I am beginning to get questions from people about carbohydrates, in particular how to measure them and what exactly constitutes, say 30g of carbs/day from a practical point-of-view. These are excellent questions because if you don’t get your daily carb intake right, you stand absolutely no chance of getting into ketosis and hence also of losing weight.
My guide to daily carb intake, in terms of weight, for successful LCHF is given here. In this post I hope to provide you with simple, practical examples of how to achieve that daily carb intake, based on my own experience. Whilst at first it may seem like a daunting prospect, checking labels and carrying out a bit of mental arithmetic, after a while it will all become second nature and shopping will become an effortless affair. As I have already explained here, on an LCHF diet there is absolutely no need to measure the amount of calories you are consuming. The only thing you have to “measure” at all really is your daily carbohydrate intake. Even for this, there’s no need to get the scales out since food labeling and package weights have already done this for you!
So, let’s start with the basics..
Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates
For dietary purposes, carbs can be broken down into 2 types, namely: “simple” & “complex”. Simple carbohydrates are composed of just one or two sugar molecules. They are the quickest source of energy, as they are very rapidly digested. They can be considered as sugars in their “purest form” and, since they are rapidly digested, they will have the greatest effect on your blood sugar/insulin levels i.e. rapid, sharp spikes. Some examples of simple carbs are given below:
- All sugars
- Corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Jams, jellies
- Fruit juices and most fruits
- Soft drinks
Complex carbohydrates or dietary starches are made up of longer, more complex chains of sugar molecules. They are harder to digest since they need to be broken down first into simple sugars in the digestive system. Depending on the exact type of complex carb, they tend to have a slower, more drawn out (longer term) effect on blood sugar/ insulin, with smaller immediate spikes compared to simple carbs, which is why some people refer to them as “slow carbs”. Some examples of complex carbs are given below:
- Grains and all foods made from them, such as oatmeal, pasta, and breads
- French fries
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, pumpkin, etc
- Most nuts & seeds
Now that you understand the 2 types of carbohydrates, you need to be able to compare them on a like-for-like basis when it comes to the effect that they have on your blood sugar. Glycemic Index (GI) allows you to do this. GI is a number associated with a particular type of food that indicates the food’s effect on a person’s blood glucose level. The number typically ranges between 50 and 100, where 100 represents the standard, an equivalent amount of pure glucose.
For example, pure sugar has a GI of 100, the maximum possible. For most simple carbs, the GI will be 100 or very close to it. For a complex carb such as boiled white potato the GI is 82 which means that 100g of potato is roughly the same as 82g of pure sugar as far as your blood sugar is concerned. Similarly, a plain white baguette has a GI of 95, meaning that 100g is equivalent to 95g of pure sugar!
A comprehensive list of foods and their GI’s may be found here.
Determining Carb Content from Food Labeling, Confusion Labeling
By law, all foods that we buy have to carry nutrition and ingredients labeling on the packaging. This makes it “relatively easy” for us to determine absolute carb content for any particular item. I say “relatively easy” because some food companies will use unclear or misleading labeling i.e. they present the information in a way that makes us think that the item in question has a lower carb content than it actually does.
Consider the package labeling shown above. Carb content tends to be presented either as g/100g of product or g/portion (given portion size) of product, or both, as is the case here. You need to use the ‘total carbohydrate’ figure, NOT the ‘of which sugars’ if that is given. Further, you are not usually given any further information regarding the exact nature of the carbs i.e. if they are simple or complex, hence assume that they are all simple (conservative) with a GI of 100. Be careful if carbs are presented in “portion sizes” only. Sometimes portion size is undefined making it impossible to determine exact absolute carb content by weight. If in doubt, pass!
If your head is already spinning with all this information, don’t worry! Below are some simple tips that I use on a daily basis to ensure that I am well within my daily carb allowance.
- Consider anything with a carb content >30g/100g of product as HIGH CARB. To be consumed in moderation!
- Browse labels in the supermarket every time you shop. You will soon get a feel for how carb content is presented and what is HIGH & LOW carb.
- Be wary of any “low-carb” labels. They are largely meaningless/ misleading when you dig deeper!
- Be familiar with carb GI’s here.
- Don’t take your daily carb allowance all in one go, spread it out over the day, especially if its mostly simple carbs. For example, if you want to eat a chocolate bar, the carb content of which meets your daily allowance, don’t eat it all at once, spread it out over the day. That way you are less likely to experience any large insulin spikes and risk coming out of ketosis, especially during the keto adaption/ weight loss phase.
- I don’t bother measuring any carbs for above-ground veg, the carb content of which is relatively low anyway. I just consume in moderation.
- Remove just about ALL simple carbs from your diet, especially during adaption phase. SEVERELY RESTRICT/ remove all complex carbs. Less calculations = less hassle = greater chance of success!
- Finally, if in doubt, don’t buy it. Go for something high in fat instead!!