Choosing foods that are lower in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, can have health benefits that include weight loss, improved heart health and better blood sugar control for those with diabetes. While carbohydrate foods contribute most of the calories in our meals and snacks, it's important to note that this is an essential nutrient and the main fuel for the brain and body, so they shouldn't be too strictly limited.
Carbs and Calories
Carbohydrate needs vary from person to person, because they are dependent on overall calorie needs. The National Institute of Medicine recommends eating a balanced diet that includes approximately 45 to 65 percent of your total calories from carbohydrates. The institute has established a recommended dietary allowance of 130 grams of carbohydrates per day for most adults. A good goal for a low carbohydrate diet for most is about 40n to 65 grams, or two to four servings of complex carbohydrates per meal. A registered dietitian can help you determine exactly how much carbohydrates you should eat as part of a healthy diet, and which foods provide the best sources of carbohydrate.
Finding Your Carbs
With the exception of meat, eggs and oils, all foods have varying amounts of carbohydrate from starch, fiber or sugar. Healthy carbohydrate foods, also known as complex or good carbs, have the lowest amount of carbohydrates and the highest nutritional value. They include whole grains or products made from whole grain, fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt and non-animal protein foods such as tofu. Refined sources of carbohydrates, also known as bad carbs, contain added sugar and processed white flour, and offer little nutritional value. Examples of refined carbohydrates include regular soft drinks, baked goods and candy.
A lower carbohydrate diet should include a variety of foods from each food group. Meats like beef, chicken or fish, as well as eggs, have no carbohydrates, so they can easily be included on a low carbohydrate diet. Cheese is also extremely low in carbohydrates.
Very low carbohydrate foods -- less than 8 grams of carbohydrate per serving -- include nuts and seeds, peanut butter or other nut butters and avocado. Most non-starchy vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, salads, green beans and zucchini are also very low in carbohydrates, as are plant proteins such as tofu and tempeh.
Dairy foods such as plain Greek yogurt, milk and cottage cheese, and legumes including kidney and black beans or chickpeas, have slightly more carbohydrates -- 8 to 20 grams per serving -- but they are still considered low carbohydrate foods.
Fruit, starchy vegetables such as corn, peas and potatoes, and whole grains including whole wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice and oats have more carbohydrates, but still significantly less than refined carbs. Since these foods provide essential vitamins, fiber and other nutrients, they should be included in moderation as part of a healthy, lower carbohydrate diet.
Some meals are low in carbohydrate, yet healthy and balanced. For instance, try a breakfast: that includes a two egg vegetable omelet with two slices of whole wheat toast. For lunch, consider vegetable soup with whole grain crackers and an apple. A snack may include grapes and cheese, and for dinner, grill chicken and serve it with broccoli, carrots and a potato.
- National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine; Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- American Diabetes Association; Food and Fitness: Carbohydrates
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Get the Facts
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Staying Away From Fad Diets
- American Diabetes Association: Carbohydrate Counting