If you follow any health and wellness experts on social media, you’ve probably seen a lot of conflicting information about carbohydrates. Some say eating carbs is necessary for energy production and healthy sleep; others insist that the fewer carbs you have in your life, the better. Confusing, isn’t it? It certainly was for me. I’ve spent years tinkering with my carbohydrate intake. Finally, about two years ago, I discovered carb cycling.
But First, Why Carbs Matter
You might be wondering why it’s important to be aware of your carb intake in the first place. For starters, carbs are one of three macronutrients — the other two are proteins and fats — that are the foundation of our diets. Because they are metabolized so much more quickly than fats or proteins, carbs provide our bodies with quick, usable energy. (If you’ve ever been suffering from a 3 p.m. slump and made it through with the help of a cookie or sugar-filled coffee drinks, you’ve seen this in action.)
But you can definitely overdo it. Eating too many carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates like those found in breads, pasta, crackers, and cakes, is linked to dozens of illnesses and health woes. As functional medicine expert Dr. Will Cole explains, “The more you overload your body with carbohydrates, the higher your blood sugar spikes, which can lead to metabolic health problems and diabetes.”
On the other hand, eating too few carbs can backfire. Despite the current popularity of paleo and ketogenic diets, “eating too few carbs can interfere with your sex hormones, sleep, and weight,” says Dr. Cole. That’s because carbohydrates stimulate serotonin production in your brain, help with melatonin production, and are the most satiating macronutrient.
My Carbohydrate Journey
The first step in my carbohydrate journey involved making an appointment with Kevin Libby, founder of PH2 Nutrition in Santa Monica, for a thorough health evaluation. Libby informed me, relatively quickly, that he didn’t recommend going low-carb. According to him, eating carbohydrates would help my body handle stress and keep my hormones in balance.
But he didn’t advise all carbs, all the time. Instead, he suggested something calls carb cycling: He suggested I eat more carbs in the weeks before ovulation and menstruation, then cut my intake in the weeks in between. That way, I could take advantage of the blood sugar and metabolism-supporting benefits of going low-carb, while still supporting optimal hormone balance.
I was skeptical. But after a few months of tracking my macronutrient intake and my symptoms, I realized that this carb schedule made me feel energized, satisfied, and happy. And, looking back at my carbohydrate journey, I think I had a hunch that I wasn’t designed for a low-carb diet before I even started.
How to Find Your Carb Sweet Spot
Unfortunately, since our bodies are all different, there’s no magical number of carbohydrates we should all be aiming for each day. Finding the right amount of carbs for you is, like so many things, an individual process. But, according to Dr. Cole, “instead of focusing on the ketogenic diet or low-carb, we can all aim to find our carb sweet spot where we each feel the best.”
Start by keeping a food and symptom diary. Dr. Cole says energy levels, mood, hormone balance, and sleep are the types of symptoms that you should be monitoring when you play around with carb intake. If it’s available to you, consider working with a professional — or look for Dr. Cole’s upcoming book Intuitive Fasting, which explains carb cycling in depth as well as how to find the right number of carbs for your body.