How Many Carbs Can You Eat?

Again, I find myself reading some Facebook posts on the keto lifestyle pages and it seems a common question of late has been: “How many carbs can I eat and  still be in keto?”

Good natured answers often begin with “it depends” and end with “test things out and find your own way”.

I’d like to actually turn this question on its head for a moment.  For those of us who are metabolically “broken” (e.g. diabetics, people suffering from metabolic syndrome, and/or the host of inflammatory diseases that arise from how we react to the foods we put in our bodies – yes, IBS, Chrons, and Diverticulitis, I’m looking straight at you), we have to first recognize that carbohydrates appear to be quite toxic to us.

To our fragile metabolism, carbs induce insane amounts of hormonal reactions that cause our bodies to swing the energy partitioning pendulum all the way to the “store everything” side.  We pack energy into every fat cell we have and when those are full, we make more.  The more fat we store (especially visceral fat) the more inflammatory agents our bodies release causing our immune system to assume we’re under deadly attack from otherwise familiar things like our joints, circulatory and digestive systems.  Remove the carbs, lose the fat. Lose the fat, lose the inflammation.  Suddenly joints no longer hurt, arteries are less likely to harden and clog, and your colon is no longer running your life.

So, if we think of carbs as toxic (like arsenic), the question now becomes, “how much arsenic can I get away with eating and not die?”.   Replies like: “It depends” or “test things out and find your own way” seem much more reckless and menacing.

This is exactly how metabolically broken (and challenged) people need to think.  To those of us suffering from metabolic disorders (and, arguably inflammatory issues, auto-immune issues and dementia), no carb is a “good” carb.  We have to balance the level of toxicity each gram of carb introduces into our bodies and control that balance very firmly – or face an onslaught of unsavory symptoms.

But I’ll Die Without Carbs

Actually, there is plenty of science that firmly proves otherwise.  However, there is also plenty of scientific inference that people wave around as scare tactics.  Like this little gem from Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Section 5: Carbohydrates:

When muscle cells operate anaerobically (without oxygen), they rely 100 percent on glucose. If glucose is not provided in the diet and the body’s storage form of glucose (glycogen) is depleted, the body will break down protein in muscles to maintain glucose blood levels and supply glucose to the brain (IOM, 2002).

Yikes! It would seem that if we don’t eat carbs to make glucose, we’ll lose muscles!

Um, no.

I don’t want to go all scientific on you because: a) I’m not a scientist and b) I know it’s hard for people to understand the scientific complexities involved in metabolism.  This is clearly one of the reasons so many health “experts” have been able to trumpet the “low-fat/high carb is great for you” recommendations for the past 30 years.   However, there is a relatively simple explaination for why the above quote is both truthful and misleading.

First, let’s address “anaerobically”.  Muscles use both aerobic and anaerobic respiration.  There’s two ways muscles find themselves without any oxygen.  The first is you stop breathing.  In this case, you have bigger problems than losing some muscle tissue.  The second way is during high-intensity exercises, when your body works so hard there is a shortage of oxygen available to your muscles for energy consumption, they switch briefly to anaerobic respiration.  This uses glucose already stored in the muscle tissue to produce energy.  I’ll explain how glucose got into the muscle in the absence of any significant amount of dietary carb intake in just a second.  Getting muscles into an anaerobic state requires really intense exercise and isn’t sustainable for long periods of time (like hours) and there are increasing studies showing that really intense exercise provides little, if any health benefits.

Second, how does glucose come to find itself in muscle tissue if I eat low-carb? We can thank your liver for the amazing process called gluconeogensis.  In layman’s terms, the liver takes protein and through the magic of enzymes, converts it to glucose.  Yes, your body just took something that is non-sugar and made sugar out of it.  Carbohydrates need not apply!

I’ve Heard Your Brain Has To Use Glucose for Energy

You may have heard that glucose is the only energy source for red blood cells and the preferred energy source for the brain, central nervous system, placenta, and fetus.  However, people who live in ketosis have proven the brain works very (exceptionally) well on ketone bodies rather than glucose.  In fact, mounting research shows high blood glucose damages the brain and causes cognitive decline.

I’m also aware of many sensationalized articles on low-glucose levels triggering or worsening dementia.  The presumption here is that as we age, glucose levels in the brain decrease, the brain starts to “starve” and releases a whole bunch of a protein called p38 which, over long periods, appears to cause neurons to die.  Studies on mice who’ve been genetically altered so their brains are “starving” show signs of memory loss and dementia.  The important thing to note in all this scientific evidence is the brains are starving.  In keto adapted people, our brains have plenty of energy and are far from starving, despite the absence of any glucose.

One last word on gluconeogenesis.  While we love our liver for this ability, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  In other words, if you eat too much protein, you can create too much glucose and trigger an insulin response.  This is why some people who are very insulin-resistant struggle on Atkins diets.  Atkins focuses too much on protein intake and not fat.  Keto eating recognizes that our primary energy source should be fat, then protein and lastly, naturally occurring and intrinsic carbs.


So how many carbs can you eat?  If you’re metabolically broken, go for zero and consider each additional gram collateral damage!

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