By: Jen Haugen, RDN, LD
Low Carb Diet Defined
Low carb diets tend to be defined as diets low in “starchy and sugary” type foods. That may mean that those who follow a low carb diet are avoiding foods like breads, pastas, rice, tortillas, potatoes, corn, peas, even some fruits and some dairy foods. Sugary foods would also be avoided. The reasons some people choose to follow a low carbohydrate diet mostly have to do with weight loss. But, while carbohydrates may have a bad reputation of causing weight gain, it’s the portions and amounts of all types of food eaten each day that contribute to weight gain. When you hear about a low carb diet causing someone to lose weight, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not the carbs causing the weight loss. It’s the decrease in total amount of food intake that is resulting in lower calorie intake. It’s the elimination or drastic reduction in one food group that allows someone to think that it’s the carbs.
How Many Carbs We Need
Rather than “low carb”, it’s better to think in terms of “right carb” diets. The big reason for this? Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, so eliminating carbohydrates long term is not sustainable and not good for the body. Carbohydrates, when they go through the digestion process, are reduced into glucose which travels through the bloodstream energizing cells for body processes. Extra glucose is stored in the liver or the muscle, and can also be converted into fat if too much exists in the body.
The right carbohydrates are also important in preventing chronic disease and controlling weight, specifically whole grains and fruits and vegetables that are filled with fiber making us feel fuller while also optimizing our digestive health.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s recommended that the right amount of carbohydrates to eat each day is between 45-65% of your total diet. For example, in a 1,600-calorie diet, the goal would be to eat between 720-1,040 calories per day from carbohydrates.
The Right Carbohydrates
Not all carbs are created equal, so what are the right carbohydrates to keep on the plate?
When purchasing foods like breads, tortillas, pastas, and rice, look for products that are identified as whole grain. Whole grain bread (with at least 3 grams of fiber per slice), whole grain tortillas, whole grain pastas, and brown rice are all good sources of complex carbohydrates that are beneficial to the body. Aim for three sources of whole grains per day.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh, frozen, canned and even dried forms of fruits and vegetables can fit into a balanced diet. While fresh fruits and vegetables don’t have added sugar, look for canned fruit within 100% juice, frozen fruits and vegetables frozen with reduced amounts of added sugar and dried fruits with reduced amounts of added sugar.
Dairy foods are a source of good carbohydrate, calcium, and protein (along with other essential nutrients), so it’s important to keep low-fat dairy products on the menu daily. You may find some added sugars in certain yogurts and flavored milks, but it’s not necessary to avoid these foods because of this. Just keep things in check by keeping total added sugars to less than 10% of total calories.
Beans and lentils (legumes) are excellent choices and can be easily added to meals in the form of a vegetable choice or even to stretch meat by mixing in place of some ground meats.
Limiting Sugary Sources
Avoiding sugar completely isn’t necessary, but it is important to limit added sugars to less than 10% of total calories. For example, in a 1,600-calorie diet, 160 calories could be from added sugars. An easy way to reduce sugars is to use low-calorie sweeteners in place of sugars whether you add it to a food right before eating, bake something sweet with a low-calorie sweetener, or add it to your favorite beverage.
An award-winning dietitian, Jen Haugen, RDN, LD, is a paid contributor on Allulose.org and the author of the new book, “The Mom’s Guide to a Nourishing Garden.” Jen blogs at JenHaugen.com where she inspires families to grow food together, cook together at the kitchen counter, and eat together around the family table. Her TEDx Talk, “How Moms Can Change the World”, features two simple ideas that can transform a family. Connect with her at www.jenhaugen.com or on Twitter @jenhaugen.