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 the one hand, current government recommendations call for carbohydrates to be the major part of your diet. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets 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 fat 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 have been shown 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 our ancient ancestors may have consumed, including lean meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables, while restricting grains and added sugars. Both are thought to be effective for weight loss and treating diabetes.
The typical American diet contains too many carbohydrates from sugars and refined grains, so 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. Breadsticks often accompany a serving of pasta, or a burrito with a flour 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 unnecessary. Similarly, the pasta is a necessary part of the dish, while the breadsticks are not. If you are interested in cutting out carbs, skipping the chips makes more sense.
Skipping unnecessary carbs is one of the many steps you can take to make your diet healthier by reducing the carbohydrates you eat. The best advice is to get most of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods. 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 bowls of cereal, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar.
Keep in mind 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. Regular exercise is likely just as important as what you eat to promote health.