Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Sep

Dial in Your Carb Count

Most folks who decide to give the Primal Blueprint 30-Day Challenge the old college try do so to correct an underlying health issue. Maybe their cardiologist’s recommended dietary plan hasn’t been improving their lipid numbers as promised, or perhaps they’re sick of fighting a losing battle with diabetes by submitting to a daily pharmaceutical cocktail that appears increasingly ineffective. Gentle (or not so gentle) prodding from coworkers and loved ones with incredible results is another common motivating factor. But, above all, most people get involved with this Primal stuff because they want to lose weight without stressing over calorie counts, fat grams, and endless hours on the treadmill. And in order to do that – in order to lean out effortlessly and maintain that leanness – it’s vitally important that you dial in your carb count.

Now, different people will be able to handle different amounts of carbohydrates differently. Highly active athletes will do a bit better with more carbs, since their energy demands will be higher than sedentary people. Diabetics will do better on fewer carbs, since they’re mostly unable to physiologically manage normal carbohydrate metabolism. But as for your basic, average, everyday man or woman who takes care of kids, goes to work every day, sits in traffic – you know, pretty much everyone with any type of daily responsibility – and finds his or her belly getting a bit larger and looser, honing in on the type and amount of dietary carbohydrates is vital. Those are the folks who need this info most: the average person with a bit of metabolic derangement, possibly even drifting toward diabetic status after years on the standard American (or any other industrialized nation) diet. They’re the most likely to be using the Internet to look for info on nutrition, the most likely to stumble upon Mark’s Daily Apple and the Primal challenge, and the most suitable audience for my PB Carbohydrate Curve.

What’s Wrong with Carbs Anyway?

Carbohydrates aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they have the distinct, unique ability to really ravage a metabolically disturbed individual’s body. If you’re overweight, as most people in the United States are, it’s very likely that your carbohydrate metabolism is dysfunctional. You’re probably insulin resistant and even moderate amounts of carbs will do a real number on you, causing a dangerous hormonal cascade: insulin is released to deal with the influx of glucose, but your cells are resistant to it; your blood sugar spikes and the pancreas secretes even more insulin; all that insulin prevents the release of fat from adipose tissue, so you’re not burning any body fat; eventually, since fat cells are resistant and muscle cells are resistant and probably replete, that glucose has nowhere to go but to the liver for conversion into glycogen; the liver fills up pretty quickly, though, after which additional glucose is converted into fatty acids and packaged into lipoproteins; those lipoproteins are then ushered into adipose tissue for conversion to triglyceride, or nice healthy chunks of body fat. You’re probably somewhat sedentary (many jobs, for example, involve eight hours of sitting each day), meaning your muscle glycogen (glucose-derived energy) stores generally stay full, and more carbs means more glucose which will have no where to go but into fat cells. You’re probably exposed to processed food on a daily basis, most of which is carb-and-sugar-based. So, we have a perfect metabolic storm: people eat too much sugar, grain, and vegetable oil, thus destroying their metabolisms and making any amount of carbohydrate a potential problem; they don’t move around enough, so they’re not burning any of the glucose for muscle energy; and everywhere they turn, cheap, simple, and refined carbs wink suggestively, confident that the time-strapped and stressed individual will succumb.

The Primal Blueprint Carbohydrate Curve

0-50 grams per day: Easy, effortless weight loss for any and everyone. Diabetics and the severely obese may find it useful to remain in this zone, while others might employ it now and then to jumpstart weight loss or break a plateau.

50-100 grams per day: Steady, gradual weight loss. This is the sweet spot, in my opinion. You can still enjoy a wide variety of foods and lose weight slowly but surely.

100-150 grams per day: If you just want to maintain, I recommend this level. Hardcore athletes may want to increase them a bit, but your average Primal exerciser and eater will maintain supreme leanness, health, and performance at 100-150 grams per day.

150-300 grams per day: Steady, insidious weight gain. It’ll creep up on you. Just look around next time you’re at a high school reunion – people gain weight at this level without even realizing it.

300+ grams per day: Unless you’re an extreme endurance athlete, 300+ grams of carbs per day will inevitably show on your waistline. Tragically, the average “healthy” American diet reaches this carb count pretty consistently.

Knowing where you stand doesn’t have to be difficult, though, and paying attention to a few simple ideas and tactics will keep you dialed in and aware of your place on the curve.


Though the Primal Blueprint is not about counting calories, macronutrient-counting tools can be utilized to keep track of carbohydrate intake. Eventually, as you get acclimated to the eating style and the way it makes your body feel, you’ll instinctively know what to eat without straying over. But for you beginners, opening a free FitDay account can make a huge difference. I have one myself, as do most of my readers – so head over to FitDay, create an account, and begin tracking your carbs. I recommend doing it for 2-3 days to get a sense of what your eating patterns are like now, and then again once you feel like you’ve made some significant changes.

Carb Creep

Your first few days on FitDay will be eye opening. Carbs are seemingly everywhere. You go out to eat and order a garden salad piled high with steak. Good choice, right? You figure you’re being the Primal exemplar – except that balsamic vinaigrette was made with high fructose corn syrup and comes loaded with 20g of sugar per serving. Okay, okay. You learned your lesson: ask for olive oil and vinegar instead. Next, you grab a fruit salad instead of a sandwich for lunch and pat yourself on the back for making the right choice. You get home and enter the whole shebang into FitDay and convulse in horror. Seems that watermelon and pineapple wasn’t so innocent after all. Next time, you’ll be sure to go light on the fruit.

Carbs creep up on you, especially when you’re eating out or relying on processed, packaged food. You’ve got to be vigilant, perhaps almost annoyingly so at first, but it pays off. You learn to cook your own food (control your own dietary destiny), make smart decisions when out (mustard instead of ketchup; oil and vinegar instead of dressing; cottage cheese or tomato slices instead of hash browns), and you develop an eye for hidden carb sources. Once it becomes second nature, it’ll get even easier, and you won’t think twice about carb creep.

Where do you fit on the Carb Curve? Where do you want to be in order to achieve the goals you’ve set? By using FitDay, staying aware of carb creep, understanding where you belong on the Curve, and developing your inner carb avoidance intuition, dialing in on your carb count will be one of the most rewarding aspects of the 30-Day Primal Challenge.

For further reading on insulin resistance, body fat accumulation, and how carbs figure into it, check out these popular previous posts:

How to Succeed with the Primal Blueprint

The Definitive Guide to the Primal Blueprint Eating Plan

The Context of Calories

The Definitive Guide to Insulin, Blood Sugar & Type 2 Diabetes (and you’ll understand it)

My FitDay Results

How have things gone for you so far on this 30-day challenge? Any difficulties? Early successes? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comment board!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Just a reminder to the vertically challenged middle age women out there – even with low carbs (<50), after the first few weeks you will likely still have to keep an eye on calories… OR stop eating before you are full…on a regular basis. Either one of those should do it for you to keep the weight loss going. I would recommend the stopping before you are full option, because you cannot do that without awareness, and awareness is a wonderful thing.

    Sue wrote on September 15th, 2010
  2. I just wish people wouldn’t take this carb avoidance thing to ridiculous extremes. I still remember the person who was arguing with me that a meal of deep fried bacon wrapped steak was better than some fresh veggies.

    By all means, avoid sugars, most vegetable oils and most grains, but there’s a common sense point to everything.

    Gal @ 60 in 3 wrote on September 15th, 2010
    • The only potential bad thing about the deep fried bacon wrapped steak is the bacon is a little high in salt. Otherwise it is a lot better than the fresh veggies. It provides the two vital macronutrients (protein and fat), neither of which you can live without, it’s loaded with essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin B and iron, among others.

      However, a salad, for example, has virtually no nutritional value at all. Go look up the vitamins and minerals – they are virtually non-existant.

      To compare the steak with the salad – 5 cups! of salad has 28% RDA of vitamin A, 13% vitamin C, and 17% manganese. The rest are negligible. 1 cup of steak, however, has 24% RDA of niacin, 22% B6, 27% phosphorus, 37% selenium, 20% iron, 17% riboflavin, 55% B12, and 53% zinc.

      Ignoring the conventional wisdom that saturated fats are bad for you (which has no scientific evidence to support it, btw), which of the two are healthier? The salad cannot even fuel you, because it has 8g of carbs and 2.5g of protein, how are you supposed to function off that?

      If you eliminate sugars, veggie oils, and grains, you MUST get energy from saturated fat, or you will starve. Period. If you can accept that, you’ll start to see vegetables are really only there to fill in gaps in your nutrition, they are not complete nutrition themselves, and should not be treated as the ultimate in healthy eating.

      BigJeff wrote on September 15th, 2010
      • Agree completely! I would eat a grainfed meat from a CAFO source over an organic vegetable for nutrition.

        Katelyn wrote on September 16th, 2010
    • I tried the common sense for many years and all it got me was terrible health, plus I looked like crap.

      Once I threw common sense out the window I lost a lot of weight, was able to do the things I enjoyed doing when I was young (sports), and look healthy again.

      There’s a lot to be said for looking and feeling young when you are in your late 40’s.

      You can stick to the common sense if it’s working for you, but if it isn’t, as is the case with many many people … try something different, you only get one life.

      rob wrote on September 15th, 2010
  3. If anyones paying attention here, there’s a study out that contradicts the primal diet — what’s your take on this?

    vv111y wrote on September 15th, 2010
    • Is it a study I can believe? No, it is not. Before I believe that eating differently then how we ate for thousands of years before are health started to decline, I will stay primal.

      Primal Toad wrote on September 15th, 2010
  4. I remember the first time I looked at the label on a spice I had in the cabinet, garlic w/parsley. I couldn’t believe the ingredients included sugar! It’s enough to make you scream! I believe the labeling laws also state if it’s less than 1gm, it doesn’t have to be listed? You get a lot of carbs you don’t realize if you, say, go through a pack of sugar free gum a day!

    Judy wrote on September 15th, 2010
  5. Since I’m just starting out [sigh, again…] I’ve been staying under 100 as I ease into things. After 2 days, I can already tell a difference in how I look and how my clothes are fitting. I’m sure I had been eating well over 300 per day before.

    Smash wrote on September 15th, 2010
  6. So after supper I am sitting at 146 grams of carbohydrates and it made up 22% of my day with fats taking 51% and protein taking 27%. 61 of those carbs came from vegetables, 26 from a pear, and according to I am still 1,000 calories shy of what my body burns in a day (I know, no counting but since you directed me to the site I am sharing what it says). I am 6’4″ and 255 pounds (225-230 is my goal).

    My question is, after all of this, is the 150 grams of carbs across the board or is that for the average sized person? Due to an injury I am not particularly active at the moment so I didn’t know if I could pull more carbs due to my size and still lose weight.

    Matt wrote on September 15th, 2010
  7. I had a question about counting carbs – do you take into account the fiber grams? Should I be looking at my net carb intake or my gross carb intake?

    Cupboard Love wrote on September 15th, 2010
    • Fiber grams are indigestible, so the they do not count. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

      Dimitris wrote on September 16th, 2010
  8. You can get fat without eating carbs, and you can lose weight eating plenty of carbs. Low-carb diets have their place but a 5000 calorie diet with low-carb will stall fat loss much faster than eating in a caloric deficit with 300g of carbs a day.

    Recommended listening:

    Brad wrote on September 16th, 2010
  9. Love the graphics and how you’ve used concepts from business and infographics to convey an idea. Very cool.

    Sarah wrote on September 16th, 2010
  10. Unfortunately, for me insidious weight gain starts at about 25-30 grams a day. All of you who are saying you can do 50-100 grams just fine are making me jealous. :-) I find it easiest to try sticking with nothing but good-quality meat, good-quality low-starch veggies, and cooking in butter or coconut oil…even though I do fall off the wagon about once a week.

    The infographic is indeed a great learning tool. Any way to indicate that the numbers on the Y axis are approximations? Maybe blur the edges between the colors or something?

    Eve M. wrote on September 19th, 2010
  11. Thanks for your ideas. I love it so much.

    Jirud wrote on September 26th, 2010
  12. Hi! I am new to the Primal diet and for the past three days I have only gotten carbs from vegetables and one or two fruits. I would like to lost 5-10 pounds of body fat. Can anyone please tell me how to count the carbs from vegetables to make sure I keep carb count below 100 or below 50 grams/day? Thank you.

    Cat wrote on January 5th, 2011
    • hi Cat, welcome.

      i think the best way to check is via

      you can sign up for the free service and enter everything you eat for the total breakdown. i don’t use it religiously, just from time to time to check what i am doing for example what surprised me most was the carbs i was getting from fruit juice. i cut that out and now eat more whole fruit.

      expatjim wrote on January 5th, 2011
      • Hi expatjim,

        Thanks so much for your reply and your suggestions. I really appreciate it as right now I need to figure out how to accurately count my carbs to make sure I stay under, I am still learning! Thanks again. :)

        Cat wrote on January 6th, 2011
  13. When you suggest 50 g a day of carbs for accelerated fat loss, are you referring to net carbs (subtracting the fiber) or total carbs?

    Victoria wrote on November 10th, 2012
  14. Mark,

    What would you recommend as a good carb intake for someone who is trying to bulk?

    For example, I am 6’2″ and about 160 pounds. I am currently eating a diet of 2700-3000 calories per day, at a ratio of about 50-25-25 (protein-carb-fat). I keep my carbs under 150g. I burn roughly 2500 calories a week exercising (running, weight lifting, and boxing).

    I have been maintaining this for about 2 months now and I go down 2 pounds, up 2 pounds, down 3, up 1, back and forth, with never any real change.

    Do I just need to eat more calories overall? Or should I add more carbs back into my diet – and if the latter, how much?

    Liam wrote on March 13th, 2013
  15. Кредит, есть связи: 8(495)769-53-05 Игорь (Москва)

    KPEDITyhq wrote on April 8th, 2013

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