Have you noticed fatigue or brain fog shortly after eating? An intolerance to certain carbohydrates may be contributing to your symptoms!
The typical North American gets nearly 50% of his/her calories from carbohydrates. (1) I believe it can be safely argued that for the majority of people, these are refined carbohydrates. Contrast that with our paleolithic ancestors who (typically) consumed 30% of their calories from unrefined carbohydrates.
Could the increase in carbohydrate consumption be causing fatigue?
30% of calories from carbohydrates is, of course, an average. For those of you unsure what I mean by 30% percent of calories from carbohydrates, imagine your daily food intake consists of 1700 calories total. 30% or 510 calories per day come from carbohydrate sources. Is this too high? Well, it depends…
Traditional Inuit cultures had less than 5% of calories from carbohydrates. Whereas as Kitavan tribe from the South Pacific had nearly 70% of calories from carbohydrates. (2) With such vast variations in carbohydrate intake, where do you fit in the spectrum? Is the ketogenic diet better than a high carb diet?
Why diets cause fatigue
The problem with diets is that they follow generalities. Followers of the paleo diet will say rice and milk are bad. Those firmly entrenched on the ketogenic spectrum will decry that all carbs are bad. Fat is best. On the other side of the spectrum, athletes will argue that high carbohydrate intake is essential for sports performance. Without them, you’ll fatigue. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with the latest nutrition plan. They all claim to offer effortless weight loss and fatigue-free days. But how can these plans work for everyone?
You are a unique snowflake. The ketogenic diet that helped your friend beat fatigue and lose fifty pounds may make you exhausted and nauseous. And the high carb diet that allows you to CrossFit five times a week with beautiful abs may cause your friend to gain thirty pounds. Diets cause fatigue because they don’t consider you as a unique individual. Diets consider calories in vs calories out. I’m confident we can agree that 2000 calories obtained through sugary sports drinks vs 2000 calories obtained through meat, fruits, and vegetables are vastly different diets. A proper diet is about far more than calories. It’s about individualized nutrition.
Diets offer templates – general guidelines to follow. We need to be cautious to avoid getting trapped in the dogma of a particular nutrition plan. Instead, we need to personalize nutrition. Outside of the paleo diet or the ketogenic diet is a nutrition plan that is just right for you. A plan that allows you to comfortably achieve your wellness goals. Whether that’s beating fatigue, losing weight, or gaining muscle. But it’s not as simple as following someone else’s plan. You’ll need to do some searching to discover your ideal carbohydrate intake. In this post, I’ll show you how.
Who is this for?
The first step I take in helping people overcome fatigue is identifying their ideal nutrition plan. A plan that is outside the boundaries of paleo, keto, Atkins, etc. This plan is unique to the individual. The general rule to follow is to eat real food. If the food comes in a bag or a box, you’re likely best to avoid it. The majority of your groceries should be obtained from the outside perimeter of the grocery store. The aisles are home to refined, processed, and packaged foods. For more information on healthy grocery shopping, please see this post.
I’m under the assumption that the majority of readers are already partaking in a gluten-free and paleo-ish nutrition plan. If you’re not familiar with either of these principles, please click here and here. If you’re new to the gluten-free and paleo world, I recommend working with a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner who will be able to identify your hidden food sensitivities.
Removing the foods you’re sensitive to can (at times) be enough to eliminate fatigue. Other times, fatigue persists. Even on a gluten-free and paleo-ish diet. Carbohydrate tracking is ideal for those who have symptoms even after changing their diet.
Carbohydrate intake and fatigue
In an incredible study, researchers continuously monitored blood sugar levels in over 800 participants. Between the participants, over 46,00 meals were tested to see the effect on the individual’s blood sugar reading. Through this study, researchers found that the blood sugar reading between individuals varied widely. Even if they ate the exact same meal. (3)
Did you catch that last part?
Even if you and I ate the exact same “healthy” meal, let’s say salmon and rice (a meal many of us would classify as healthy), we may have very different blood sugar responses. Meaning, that salmon and rice might be a great, healthy choice for you. But it could seriously spike my blood sugar levels. Possibly causing fatigue, bloat, and other unwanted symptoms. For me, salmon and rice could be an unhealthy choice. This is why personalized nutrition becomes so important. We need to find the specific foods your body tolerates.
Large fluctuations in blood sugar are likely to cause fatigue. have you ever been hangry (hungry + angry) before? This often comes from a rapid decrease in blood sugar levels. If a food causes a large increase in blood sugar levels, it’s likely going to be followed by a rebound towards low blood sugar levels. Insulin (the blood sugar hormone) also has a close relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone). Unstable blood sugar readings could be the main contributor to your adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue condition. More information on blood sugar’s effect on fatigue, click here.
At the time of this writing, the best way to determine your ideal carbohydrate intake is through monitoring your blood sugar. This way, you’ll identify the type and quantity of foods that contribute to fatigue, GI discomfort, and other unwanted symptoms. I’ll show you how to do this below.
Why follow a personalized approach to nutrition?
To best answer this question, I’ll use an example from Robb Wolf’s new book wired to eat. Robb pulls his example from the above study:
In the study, one participant had a dramatic increase in blood sugar after eating a banana. Yet when this same participant ate a cookie, his blood sugar readings remained stable! The blood sugar readings in another participant her were the exact opposite – low blood sugar readings after eating a banana and high blood sugar readings after eating a cookie.
Common knowledge would lead us to believe that bananas are good and cookies are bad. But in the above example, bananas would actually contribute more to individual’s weight gain and fatigue levels than cookies. In theory, this individual could be quite healthy if he avoided bananas and ate cookies (in moderation, of course). I know this is an extreme example but it illustrates my point: a personalized approach to nutrition needs to be put in place.
How to track your carbohydrates to alleviate fatigue
In order to perform this test, you will need to purchase (or, borrow) a blood glucose monitor. This is the same device that your diabetic friend uses. These can be purchased at a pharmacy without a prescription. At the clinic, we recommend the freestyle lite glucometer. Though any glucometer will do the job. Next, you’ll need an app to track your meals and blood sugar readings. Something like my fitness pal would work perfectly.
Testing will need to be done at breakfast. The first meal of the day allows us to start with a clean slate. If we test at lunch or dinner, the other foods you have eaten that day will be exerting an effect on your blood sugar. You will need to be consistent with your coffee or water intake too. What I mean by this is if you’re going to drink coffee before/after performing the test, you’ll need to drink coffee each day in order to keep the variables consistent. Please keep your coffee black (no milk or sugars) as they will influence your readings. Keep water intake consistent as well.
Eat 50g of carbohydrates of the food you’re wanting to test. This is the number of carbohydrates found in the given food. Not the weight of the food itself. For example, 1.14 cups (180 grams) of cooked white rice will provide you with 50g of carbohydrates.
This is your breakfast. Please avoiding eating any other food on testing days.
Wait two hours. Then, check your blood sugar with your glucometer.
You’d like to see your blood sugar readings somewhere between 5.0 mmol/L (90 mg/dl) and 6.3 mmol/L (115 mg/dl).
If your reading is higher than the above-recommended range, retest your blood sugar the next day. This time, use 25g of the same carbohydrate (half the dose). If your blood sugar still remains high, this particular food is best avoided as it creates an imbalance in your blood sugar.
I recommend comparing the blood sugar reading with how you feel after eating the food in question. Often, foods that exert a large effect on our blood sugar will also make us feel off (think, fatigue, bloated, etc). But that’s not always the case. So, pay close attention to joint pain, itchy skin, irritability etc.
Below, I’ll give you a list of the carbohydrates and the quantity you’ll need to consume of each. Please note that the quantity recommendations are cooked weights. I recommend starting with the foods you suspect are causing symptoms.
- White rice (1.14 cups or 180g) and brown rice (1.03 cups, 210g) – ensure you test these separately
- Oats (2.1 cups or 485g)
- Quinoa (1.47 cups or 275g)
- Gluten-free bread (or regular bread if you’re not on team gluten-free) (3.5 pieces or 120g)
- Lentils (2.18 cups or 430g)
- Beans (test different types of beans on different days)
- White potatoes (2 cups or 250g)
- Sweet potatoes (1.45 cups or 290g)
- Squash (test different types)
- Beets (3.7 cups or 630g)
- Fruits (bananas, apple, mango, berries, melons, etc)
Ok, there it is, your next step towards alleviating fatigue – personalizing your nutrition plan.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What foods make you feel tired?
Looking for more information? Check out our other blog posts about gluten.
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Also published on Medium.