What a Low Carb Food Pyramid Would Look Like

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Low-Carb Food Pyramid

Illustration of the Basic Low-Carb Pyramid. Photo © Karen Struthers

There is no one way of eating that is best for everyone. Everyone is different. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service encourages a diet plan that is tailored to the person.

The dietary guidelines may have too many carbohydrates for those of you are insulin resistant, have a diabetes diagnosis or are pre-diabetic. Since all carbohydrates break down into sugar in the body, carb-heavy foods are not helpful for those of you who have difficulty processing sugar.

If your body functions better on a lower carb plan, then this low-carb pyramid is a great illustrated guideline as to a number of foods recommended by volume, rather than by percent of calories. The pyramid illustration gives you a general idea which foods to eat, note, the amounts will vary per person. Everyone has their own optimal carbohydrate level.

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Vegetables

low carb vegetables
Vegetables in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Olga Shelego

The largest food group of a low-carb diet should be low-carb vegetables, excluding starchy ones like corn, potatoes, peas, and beets. Ideally, at least half of your dinner plate should be vegetables. A good lunch would be a large salad with protein and dressing added. Even breakfast can have vegetables included, for example in an omelet or a crustless spinach quiche.

Select a variety of colors of vegetables and fruits. The phytonutrient and antioxidant levels vary with the different color groups. Each food contains a different combination of nutrients. You are more likely to get your nutritional needs met when you eat a variety of foods.

Do you need inspiration? Explore easy vegetable preparation and more about greens, the low carb super food. As for vegetables that are higher in carbs, learn more about the carb counts of root vegetables.

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Protein

Protein Foods
Protein in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Malcolm Romain

Low-carb diets are often thought of as high in protein and eating sufficient protein is the foundation of most low-carb diets. This does not have to mean you have to eat very high protein diet.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends an upper limit of 35 percent of calories coming from protein and most low-carb diet proponents agree. In fact, protein intake tends to be self-limiting—people would usually have to force themselves to eat too much protein. Check out high protein foods that are also ​low in saturated fat.

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Fruit

low carb fruit
Fruit in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Most fruits are full of nutrients. Many fruits are also full of sugar, so people who do not process sugars well must choose wisely.

Fortunately, many of the low-sugar fruits are the highest in nutrients and antioxidants, such as berries and melons. Most low-carb eaters can eat one to three servings of these fruits per day unless they are very sensitive to sugar or are in the first phase of a diet such as the Atkins Diet or South Beach Diet, which is usually the first few weeks of those diets.

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Fats

healthy fats
Fats in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Once you know how many carbohydrates and how much protein you need in your diet, the rest of the calories will come from fat. It is important to take care of your needs for essential fats, primarily Omega-3 fats, by eating foods such as fatty fish (like salmon) and flax seeds. Plant foods with a high amount of monounsaturated fat—such as olives and olive oil, avocado, and nuts—have been shown to have health benefits.

Even saturated fats, which have been considered to be a damaging type of fat, have not been shown to be detrimental in several large studies, and for most people eating a low-carb diet. Still, a balance of fats, with an emphasis on healthier options such as olive oil and Omega-3 fats, is a good idea.

Many low-carb experts are opposed to trans fats and have been since the mid-1990s. They appear to be ahead of the curve on this; most trans fats are considered detrimental to your body.

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Dairy

milk
Dairy Foods in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Milk and other dairy products have a certain amount of lactose (milk sugar) and carbohydrates. If you are sensitive to sugar, you may have to be careful about the amount of dairy you consume, taking into consideration your own personal carbohydrate level. Even if you are sugar-sensitive, there are good choices of dairy products, including cheese, cottage cheese, and some yogurts.

If you are not able to eat much in the way of dairy products, try to get calcium in other ways by eating a lot of calcium-rich vegetables or by taking supplements. 

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Legumes

black beans
Legumes in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Beans and other legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas) have a lot of starchy carbohydrates. The starch consists of types that, in most people, are either digested slowly or not digested in the small intestine at all, known as resistant starches. If you eat beans in moderation, they can be an excellent choice if you cannot process sugars well.

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Whole Grains

Brown Rice
Whole Grains in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Whole, intact grains such as brown rice and barley can be tolerated by most who are on a moderately low-carbohydrate diet. The starch in intact whole grains is more slowly broken down into glucose than starch in refined grains, like white rice, or grains ground into flour, including whole wheat flour.

Whole-grain pasta is also more slowly digested. Pasta should be cooked "​al dente" (slightly firm), the softer it is, the faster it is broken down into sugar.

A serving of grains is about half a cup. If you love bread, learn how to find a healthier, lower-carb bread.

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Sweet and Carb-Loaded Treats

special cake
Starchy and Sugary Foods - Treats in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Nimalan Tharmalingam

Foods that your body rapidly converts into glucose are not shown on the pyramid. 

Sweet and carb-loaded treats include:

  • Foods made with a lot of sugar, such as candy, sugared soft drinks and other beverages with sugar, ice cream
  • Foods made with a lot of flour, which includes cakes, cookies, crackers, and most bread
  • Starchy foods, such as potatoes
  • Fruit juices
  • High sugar fruits; the fruits with the highest amount of sugar are any dried fruit (raisins, figs) and tropical fruits such as bananas, mangoes, pineapple, and oranges.

This does not mean that you can never have a piece of cake or an order of fries again. It means that foods that cause a rapid and high rise in blood sugar should be planned out.

  • Do not eat them often
  • Make your special choices delicious  (no stale cake, third-rate pie, or limp fries)
  • Enjoy every bite of it; stop eating when you no longer enjoy your treat and you may be surprised how soon that happens

Check labels for other foods with a large amount of carbohydrate (remember, all carbs turn to sugar in your body).

Low Carb Treats

Delicious treats can be made from low-carb ingredients. Try recipes for low carb bread (including muffins), low carb desserts, and low carb candy.

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