Eating fewer carbohydrates doesn’t require drastic restriction or entirely giving up comfort food favorites like pasta. A more moderate approach — being selective about what kind you eat — can give you a better shot at reaching your goals. “All-or-nothing thinking is a temporary fix,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN. Completely cutting out carbs can backfire. “You can still eat healthy sources of carbs — including whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — for nutrition and satisfaction, just in a more mindful and portion-controlled way.”
Not only can reducing carb intake help you let go of water weight, but you’ll likely be shaving off calories, too. “If you think about many of the more indulgent foods out there — pizza, cake, bagels, cookies, chips — they tend to be higher in carbohydrates. By setting a goal of monitoring carb intake, chances are you’ll eat less of those high-caloric foods, which can potentially lead to a calorie deficit,” says Shelby Burns, a Boston-based registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in weight loss.
To make it happen, while still eating foods that give you that same carb-satisfaction, experts share their top tips:
“Sweet potatoes, kasha, brown rice and quinoa are all ‘allowed’ and should not be demonized,” says Young. They deliver energy and fiber and are filling — all important factors for a well-balanced diet that helps you reach your weight-loss goals. The trick, however, is focusing on portion size. When it comes to grains, try downsizing to a half-cup. For example: 1/2 cup of quinoa has 20 grams of carbs. “People don’t want to think about portions; they want to look at [carbohydrate-rich foods] as black and white, but the truth is somewhere in between,” says Young. With smaller portion sizes you won’t feel deprived, yet you’ll reduce your carb intake.
Look for bags of riced cauliflower in the frozen veggies section at your store. Add it directly to a pan and saute in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic powder. You can serve this alone or toss with an equal (or lesser) amount of brown rice. Add veggies and your favorite lean protein for a well-balanced, lower-carb meal. “Going ‘halfsies’ [with vegetables and carbs] can help you cut carbs,” says Burns.
You don’t have to give up comfort food pasta dishes. Instead, switch the base. “Try pouring Bolognese onto spaghetti squash noodles,” says Young. One cup has just 10 grams of carbohydrates, 1/4 the amount in traditional cooked noodles. You can also try spaghetti squash lasagna or top it with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes for a fiber-rich vegetarian dish.
Another strategy is to combine ribbons of zucchini (aka zoodles) with whole-wheat pasta, suggests Young. “This is a happy medium to a full plate of pasta. You’ll be looking at plenty of food on your plate without feeling deprived,” she says. Pro tip: You can make zucchini noodles on your own if you have a spiralizer, but check your grocery store’s refrigerated produce section, as you may be able to purchase it pre-packaged, saving lots of prep time. Then try these five zoodle recipes under 400 calories.
Trust us: An almond flour blondie or coconut flour cookie still tastes good. “Almond and coconut flours contain fewer carbohydrates and can be swapped for regular flour when baking,” says Burns. A 1/4-cup serving of almond flour contains 6 grams of carbs and coconut flour contains 18 grams compared to 24 grams of carbs in traditional white flour. Get started with this low-carb banana bread recipe featuring coconut flour or try these Paleo cookies.
Yes, oatmeal contains carbohydrates, but 1 cup of cooked oats has 27 grams of carbohydrates, which is often significantly less than cereal. For example, Cinnamon Toast Crunch contains 37 grams per cup and Raisin Bran has 46 grams per cup. Moreover, unlike cereal, which can be highly processed and contain lots of added sugar, oatmeal is low on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar levels and cause an energy slump. Oats also contain a variety of B vitamins, fiber and protein, and research in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found oatmeal suppresses your appetite longer than cold cereal.
Take a cue from avocado toast and reimagine the classic sandwich by going open-faced. “By leaving one slice of bread off, you’ve automatically slashed carbs in half,” says Young. You can start your morning with an open-faced, high-protein smoked salmon sandwich or even try one of these dinner sandwiches.
“It can be hard to track how much you’re eating if you’re grabbing handfuls of snacks out of a big bag,” says Young. Carbs can easily add up fast without you even noticing. The fix: “Put food on a plate. That’s one of the most important things you can do,” she says. You can also track your carb intake with an app like MyFitnessPal.
Would you rather eat starch at breakfast or dinner? Or, do you enjoy fruit and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast but couldn’t part with your lunch sandwich? “You don’t have to eat carb-rich foods at all three meals,” says Young, who says this strategy can help you effortlessly cut carbs. Think about the meals where you really enjoy a grain or starchy veggie, and eat it then.
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If you’ve been into salty, carby mid-afternoon snacks, you can find a worthy alternative. “There are many lower-carb ‘convenient’ options out there,” says Burns. She likes chickpea puffs, air-popped popcorn, Parmesan crisps, 100-calorie packs of nuts and alternative flour crackers, like Hu Crackers and Simple Mills crackers.
Fruit contains carbohydrates, but it also contains vitamins, natural sweetness and fiber to help you digest it more slowly. Focusing on a fruit-based dessert helps you reduce carbs and still satisfy your sweet tooth. Young suggests freezing banana slices drizzled with peanut butter (Try this banana split on a stick.), having frozen grapes (truly nature’s candy), or drizzling strawberries with chocolate sauce. You can also try these delicious fruit-filled desserts under 400 calories.
The idea behind net carbs is fiber and sugar alcohols do not significantly affect blood sugar, so they don’t “count” like other sources of carbs. To calculate net carbs, you take the total amount of carbs in grams and subtract both grams of fiber and sugar alcohols. Tracking net carbs (which an app like MyFitnessPal does automatically) allows you to have more leeway with carbs while still hitting your low-carb goals. A great place to start is these 15 breakfasts with up to 20 grams of net carbs.
Originally published September 2020, updated with additional reporting
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