How to Cut Carbs: A Comprehensive Guide


family preparing salad
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Welcome to the "How to Cut Carbs" ecourse. You may have heard that it's a good idea not to eat too much sugar, or to reduce carbohydrates in your diet. You may have experienced benefits from cutting carbs, either in weight control, blood sugar control, or improvements in health. This "e-course" is designed to help you eat less carbohydrate. We'll go through the types of foods you eat and find the best choices. Of course, it's up to you how much carb you want to cut, but we'll also talk about how to make that decision. If you're unsure, you can simply start with what seems easiest, or where you would get the most "bang for the buck". I hope you find this helpful! Laura

Why Cut Carbs?

Easy Ways to Get Started

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 of us 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 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. ("Added" means added by people -- for example, the sugars in fruit are naturally occurring, and thus not "added".) 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 any time, 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.
  • What About 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? I analyze sports drinks and tell you how to get the same nutrients without all the sugar.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: What about alcoholic beverages? Do we have to worry about sugar there too?
  • Sugar-Free Cocktails: The most sugary alcoholic beverages (sometimes with an astonishing amount) are many of the sugary 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.

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 (some would argue "most of the problem") with sugar is that almost all forms of sugar 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.
  • What About Agave Nectar?: This is the latest darling 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. I usually 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.

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).

  • What are 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. Especially check out the chart at the bottom of the page.
  • Maltitol: Just Say No: Arguably the worst of the sugar alcohols (and unfortunately the most common) is maltitol. I advise people to steer clear of it whenever possible. Here's why.
  • Erythritol: On the other hand, erythritol is a sugar substitute which doesn't impact blood sugar.
  • Liquid Sucralose (Splenda): I 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.
  • More Sweet "Low-Carb" Ingredients: This article on "net carbs" has information about such ingredients as glycerine, polydextrose, oligofructose, and inulin, which sometimes show up in low-carb product
  • More Thoughts About Sugar Substitutes: This is an area I think everyone has to make up their own mind about. Here are a few thoughts about artificial sweeteners I wrote in a blog in 2009.

Easy Dessert Recipes

Day 5: Grains and Bread

grain foods
Jeffrey Coolidge/Stone/Getty Images

Now that we've talked about sugars, what about the other big category of carbohydrates - starches?

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.


  • How Much Grain Food Should we Eat?: Some advice about grain foods like cereals, rice, and bread. Basically, cutting back on these foods 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.


  • Which Bread is Best?: One starch that Western countries eat a lot of is bread. A friend once said to me that she wasn't going to give up bread, so I should tell her which ones were best for her to eat. So I wrote this article to help her out.
  • About Whole Wheat Bread: Isn't it better to eat whole grain breads? Yes, however there is a big "but" (pun absolutely intended).
  • Low-Carb Bread Reviews: Readers of this site have reviewed their favorite low-carb breads.
  • A Warning About Low-Carb Bread: Not everyone reacts the same way to low-carb breads. Proceed cautiously.


  • A Note About Fiber: Although fiber is a carbohydrate, we 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. If you're interested, here's a list of foods that are high in fiber, but low in carbs.


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, we 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. I bring you the lowdown on this intriguing alternative to regular pasta.
  • Dreamfields Pasta: This pasta is formulated so the carbohydrate won't all break down into sugar. People have varied reactions to it, so I tried to track down the possible reasons. 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.


  • Zucchini "Noodles": I've put various pasta sauces over cooked zucchini strips for years. This is certainly fine, but I've recently discovered some tricks for making zucchini pasta that's a little closer to actual pasta. The noodles can be more like fettuccine or linguine, depending upon how wide you cut them.
  • Quick Chicken Alfredo with Shirataki Noodles: This is a meal which is easy, quick, and family-friendly.

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!: No, really, cauliflower can be a great substitute for potato. I have recipes for mashed cauliflower, cauliflower "potato" salad, and more. These recipes are requested among family and friends, even those who think they don't like cauliflower. (When you get to the link, scroll down to see the recipes.)
  • Celery Root/Celeriac: I like this vegetable a lot. You can pureed it like mashed potatoes, make "potato" pancakes...even chips! It's good in stews and soups, too.
  • Jicama: I have been hearing about people using jicama in place of potato, but I confess I haven't yet tried cooked jicama. 

Day 8: More Grains: Pizza, Cereal, Rice

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

This is the last day we'll talk about grains and substitutes for grains. One question which comes up frequently is "don't we NEED grains?". The short answer is "no". Every study that has shown the value of "whole grains" is comparing it 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.


  • 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.



  • 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.

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? How much protein do we need? 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


Day 10: Vegetables

basket of summer vegetables
Jasmina/Vetta/Getty Images

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: This list is roughly from the vegetables lowest to highest in carbs. Most have links to more carb and nutrition info, as well as recipes.
  • Quick Tip: Veggies Low to High: You don't have to carry a long list with you to the grocery store if you remember which part of the plant the vegetable came from, which is a clue to how much carb is in it.
  • 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.
  • Readers' Favorite Low-Carb Vegetables: Readers share their favorite ways to fix vegetables. If you like, you can add your own!


Day 11: Fruit

fruit bowl
Anna Verdina/Moment/Getty Images

What about fruit? I get this question a lot. The deal with fruit is that the amount depends on how low in carbs you need to or want to go. If you're just trying to cut back, it's MUCH MUCH more important to concentrate on 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: Like yesterday's vegetable list, this list is roughly from the fruits lowest to highest in carbs. Most have links to more carb and nutrition info, and some have links to recipes (especially the berries).
  • Quick Tip: Fruits Low to High: 5 categories of fruit to remember, from lowest to highest.
  • 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. Links to recipes.
  • 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!


  • Sugar-Free Cranberry Sauce: This very simple recipe is great at Thanksgiving, but also with yogurt or ricotta cheese any time, 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: I make this every summer during olallieberry season (a type of blackberry which grows near where I live). Yum!!

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 (if you're losing weight, you won't need to add as much, because some of that fat will be coming from you!) This being the case, it's a good idea to pay some attention to sources of fats in your diet. However, it may take some work to rid yourself of the "fat phobia" which is pervasive these days. It's worth doing: just remind yourself that the beginning of the low-fat craze 30 or so years ago was exactly when people started eating more carbs, and obesity and diabetes began to rise. Coincidence? I don't think so. When you cut fats in your diet, you almost automatically start to eat more carbohydrate.

Monounsaturated Fats

A lot of our body fat is made up of monounsaturated fats, and eating foods rich in mono's has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease. Olive oil and avocados are examples of foods high in monounsaturated fats, and there are more in the link. 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's, 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 born 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. Check out:



Day 13: Snacks

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 refrigeration. So everywhere we go, what do we find? Refined carbs, of course! This makes it all the more important that we have food available when we're hungry so we don't reach for the chips, doughnuts, or candy bars.


  • Five Minute Sweet Spiced Pecans: I like to make these when guests are coming, because 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!

Day 14: Eating Out

family eating in restaurant
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

It's so much easier to keep the carbs down when we are at home -- 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 -- oh my! Is it possible to eat in an Italian restaurant and stick to your low-carb way of eating? YES! Believe it or not, my 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: I love it when I go to my favorite Mexican restaurant and they know to automatically replace the rice and beans with salad for me. 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? Although I'm not recommending it as a regular thing, the answer is yes. But you have to be careful! There are links in the article to recommendations for specific chains (McDonalds, Subway, etc).

Day 15: Cooking Tips

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There's no doubt about it, when we decide to eat a healthier diet, it usually means a greater involvement in preparing our 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.

  • Top Low-Carb Cooking Tips: The most popular cooking tips on the site. How to make great burgers, how to make cheap steaks taste good, how to thicken a low-carb sauce or soup, and more.
  • Low-Carb Cooking Videos: As one reader wrote of my cauliflower "rice" recipe, "I've known about this recipe for years, but always thought it would be hard to do or time-consuming or something. Having the video link was the key for me, because seeing it done convinced me about how easy this really is. To think, all those years I could have been enjoying this recipe! Dang!"
  • How to Make a Frittata: A dozen eggs plus leftovers = a frittata you can eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can even freeze wedges to pull out and heat up any time.
  • How to Balance Flavors in Your Cooking: My tricks for bringing your cooking from "good" to "great".
  • Using Up Leftovers: Ways to use up the leftovers from your kitchen or from a doggie bag.
  • Try Seafood for a Quick and Easy Meal: An advantage of fish and shellfish is that they cook very quickly. Most of these recipes are quick and easy (but probably not the Coconut Shrimp).
  • Super-Easy Fudge: No cooking at all!

Day 16: What's Next?

winding road
Piyaphon Phemtaweepon/Moment/Getty Images

We've learned a lot about cutting carbs in our diets -- why it's a good idea for many of us, and how to do it in different ways. 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 we 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.
  • Making Resolutions Stick: Here's a trick that helped me stick to my resolution that led to 12 years so far of healthy low-carb eating.
  • 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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