How much carbohydrate does your body really need?

by Sergio Rivera

How Much Carbohydrate Does Your Body Need?

(Note: You’ll never see carbohydrates the same way again after reading this.)

So, how much carbohydrate does your body really NEED?

The answer is NONE. As in zip, zero, nada, zilch.

In other words, you can continue living without ever having to consume carbohydrates again.

If you’re not convinced, let’s take a look at the Inuits who survived zero carbohydrate intake in harsh Arctic environments. From discover magazine:

Shaped by glacial temperatures, stark landscapes, and protracted winters, the traditional Eskimo diet had little in the way of plant food, no agricultural or dairy products, and was unusually low in carbohydrates. Mostly people subsisted on what they hunted and fished.

In fact, the typical Inuit diet revolved around meats: fish, crabs, walruses, seals, caribous, reindeers, ducks, and geese. No fruits or vegetables, and yet the Inuits led healthy lives.

But how did such a diet sufficiently supply the daily nutrition the Inuits needed?

The answer, according to Harold Draper, a biochemist and expert in Eskimo nutrition, is:

There are no essential foods—only essential nutrients. And humans can get those nutrients from diverse and eye-opening sources.

And what are these eye-opening sources?

According to Dr. Blake Donaldson, another expert on the Inuit-style meat-only diet:

There are probably only two biologically perfect foods – fresh fat meat (i.e. meat with fat on it) and water.

But how about carbs…?

Oh wait, what are carbs again?

Carbohydrates

Understanding why our body does not need carbohydrates is just as important as understanding what carbohydrates are.

Carbohydrates – also known as “saccharides” – are simple molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbohydrates are sugar units at the simplest form, and they are divided into four groups according to the number of sugar units present:

  • Monosaccharides are single unit sugars. Glucose, for instance, is a single molecule of sugar. Other examples are Galactose, Fructose, Ribose, and Glyceraldehyde.
  • Disaccharides are made up of two sugar units, like Sucrose, Maltose, and Lactose. Your table sugar (sucrose) for instance, is made up of glucose and fructose.
  • Oligosaccharides contain 3 to 10 sugar units. Examples are Raffinose and Stachyose which are found in legumes.
  • Polysaccharides contain more than 10 sugar units. Examples are Starch, Glycogen, and Cellulose. Starch is the primary storage form of carbohydrates in plants. In animals, the primary storage form of carbs is glycogen.

Polysaccharides are made up of a large number of interconnected glucose molecules, which makes them efficient sources of energy.

In polysaccharides, the glucose units do not lose their simplicity. They are not upgraded into some complex form. The only difference is that they are strung together in 10 or more sugar units.

And because they are primarily made up of glucose molecules, your body (particularly your liver) can easily take them apart, release them into the bloodstream, and give your muscles fuel to burn.

Your liver and muscles store carbohydrates in the form of a polysaccharide called glycogen. Think of your polysaccharide reserves as a powerful spring compressed to its most compact form – they are dense yet simple enough that when released, provide an instant surge of power to your body.

The Glycogen Limit

The thing with glycogen is that your body can only keep a certain amount of it. Your liver only stores 90-110 grams of glycogen, and your muscles store around 400-500 grams.

Muscle glycogen stores however, cannot be broken down and returned to the blood stream; your muscles just hold onto them for when you need energy during urgent situations, or during high intensity exercise.

In fact, your muscles are so adept at holding onto your muscle glycogen stores that, during MODERATE exercise, your muscles feed on the glucose in your bloodstream (as may be provided by the liver) first, before breaking down muscle glycogen reserves.

Simply put, 400 to 500 grams of your glycogen reserves remain sealed most of the time. You only deplete them (and subsequently replenish them) when you perform high intensity exercise. That leaves you with about 90 to 110 grams of liver glycogen storage that goes through a cycle of depletion and replenishment on a daily basis.

What happens then, when your liver and muscles are full of glycogen and there’s still sugar in your blood?

Your body turns to a more efficient way of storing sugars. Your body turns them into fat.

Plants don’t get fat. Only animals do.

Imagine that you’re a plant.

You have nothing to do all day but sit on the same spot, drink water, and bathe in the sun. You also make your own food, and produce chemicals to ward off pests and make sure that you’re always in tip-top shape.

Now go back to being an animal.

You can’t make your own food so you have to be constantly on the move to make sure you get the nutrients you need for growth and development. Even defecating takes a considerable amount of movement and effort.

When you were a plant, you didn’t have to turn your excess carbohydrates to fat. After all, you did not need to move. You never had to worry about finding food, and you need not run away from the average pest. Much to the delight of your parents, you have become the epitome of independence.

But you’re an animal. You rely on movement for survival. For that, you are made up of 360 joints in the body that can only function well with lighter and more flexible energy storage forms. That storage form is fat.

Fats aren’t only light and flexible, unlike carbohydrates, they have no storage limits. Plus they are more energy-dense. A single gram of carbohydrate can only store 4 calories. A single gram of fat on the other hand, can hold 9 calories.

Fat storage however, is a complex process. It goes beyond the simple mathematics of glycogen storage. If fat storage was as simple as glycogen storage, then weight loss would be easy!

But a lot more is involved. That is why you can’t just calorie-count your way to weight lossHormones are at work, and a number of other bodily processes sync with your body’s bid to use up blood sugar levels efficiently at the expense of storing more fat.

But now that you know how your body handles carbohydrates, you definitely have one of the most fundamental principles of fat storage.

You’re not a plant, and your body is not designed to store excess carbohydrates as carbohydrates. So when blood sugar is in excess, your body turns to the most efficient form of energy storage.

You get fat.

So does that mean carbohydrates have no place in our lives whatsoever?

Your brain needs glucose for energy. In order for your brain to function at optimal efficiency, it needs 30 grams of glucose at the minimum.

So carbs do have a place in your life, but only to a minimal extent.

But that doesn’t mean you have to consume 30 grams of carbohydrates daily. Here’s why:

  1. Your brain is able to use two other sources of energy: ketones and lactate. Ketones are organic compounds that result from the breaking down of fat for energy.

Lactate (or lactic acid) on the other hand, is produced when you exercise AND there is not enough oxygen to break down a molecule of glucose completely.

  1. Your body can synthesize glucose from non-carbohydrate sources via a process called Gluconeogenesis. So even if you don’t consume any carbohydrate at all, if your fat and protein intake is healthy, your body always has a way to make glucose from scratch.

And if you’re still reeling over the Inuit paradox, these two points help explain why the Inuits thrived despite the absence of carbohydrates in their diets. They got all the energy they needed from non-carbohydrate sources. Even their vitamin and mineral intake were greatly aided by their all-meat diet.

Here’s the lowdown on carbohydrate intake.

The Inuit Paradox, the science of Gluconeogenesis, fat storage mechanisms… all these things tell us that carbohydrates are merely optional for optimum human nutrition.

In other words, you don’t really need carbohydrates to fuel your body. Both fat and protein can suffice to provide your body the energy it needs to get you through the day – even at times of intense activity.

There is however, a grey area that calls for you to decide whether or not you go for zero carbohydrate intake. The science of fat metabolism, after all, is not absolute. Your body is unique, and there is no one-size-fits all approach to fast and easy fat loss.

Just remember, you’re not a plant. You’re an animal, and when carbohydrates are in excess, you store the extra amount as fat.

And chances are you’re not an Inuit (Inuits out there, if you’re reading this, let me know in the comments section below. Represent!).

There’s a big chance that it would be quite a challenge for you to go on an all-meat diet the same way Inuits have been eating since time immemorial[1].

That is why instead of saying “go for a no-carb diet”, I would rather say “go for a low-carb diet”. The “low-carb” gives you a range to work with (50 to 100 grams per day) given the many choices you might encounter with regards to your diet.

100 grams per day as a ceiling is not that difficult if you focus on low carb foods. Just make sure to avoid carb dense foods such as corn and potatoes (which are way too starchy for low carb purposes), grains, beans and legumes, seed oils, and sugars.

Eat your green leafy vegetables, fatty fruits such as avocado (check this recipe out), all the various types of meat, fatty fish like salmon, nuts, seeds, and low carb treats like dark chocolate.

That said, you don’t have to go and eat like a traditional Inuit. Vegetables and fruits are packed with essential vitamins and minerals that work to the benefit of your overall health. For as long as you don’t go for the starchy ones, a serving or two of low carb vegetables and fruits should help your body run like a well-oiled machine, with all metabolic processes running at full steam.

Give the low-to-no-carb approach a try and let us know how it goes for you.

When you’re ready to go low carb, read this article on how to get started on a low carb diet:

http://manlynutrition.com/how-to-get-started-on-a-low-carbohydrate-diet/

Inuit or not, any word from you in the comments section below will be welcome.

Let’s talk about the low-to-no-carb approach and see if we can work your diet for more efficient fat loss.


[1] The latest news is that the traditional Inuit diet has significantly changed over the years, because climate change has shifted ice and changed the migratory patterns of the animals they used to hunt. Thus they now have to rely more on supplies coming in from neighboring countries, completely changing the way they eat. This has of course led to the rise of health issues among the once disease-resilient population.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Manu August 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Great article! This is one of the most mind opening nutrition article I have read in a while. Kudos to Sergio Rivera. To be frank, I live in India, here we eat lots and lots of carbs. When I mean lots, its like every meal has a lot of carbs. And since I don’t cook, I usually rely on hotels, and there too we have a lot of carbs, mainly rice. What can I do about this? Should I start cooking my own?

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2 Sergio Rivera August 20, 2014 at 12:55 am

Hey Manu. Good to hear from you.

It’s been two and a half years ago since I started cooking, and I feel healthier than I have ever before. I used to love hotel food and fast food too, back in the day, and those things have a lot of hidden sugars, not to mention MSG and Trans Fats.

One time I had to live in a difference city for a month, and that made me dependent on hotel food and takeout counters. Can you guess how much I gained in a month? I gained 22 lbs (10 kg). In just 30 days. And it’s not like I got careless with what I ate. Other factors considered, the choice of food (or the lack thereof) made me fat fast.

For your carb intake, I adivse that you slowly cut back on the rice. A cup of white long-grain rice already has 39 grams of carb. That’s a lot of carbs there. I live in the Philippines and we love our rice here, so I went easy on the rice and that made me lose fat easily.

Don’t drink your calories so stay away from beverages, except black coffee and tea. And stay away from the sweet stuff like cakes, cookies, and candies. 

I would also advise that you learn how to cook. How comfortable are you around the kitchen? You can start with the easy recipes, like salads (check out our recipe section for easy to prepare recipes) and that should give you a confidence boost. Use fresh ingredients and avoid the kind of food that you take out of a package, slide into the oven, and wait for two minutes to “cook” itself.

Let me know how things go for you. Take it easy man, and if you need help, just drop by this site. I’ll be standing by to answer your questions.

Reply

3 Chandan August 20, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hey Sergio…I have few questions here

First one being is can we increase our Carbs intake to 150 grams on workout days and 30-40 grams on rest days?

Secondly we know that eating more calorie makes you store fat irrespective of from where its coming from carbs,fats or protein.

If you are eating more fat==more calorie==Fat Storage same goes for cabs and protein.

So i would like to hear you back on this

Reply

4 Sergio Rivera August 20, 2014 at 10:31 am

Hey Chandan! 

To answer your first question, YES you may. Alternating your carbohydrate intake on workout and non-workout days should work out just fine. Just remember to get your carbohydrates from healthy sources and stay within the range of 100-150 grams.

As for your second question, the answer is this: It’s difficult to overeat on a fat-based diet. 

Fat (and protein) stimulate hormones (ie., Leptin, Ghrelin, Adiponectin, and Peptide YY) that signal satiety. This means you’ll stay full longer. You’ll eat less throughout the day, and your daily caloric intake will drop without you depriving yourself of food.

Calorie counting is not very effective for most people, because your body reacts more to what you eat instead of how much you eat. The math may be simple — 9 calories per 1 gram of fat versus 4 calories per 1 gram of carbs makes eating lots of fat seem counterintuitive.

But your body does not work that way. Your body reacts more to nutrients, than the number of calories you eat during the day.

There you go. Keep dropping by and let’s talk more about your current diet and workout routines.

Have a great day ahead!

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5 Chandan August 29, 2014 at 6:07 am

I am currently doing Full Body Workout x 3 per week. Majority of excercises are compound ones.

Plus I am strictly following Intermittent Fasting Protocol and seeing some great changes.

The main problem is that my office Gym don’t have much weights to lift for Deadlift and Squats.

So would you suggest for higher reps and sets with the same weight for Progressive overload?

Reply

6 Sergio Rivera September 2, 2014 at 11:53 am

Seems like we’re on the same routine. I fast during weekdays and eat openly during weekends. Instead of training in the gym, however, I do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) outdoors. Thrice a week and using only bodyweight exercises.

The answer to your question depends on your goals.

Are you looking to grow more muscle? If so, I suggest that you pick a weight that you can lift for 8 reps in 4 sets. A good guide is to start with 50 to 60% of a weight that you can do only 1 rep with. If your muscles don’t fail by the end (or midway) of the 4th set, then you’re carrying too light. Don’t rest for too long in between sets (I only rest for 30 seconds) and increase the weight gradually as you get stronger.

Otherwise, if you just want to get stronger while maintaining your current muscle mass, pick a weight that you can lift for 4 reps in 4 sets.

Reply

7 Chandan September 3, 2014 at 4:55 am

Great…Thanks for the tips

8 Mario August 22, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Im always curious when topics like these against carbs arise, other cultures like asian rely alot on rice and you don't see them overweight or with an obesity problem.  Or another example is places like Italy or some parts of europe where they eat different kinds of breads, and bread seems to be a good part of their diet.  What do you think about this sergio?

Reply

9 Sergio Rivera August 23, 2014 at 1:39 am

Hey Mario!

Good question. I’m Asian myself, and yes, we do love our carbs. A lot.

But there are contextual factors that help us offset our otherwise fattening love affair with rice and noodles.

First, we move a lot. We are always looking for something to do, so it’s rare for you to see an Asian stuck in his seat all day long. In traditional Asian villages, sedentary individuals stand out because everybody ought to be out in the field doing something. An exception might be during early afternoon siestas. The adults are busy in the fields and the children are playing outside. Even the elderly take part in daily activities by tending to the garden and helping out in the harvest.

Second, we stuff our meals with nutritious foods. It would be rare for us to eat rice or noodles without fat and protein sources, fruits, and vegetables. And while rice and noodles are ever-present, it’s not like they make up 90% of the plate. In fact in reality, they only make up about 20% of the plate.

Sadly, modernity has caught up. The Asian way of life has changed a lot over the last 10 years. The love for soda and other processed foods have contributed to the increasing cases of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the last decade. And then there’s that problem with sickly Asian kids who prefer sitting down in front of their computers for hours on end.

If anything, the current issues we Asians face in terms of our health confirm how the two contextual factors I mentioned helped us stay lean and healthy despite all the carb intake.

There you go Mario. Thank you for your wonderful question and I hope to hear from you again.

 

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10 Chandan August 29, 2014 at 5:59 am

Very True Sergio!!!!

If we consider our ancestrals they use to work full day in fields for agriculture and all. Then they ate lots of carbs mainly rice with pulses (source of protein). And they were indeed very muscular.

Keep writing good stuffs:)

Reply

11 Sergio Rivera September 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

True. Our ancestors may have eaten a lot of carbs, but these were “clean carbs”. Flavorful and healthy, isn’t that amazing?

 

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12 Mihir Mahajan September 15, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Hey Sergio! Great information u got there!
I too am an Asian, I live in India. I am a growing teen and my 15th year is almost complete. I am fat with man boobs. I have started doing whole body workouts 3 days per week. I am getting good results and my man boobs are flatenning. And I have also restricted rice and other sugary stuff for like a year now. So should I keep restricting my carbs or take in more as I am growing? And if I can restrict then can I try the no-carb approach?

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13 Moustafa December 20, 2015 at 7:18 pm

Hi Sergio , I stayed between 50 to 100 gram carbs a day I lost weight but i always feel no power and my face is looking tired and old , and despite of lifting weights 3 times weekly with progressive weights but I feel that am weak .

How cover this nutrition gap as I really missed the feeling of being energised and powerful again

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14 Gabriel Galeano August 14, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Low carb diets can lower testosterone and increase cortisol.

In this (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3573976) study, the researchers divided their subjects into 2 groups. The other group ate a high-carb low-protein diet, whereas the other group ate a high-protein low-carb diet. Fat intake and calories were identical. Ten days into the study, the results showed that the high-carb group had significantly higher free testosterone levels (+36%), lower SHBG levels, and lower cortisol levels when compared to the high-protein low-carb group.

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15 Manly Nutrition August 17, 2016 at 11:35 am

Hi Gabriel. It’s good then that we advise a high fat low carb diet.

Reply

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