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Read This Before Starting a Low-Carb Diet

Danger, danger! Do alarm bells sound in your head at the sight of a carbohydrate-rich food? If eaten, do feelings of guilt and remorse swell up inside? Low-carb, slow-carb, no-carb…with the plethora of diets touting the evils of carbohydrates, it's no wonder that folks are petrified of potatoes and leery of anything that contains wheat. It's true that foods that contain carbohydrates are abundant in our society and it is easy to overindulge.
 
But guess what? Carbs can be your friend. In fact, eliminating them could actually be harmful to your long-term health, and you may be missing out on some of their slimming effects. Here's the catch, though: You must know which ones to forgo and which to welcome back on your plate.
 
Before you decide to embrace the carb-free way to be, get the facts on how carbohydrates affect your life and goals.
 

How Carbohydrates Actually Work
 

Not only are carbohydrates found in many foods—fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy products, foods made from grain products, sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup—but they're also the body's ideal fuel for most functions. They supply the body with the energy needed for the proper functioning of the muscles, brain and central nervous system. In fact, the preferred source of energy for the human brain comes from carbs.
 
To create energy, carbohydrates go through a transformative digestion process:
  • The body converts digestible (non-fiber) carbohydrates into glucose. The glucose then enters the bloodstream. Insulin is secreted from the pancreas, which allows the glucose to enter the body's cells to be used as fuel. Some glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for future use, like fueling a long workout. If there is extra glucose, the body will store it as fat.
  • The speed at which carbohydrate foods are digested and utilized by the body, as well as the increase in blood sugar level and insulin production, depends on many factors.  These factors include the following: the type and amount of carbohydrate eaten, the amount of fiber contained in the food, other foods that are eaten with the meal or snack, physical activity, stress and certain medical conditions.
Chemically speaking, there are three types of carbohydrates:
  1. Simple Carbohydrates are composed of one or two sugar units and are found in both natural (strawberries) and refined (white table sugar) forms.
  2. Complex Carbohydrates (also referred to as starch) are made up of many sugar units and are found in both natural (brown rice) and refined (white bread) forms.
  3. Non-Digestible Carbohydrates (also called fiber). The body is unable to breakdown fiber for absorption. As such, it is not an energy source for the body but does promote health in many other ways.

All Carbs Are Not Created Equal
 

Simple carbs, complex carbs and fiber are found in many foods. Some of these foods provide important nutrients that promote health; let's call these foods "smart carbs."  Others, "shoddy carbs," provide calories with little to no nutritional value.
 
Smart Carb Foods:
  • Fruits contain primarily simple carbohydrates but also valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber and water.
  • Vegetables contain varying amounts of simple and complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fiber and water.
  • Legumes such as beans, peas, soybeans, lentils and legumes contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein.
  • Milk products such as fluid milk and yogurt contain simple carbohydrates along with protein, calcium and other nutrients.
  • Whole-grain products contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein. The amounts vary depending on the type of grain used and the amount of processing.
Shoddy Carb Foods: 
  • Examples of calorie-containing sweeteners include white sugar, brown sugar, syrups, honey, and molasses. Sprinkling these added sugars into coffee or using them as a major ingredient in sweet treats and beverages can quickly add unwanted carbs and calories.
  • Refined-grain products contain complex carbohydrates, but much less fiber, vitamins and minerals when compared to their whole-grain form. The nutrient amounts vary depending on the type of grain used and the amount of processing.
  • French fries, breaded and fried vegetables, and potato chips are examples of over-processing that turns that nutrient-rich vegetable into a high-calorie, nutrient-lacking creation.

How the Body Responds to a Very Low-Carb Ketogenic Diet
 

When there is a severe deficit of carbohydrates, the body has several immediate reactions, one of which is that it starts using protein as a fuel source. Ketones, a by-product of incomplete fat breakdown, begin to accumulate in the blood. As a result, there is a loss of energy, as well as nausea, headaches, bad breath, dehydration and constipation. Long term usage can bring about nutrient deficiencies, malnutrition and increased risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancers, diabetes, gout and kidney stones.
 
There are many "how's" that need to be explored before you decide if a low-carb diet is for you: How low will your carb intake be? For how low do you plan on sticking to the diet? How will it impact my other medical conditions? How happy will I be? SparkPeople's goal is to support members on their road to wellness. Our program sets the carbohydrate range to 45 to 65 percent of calories (50 percent for our diabetes program), numbers that are based on the Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes for carbohydrate. However, a member can change the carbohydrate range based on recommendations from one's health care providers, if needed.
 
The Million Dollar Question

How do you get the nutrient-boosting benefits from carbohydrates, while still losing weight? Use the three rules of the "KISS Me Plan": Keep It So Simple for Me for carbohydrate control.
 
Rule #1: Know which carbohydrate containing foods are "smart" and which are "shoddy."
Rule #2: For accuracy, weigh and measure all carbohydrate-containing foods using standard food portion sizes.
Rule #3: Include the correct number of carb-containing food servings in your eating plan.
 
Listed below are the food groups which contain carbohydrates, along with the suggested number of servings based on a 1,200 to 1,600 calorie plan for weight loss. Adjustments should be made for higher calorie ranges.

Smart Carbs:

Whole Grains and Starchy Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings daily (approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Examples:                                             
  • 1/2 cup corn, peas, potato, sweet potato
  • 1 small potato, sweet potato
  • 1/2 cup legumes, lentils, beans (black, garbanzo, kidney, lima, navy, pinto, soybean)
  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, whole-grain pasta, oatmeal
  • ¾ to 1 cup whole-grain cereal
  • 1 slice whole-wheat bread
  • 6 whole-grain crackers
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn
Refined Grains: no more than 1 to 2 servings daily, preferably 0 servings (approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Keep in mind that this number counts toward the Whole Grains & Starchy Vegetables total for the day.
 
Examples:
  • ½ cup cooked white rice, pasta, noodle
  • 1 small flour tortilla, muffin, roll
  • 1 piece of a thin crust, 12-inch pizza
  • ½ small bagel, hamburger or hotdog bun
  • ¾ to 1 cup refined grain cereal
  • 1 slice white bread
  • 6 crackers
  • 20 oyster crackers
Fruit: 2 to 3 servings daily (approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Examples:
  • 1 small apple, banana, orange
  • ½ cup diced peaches, pears, pineapple, fruit cocktail—fresh, frozen, canned
  • 1 cup berries or cubed melon
  • 17 grapes
  • 2 tablespoons dried fruit
  • ½ cup 100% fruit juice (limit to no more than 1 serving daily)
Dairy: 1 to 2 servings daily (approximately 12 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Examples:
  • 1 cup low-fat, no added sugar yogurt
  • 1 cup skim or low-fat milk
Non-Starchy Vegetables: 3 to 7 servings daily (approximately 5 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Examples:
  • 1/2 cup cooked , 1 cup raw or 1 cup leafy greens
  • Asparagus, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, onions, greens, kohlrabi, mushrooms, pep pods, peppers, radishes, spinach, summer squash, tomatoes or turnips.
  • ½ cup 100% juice (limit to no more than 1 serving daily)
Shoddy Carbs: No more than 1 to 2 servings weekly (approximately 15-20 grams of carbohydrate/serving)
 
Examples:
Food Portion Size Calories Carbohydrates (g)
Cookies, chocolate chip 2 medium 120 16
Chocolate candy kisses 6 133 17
Jelly beans 10   74 20
Fruit leather .75 ounce   75 17
Doughnut holes, glazed 3 165 19
Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda,
fruit drinks, sweet tea, lemonade, sports drinks
6 ounces
(3/4 cup)
 
  76 19
Sugar
Honey
Corn syrup, pancake syrup, jelly, jam
           preserves, molasses
4 teaspoons
3 teaspoons
4 teaspoons
  64
  64
  75
17
17
20
French Fries 10 strips 166 20
Breaded mushrooms 3 ounces 190 19
Chips
Pretzels
Baked cheese crackers
1 ounce (16 chips)
1 ounce (4 twists)
1 ounce (25 crackers)
150
  86
150
15
18
19
Beer 12 ounce 153 13

The bottom line here is that you should be working to cut down on added sugar and refined grains, but should still consider all other carbs fair game. It's time to let those smart carbs back on your plate as you achieve and maintain a healthier weight.

This article was updated by Becky Hand, August 2017.
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Member Comments

thank you Report
This article is full of misinformation. I would suggest you read the works of Stephen Phinney, Jeff Volek and Peter Attia. Especially for a lot of older Americans, low carb is an excellent way of life to keep healthy. I keep my carbs under 75g a day and I run up to 35 miles a week. Prior to low carb, I could run 6 hours a week and still gain weight eating less than 2000 calories a day. Insulin is a bully and Insulin resistance is real. I tried diets and tracking calories, but it did not work. Now I just keep an estimate of carbs I eat and I have lost 10 pounds in 2 months, a seemingly impossible feat until I went low carb. Report
I try very hard to limit my carb intake. Report
Good article. Report
Interesting! Report
EVIE4NOW
Being diabetic I do watch my carbs. My numbers have been very good. Report
Pretty biased article.
Sounds like keto bashing... Shame on you. Report
Avoid empty calories Report
I have been afraid of carbs. This helps. Thanks! Report
ROSSYFLOSSY
Great information. Report
Forgive typos on my post below.... blame the “smart” phone! :-) Report
I bed to differ about the Ketogenic Way Of Eating. Not only have U lost 69 lbs on #KETO but daily headaches have disappeared. I’m much slimmer, have boundless energy and an able to do so many things I’d thought were impossible. I also object to the premise that glucose is the body’s “preferred “ source of energy. My body burns my own fat for the energy it needs. My blood pressure is down to normal now and my mental clarity is spectacular. No more brain fog. And I do eat those complex carbs.. even very small servings of fruit in my mega salads. I’m so glad I tried Keto. While it may not be for everyone, I’m DELIGHTED with the results and no cravings for those carbs is an added bonus! :-) Report
We need to educate ourselves, SparkFriends. What works for others, may not work for you. We can do it Report
Being diabetic I am on a strict regiment on my "carbs" and as a result my blood-sugar numbers are in a good zone. So I guess it works for me. Report
Carbs are not the devil that everyone thinks they are. However especially here in the USA we are not physically active and enough to consume the amount of cards that we do which is why a majority of us are overweight. Healthy carbs are good for you but moderation is key potatoes rice all of these heavy starchy things were just not burning the calories like people did at the turn of the century working on farms we sit most of the day we do not need this heavy amount of carbs Report
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About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.