Low-carb diets: an expert explains how they work and if they’re right for you

Carbs are a popular villain in diet culture, often used as a catch-all term for any unhealthy-but-delicious fare you might indulge in. Even if you haven’t tried a low-carb eating plan, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the concept of cutting bread, pasta, and potatoes, for weight loss and/or to lower blood sugar.

Although this way of eating can be effective, it’s not a magic bullet—and carbs as a category aren’t the enemy, says Caroline Susie, registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

“There are so many wonderful qualities about carbs—they’re really the preferred energy for our brains and body,” she says. And because of the diet industry’s tendency to demonize the whole group, sometimes the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

“When you take away foods like beans that offer you a lot of fiber, or if you take away fruit, you’re lowering your fiber intake and your vitamin and mineral intake, and there’s a higher potential to be at risk of certain deficiencies,” she says.

You should always talk to your doctor before dramatically altering your eating patterns to be sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. But if low-carb eating gets the green light, be sure you take on your new food plan with these considerations in mind.

How low should you go?

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45%–65% of your daily calorie intake come from carbohydrates. For a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, that translates to about 900-1,300 calories of carbohydrates, or 225–325 grams of carbs. Low-carb eating patterns typically limit carbs to 26% of your daily calorie intake, or fewer than 130 grams of carbs per day on a 2,000 calorie diet.

But before you take that number and run, it’s important to consider your unique physique. Online calculators such as the National Institute of Health’s Body Weight Planner and the USDA’s MyPlate Plan can give you personalized calorie counts best for your stature, age, and fitness level, and tell you from which food groups you should get those calories. But even then, Susie says there’s more to take into account…

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