Low-carbohydrate diets have been in vogue for decades — but why? Should you start following a low-carb diet? Let's investigate what carbs are and why someone might want to eat less of them, and then discuss some healthy carb alternatives.
What Are Carbs?
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence — whole grains, fruits, legumes, beans, and veggies — are carbohydrates. However, some of the least nutrient-dense foods, such as candy, cakes, cookies, chips, white bread, ice cream, and sweetened beverages, also tend to be mostly made up of carbs.
That said, what are carbohydrates exactly? One of three major macronutrients found in the diet (along with protein and fat), carbohydrates are any foods that contain starch, sugar, or fiber. Carbs provide the body with most of its energy, and the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adults is 130 grams of carbohydrates per day for proper brain function.
All carbohydrates you consume, whether they're from whole grains and vegetables or candy and soda, are broken down into glucose, the molecule the provides our cells with energy. Regardless of the source of carbohydrates, every gram provides 4 calories.
Why Cut Carbs?
Some medical disorders and health conditions require people to reduce their carb intake. Here are some examples:
- Diabetes. People with diabetes must closely monitor how many carbs they eat, and when, because their bodies can't regulate blood sugar levels like those of nondiabetics.
- Celiac disease. Individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes their bodies to attack their small intestines whenever gluten is consumed, need to take care to avoid eating wheat products.
- Seizures in children. The ketogenic diet, which includes almost no carbohydrates, has been shown to help reduce seizure activity in pediatric patients with uncontrolled epilepsy.
- Lactose intolerance. Individuals with lactose intolerance avoid carbohydrate-heavy products containing dairy, such as ice cream and certain baked goods, because they can cause an upset stomach.
There are also weight loss and so-thought health reasons for cutting carbs. Because some medical conditions require the reduction or elimination of carbohydrates, the trend has slowly trickled down to popular culture as a supposedly "healthy" diet practice. Cutting out simple carbohydrates such as desserts and sugary drinks is a smart idea for weight loss because they provide empty calories and little to no micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. However, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes pack quite a punch of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This makes them both excellent weight loss and healthy food choices.
Grains have gotten a bad reputation when they actually provide a unique array of nutrients that can't be found naturally elsewhere. As such, they shouldn't be removed from the diet unnecessarily.
Healthy Carb Alternatives
Regardless of why you'd like to make some carb swaps in your diet, here are some healthy ideas with nutrition in mind:
Veggie noodles. Veggie spiralizers are a popular new kitchen gadget. Use them to indulge in the emerging trend of veggie noodles made of zucchini, sweet potatoes, parsnips, summer squash, beets, or cabbage. Spaghetti squash, black bean pasta, rice noodles, and shirataki noodles are also good alternatives.
Pizza crust. Cauliflower can cooked and broken up into rice-size pieces, then mixed into a dough for pizza. Grilled portobello mushrooms and eggplant slices are also great choices — just load them with your favorite toppings, and bake!
Flour. There are a variety of wheat flour substitutes that are lower in carbs and higher in protein. Try almond, pecan, cashew, peanut, and coconut flours the next time you want to bake something tasty.
Wraps. Swap wraps and tacos for lettuce, cabbage, or other leafy greens. You can fill them with all the same sandwich ingredients you love.
Always trade up. You can increase the quality of your carb choices by picking whole-grain pasta and bread, brown rice over the white versions, and sweet potatoes, yams, and parsnips over white potatoes.
Whether you're interested in carb alternatives for medical purposes or otherwise, choosing more nutritionally dense carbohydrates can be a great way to eat more vegetables and balance out your diet. Although it can be tempting to cut them out completely, eat carbs in moderation if possible!