size fits all approach. Any eating plan you develop must incorporate:

  • an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals
  • an adequate supply of protein
  • adequate fat
  • a long term approach which is a nutritional lifestyle plan, not a short-term band-aid

And the rest is up to you.

Happy bread eating, if desired.