Seems that everyone’s trying to eat lower-carb these days. You can tell by the growing number of food packages advertising “low net carbs!” “keto-friendly!” or “no added sugar!” I’ve even heard of a new brand called Magic Spoon Cereal that makes low-carb/sugar nostalgic favorites like fruit loops.
In my opinion, the body needs some healthy carbs. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise to not dip below 45% of total calories from carbs daily. This amount will vary depending on your total calorie intake. For example, you’d aim for about 170 gm carb if eating 1500 calories daily, or 225 gm carb if eating 2000 calories daily. Ketogenic and other very low carb diets aim for much less (5-10% of total calories from carbs).
Our brains need a steady supply of at least 120 gm carb daily since it can’t store glucose (sugar in the blood). On a keto diet that provides only 50 gm carb or less daily, the body releases stored glucose from the liver and muscle (glycogen) to fuel the brain. After several days of following a keto diet when glycogen is depleted, the body turns to fat cells to make ketones to fuel the brain. At this point, insulin levels drop and people to start to lose weight and blood sugar levels normalize (important for those with diabetes but can also help regulate appetite/cravings).
But even if your body can metabolically adjust to the absence of carbs, it’s not an easy path to follow. If anything, there’s the mental challenge that you’re missing out, as you longingly remember what a mound of creamy mashed potatoes or fresh crusty bread with butter tasted like!
When observing my patients who choose to follow lower-carb diets, they rarely consistently meet even the 45% recommendations in the long run. It affirms my belief that carbs are a natural necessary component of a healthy eating pattern. But there’s a big difference between carbs from beans, whole fruit, whole intact grains, and root vegetables versus carbs from soda, juices, white starchy foods, and ultraprocessed snacks. The latter are man-made processed items that were never intended to benefit our health and are a key contributor to chronic diseases stemming from Western and industrialized countries. They also have an addictive quality due to their ability to stimulate brain reward pathways. The 1st category supplies the body with needed glucose for energy and a variety of nutrients and fiber; the latter supplies glucose with (usually) minimal nutrients but also stimulates inflammation. People who eat higher-sugar diets tend to have higher levels of inflammation markers in the blood, such as C-reactive protein, a risk factor for health problems
So, in our environment filled with all types of carbs offered in family-sized packages and colossal restaurant portions, I offer you tips to reduce carbs. Most of us are likely eating a lot more than our bodies can use, even if they’re “good” carbs (yes even healthy foods need a stop sign!). These tips aren’t hard and fast rules but ideas to gradually implement. Of course there are days you’ll eat potato chips and spaghetti, but being mindful to control your overall carbs is a good first step.
6 Tips to Reduce Carbs:
- Memorize the Balanced Plate. I like the CDC Diabetes Plate. It shows carbs filling 1/4 of the plate — this might translate to about 1 cup of cooked whole grains, beans, or starchy vegetables; 1 cup of low-sugar yogurt; or 2 slices whole grain bread.
- Determine to fill your plate just once. I know this sounds obvious but being mindful to control how much you eat automatically reduces total carbs. Always still hungry? Extend your meal experience by chewing your food slowly and noticing how great it tastes. Drink water or herbal tea with your meals. Your desire for seconds may go away when practicing this. When dining out, many entrees easily provide two servings; either share with a dining partner or enjoy half and pack away the remainder for a delicious next meal.
- Instead of the usual 2 cups of breakfast cereal, measure out 1 cup of cereal and substitute the 2nd cup with blueberries or strawberries which are lower in carb/sugar. If it’s not filling enough, add 1-2 tablespoons of sliced almonds or chopped walnuts.
- Instead of the usual 2 cups of pasta or brown rice, measure out 1 cup of cooked starch and substitute the 2nd cup with nonstarchy vegetables. One cup of cooked starch contains about 45 gm carb versus 10-15 gm carb in nonstarchy vegetables. Zoodles, steamed broccoli, or cauliflower rice are heartier vegetables that make great substitutes.
- Choose unsalted or lightly salted nuts as a snack instead of chips. Peanuts, almonds, pecans, and walnuts have less than 5 gm carb per 1/4 cup (1 ounce) but give you healthy fats and nutrients to fill you up better than an ounce of potato chips could.
- Swap all beverages with any sugars (total or added) with beverages that have zero carbs and calories. One 8 oz. cup of juice contains anywhere from 25-50 grams sugar/carb (even those that say “No Added Sugar”) and often the juice bottles sold in convenience stores and check-out lines are double that amount.
I’m curious: have you ever followed a very low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet? If so, for how long and did/do you face any challenges in sticking with it?