Cutting out sugar and carbs from your diet is one of the most common ways to support losing weight. In fact, this is the premise of many popular diets, including the no sugar diet, low-carb diet and ketogenic diets. While a typical diet consists of between 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates the strictest, low carbohydrate diets may adhere to just a fraction of that: just 5 to 10 percent each day.
Standard Diets and Carbohydrate Consumption
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that most people consume a balanced diet made up of carbohydrates, protein and fat. The general recommendation is that the standard 2,000 calorie diet provides 45 to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, which roughly translates into 900 and 1,300 calories per day from carbohydrates. Each gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, which means that you should be consuming about 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates on a daily basis.
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Most people know that carbohydrates can be found in foods like bread, pastries, rice and other grain-based foods. However, carbohydrates are much more than that: This macronutrient can be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, juices, legumes, dairy and a variety of other products. Carbohydrates are categorized into four main types:
- Sugar alcohols
- Dietary fiber
While the recommended daily value for carbohydrates is about 300 grams per day, there aren't daily values that are specific to sugar, sugar alcohols or starch. However, there is a daily value for dietary fiber. The Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming about 25 grams of fiber per day.
Cut Sugar and Lose Weight
Sugar is the smallest, most basic type of carbohydrate. Sugars you might find in the foods and drinks you consume include:
There are also sugar alcohols, which are classified as carbohydrates. Like their name implies, sugar alcohols are chemically similar to both sugars and alcohols.Your body can't fully process sugar alcohols, which means they pass through your gut, undigested. This gives sugar alcohols fewer calories than other carbohydrates.
Sugars are found naturally in some foods and drinks, like fruits or milk. They might also be added to foods and beverages, like cakes, cookies and soft drinks. Many of the products you consume may contain a mixture of naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars, like fruit and vegetable juices.
According to the National Institute of Health, about 15 percent (the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of sugar) of the average American adult's daily calories come from added sugars. Although this amount may not seem like a lot, the American Heart Association recommends consuming a fraction of this amount: No more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for women and no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for men.
Less-strict low-carb diets reduce your intake of carbohydrates, but primarily target your sugar consumption. If you're considering cutting out sugar and carbs from your diet, start with the added sugars. According to a December 2015 study in the journal Nutrition Reviews, it's added sugars, rather than naturally-occurring sugars, that are likely to negatively impact your diet. Consumption of added sugars has been linked to health problems like cardiovascular issues and obesity, which means that limiting sugar intake would not only help you lose weight, but improve your overall health.
How to Cut Carbohydrates
You may be aware that the human body needs sugar — specifically, glucose — to survive. Glucose is actually the primary energy source that your body uses. However, despite the fact that your body relies on glucose, you don't need to actually consume sugars. Your body is able to break down all the carbohydrates, fats and proteins you consume on a daily basis and turn them into glucose.
Since your body uses three different macronutrients to survive, you can eliminate carbohydrates like sugars, sugar alcohols and starches without problems. However, dietary fiber is an important part of a healthy diet. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most adults should consume between 22 and 34 grams of fiber each day (based on factors like age and gender).
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are important for the health of your gastrointestinal tract. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol and regulate blood glucose, while insoluble fiber helps to promote digestion and the excretion of waste from your body. Regardless of the amount of carbohydrates you choose to eliminate from your diet, consuming fiber is important, as it can help lower your risk for a variety of diseases, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Cutting Carbs to Lose Weight
Carbohydrates are found in most foods, with the exception of meat and fats. If you're keen to remove most carbohydrates from your diet, this means that you should avoid high-carb foods like cereals, noodles, pasta, baked goods, rice and other grain-based foods. Other high-carbohydrate foods include processed products like chips, popcorn, crackers, and refined foods like frozen, premade meals and pizza.
High carbohydrate foods can even include some foods that are typically considered healthy, like beans, nuts, sugar-rich fruits and starchy vegetables. Some low-carb diets are so strict that they limit the consumption of carbohydrates to no more than 20 grams a day.
It might seem as if there is little left to eat if you're eliminating so many carbohydrates. However, all your sources of protein — like fish, shellfish, poultry and red meat — and most of your sources of fat — like extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil and lard — are all fine to eat. Additionally, not all your carbohydrates are off the table; you still need to include carbohydrates from soluble and insoluble fiber in your diet.
Counting Net Carbs
Here's the trick: People who are cutting carbs to lose weight aren't counting all of their carbohydrates. They're actually counting net carbs, which refers to carbohydrates excluding fiber (and often also sugar alcohols). Essentially, you can consume as much fiber as you want on that strict low-carb diet, as long as you don't consume more than 20 grams of carbohydrates from sugars and starches.
Unfortunately, there are no foods made up of just fiber-based carbohydrates. However, many plant-based foods, particularly vegetables, are low in starches and sugars and rich in fiber. While someone counting net carbs might avoid a low-fiber, starchy food like a potato, they could happily eat leafy greens, which are high in fiber but low in carbohydrates. Counting net carbs rather than total carbs is what makes strict low-carb diets healthy and reasonable.
- NIH News in Health: "Sweet Stuff How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Association Between Intake of Total vs Added Sugar on Diet Quality: A Systematic Review"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- FDA: "Sugar Alcohols"
- FDA: "Sugars"
- FDA: "Dietary Fiber"
- FDA: "Total Carbohydrate"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020"
- Mayo Clinic: "Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit into a Healthy Diet"
- Korea Med Synapse: "Efficacy of and Patient Compliance With a Ketogenic Diet in Adults With Intractable Epilepsy: A Meta-Analysis"