For many people, low-carbohydrate diets have one purpose: weight loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, a diet low in carbs can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and metabolic syndrome.
What is a carbohydrate? What foods can you eat on a low-carb diet? And which types of carbs should you avoid in general? Read on to find out.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients in the human diet (fat and protein are the other two). Macronutrients are foods that provide calories and energy. They’re essential for a number of body functions, including growth and metabolism.
Most carbohydrates are found in starchy foods, including pasta, bread, and rice. You can also find them in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Your body converts the carbohydrates you ingest into sugar (called glucose) and uses it as fuel.
If you’re physically active enough to use it all, none of it is stored. If you’re not, then your body will store it for later use. One of the ways it does this is by converting it into fat.
It’s that buildup of fat that many people wish to avoid. While low-carb diets can help with this, you don’t want to cut out carbs altogether.
Carbohydrates offer your body three key advantages.
1. They provide starch, which is easy for your body to convert to sugar and use as a main source of energy. Protein and fat, in comparison, are much more difficult for your body to convert into sugar.
2. They provide vitamins and minerals, which are types of micronutrients. They’re essential for proper growth and development because they help the body produce enzymes and hormones.
3. They deliver fiber, which aids in digestion.
This is why you shouldn’t completely eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. Instead, you need to eat complex — not simple — carbohydrates to get the micronutrients and fiber you need.
Simple carbohydrates are foods made from refined grains. Refined grains are grains that have been stripped of much of their fiber and nutrients.
Eating too many simple carbs can lead to weight gain and increase your risk for conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Because complex carbohydrates haven’t been refined, they retain all of their fiber and nutrients. Studies show that low-calorie diets that include lots of complex carbs like whole grains can help with abdominal weight loss.
So if you wish to follow a low-carb diet, you should limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat and opt for complex carbohydrates instead of simple carbohydrates.
Ultimately, you don’t want to cut carbs out of your life completely. Even the most extreme low-carb diets recommend limiting carb intake to somewhere between 50 and 150 grams per day.
Whether or not you choose to follow a low-carb diet, consider sticking to the carbs that are good for you.
As a rule, you should avoid foods made with simple carbohydrates, such as:
- white bread or pizza crust
- white rice
- hot dog and hamburger buns
- pastries, cakes, and cookies
Instead, eat foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as:
- whole grains such as millet, oats, rye, and buckwheat
- whole wheat bread, crackers, and pasta
- brown rice
Now that you know which carbs to eat, the last question is: how much? Depending on the source, loosely half your diet should consist of carbs. For more specific information on how many carbs you should consume, see the USDA food chart grain recommendations.