How many carbs is it okay to eat and how to know if you’re over-carbing

Dietitian Susie Burrell shares with us the best way to include carbs in your diet without sabotaging your weight.

The topic of carbohydrates can cause much confusion. We are told to eliminate them in some diets and that we are not having enough in others, and then there are good ones and the bad ones and even some that do not count. Seriously, is it any wonder we are confused?

In saying that, the incorrect balance of carbs in the diet is one of the most common reasons so many of us struggle with our weight. So, in an attempt to make carbs and their role in weight control a little easier to understand, here is where many of us go wrong, and how to get the right type of carbs and amounts right for you.

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Where do we go wrong with carbs?

While there are a number of low carb diets out there, the average person consumes a diet that is made up of 50-60% carbs – think cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich, wrap or sushi for lunch and dinner served with a side of potatoes, rice or pasta.

As carbs are digested to glucose, the fuel for the muscles and the brain, the amount of carbohydrate we need is largely dependent on how much activity we do. For this reason, lean and active people need a whole lot more than older, sedentary people.

We tend to get our carbs wrong for two main reasons. The first is we do not reduce them when we are less active, and secondly when we do include carbs with our meals, portion sizes tend to be too big – think extra-large slices of sourdough, jumbo scoops of rice and pasta and loads of snacks and treats, foods which are packed full of refined white flour and sugar.

How much are you actually having?

If you have not been getting the results you are expecting with your diet the first thing to assess is how much carbohydrate you are really having? Indeed, there are some individuals who are not getting enough for the amount of training they are doing, but far more likely is that the wrong carbs, like chips, noodles, rice and snacks are being consumed too frequently, in large portions.

As a reference a small female exercising a few times each week will need as little as 100-150g of carbs. When you consider that a single cup of rice contains 45g or a couple of large sourdough slices up to 50g, it is easy to see where the way we can easily be eating more than we need. The easiest way to count your carbs is to enter a day or two of your diet into a monitoring program such as ‘CalorieKing’, or ‘myfitnesspal’.

Where is it going wrong?

What is going on in your body will give you an idea of what is going on with your carbs. If you have been actively trying to reduce your carb intake and yet not losing weight, and/ or feeling constantly hungry and craving sugar you may need a little more especially during the first half of the day.

On the other hand, if you are eating a decent amount of carbs at each meal and snack, you may need to cut back a little.

How much carbohydrate do you need?

As a general rule of thumb, 20-30g carbs at each meal, or the equivalent of a slice or two of bread, 1/2 cup rice or cereal or a piece of fruit is a reasonable serve. Over 3-4 meals this translates into 100-120g of carbs as a baseline each day. More active individuals, may then require an extra meal each day, or slightly more carbs per meal which may take them up to 150-200g of carbs per day.

With the natural flow of life, there may also be days in which you eat a lot more, for example after going to an Italian restaurant or at a big party or celebration. This also means there are days where you may consume a lot less.

Listening to your body and your hunger will help to get back in touch with how much fuel your body actually needs, rather than following a carb prescription, hungry or not.

Most importantly, listen to your body

If you are feeling constantly hungry, or craving sweet food, it is another sign that you may need more carbohydrate. The secret is to increase your carb portions in the meal before you get hungry, for example lunch if you always get hungry mid to late afternoon.

Here adding an extra piece of fruit, slice of bread or portion of potato or cereal will help to keep you satisfied for longer whilst also keeping your carb intake proportioned on the first half of the day.

The other secret

A little understood fact with carb balance is that there is a grey area in which your intake may be too low to give the body adequate fuel to support fat metabolism, but too high to achieve ketosis. For the average person this is somewhere between 40-80g.

Carb intakes this low is notorious for weight plateaus and may explain why you are actively cutting back your intake but not getting the results you are looking for on the scales.

In this instance, increasing your carbs slightly to 100-120g per day at a minimum is likely to boost metabolism and help to support fat loss.