Not all carbs are created equal.
The trend toward low-carb diets seems to have sticking power. Whether you’re following a paleo lifestyle or kicking around with keto, it’s a good thing there is a bounty of foods that are both nutrient-dense and low in carbohydrates. Whatever your reason for avoiding this macronutrient, it’s important to understand that not all carbs are created equal. Here’s a quick primer.
Simple vs. complex carbs: Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by your body for energy — that means an excess of simple carbs can easily be stored as fat. They’re most abundant in highly processed foods like crackers and cookies and usually don’t have significant amounts of fiber, minerals or vitamins (except those added through fortification and enrichment). Complex carbohydrates are weighed down by other nutrients and fiber and take longer to digest — think whole grains, beans and pulses. They are an essential part of a balanced diet, and a complete absence of them can lead to digestive issues. If you’re thinking of cutting carbs significantly or completely, talk to a nutritionist and strategize on how to fill your diet with fiber- and prebiotic-rich foods.
Vegetables: Eat them all! Minimize your consumption of the excessively starchy ones, such as potatoes and squash, and the ones with higher sugar content, such as carrots and beets. Also, eat them often — many are good sources of fiber.
Focus on veggies like these:
Meat and eggs: There are minuscule amounts of carbs in all your favorite proteins (including fish and other seafood). What you need to watch out for is added sugar in proteins that are marinated or treated in some other way, like cured meats. Try to eat lean proteins that have less saturated fat — although sometimes a well-marbled steak and a couple of slices of bacon are in order.
These are good bets:
Beef, ground and all cuts
Chicken, all cuts
Pork, all cuts
Bacon (look for uncured)
Jerky (check the label for added sugar)
Turkey, ground and all cuts
Bison, ground and all cuts
Full-fat dairy: Go for the original. Low- and reduced-fat versions often have added sugar and sodium to make up for flavor loss.
Look for these:
Cheese, hard and soft (though avoid highly processed cheeses like American)
Plain Greek yogurt
Plant-based milk: Cow’s milk is high in lactose, which is a natural sugar. Look for alternative, unsweetened milks instead.
Try the unsweetened versions of:
Nuts and seeds: Here’s another place you’ll find fiber — check the label for added sugars on any flavored versions.
Your options include:
Fermented foods: Your gut is going to need an extra boost if you’re cutting carbs completely, so stock up on these.
Some common fermented foods include:
Refrigerated sauerkraut (not the kind that has been heat-processed)
Fruit: Yes, you can still eat fruit. Just avoid tropical fruits like banana, pineapple and mango, which are higher in carbs.
These are good choices:
Frozen and fresh berries (raspberries have the most fiber)
Lemon and limes for juice
Beverages: Most likely you’ll be eating more fat and protein, so water is essential. It’s best to avoid drinks with artificial sweeteners.
Instead, lean on these:
Water, water, water!
Tea, hot or iced
Carbonated water, like seltzer and club soda
Herbs and spices: Fresh and dried herbs and a ton of spices are the perfect way to add flavor and have fun. They are virtually carb-less.
We’re big fans of Italian flat-leaf parsley and spice blends that give you a lot of flavor bang for your buck, such as:
Pumpkin pie spice
Apple pie spice
Chili powder, which is a blend that includes cumin
Everything-bagel spice blend
Fats: All fats have zero carbs. Try to grab the ones that are high in healthy unsaturated fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, and use sparingly ones that are loaded with saturated fat, like coconut oil and butter.
Choose from these:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Olives, all kinds
Mayonnaise (check the label for added sugar)
Condiments: There are plenty of condiments that are low-carb (no, not ketchup or BBQ sauce).
Be sure to peruse the nutrition label to make sure there are no hidden sugar when shopping for condiments like these:
And … dark chocolate!:
Indulge in 70-percent or higher dark chocolate — about 1 ounce per day is a fine treat! (See article from April 24, 2021!)