Some things you should know: Just because a food is low-carb doesn't mean it's healthy. What's more, a low-carb label doesn't mean it'll help you lose weight.
Despite these truths, food companies are keen on producing lower-carb alternatives, and we're willing to pay for them. Between 1999 and 2004, foods with artificial sweeteners (which lower a food's carbohydrate count) increased from 369 to 2,346, according to data published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in June 2010.
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Foods made with sugar substitutes and low-calorie alternatives continue to be popular. Today, we see these in new iterations: From keto cereal laced with monk fruit to Stevia-sweetened soda to low-carb chocolate, there are options lurking in every corner of the grocery store.
The big drawback of these processed low-carb foods?
"They have a 'health halo,' meaning they make you feel like they are so healthy you can eat as much as you want, which is not true and can sabotage your weight-loss efforts," registered dietitian Dawn Jackson, RD, author of The Superfood Swap, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The Worst Low-Carb Foods
Wondering what kind of low-carb foods you should avoid?
1. Diet Soda
Sure, diet soda has zero carbs, but including it in your weight-loss regimen is considered a controversial move among experts.
Some sugar substitutes, like saccharin, which is in Sweet'N Low, have been found to have the opposite effect that people who buy "diet" foods hope for.
Case in point: In a May 2019 study in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that included adults who were overweight or obese, those who drank beverages sweetened with saccharin for four weeks gained about as much weight as their counterparts, who drank regular sugar-sweetened beverages. Interestingly, while the sugar-sweetened beverages contained hundreds of calories, the saccharin-sweetened drinks had no more than five calories.
The study also had participants drink beverages sweetened with other alternatives, like aspartame and rebA; these folks didn't gain weight. Participants who drank a drink sweetened with sucralose (what's in Splenda) lost weight and ate less over the four-week period.
Diet soda also gets mixed reviews because some experts believe — as outlined by Food Insight — that when you choose to drink a diet soda, you're more likely to later compensate with a higher-calorie choice. For example, maybe you order and eat a dessert because you chose the diet soda.
Research also suggests that drinks like diet soda may actually stoke your appetite, per a 2009 review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, meaning you'll make up or perhaps overcompensate for the calories of a regular soda in other ways.
The takeaway? Consider skipping the diet soda altogether, or at the very least, choosing your diet soda wisely. You may want to opt for those sweetened with sucralose when you do indulge, though more research is needed to confirm the benefits of the sweetener. Even better: Stick to water or seltzer sweetened with real fruit.
2. Low-Carb Packaged Foods Made With Sugar Alcohols
Plenty of packaged foods boast their low-carb content, but what they rarely blast on the front of the label is how they rely on sugar alcohols to cut out the natural stuff. You'll have to look to the ingredient list to find that info, but here's a tip: Sugar alcohols are commonly found in foods labeled "sugar-free" or "low-sugar."
Sugar alcohols may appear under the following names on ingredient lists: mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and erythritol. If you don't recognize an ingredient that ends in "ol," chances are it's a sugar alcohol, too.
So what's the deal with these sugar substitutes? Sugar alcohols convert to glucose more slowly than regular sugar and require very little insulin to be digested, which makes it a more diabetes-friendly option than conventional sugar, per the Cleveland Clinic.
While foods sweetened with sugar alcohols may be low in carbs, they aren't calorie-free; if you eat them in excess, you can and will gain weight.
Sugar alcohols are meant to sweeten food, so it's unlikely the food that contains them is a health food, or that it contains essential nutrients to keep you fueled. In fact, these kinds of foods can just add to your sweets cravings.
"Even low-carb sweets like cereals and chocolates can keep your sweet tooth revved up so you aren't likely to break the habit of craving all types of sweets, all the time," Blatner says.
Plus, because they're not fully absorbed by the stomach, sugar alcohols have been found to have a laxative effect, and can contribute to gas, bloating and general stomach discomfort.
And sweets in general tend to deliver calories and little nutrition (aka empty calories), which can fuel weight gain.
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3. 'Keto-Friendly' Packaged Foods High in Saturated Fat
Limiting the amount of saturated fat in your diet is a smart move for maintaining a healthy weight and for heart health. If you're dieting, you may already be staying away from fat-packed snacks.
Since fat is higher in calories than both protein and carbs, fat-forward snacks tend to be high-calorie, too, so eating them in excess is a pretty reliable way to put on pounds.
That said, popular fat-focused eating plans like the keto diet overlook this conventional wisdom in preference of cutting carbs.
Keto-approved packaged snacks tend to be laden with saturated fat (from ingredients like coconut and palm oil) as well as sugar substitutes and/or protein isolates.
"Although protein itself can be filling, protein isolates are just an isolated part of a food," Blatner says.
While protein usually helps keep you full, these isolated parts can leave you wanting more, which sort of defeats their purpose.
"By comparison, a whole protein food delivers other balanced nutrients. True fullness comes from both the mental satisfaction and physical fullness from whole food sources," Blatner says, adding that focusing on whole foods like beans, nuts and seeds is a more reliable way to ensure you're getting everything your body needs and nothing it doesn't.
Research published October 2020 in Medicine suggests that following a keto diet may help you lose weight in the short term, but may not last. The research suggests that the ketogenic diet won't prevent or reverse obesity and isn't good for your overall heart health.
A Better Way to Lose Weight
Instead of demonizing carbs and following fat-focused fad diets, know that you can lose weight by following a more moderate eating plan. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is a nutritious and easy-to-stick-to plan that can lead to weight loss.
U.S. News & World Report ranks the Mediterranean diet as the best diet overall. It's brimming with plant-based foods, healthy fats, whole grains, fish and poultry.
Weight-loss foods aren't necessarily packaged and procured in the snack aisle. Rather, the best ones are in the perimeter of the grocery store, where you'll find whole foods like fruits, veggies and lean proteins that haven't been marketed as weight-loss wonders.
- Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: "Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings"
- FDA: "Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "A randomized controlled trial contrasting the effects of 4 low-calorie sweeteners and sucrose on body weight in adults with overweight or obesity"
- Food Insight: "Everything You Need to Know About Sucralose"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms"
- Cleveland Clinic: "What Is Sugar Alcohol — Does It Contain Carbs?"
- FDA: "Sugar Alcohols"
- U.S. News Reveals Best Diets Rankings for 2020
- The American Journal of Medicine: "From Fad to Fact: Evaluating the Impact of Emerging Diets on the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease"