Ahh, the low-carbohydrate diet. This popular nutrition choice has too many variations or “program” names to mention, but the motivation behind choosing one is often the same: The person is looking to lose weight. While we could get into a big discussion regarding whether this is the best, most effective route to better long-term health, that’s a debate for another day! Instead, let’s consider why low-carb diets work, and how understanding the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates can affect anyone’s daily food choices in a positive way—including those who are trying to lose weight by avoiding carbohydrates.
Essentially, removing carbohydrates from your diet reduces sugar intake severely. However, not all sugar is bad—certainly not bad if it comes from fresh, whole foods. Sugars are also just one of the three main types of carbohydrates; there’s starches and fiber too. Sugars ultimately get absorbed at different rates, and in different ways into the body. Some are great, for fuel! Others, not so much. That’s why it pays to learn which popular foods have “detrimental carbs” (refined, processed carbs that get absorbed fast, spike our blood sugar, and are void of fiber) versus “healthy carbs” (fiber-rich whole grains and vegetables that absorb slowly, actually boosting your overall health!). This takes time to learn the nuances, but as you’re trying to make good choices and evaluate carbohydrates in food, don’t be fooled by popular “low-carb” options like these!
Flavored Milk Substitutes
If you are substituting dairy products for soy or almond-based ingredients in order to avoid some carbs, that’s great. However, your specific milk selection may not truly matter. The bigger factor is sugar content. When selecting soy or almond milk, make sure you are choosing the “zero sugar added” option. For example, skim milk has four less grams of sugar and one more gram of protein than Silk Vanilla Almond Milk. If that doesn’t seem like a lot, multiply those numbers by seven days; you will save over 100 calories a week!
We love them, we want them, but do we really need protein bars? You may be consuming much more sugar than you think—or want—if you’re eating these. Consider a one-ounce serving of non-bar protein like unflavored peanuts. That includes under 5 grams of carbohydrates. But those convenient protein bars contain an average of 23 grams of carbs (according to the USDA). That’s a big difference! The peanuts may not have as much protein as the bar, but you’ll be consuming healthy dietary fats and more nutrients that will keep you fuller and on track to a more balanced diet.
Grilling is the best! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and more than likely, you have a sweet array of hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwursts, and more on the menu. These foods can be a great source of protein, but watch out for the sauce—or dip. Things like ketchup, relish, and barbecue sauce can all add up pretty quickly and increase your carbohydrate intake. You don’t need to avoid them entirely, but certainly watch amounts if you’re adding in flavor that way. Seasoning is better!
Yes, bacon can contain some good protein and dietary fats, however, some types of bacon may have additional carbohydrates in each serving that don’t make it to the nutritional label! Here’s the deal: The curing process will create carbohydrates like syrup or some other type of refined sugar. And most nutrition labels only require one gram of carbohydrate to be listed on the nutrition label. If one serving is one piece of bacon, and it has 0.5 grams of carbohydrates or less, they do not have to label any carbohydrates. To know whether or not bacon has any hidden carbs, look at the ingredients. If there are ingredients like “syrup” or “dextrose,” then the bacon certainly does include carbohydrates.
Even though some claim yogurt as a superfood we should consume each day, there are some loopholes to this theory. It depends mostly on selection. If you are eating a flavored yogurt each day, make sure you are checking the nutrition label before you leave the store. Some types of yogurt will contain very little sources of protein, while the carbohydrate levels are really elevated from added sugars.
Carbohydrate levels in most flavored pre-packaged ready-to-go (RTD) drinks are pretty high. If you are already consuming enough carbohydrates within your food, there’s no need to consume a protein shake loaded with carbohydrates post-workout. Of course, replenishing your body with carbohydrates is great for helping your recovery time. However, most people can simply consume their carbohydrates from sources of real food. Besides, the carbohydrates in some flavored RTD drinks will increase your appetite in no time at all.
A Helpful Equation
If you’re still worried about hidden carbs and not sure what to look for when shopping, here’s a helpful trick. It’s called the 5-to-1 ratio. That means for every 5 grams of carbohydrates you consume, there should be at least 1 gram of dietary fiber. Following this recommended ratio (Michael Greger, MD of nutritionfacts.org) will ensure that you are aiming for more natural and whole complex carbohydrate-based foods. This will be easier to determine on packaged or labeled foods. Look for that total carbohydrates number, but then drill down further into the specific type of carbs, looking for fiber.
Other foods like vegetables may be harder to track, but those carbohydrates don’t need to hide! They’re a great option for hitting this 5-to-1 ratio and keeping your dietary fiber intake up. Here’s how it works:
- Broccoli: 1 cup chopped contains 6 g of carbohydrates and 2.4 g of fiber. This is a ratio of 3-to-1.
- Cauliflower: 1 cup chopped contains 5 g of carbohydrates and 2 g of fiber. This is a ratio of nearly 3-to-1.
- Asparagus: 1 cup contains 5 g of carbohydrates and 2.8 g of fiber. This is a ratio of nearly 2-to-1!