How to be smart about cutting carbs

I had lunch with a friend at a casual Mexican place recently. He ordered a burrito without the tortilla (too many carbs), but ate a whole basket of corn chips. Many people make this same choice…cutting out carbohydrates in one way but eating more in another.

To be sure, most of us could easily eat less carbohydrates, but I think we are focusing on the wrong carbohydrate sources. Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on the tortilla as much as the chips that go with it.

I think of this in terms of “necessary” and “unnecessary” carbs. In the example above, the tortilla is a necessary part of the burrito, but the chips are an unnecessary addition. If people are interested in cutting out carbs, skipping the chips make more sense than forgoing the tortilla. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Nutrition advice tends to be complicated and contradictory, making simple answers to the question, “What should I eat?” anything but simple. This is particularly true when it comes to carbohydrates. On one hand, current government recommendations call for carbohydrates to be the major part of your diet. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets that are at odds with these recommendations are widely recommended to promote good health.

Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets claim that eating carbohydrates leads to fat storage and weight gain, so restricting carbohydrates promotes weight loss. It is also likely that people who follow low-carbohydrate diets find them easier to stick with than other diets, so they may actually end up eating fewer calories. Low-carbohydrate diets tend to promote weight loss at least as well as traditional low-fat diets.

Many of the most popular diets are low in carbohydrates. For example, the Atkins diet restricts all carbohydrates, including refined grains and sugars. The Paleolithic diet emphasizes minimally processed foods that may have been consumed by our ancient ancestors including lean meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables while restricting the consumption of grains and added sugars. Both are thought to be effective for weight loss and treating diabetes.

Considering that the typical American diet contains too much carbohydrate from sugars and refined grains, restricting carbohydrates may have some benefits. Many people interpret this to mean that grains, including bread, pasta, and rice, should be reduced. This makes sense considering that in many meals, especially at restaurants, carbohydrates are abundant. A serving of pasta is often accompanied by bread sticks or a burrito with a four tortilla is served alongside a basket of corn chips.

But there is another approach: be smart about your carbohydrate choices. Instead of cutting out all carbohydrates, focus on reducing the unnecessary carbohydrates that come with your meal. In the example above, the tortilla is a necessary part of the burrito, but the chips are an unnecessary addition. Similarly, the pasta is a necessary part of the dish, while the bread sticks are not. If you are interested in cutting out carbs, skipping the chips makes more sense.

Skipping unnecessary carbs is one of many steps you can take to make your diet healthier by reducing the carbohydrates you eat. Ideally, you should also limit your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. Be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar. The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.

Something to keep in mind is that reducing carbohydrates is associated with weight loss and good health, it is not the only way to achieve these benefits. Indeed, people who are considered to be fit and healthy have a wide range of eating patterns, from vegetarian and low-fat diets to extreme low-carbohydrate diets and everything in between. The one factor they have in common is that they are active. It is likely that regular exercise is just as important as what you eat when it comes to promoting health.

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