How to Cut Carbs: A Comprehensive Guide

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Cut Carbs in 16 Days

family preparing salad
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Are you ready to reduce the carbs in your diet? You can get started now to reduce the sugar and refined carbohydrates that can affect your weight, blood sugar control, and other aspects of your health. Follow this 16-day plan designed to help you eat less carbohydrate.

See the types of foods you can eat and find the best choices. Learn how to determine the best carbohydrate level for your needs.

For the first day, begin learning the benefits of cutting carbs. Then dive into the seven steps to cutting carbs that will help you get started on a lower-carbohydrate way of eating.

You should learn about the different kinds of low-carb diets. You will want to know how to count carbs to find out where the carbs lurk.

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Day 2: Sugar and Sugary Drinks

choosing water or soda
Choose the water!. JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images

The amount of sugar we've been consuming has been steadily and dramatically rising for the last few decades. At the very least, this is a lot of empty calories, but for many people, the problem is worse. A diet high in sugars can raise insulin levels in the body, which leads to weight gain and other health problems. Worse, rising blood sugar can cause damage to the pancreas, pushing the body closer and closer to diabetes. Finally, we can develop a response to sweet foods which is something like an addiction. Cutting back on sugars is one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself.

  • Stop Drinking Sugary Drinks: Sugary drinks are the single biggest source of added sugars in the U.S. diet, including the diets of young people. Most of the drinks on the market are sweetened with sugar, including soda, fruit drinks (e.g. lemonade), iced tea, and flavored coffee drinks. Most of these drinks have 6 to 7 teaspoons of sugar in each cup.
  • What to Drink Instead? Of course, water is the best choice anytime, but for a lot of us, something with flavor is not only more enjoyable but encourages us to drink a little more. Here are some alternatives.
  • Sports Drinks: Do you like to have a Gatorade or other sports drink handy while you exercise? I'm sure you've figured out by now how much sugar is in them. Is this necessary? What else is in sports drinks? See how to get the same nutrients without all the sugar.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: What about alcoholic beverages? See the carb count for beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails. A small margarita could easily have a quarter cup of sugar in it, for example. Here's how to have your cosmo or mojito without loading up on the sweet stuff.

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Day 3: More About Sugar

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Food manufacturers have found out that one of the most reliable ways to get people to like a food is to add sugar. This is partly why we like things sweeter and sweeter. (Did you know that Kellog's has changed its Corn Flakes recipe several times, with more sugar added each time?) When the low-fat craze started a few decades ago, sugars were added when fats were removed.

  • How to Cut Down on Sugar: Here are some foods to watch out for, and alternatives to try instead. Also few words about "natural" sugars and sugar substitutes.
  • The Dangers of Fructose: Part of the problem with sugar is that almost all forms are about half fructose, and our bodies just don't handle large amounts of fructose. Find out more about fructose, and how and why to avoid it.
  • Sugar's Many Disguises: Food manufacturers have caught on to the fact that people don't like to see "sugar" on a food label. But how about "organic dehydrated cane juice"? Or "maltodextrin"? Find out about the ingredients that may have different names, but all say "sugar" to your body.
  • Agave Nectar: This is touted as a "natural" alternative to sugar. Only trouble is, it's arguably even worse than regular sugar in at least one way.
  • Sugar-Free Dessert Recipes: These low-carb and sugar-free dessert recipes can provide treats without the sugar. They use liquid sucralose (this is the ingredient in Splenda, but the powdered forms have sugar in them, believe it or not) or erythritol as a sugar substitute, but feel free to use what you like as the sweetener.

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Day 4: More About Sugar Substitutes

diet cola
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When you start veering away from sugar, you'll find all kinds of "sugar-free" foods in the grocery store. Unfortunately, careful reading of the ingredients list is needed at this point, because some of the ingredients in sugar-free foods are arguably as bad as sugar (or, some say, even worse).

  • Sugar Alcohols: Just because a label says "sugar-free" doesn't necessarily mean you're home free. Sugar alcohols such as maltitol, sorbitol, and erythritol are often in these products. Some of them are probably fine, but others...not so much.
  • Maltitol: Just Say No: Arguably the worst of the sugar alcohols (and unfortunately the most common) is maltitol. Here is why to steer clear.
  • Erythritol: On the other hand, erythritol is a sugar substitute which doesn't impact blood sugar.
  • Liquid Sucralose (Splenda): You can use liquid forms of sucralose most of the time when a sweetener is used. A lot of the powdered forms have off flavors when used in bulk, and powders usually have added sugars as part of the powder.

Easy Dessert Recipes

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Day 5: Grains and Bread

grain foods
Jeffrey Coolidge/Stone/Getty Images

The other big category of carbohydrates is starch. Starches in our diet mainly come from grains, like wheat and rice, and starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn. Starches are basically long strings of glucose, so they are rich sources of sugar even though they don't taste sweet. The process of breaking the starch into sugar begins in our mouths, with enzymes in our saliva.

Grains

  • How Much Grain Food Should You Eat? Cutting back on cereals, rice, and bread cuts carbs. To begin with, make sure you're not eating more than the USDA Guidelines for the general public. Then, make smart choices for the grain foods you decide to eat.

Bread

  • Which Bread is Best? One starch that Western countries eat a lot of is bread. Find out which low-carb bread is a better choice.
  • About Whole Wheat Bread: Isn't it better to eat whole grain breads? Yes, but with caveats.

Fiber

  • Although fiber is a carbohydrate, you do not "count" it, as it passes through and doesn't raise blood sugar. So you will see references to "net carb", "usable carb" or "effective carb." Almost all the time this means total carbohydrate minus the fiber. See a list of foods that are high in fiber, but low in carbs.

Recipes

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Day 6: Pasta

Low-Carb Red Pepper Chicken Pasta
Shirataki Fettuccini with Chicken and Red Pepper Cream Sauce. Photo © Laura Dolson

There are basically three ways of dealing with the desire to eat pasta while eating low-carb. One is to use something else to put the sauce on. The second is to seek out special pasta that is lower in carbs. And third is if you must eat regular pasta, cook it like an Italian.

  • Low-Carb Pasta Alternatives: Since the starch in pasta is made up of long strings of glucose, you avoid it when cutting carbs. But think about it: it's not the pasta that tastes good, it's what we put on it. Here are some low-carb alternatives to put the good stuff on.
  • Shirataki Noodles: Have you heard of shirataki noodles? They are a type of Asian noodle that is almost all fiber, and very low in both carbs and calories.
  • Dreamfields Pasta: This pasta is formulated so the carbohydrate won't all break down into sugar. People have varied reactions to it. There are some guidelines to follow if you try this pasta.
  • What is al Dente Pasta?: To an Italian, the proper way to cook pasta is called al dente—cooked through, but still firm. In the U.S. most people like their pasta cooked soft. This is a real shame since al dente cooking reduces the impact of the pasta on blood sugar fairly substantially. Also, remember to watch your portion size!
  • How to Cook Spaghetti Squash: There are lots of ways to cook this substitute for spaghetti. It's great with pesto, tomato-based sauces, or even cooked in casseroles like Turkey Tetrazinni.

Recipes

  • Zucchini "Noodles": You can put pasta sauces over cooked zucchini strips or use these tricks for making zucchini pasta that's a little closer to actual pasta. The noodles can be more like fettuccine or linguine, depending on how wide you cut them.
  • Quick Chicken Alfredo with Shirataki Noodles: This is a meal which is easy, quick, and family-friendly.

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Day 7: Potatoes

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There's no doubt that potatoes raise blood sugar more and faster than almost any other food, so keeping portion sizes small is a good first step. Also, consider substituting vegetables which are lower in carbohydrate.

  • Comparing Root Vegetables: Carb comparison of potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and more.
  • Cauliflower: Cauliflower can be a great substitute for potato in potato salad, and you can enjoy mashed cauliflower just like mashed potatoes.
  • Celery Root/Celeriac: You can puree it like mashed potatoes, make "potato" pancakes and even chips. It's good in stews and soups, too.
  • Jicama: Jicama can also be used in place of potato.

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Day 8: More Grains: Pizza, Cereal, Rice

Low-Carb Granola
Low-Carb Granola. Photo © Laura Dolson

Don't we need grains? The short answer is "no". Every study that has shown the value of whole grains is comparing then to refined grains, not "no grains." In the course of human history, we haven't been eating grains in significant quantities for very long, and there's lots of evidence that it had a negative effect on our health when we did.

  • Flax: The Low-Carb Whole Grain: Flax is highly nutritious, high in fiber, and has hardly any starch. See recipes with flax meal. Also, you can just add hot water for an easy hot cereal, which is a great trick when traveling.
  • Recipe: Low-Carb Granola: When looking for cereals in the store, the easiest thing is to simply look at the labels and subtract the fiber from the total carbohydrate. If you've got some time, you can make your own at home.
  • Recipe: Cauliflower "Rice": Honestly, this is ​a great substitute for the real thing, and it's easy to make.
  • How to Lower the Carbs in Your Pizza: It's worth it to spend a little extra time talking specifically about pizza. Pizza is one of the foods that people tend to miss on low-carb diets. 1/8 of a 12" pizza equals 2 slices of bread.

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Day 9: Protein

salmon with vegetables and cream sauce
Salmon with Vegetables and Cream Sauce. Joff Lee/Photolibrary/Getty Images

When thinking about cutting carbs, it's just as important to think about what you are going to eat instead. It makes sense that when you subtract high-carb foods, you'll be adding more protein and fat. Also, people usually find they are eating more servings of vegetables, in the place of the starch. The next few lessons will cover the details of the foods to think about adding to your diet.

  • How Much Protein Do You Need?: What is protein? Is it possible to eat too much protein? These are important questions when you may be replacing part of your carbohydrate intake with protein.
  • High-Protein Food List: A list of high-protein foods and the amount of protein in each.

Dinner Ideas

Recipes

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Day 10: Vegetables

basket of summer vegetables
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When people cut down on starches, they usually find they are eating more vegetables to replace them. It's a good time to experiment both with vegetables you haven't tried as well as new ways of cooking them, from salads to casseroles to frying them up as chips.

  • Low-Carb Vegetable List: You can remember which vegetables are lower in carbohydrates by going in this order: leaves, stems, seed pods (fruits), and roots. This list is roughly from the vegetables lowest to highest in carbs.
  • 10 Tips for Easy Vegetables: Getting vegetables to the table doesn't have to be time-consuming. Here are ways to make it easier and more pleasant.

Recipes

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Day 11: Fruit

fruit bowl
Anna Verdina/Moment/Getty Images

What about fruit? The amount you can have depends on how low in carbs you need or want to go. If you're just trying to cut back, it's much more important to concentrate on eliminating added sugars and starches. On the other hand, some fruit, especially dried fruit, is very high in sugars, so it's a good idea to inform yourself about fruit.

  • Low-Carb Fruit List: See the fruits from lowest to highest in carbs.
  • All About Berries: Berries are the best fruits to zero in on, as they are not only low in sugar but high in nutrients and health benefits.
  • Cranberry Extravaganza: Cranberries are such a bargain when it comes to the amount of nutrition for the amount of sugar. Throw a few bags into the freezer in the fall and serve them year-round!

Recipes

  • Sugar-Free Cranberry Sauce: This very simple recipe is great for Thanksgiving, but also with yogurt or ricotta cheese anytime, and lots of other ways.
  • Raspberry Chiffon Squares: These jello-based squares are made with cream cheese, and are a very nice sugar-free dessert or snack.
  • Fresh Berry Pie: Enjoy whatever fresh berries grow in your area.

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Day 12: What About Fat?

high-fat foods
Every high-fat food contains a variety of fatty acids. Michael Rosenfeld/Getty Images

When you've cut down on carbs, you'll probably be adding more fat to your diet and you should pay attention to some of the sources. Fat, in general, is no longer demonized as it was during the low-fat craze. People replaced fat with refined carbohydrates and this may have contributed to the rise in obesity and diabetes.

Monounsaturated Fats

A lot of our body fat is made up of monounsaturated fats, and eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease. Olive oil and avocados are examples of foods high in monounsaturated fats. Olive oil is an especially good choice, as it has antioxidants and other substances which may be beneficial.

Omega-3 Fats

These are the ones in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, and the ones that have many health benefits, most of which are probably related to their anti-inflammatory properties. Arguably, these types of fish are the best sources, since they contain a lot of the longer-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) which have been shown to be especially beneficial. Plant sources are mostly made up of the shorter chain ALA—flax seeds and chia seeds are good sources, and green leafy vegetables have them too, in smaller quantities.

Omega-6 Fats

Omega-6 fats are actually not so good for us in the quantities we've been eating them in recent decades. They are in some ways opposite to omega-3 fatty acids, and almost we need them, some of them tend to have an inflammatory effect. Since the introduction of many seed oils (soy, corn, cottonseed, and most safflower and sunflower) into food production, they are in a lot of the foods we commonly eat. Don't make the mistake of focusing on these fats when you add fats to your diet—they are in most mayonnaise and salad dressings, for example.

What About Saturated Fat?

Here's the big surprise. We're "known" for awhile that saturated fat is "bad" for us, but it turns out that was based on pretty flimsy evidence, which hasn't borne out over time. You would expect that over time the evidence would mount in favor of the idea, but the opposite has actually happened. Even better, there's a good chance that people eating low-carb diets have even less to fear from saturated fat.

Nuts

Recipes

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Day 13: Snacks

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Yogurt with Berries. Yogurt with Berries

When we cut back on carbohydrate we usually run into the problem that most of the foods that are readily available on the spur of the moment are high-carb foods. This is because, as author Michael Pollan so delicately puts it, "real food rots." That is, processed and refined carbohydrates have a longer shelf life and don't need as much refrigeration. So everywhere you go, you find refined carbs. This makes it all the more important that you have food available when you're hungry so you don't reach for the chips, doughnuts, or candy bars.

Recipes

  • Five-Minute Sweet Spiced Pecans: These are easy to make when guests are coming. They are great homemade nibbles, plus the house smells great.
  • Deviled Eggs: Sure, you could just have a hard-boiled egg, but deviled eggs are even better.

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Day 14: Eating Out

family eating in restaurant
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It's so much easier to keep the carbs down when you are at home, but restaurants are a whole different story. Here are some carb-cutting tips for when you're eating out.

  • Eating out Low Carb: The basics for low-carb eating in restaurants.
  • Low-Carb Eating in Italian Restaurants: Pizza, pasta, and garlic bread make you wonder if it's possible to eat in an Italian restaurant and stick to your low-carb way of eating. Believe it or not, the best tip is to "eat like an Italian."
  • Low-Carb Eating in Chinese Restaurants: Between the rice, the noodles, and the sugar in the sauces, Chinese restaurants can be a challenge to low-carb eaters. Here are some tips to help you enjoy yourself without sky-high blood sugar.
  • Low-Carb Eating in Mexican Restaurants: Think beyond the enchiladas and tamales—there's really a lot of low-carb Mexican cuisine to enjoy.
  • Low-Carb Fast Food: You're out doing errands, and it's taking a lot longer than you thought. The drive-through beckons. Is there any way to drive out the other side with a low-carb meal? You have to be careful. Here are tips on what to order.

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Day 15: Cooking Tips

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When you decide to eat a healthier diet, it usually means a greater involvement in preparing your own food. This does not mean a lot of drudge work, and it can be fun. Here are a few tips to get you started.

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Day 16: What's Next?

winding road
Piyaphon Phemtaweepon/Moment/Getty Images

You've learned a lot about cutting carbs in your diet. However, the "what's next?" is just as important, as most changes won't stick without some extra help. Here are some things to think about to help make your changes permanent.

  • How to Get Rid of Food Cravings: Where do cravings come from?  How can you get rid of them, or at least deal effectively with them?
  • How to Avoid Boredom: Don't get bored!  It can be the death of any diet.
  • How to Avoid Carb Creep: How to combat "carb creep": the tendency for more carbohydrate to sneak into your diet as time goes by.
  • From "Diet" to "Way of Eating": People who are successful at changing the way they eat don't think of themselves as being "on a diet"; they just think, "this is the way I eat." Here are some tips for getting into that mindset.
  • Eating With Others: Do you live with others who don't eat the same way you do? Here are some ideas to help bridge that gap.

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