How Many Carbs Do You Need to Eat?

I can't get very far into any conversation about nutrition without hearing someone's burning questions about the most controversial macronutrient: CARBOHYDRATES.

"Carbs are bad and make you fat, right?"

"Should I cut out carbs if I want to lose weight?"

"What about bread...are those bad carbs?"

"Does fruit really count as a carb?"

"I think I'm going to do that keto diet, what do you think?"

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First off, let's establish some basic dieting principles.

ANY attempt to change your body composition starts with CALORIE manipulation. Meaning, you can eat low carb, high carb, clean carbs, dirty carbs...yada, yada, yada. But if you're not eating the right amount of calories each day, your special carb number won't matter much.

I can't tell you how many times upon speaking to people they ask, "Well I've already lost 10-15lbs. from cutting my carbs but I've seemed to plateau. What do I do now?"

Rarely do I see someone sustain any type of long term fat loss from slashing their carbohydrates. The scale goes right back up as soon as they start to eat carbs again.

The reason is, more than likely, that weight loss came from a CALORIE deficit created by eliminating your carbohydrates.

You see, every gram of carbohydrate yields 4 calories. So if you simply cut out all foods that contain high amounts of carbohydrates and didn't replace them with anything else, you created a calorie deficit. It was the calorie manipulation that yielded your initial weight loss; not the fact that it was carbs that you eliminated. 

Yes, there are absolutely health benefits to eliminating excess sugar, processed and refined foods that are high in carbohydrates. I believe that food quality is equally important as food quantity. Fulfilling your carbohydrate requirements with whole foods that are loaded with nutrients is key to optimal health. But for the sake of simply changing your body composition, we are going to focus on the big picture.

After you have established the correct amount of calories you need to eat on a daily basis for your goals, then you need to determine how many of those calories are going to PROTEIN (check out that blog post here) and next you'll determine your carbohydrate needs. 

NO - carbohydrates are not evil. They do not make you fat if you eat them. The wrong amount of carbs for your activity level (and overall calories) makes you fat.

Stop demonizing the best fuel source that provides the energy needed to get through a kick-ass workout and the recovery process of said workout... Being able to challenge yourself in the gym is what leads you to transform your body into a strong, healthy and lean machine. #teamscience

Think of it this way: if your body was a car, the protein is considered the metal structure and the carbs are the high quality gasoline.

For the sake of this blog post, I am going to assume that you're lifting weights regularly and with intensity - this is how we build amazing bodies at Elevate. 

Not consuming enough carbohydrates will cause you to underperform during your workouts... causing a damper on muscle gain and risk of muscle loss.

For someone who exercises intensely and regularly, restricting your carb intake too much can lead to:

  • Decreases thyroid output (the thyroid regulates things like your muscle mass, fat storage, cholesterol levels, menstrual cycle, your nervous system, etc)
  • Increased cortisol output (when stress gets too high, too frequently, bad things start to happen in our bodies)
  • Impaired mood and cognitive function
  • Muscle loss
  • Suppressed immune function

You basically start to feel crappy, spaced-out, tired, cranky... even sick.

However, too many carbohydrates for your needs can cause your insulin to spike too much and too frequently, causing unwanted fat gain.

Consume too much and, over time, you become less sensitive to insulin, gain excess fat, blunt muscle building and eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.

So let's get to it... how many carbs do you need to eat.

I will break down your carbohydrate needs based on 2 important factors: your bodyweight and your activity level for the day.

We'll use 5 categories for your activity and workout levels ( most people have 2 categories - their "off" day and they're "on" day.)

Non-Training days (recovery days, yoga, mobility) Consume around .5-.75grams of carbs per pound of body weight

Light Activity ( peaking for powerlifters and weightlifters that are 1-3 reps for up to 12 total sets, up to 45 minutes of hard training with sedentary/light home and work environment, a typical CrossFit class with one metcon) Consume 0.75-1.0grams of carbs per pound of body weight

Moderate Activity (up to 1.5 hours of hard training and pretty active work/home environment, a typical CrossFit class with a metcon + a lifting session) consume 1.0-1.5grams of carbs per pound of body weight

Hard Activity (1.5-2.5 hours of hard training per day coupled with a very active work/home environment) Consume around 1.5-2.0grams of carbs per pound of body weight

Very hard Activity (2.5+ hours of hard training per day, including endurance sport training, physical job that is laborious) Consume around 2.0-3.0grams of carbs per pound of body weight

For example, someone who is 150lbs and has a moderate training day... their ideal carbohydrate intake on their training day is somewhere around 150-225g of carbs. Why the range? Because there are a lot of individual factors that go into how your body processes those nutrients. You won't know what works best until you experiment. If you're leaner and have a lot more muscle mass on your frame, I suggest you go on the higher end of that target. If you have excess body fat (more than 18% BF for men and more than 25% women, on average), then you need to stay on the lower end of that target until you get leaner (and develop the ability to process those carbohydrates more efficiently). 

Don't forget about sauces, condiments, drinks, syrups... ALL foods have macronutrients. Even things that you drink.

So there you have it!! A guide to learning how many carbs you should eat each day, based on your unique needs.

As always, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or method. These are guidelines... it's up to you go experiment and determine your optimal carbohydrate needs are. Become the expert of your own body.

But if you're need help, guidance and, most importantly, accountability putting these concepts to practice, you should sign up for our Average To Awesome challenge! It's a 6 week body composition challenge designed to teach you how to become your own expert. It kicks off on September 7th. Get more info here!

-Nicole Race, Owner of Elevate and Certified Precision Nutrition Level 1 Sports and Fitness Nutrition