There’s a lot of talk about carbs being the enemy in modern diet culture, but that’s not the case. Carbohydrates are an important part of most diets. Complex carbs — which come from whole, unprocessed plant foods — are typically full of nutrients.
In some circumstances, however, cutting back on carbohydrates may provide some real health benefits. This is especially true when it comes to simple carbs, which are derived from highly processed foods and do not provide additional nutrients.
Studies show that low-carb diets may help with weight loss and better management of diabetes or prediabetes in adults with higher body weights.
If your nutritionist or doctor has advised you to reduce your carbohydrate intake as part of a healthier lifestyle overhaul (which typically includes other aspects such as a physical activity), here are 13 easy ways to cut back on carbs.
1. Curb your intake of sugar-sweetened drinks
Most sugar, whether it’s fructose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, or glucose, is considered a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbs provide quick energy, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion from your pancreas.
Consuming sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas or sweetened iced teas can add a lot of extra carbs, in the form of sugar, to your diet.
For instance, one can (12 fluid ounces) of non-diet cola contains 35 grams of carbs, and one small sweetened iced tea drink contains 29.5 grams of carbs. These carbs come almost entirely from sugar.
Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been associated with the onset of type 2 diabetes, so cutting back on these drinks could help reduce your risk of the condition.
If you’re craving something refreshing, flavored seltzers are a great substitute.
Summary: Reducing your intake of sugar-sweetened drinks like soda can significantly reduce your simple carbohydrate intake and may help protect against the development of type 2 diabetes.
2. Cut back on refined grain bread
Many types of bread, especially whole grain bread, contain vitamins and minerals. Unrefined whole-grain bread is also considered a complex carb, meaning it takes longer to digest and affects blood sugar gradually instead of all at once.
While bread made with refined grains, like white bread, aren’t always higher in carbs than whole-grain bread, the process of refining the grains can reduce the micronutrient and fiber content of the bread.
Without a lot of fiber, the sugar and carbs in the bread are processed quickly in the body, which can lead to blood sugar spikes. Over time, this can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Sticking with a moderate amount of whole-grain bread, or lessening your daily intake of bread in general, can help you ingest fewer simple carbs that can spike blood sugar.
Summary: Whole grain bread contain nutrients and is considered complex carbs. Sticking to a moderate amount of whole grain bread can lessen your intake of simple carbs, which may cause blood sugar spikes.
3. Think about fruit juice
Unlike whole fruit, fruit juice contains little to no fiber and is usually high in fructose, a form of fruit sugar that is also considered a simple carb.
Although it provides some vitamins and minerals, fruit juice is very similar to sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda) in terms of sugar and carbs.
For instance, 1 bottle (around 10 fluid ounces) of 100% apple juice contains 35 grams of carbs, most of which is sugar.
If you’re looking to consume fewer carbs, consider choosing a piece of fruit instead of fruit juice. Whole fruit is usually just as sweet, and it contains fiber, which may help ease blood sugar spikes for people dealing with diabetes.
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Summary: Even though it contains vitamins and minerals, fruit juice is often just as full of simple carbs as sugar-sweetened beverages like soda. It’s best to limit your consumption if you’re looking to cut carbs.
4. Choose lower-carb snacks
Carbs can add up quickly in snack foods such as chips, pretzels, and crackers. This is because these salty, savory snacks are usually low in protein and fiber, two macronutrients responsible for that full feeling.
This means you may end up eating much more than you initially planned.
Incorporating more low-carb snacks that have a good serving of protein and fiber can help you feel satisfied.
If you’re looking for some ideas, nuts, cheese, and eggs tend to be lower in carbs and higher in protein. There are also tons of low-carb snack roundups around the web that can help spark your creativity.
Summary: Low-carb snacks such as nuts and cheese can help you feel satisfied due to their higher protein and healthy fat content.
5. Start your day with eggs or other lower-carb breakfast foods
Breakfast foods can have hidden amounts of carbs and sugar, even if they seem “healthy” at first glance.
For instance, a cup of store-bought granola can have around 68 grams of carbs, and a cup of Raisin Bran cereal can have around 46 grams.
While they may also contain vitamins and fiber, breakfast cereals can be heavy on simple carbs due to added sugar. Long-term consumption of foods containing added sugar can lead to blood sugar spikes in those already living with diabetes.
If you’re looking for options that contain fewer simple carbs, consider incorporating more eggs into your morning routine.
One egg contains less than 1 gram of carbs. Eggs are also a great source of high-quality protein, which can help you feel fuller longer and possibly eat less throughout the rest of the day.
Suggested read: 14 easy ways to increase your protein intake
What’s more, eggs are extremely versatile and can be prepared in many ways, including hard boiling for an on-the-go breakfast.
Other low-carb breakfast ideas include low sugar yogurt, crustless quiche, nut butter on celery sticks or low-carb bread, and a breakfast skillet with vegetables and potatoes.
Summary: Certain packaged breakfast foods can contain hidden simple carbs. Choosing eggs or other high protein, lower-carb foods for breakfast can help you feel full and satisfied for several hours.
6. Use sugar alternatives
While many people enjoy sweetening their coffee or tea with sugar, it can add excess carbs.
Although honey is a more natural sweetener, it’s also pure sugar. One tablespoon contains 17 grams of carbs, all from sugar.
If you’re looking to keep your sweetened coffee, there are plenty of sugar alternatives that tend to be low in sugar or even completely sugar-free:
- Stevia. Stevia comes from the stevia plant, which originated in South America. A few studies have shown that stevia may have a potential blood glucose-lowering effect in people living with diabetes.
- Erythritol. Erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol that tastes like sugar, does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels, and may help prevent cavities by killing plaque-causing bacteria.
- Xylitol. Another sugar alcohol, xylitol also helps fight the bacteria that cause tooth decay. In addition, research suggests it may be beneficial for blood sugar management.
Summary: Using sugar alternatives can help you keep your carb intake low without giving up sweetness altogether.
7. Consider the carb content of restaurant meals
Eating out can be challenging during the initial stages of a low-carb diet or after deciding to downgrade your carb intake.
Even if you order meat or fish with no breading or gravy, you’ll typically get starch on the side, such as potatoes, rice, pasta, or bread. These starches can add 30 or more grams of carbs to your meal, depending on the portion size, which is often large.
Keep an eye on portion sizes when ordering a meal from a restaurant (could you take half the starch home?), and consider ordering a side salad to increase your fiber intake to help you feel fuller quicker.
Summary: Ordering extra vegetables to offset larger servings of potatoes, pasta, rice, or bread when eating out can save carbs. Taking home half the carb portion of the meal can also help.
8. Substitute alternative flours for white flour
White flour is often the base of many baked goods, including pieces of bread, muffins, and cookies, and is used to coat most fried foods. White flour is considered a refined grain, which means many of the nutrients and fiber have been processed out.
Less fiber means it digests quickly and may lead to insulin spikes in people who have type 2 diabetes. You may also end up feeling less satisfied after eating something made with refined flour.
If you’re craving baked goods, try swapping out white flour for whole-grain flour, which has more fiber and a better nutritional profile.
You might also consider subbing coconut or almond flour for white flour, as these alternative options tend to be lower in carbs. However, these flours have a higher fat content than white or whole grain flour.
When buying food made with an alternative flour, or when baking with it yourself, keep in mind that the texture of the finished product may be denser due to either a lack of gluten (for almond or coconut flours) or less refinement (for whole wheat flour).
Summary: White flour is refined flour, which means it has been stripped of fiber and nutrients. Consider using alternative flours in place of white flour in baked goods or when coating food before frying.
9. Emphasize non-starchy vegetables
Vegetables are a valuable source of nutrients and fiber. They also contain phytochemicals (plant compounds), many of which function as antioxidants that help protect you from disease.
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However, if you’re trying to keep your carb intake down, it’s important to focus on non-starchy vegetables.
The American Diabetes Association has an extensive list of non-starchy vegetables, including artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
Summary: All vegetables are valuable sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. To keep your carb intake lower, emphasize non-starchy vegetables in moderation.
10. Focus on high protein foods
If you’re a fan of carbs but still trying to cut back, one of the best ways of keeping yourself satisfied is to focus on high-protein foods.
Protein has been shown to help increase satiety, which means it helps you feel fuller longer. It may also help you eat less throughout the day.
Additionally, protein has a slightly higher thermic value than fat or carbs, meaning your body requires more calories to digest it.
By emphasizing foods that are higher in protein (while still supplementing your diet with complex carbohydrates), you may even get the extra benefit of some weight loss.
Summary: Adding foods that are higher in protein to your meals can help you feel fuller, fight cravings, and boost your metabolic rate for a brief period.
11. Supplement with healthier fats
Lowering your intake of carbs may mean you find yourself eating not only more protein but also more fat.
Focusing on healthier fats can help you stay on track if you’re following a weight loss or weight maintenance program.
While research has done a lot of flip-flopping as to what exactly makes a particular type of fat good for us, foods like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and dairy continually show up as quality fats.
As with everything, moderation and variety are key.
Summary: Supplementing your lower-carb diet with healthier fats can add variety and even health benefits.
12. Pay attention to food labels
Food labels provide valuable information about the carb content of packaged foods.
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Paying attention to serving size is also important, especially when eating foods that may be higher in sugar (simple carbs) and have smaller serving sizes than many people traditionally eat.
For instance, cereal packaging and commercials often exaggerate serving size depictions, making it easier for people to eat more than one serving at a time.
Summary: Reading food labels and understanding serving sizes can help you make more informed choices when it comes to reducing carb intake.
13. Count carbs with a nutrition tracker
A nutrition tracker is a great tool for keeping track of your daily food intake. Most are available as apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as online.
Carbs and other nutrients are automatically calculated when you enter them into the tracker.
Most of the information in these food databases is trustworthy. However, keep in mind that some of these programs allow people to add custom nutrition information that may not always be accurate.
Summary: Using a nutrition tracking app or online program can help you monitor and fine-tune your carb intake.
The bottom line
In some circumstances, cutting back on carbohydrates — particularly simple carbs in processed foods that don’t contain many additional nutrients — may provide some health benefits. This is especially true if you are living with type 2 diabetes.
If your doctor or nutritionist has recommended that you eat fewer carbs, it’s still possible (and advisable) to eat a varied diet.
Concentrating on protein, fiber, complex carbs, and healthy fats can help you feel satisfied throughout the day and will provide the nutrients needed for a balanced diet.