The Best Grains on a Low-Carb Diet

Low-carb diets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more relaxed, only advising you to limit your intake of certain carbs, while others have strict requirements for keeping your carbs below a certain, sometimes very low, number. Grains are high in carbs, so there is no such thing as "low-carb grains." The best grains for you will depend on how strict your diet is.

Whole grains are better for your health than refined grains.
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Some low-carb diets prohibit grains, while others promote choosing only whole grains.

Types of Low-Carb Diets

Which type of low-carb diet are you following? Are you just trying to reduce your intake of simple carbs, such as those in sweets, or are you attempting to get your body into a ketogenic state? That's going to make a big difference when you're choosing carbs.

Low-carb diets fall into three general categories:

  • Liberal: The daily recommended intake of carbs set by the National Academy of Medicine is 45 to 65 percent of total calories. That means that anything below that is technically low-carb. These liberal low-carb diets typically contain 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day. Examples include the Eco Atkins and Zone diets.
  • Moderate: These diets, including the Atkins 40 diet, allow 50 to 100 grams of carbs each day.
  • Strict: Strict low-carb diets allow no more than 50 grams of carbs daily, but some, like the ketogenic diet, allow much less.

Carbs in Grains

Once you know your goal, you can begin to figure out what low-carb grains, if any, you can eat on your diet. The first thing to note is that many low-carb diets count "net" carbs, not total carbs. Net carbs are the carbs left over after you subtract fiber and sugar alcohols.

An example is farro carbs. Per 1/4 cup, farro has 34 grams of carbs and 5 grams of fiber, according to Mary Jane Brown, Ph.D., RD. That means a serving of farro has 29 grams of net carbs, which is a pretty large amount for most low-carb diets.

Low-Carb Grains

"Low-carb grains" is a bit of an oxymoron since grains are naturally high in carbs compared to other foods. However, some of them have fewer carbs than others; this is typically due to their fiber content, making their "net carb" count lower.

According to Daisy Whitbread, MScN, oatmeal is the lowest carb grain with 24.1 grams of net carbs per cup. Runners up include bulgur with 25.6 grams per cup and buckwheat with 29 grams per cup.

Refined vs. Whole Grains

Grains are either refined or whole. White rice is a refined grain, while brown rice is a whole grain. Refined grains are milled, a process that removes the bran and germ of the grain and leaves behind only the starchy endosperm. This also removes much of the fiber, vitamins and minerals. Although synthetic vitamins and minerals can be added back in, fiber cannot.

For this reason, whole grains have fewer net carbs than refined grains. For example, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 1/2 a cup of cooked white rice has 26.3 grams of net carbs, while the same serving of brown rice has 21.1 grams of net carbs.

Read more: How to Up Your Salad Game With Whole Grains

Whole Grains for Health

Because they retain their bran and germ and, hence, their fiber content, whole grains are better for your health. Refined grains have more of an impact on your blood sugar, and it's the reason many people attempt to limit their intake.

Refined, or simple, carbs are digested very quickly into glucose, which surges into your blood stream giving you a quick source of energy that quickly dissipates, leading to an energy slump. Because of their higher fiber content, whole grains are digested more slowly, providing a steady source of blood glucose.

You can maintain your energy level and control your appetite more easily when you choose whole grains over refined grains. If you're going to include carbs in your diet, choose whole grains and foods made with whole grains.

Carbs in Grain Products

Unless you're eating a bowl of oatmeal or a side of brown rice, it's more likely that you're eating foods made with grains, such as bread, pasta or cereal. Just as refined whole grains are higher in net carbs, refined-grain products are typically also higher in carbs than whole-grain products. Examples of refined-grain products include:

  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • Pancakes
  • Donuts
  • Bagels

Examples of whole-grain products include:

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Buckwheat noodles
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Popcorn

Anything that says it's 100 percent whole grain falls into this category.

The Low-Carb Conundrum

Whole grains are good for you, yet many low-carb diets still have you limit whole grains. While there is some evidence that low-carb diets can help you lose weight in the short-term, it's likely because of the lack of refined grains and other simple carbs. In the long-term, reports Mayo Clinic, there doesn't appear to be any marked benefit.

So what should you do? Generally, if you are in good health, it's fine to cut back on carbs for a period of time if you think it will help you reach your goals. Cutting out or limiting grains for a month or two isn't going to hurt you, as long as you are eating a variety of other nutritious foods like lean meat, fish, eggs, legumes, and dairy.

Fiber and Protein

If you are going to go low carb, make sure you get enough fiber. If your goal is weight loss, fiber is crucial to regulating your appetite. Aim for a minimum of 25 grams daily if you are a woman, and 38 grams daily if you are a man, according to the National Academy of Medicine.

Getting enough protein is important, too. A 2018 study in Nutrition found that adults who got at least 35 grams of fiber and 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day were able to naturally reduce their calorie intake and lose weight even though they weren't restricting calories.

Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds

Options for Replacing Grains

If you're cutting carbs, you have plenty of nutritious options to replace them. These substitutes are lower in carbs and calories while still providing plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Examples include:

  • Riced cauliflower: Very similar to rice in shape and texture; an excellent base for a veggie curry.
  • Coconut flour: Makes a delicious, grain-free pizza crust.
  • Zucchini noodles: Easy to make with a spiralizer; a nutritious vehicle for your favorite pasta sauce.
  • Veggie sushi rolls: No rice needed. Just pack in fresh veggies, roll them up and dip them in soy sauce.
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