Carbohydrates have been a major focus in the diet industry, and most people have learned to avoid carbs or to make sure they’re not eating a high amount of carbs per day if they’re trying to lose weight. In fact, many people now think that a diet over 75 grams of carbohydrates a day is a high-carbohydrate diet.
Unfortunately, this has caused a lot of confusion around how many carbohydrates people can, and probably should, be eating per day. This article is going to help you understand how many carbs to eat in a day to help you lose weight, and why it might be a higher number than you expect.
Understanding Carbohydrates and Energy
Maybe the best place to start is to work through understanding exactly how the body uses carbohydrates for energy.
The body uses a chemical called ATP for energy. This ATP is created by three separate processes. These processes have fancy names (phosphagen system, glycolytic system, and oxidative system), but those really are not that important right now.
What is important is that these three systems have three different fuel sources.
The first system uses something called creatine phosphate. This system creates energy REALLY fast, but can only create energy for a very short period of time (like <60 seconds) because the body doesn’t store that much creatine phosphate.
The second system uses glucose, a form of carbohydrate. This system creates energy fairly quickly, but not super duper fast. It can create energy for quite a while and can keep creating energy until the body runs too low on carbohydrates.
The third system uses a molecule called acetyl-CoA. This system creates energy fairly slowly, but it can basically create energy forever… well, at least until you die. What is most interesting about this system is that the human body can turn carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into acetyl-CoA.
How Carbs are Stored and Used as Energy
The human body stores energy so it can always have energy available in case it doesn’t get fed for a while. Most of our stored energy is in the form of fat, with ~92-98% of our energy stored as fat, and about 2-8% being stored as carbohydrates.
However, despite most of our stores of energy being fats, our body gets 30-50% of its daily energy from glucose metabolism. This number can be higher if we exercise a lot because carbohydrates provide most of the fuel for exercise above a moderate level of intensity.
Together, this all means that if you burn 2,000 calories a day on average, roughly 600-1200 calories a day are coming from glucose.
That means either A) you need to consume 600-1200 calories of carbohydrates (which almost all end up as glucose), or B) your body needs to turn fats or proteins into ~600-1200 calories of glucose.
So, for most people, carbohydrates provide a meaningful amount of our daily energy, regardless of whether it comes from food, or your body manufactures it from other sources.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat Per Day?
For most people, the amount of carbohydrates you need depends mostly on two things, how physically active you are and what your food preferences are. The best rule of thumb for people to follow is this:
“Consume enough protein for your lean mass needs, enough carbohydrates to fuel your exercise and recovery, and then the rest of the calories can be split between carbohydrates and fat as you see fit”.
For most people this ends up being a very wide window, with somewhere between 0.7 and 2.0 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
Meaning a 200 pound person may need anywhere from 140 to 400 grams of carbohydrates depending on their level of physical activity and preferences. So, there is a lot of room to adjust your carbohydrate intake based on your preference.
Will Eating More Carbs Make You Gain Weight?
“These carbohydrate numbers seem so high, won’t I gain weight with higher carbohydrate intake?”
This is one of the most common questions we get in our community. And for good reason. Over the last 10-15 years, there has been the idea that carbohydrates directly cause weight gain because they cause insulin to be released.
However, this is just not true. In fact, over a dozen research studies have been conducted asking this exact question over the last decade and virtually all of them have shown us that carbohydrates do not cause us to gain weight.
To figure out how many carbs you should eat per day you should:
- Run a calculator to figure out your macronutrient needs
- Accurately assess and input your activity levels
- Have an expert member of our community look over your numbers with a free macro check
Follow this method and have confidence that the number of carbohydrates you’ll be eating is the right number for you.