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How many carbs are too many carbs?

Published September 29. 2012 09:03AM

During the past three summers, I've written freelance articles for a company that serves as a middleman for websites in need of health-and-fitness material. Compared to writing this column, the major difference is that I don't decide the topic. I select it from a list of titles.

"What Bike Racers Eat," "How to Get More Potassium Naturally," and "Why You Should Avoid Trans Fat" are three that I picked this summer. "Is Cumin Good For You," How to Get Rid of Bloating and Gas," and "Collard Greens and Low Thyroid surprise, surprise are three that I did not.

I'm sharing a sense of the job and the process because the last title I picked, "What Happens If a Person Consumes an Excessive Amount of Carbs?" might be the most important current health-and-fitness question to answer. After all, two out of every three American adults are overweight and predicated on an increase in Type 2 diabetes and recent studies attesting to the effectiveness of low-carb diets eating too many carbs seems to be why.

The title of the article assumes, however, readers know something that most don't: the optimal amount of carbs to be ingested at a single meal. The reason why most readers don't know that answer is because it changes from person to person and day to day.

The figure is based on a number of factors: your body type, your body fat percentage, your genetics, how hard you exercised, if and when you plan to still exercise, and the amount of protein and fat you consume along with the carbs.

To show you just how dramatic the range can be, consider the opinion expressed by Dr. Diana Schwarzbein in her classic book on healthy eating, The Schwarzbein principle (Pub H, 1999). Schwarzbein feels a sedentary overweight female may need as few as 15 grams of carbs at a meal an amount that's reached in a single, typical 80-calorie slice of bread whereas an active underweight male may need as many as 80 grams.

These estimates seem accurate based on the way I've eaten for the last 20 years. If I have already worked out for an hour or so before school and I eat no more than 20 grams of carbs at lunch and they're the fibrous, complex type found in cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts.

That along with an egg-white omelet keeps me from getting hungry until I have a high-protein snack after school.

The low-carb pattern remains the same for supper, though I do eat about 225 percent more calories. But the foods I almost every weeknight nearly two pounds of steamed broccoli and cauliflower, a monstrous salad featuring spinach and red leaf lettuce, and three Original Style Vegan Boca Burgers only have 43 grams of carbs that can be digested.

Yet after a four-hour bicycle ride on the weekend, I'll have more than 120 grams of the quicker-digesting starchy carbs, usually by eating a heaping plate of baked acorn squash, as soon as possible after the ride. And less than two hours later, I'll having a pudding-like snack created with protein and carb powders that has at least 80 more.

Moreover, if I wouldn't eat another 100 grams of carbs two times that night by eating three baked potatoes as the main part of supper and three more later as a snack I wouldn't have the enough fuel stored in my muscles to ride hard for another four hours on Sunday.

Because of my increased activity level on a weekend, I normally eat as many digestible carbs then as I do the rest of the week. This illustrates just how dramatically different your own optimal carb intake level can be.

So how do you know when you've had too many carbs?

When you encounter hunger that doesn't make sense. Hunger when you know you've eaten enough food, yet you still want more.

That, my friend, signals carb overload.

When you eat carbs, they are broken down into a simple sugar called glucose that enters the bloodstream. The increase in blood sugar signals the pancreas to secrete insulin, the storage hormone, to take the sugar from the blood to the cells to be used as energy.

But this initial secretion of insulin is not based on how many carbs you've eaten. So if you've had too many carbs, your blood sugar remains elevated. As a result, a second secretion of insulin occurs and more glucose gets transported to the cells to be stored as a reserve energy called glycogen.

Unfortunately, the cells have a relatively limited storage capacity, so much of the second round of glucose is not accepted. When this occurs, the insulin then transports the glucose to the liver where it's most likely turned into fatty acids and stored as fat.

Another problem with the second secretion of insulin is that it takes so much sugar from the blood that your body erroneously interprets the low level as a need for nourishment and creates a sense of hunger.

Invariably, all but a strong-willed person winds up overeating. If that overeating is primarily high-carb foods, the pattern repeats.

Make a habit of eating too many carbs and you not only become overweight, but also pre-diabetic. Pre-diabetics often become diabetic, and then other serious medical problems, like heart disease, stroke, and even certain cancers are far more likely to occur.

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