Low-carbohydrate (aka: low-carb) diets have a long history and tend to gain traction in the media every few years. They’re popular for those who want to lose weight, but carbohydrates keep getting such a bad rap.
Let’s go over a few frequently asked questions about low-carb diets. We’ll explain why not all carbohydrates are created equal. Then, we’ll show you how to pick smarter carbohydrates if you’re on a low-carb diet but don’t want to give up carbohydrates completely.
What’s a Low-Carb Diet?
Low-carb diets emphasize protein, fat or both, while limiting high-carbohydrate foods. There’s no official definition for what is considered low-carb, but this diet may have between 5 to 45 percent of its calories coming from carbohydrates. Popular low-carb diets include the Atkins, South Beach, ketogenic and Paleo diets.
Why Are Low-Carbohydrate Diets Effective for Weight Loss?
When any food group or nutrient is restricted, people tend to eat fewer calories, which is one reason people on low-carb diets tend to lose weight. Many high-carb foods are also highly processed, so they tend to be high in calories and lower in fiber, which can cause you to eat more in order to attain the same feeling of fullness.
There’s also another added benefit to removing over-processed carbs from your diet. You may improve your blood sugar level throughout the day, making you feel better overall.
Are Carbohydrates Bad for You?
Not necessarily.In fact, carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables are the body’s primary source of energy.These foods contain fiber, which slows the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and helps us balance our blood sugar. Refined, processed carbohydrates, such as those mentioned above, lack fiber and contain more sugar, so it’s a good idea to avoid them if you can.
Should I Go on a Low-Carbohydrate Diet?
It depends on how you’re defining a low-carb diet. Trading your oatmeal for sausage instead is not the best choice. Swapping egg whites in place of a donut, however, is a great choice! Any time you switch out processed foods and sugar for quality lean protein and whole foods, you’re making a good choice for your health. Remember that low-carb diets tend to increase health risks if they involve a high intake of animal proteins and a low intake of fiber-rich foods.
The ideal choice is to eat smarter carbohydrates, rather than going on a restrictive diet that you cannot commit to in the long term. If you currently maintain a low-carb diet or would like to make healthier food choices, these guidelines can help:
- Choose small to moderate amounts of high-quality carbs (see below). Because your body naturally craves carbs, this is a more sustainable way to manage weight and feel better.
- Pair your carbohydrate foods with a lean protein or healthy fat. Healthy fats include nuts, non-fat plain yogurt or avocado. This will slow the absorption of energy from carbs to create a long-term fuel and stabilize blood sugar. We recommend plant-based fats such as nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil and avocado.
- Avoid an increase in calorie-dense meats and saturated fats. Choose lean proteins more often, such as fish and skinless chicken or turkey breast. Low-fat dairy, beans and lentils can also be good lean protein options.
How to Choose High-Quality Carbohydrates
Not sure what a high-quality carbohydrate is? We have a few ideas to get you started:
- Whole grains are always a good bet. This includes quinoa, brown basmati rice, wild rice, amaranth, buckwheat, whole wheat, steel cut oats, barley, bulgur, rye, millet and teff.
- Choose flour products less often. When grains are ground into flour, the body does not have to do much work to absorb the energy. This can lead to blood sugar spikes. Flour products are also much more processed and have lower nutrient values than the original grain.
- Fruits are part of a balanced diet. You don’t need to eliminate fruit from a low-carb diet. Low-sugar fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches and pears are good options. Remember, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables contributes to weight management, heart health and disease prevention.
- Trade in your refined carbohydrates for starchy vegetables instead. These include butternut squash, sweet potatoes, yams, small red potatoes, peas, corn and winter squash. Better yet leafy greens such as spinach and arugula are very low in carbohydrates, and they’re nutritious, too.