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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)
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)
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
Corn syrup, pancake syrup, jelly, jam
           preserves, molasses
4 teaspoons
3 teaspoons
4 teaspoons
French Fries 10 strips 166 20
Breaded mushrooms 3 ounces 190 19
Baked cheese crackers
1 ounce (16 chips)
1 ounce (4 twists)
1 ounce (25 crackers)
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

  • Tsk tsk. So much old-thinking, old hat news.

    I am disappointed that you cannot print up progressive and up-to-date research findings.

  • All is fine and well except when you can't lose weight.

    I wanted to lose weight, but my knees were bad and I couldn't exercise. I went to my family doctor and he said that to help my knees, lose weight. Doctors were useless and my triglycerides were going up and I had no way to get them down (no pools where I live and cycling even hurt my knee).

    I went to my OB/GYN. She was on a keto diet and doing well, so I tried it. My husband has lost 30 pounds, blood pressure is down and we are getting healthier. I am still working on my knees, but at least I am losing weight (20 pounds so far).
  • Carbs are not usually my problem unless it involves potatoes. I will take potatoes over sweets any day so I really have to measure them closely and any additives such as butter, sour cream, etc.
    Thanks for sharing
  • There is so much science to the contrary of this. I wish you would have cited credible sources.
  • By experience, I now believe this article to be true. When I cut out all bread, I became lethargic and exhausted. I would try to eat only lean foods: lentils, some nuts, veggies, fruits, and chicken only, and eventually, I felt so tired, it was hard to go on. When I began introducing bread into my diet, just a bit, I began to feel myself again. As long as I don't overeat bread (like I use to), or overeat any starchy carbs and simple carbs, I'm fine.
  • Normally, when I see something like "the keto diet works" I am skeptical. But in a small study in 2004, scientists found no long-term ill effects from a ketogenic diet (https://www.ncbi
    PMC2716748/). It is also true your body can make all the carbohydrates it needs; there are no essential carbs like there are amino acids or fats. Nevertheless, there are some things to keep in mind.

    Young people (high school and below) cannot do a keto diet; their growing bodies and brains need the extra nutrients and calories carbs provide. People with kidney disease should not do a keto diet; it may worsen symptoms.

    Cutting carbs too quickly will have several, possibly severe, side effects. It's better to taper them off so your body can adjust comfortably.

    Cutting carbs completely is risky; side effects from eating less than 20 grams of carbs a day can be severe.

    These diets are hard to stick to. Any plant food is made of carbs. Fiber, a carbohydrate, is useful for healthy bowels. A diet consisting mainly of fats and proteins may be worse for your heart than an ordinary low-carb diet.

    There have been no long-term keto diet studies (i.e., longer than a year). After a full year, although the body has adjusted to the lack of carbs, the benefits taper off (as is true of any diet that is hard to balance and hard to follow).

    Finally, there is a danger of releasing fat-soluble stored toxins in ketosis. If the process is relatively slow your liver and kidneys can handle it; if it's too quick, there may be poor health outcomes.

    In general, following the Mediterranean diet will do just as well for weight loss and overall health - and it's far easier to follow.

    My standard warning: if you want to do the keto diet, ONLY do so under the observation of a doctor. Ketosis is fine; ketoacidosis is a serious medical condition that requires immediate treatment - it can cause coma or even death. Don't play with your diet; be serious about your health.

    Additional sources:
    Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoc
  • I prefer whole grains to processed ones
  • I hate to ring the bell here but.. there are NO essential carbs, there are essential fats and proteins but no essential carbs.. Don't believe me do some research.... BTW ketogenic diets help with the many long term problems claimed as a result of a ketogenic way of eating...
  • The article agrees with what I have heard through the years here and there. I plan to simplify all this information and just try to remember the "Shoddy Carbs" and avoid them. Along with using portion control on everything else, I should be in good shape on losing weight.
  • We have incorporated a lot of the Keto diet recipes into our weekly meal plans. My husband is a Type 2 Diabetic and the low carb recipes are a benefit to him. As an example we use vegetables in place of pasta and rice, last week we had a sausage stuffed spaghetti squash for dinner that was delicious. This week we had chicken cooked in salsa over cauliflower rice. I found these recipes on Pinterest. I also make a lot of their low carb sweets using alternate sugars such as Stevia and Erythritol.

    We still eat whole grain bread, which I make, and lots of beans, lentils and vegetables that are not on the Keto diet.

    Incorporated the Keto recipes into our diet has really helped my husband to get his diabetes under control.
  • I won't follow this strict of a diet. I believe in a whole foods approach to eating.
  • unfortunate article . very disappointing

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.