The truth about low-carb diets

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve undoubtedly heard of low-carbohydrate or low-carb diets. Most of us have been trained to cut calories, sugars and fats. So, what’s the purpose of cutting carbs – and what foods are high in carbohydrates? Here’s some basic information about carbs and how they affect your diet.

What are carbohydrates?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists carbohydrates as a macronutrient — one of five categories your body needs. The other macronutrients are protein and amino acids, fats and cholesterol, fiber, and water. Carbs are the body’s main source of energy. When eaten, they are broken down into a type of sugar (glucose) that the body uses as fuel.

Foods that are high in carbohydrates include breads, cereals, pastas, rice, crackers, cookies – even some starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, corn and beans. Since sugar is a carbohydrate, you will also find sugary snack foods to be high in carbohydrates.

How can carbs affect your diet?

Because the body burns carbohydrates before fat, low-carb diets recommend you reduce carbs so your body can burn fat faster. Seems simple, right?

Not really. According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. It also recommends children and adults consume an average of 130 grams a day. This can vary, depending on your particular situation. Pregnant women and athletes often need more carbohydrates, while people with diabetes should be on a controlled plan.

How low-carb diets can affect your health:

Some diets start with a very low carb count, as low as 20 carbs a day for two weeks. While these diets can show fast results in the beginning, they can also cause negative side effects — some that mimic flu-like symptoms.

  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Confusion or brain fog
  • Mood swings
  • Bad breath

How can you tell how many carbs you’re eating?

Most packaged foods have nutrition labels that list the number of carbs. You may see three different types of carbs – sugar, starch and fiber. Look for the total number of carbohydrates per serving, which may be different from the amount of servings in the package.

If you don’t have a food label, you can estimate carb counts using online calculators and apps, like My Fitness Pal. Many cookbooks also list the approximate number of carbs in a recipe.

Should you cut back at all?

As with any diet, striking a balance is important. If you take time to tally the number of carbs you consume in a day, you may find you’re exceeding the recommended dietary guidelines.

The National Institutes for Health state it’s OK to cut back on carbohydrates, but to not cut them out completely. By eating a moderate amount of carbs throughout the day, you’ll be able to maintain a safe blood sugar level.

Before you start any diet that restricts carbs or other important nutrients, you should talk with your doctor. Your health history plays a key role in determining the best path for you.
Erlanger Health System offers primary care and family medicine specialists who can provide advice about diet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Need a doctor? Find one here.