Personally, I follow a low-carb diet. I do well on it–I’m able to maintain my weight, have good energy and also feel satisfied with fairly mild cravings, at less than 50g of starchy carbs per day.
However, everyone is different when it comes to nutrition, and certainly when it comes to this somewhat controversial macronutrient. For example, JillFit Coach Emily needs to eat a serving of healthy starch at every meal, or else she quickly loses muscle (i.e. “deflates”) or has lacking energy.
So how do you know how many to navigate your own carb intake?
For physique purposes, it is important to understand the role of carbs. Carbs help build muscle, and they can help sustain balanced energy (i.e. blood sugar) for many people, encouraging better workouts and less-pronounced energy lulls.
It’s also important to point out that some types of carbs, eaten at the wrong time or eaten in too large a quantity can impede results. For most people, overdoing carbs (especially of the sweets variety) can lead to excess fat storage and more pronounced energy swings.
Metabolic Effect calls this The Carbohydrate Tipping Point. It’s an individual measure of how many grams (or bites) of carbs, what type and how often to maximize muscle building and minimize fat storage. This takes some detective work and some trial and error since everyone is different.
A Few Carb Guidelines
On training days:
I recommend starting at 1g of carbs (starchy + fibrous veggies) per lb of body weight per day. So, if I weigh 150 lbs, I will do 150g spread out over my meals for that day.
On non-training days:
Cut your carb grams in half. So, I’d do 75g total, for example.
Then, adjust based on results and measurements. If you are building muscle in the right places and not putting on fat in the wrong places, you are probably doing well with this regimen. If you are putting on muscle, but also fat (i.e. “bulking”), cut your carbs back by 25g/day and once again see how you do. This process can take up to 6-8 weeks, and only works if you are a) training with weights consistently and b) all other nutritional variable (below) are kept constant.
Finally, on your training days, include up to 50g starchy carbs as part of your post-workout meal (approx 1 large baked potato or 1 cup (dry) oats, made with water).
In general, a higher carb (high protein, low fat) diet is great to build muscle, and is what most bodybuilders and competitors (especially in their off-season) use to build lean muscle. And when the starch comes from clean, hypoallergenic sources like oats, potatoes, rice, starchy veggies, fruit, etc, and you are training hard, you can stay fairly lean too. You will get into trouble doing too many sweets and treats, but once a week is fine :)
Here at JillFit, if you want to build muscle, we recommend The 1-1-1 Formula:
1g CHO per lb of bodyweight, 1g protein per lb of body weight, 1 serving of healthy fats per day
Don’t get obsessive with grams, though. I don’t want you measuring and weighing food constantly. Instead, eye-ball servings and learn over time the amount of carb contained in the foods you eat regularly.
1/2 cup oats or 1/3 cup oat bran (dry) = ~25g
1 medium sweet potato = ~25g
1/4 cup brown rice (dry) = ~30g
1/2 cup quinoa (cooked) = ~25g
1 banana = ~30g
1 cup blueberries = ~30g
Add the carb choices that you eat the most. As you can see, most servings of starch are between 20-30g. Simple!
Monitoring Fat & Protein
As a general rule, I recommend doing 1g of protein per lb of body weight. That may sound like a lot to some of you, but in order to maintain and build muscle for someone active at an advanced fitness level, this is recommended. On non-training days, you can get away with a little less. Protein should be from lean sources as much as possible: chicken, fish, turkey, pork chops, whey or pea/rice protein powder, eggs, whites, cottage cheese, etc.
As for fat, this is also a variable. If you are going lower-carb, you can get away with a higher fat diet (this is actually what I follow), such as 2-3 servings per day of healthy fats (from nuts/nut butters, avocado, coconut, olive oil, etc). But if you are doing a higher carb plan (1g CHO per lb of body weight), cut your healthy fats back to 1 serving per day, plus your omega-3 supplement.
As a general rule: The higher the carb, the lower the dietary fat. And the lower the carb, the higher the dietary fat.
One important component of any diet is its ability to keep us satisfied, without too many cravings or excessive hunger. We’ve found at JillFit that a higher carb OR higher fat diet can do this. But, resist the urge to go high in both, or else you’ll end up storing fat.
If you are going lower carb, you might want to consider supplementing with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)–5g pre-workout & 5g post-workout to balance energy and maintain muscle mass. Hint: get the powdered kind! We like MRM-G natural powder.
The idea that we need to be “carbing up” for exercise is fairly out-dated. In fact, most people can get away with less carbs than they think. And for some, cutting back on starch, and adding a serving or two of healthy fats can add to the satisfaction factor of their meal plan, making it more likely they will stick with it.
Carbs aren’t inherently evil, though I do think we can all stand to cut back on them somewhat and not die of fatigue :) In fact, exercising in a low-carb state could actually boost fat loss efforts over the long run, without affecting performance much, for the average person. Elite and endurance athletes are different, and will need more. But, the bottom line is that carbs are individual. Some people need more and some should be doing less.
Be strategic. Be systematic. But don’t obsess! Get used to eye-balling portions and resist measuring your food. The grams don’t need to be exact. Simply try to reach your target every day, and as always, just do your best.
The good news with this stuff is that nothing is irreversible. You can always adjust on the fly if you don’t get it right the first time out. In fact, it may take months and even years to find your Carb Tipping Point. But all the investigative work is worth it in the end.
If you haven’t read my Livestrong.com article on Carb Cycling, check it out for more info :)
Related: 6 Dieting “Rules” You Should Break