But that doesn’t change the fact that your body still needs the nutrients you get from some carbohydrate-containing foods to function properly. After all, carbohydrates are an important source of energy, help process fats, and also contribute to your body being able to build cartilage, bones, and nervous-system tissue. Not to mention, you need carbs for brain function, as well.
Carb-heavy foods often have other nutrients that you’ll miss if you cut those foods out entirely, too. “Potassium is a challenge on a low-carb diet, as some of these plans restrict or eliminate key sources such as potatoes, fruit, beans, and dairy,” says New York-based nutritionist Karen Ansel, R.D. “Leafy greens, tomatoes, and salmon are good sources—but still, it’s difficult to get what we need each day.”
But of course, going overboard on carbs, especially the highly-processed variety you find in breads, pastas, and packaged foods, has its own set of health risks. A 2016 study found that people who ate lots of high-glycemic foods had a vastly increased risk of lung cancer. And a 2017 study found that people who ate a high-carb diet had a 28 percent increased risk of death compared to people on lower-carb diets.
Here are the carbs you should definitely keep in your diet—along with a few that could go either way
While not all experts agree on exactly what the “best” diet entails, nutritionists do all agree on one thing: You should never avoid fruits and veggies. “I worry when people stop eating carrots because they think they have too many carbs,” says Ansel. “No one got fat from eating too many carrots.”
Fruits and veggies are important sources of nutrients like potassium, which keeps your blood pressure in check—and few people get enough of this important mineral. Plus, most of the vitamin C we need for hair, skin, and immune-system health is found in fruits and veggies.
Bottom line: Plants contain phytonutrients—beta carotene in orange produce like carrots; lycopene in red ones like tomatoes; lutein in yellow and green veggies—that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and disease-fighting properties you can’t get anywhere else, explains Ansel. Plus fruits and veggies serve up loads of fiber, which promotes gut health, lowers your cholesterol, keeps you fuller for longer, and ensures you stay regular.
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and bok choy are a carb-cutter’s best friend, since they’re nutrient powerhouses with a very low carb content. Otherwise, dig into a wide variety of produce. Just be sure to watch your portion sizes, especially when it comes to fruits and starchy veggies. “It’s not just what you’re having but how much. Look at the size of your apple—a lot are the size of baseballs. Potatoes can vary tremendously in size,” says Ansel. When you shop, think small (she recommends organic, since the sizes are often smaller than conventional options). And don’t go overboard. “I wouldn’t recommend four bananas in day to anyone,” says Ansel.
If you’re super-serious about eliminating carbs, you can choose to swap higher-carb tropical fruits like mangoes and bananas for berries, peaches, and citrus, says Ansel. And you may want to trade starchy veggies like potatoes, beets, and corn for lower-carb produce like butternut squash, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
Keep in mind, what works for you might not work for your best friend or partner. Diana Rodgers, R.D., consultant for the Whole30 diet and creator of SustainableDish.com suggests working with a dietitian to figure out what’s right for you. “The goal in my mind is to eat a large variety of foods as long as they don’t hurt your health.”
Beyond fruits and veggies, the line on carbs gets a bit blurrier depending on the nutritionist. Ansel, for one, says she never recommends dipping below 130 grams of carbs per day (most low-carb diets suggest aiming for half that, according to Mayo Clinic). With that in mind, she says the following foods deserve a spot on your plate:
Many nutritionists are big proponents of legumes, i.e., beans, peas, and lentils. “Beans have more carbs than proteins like meat. But if you look at carb quality, beans are among the healthiest—they have so much fiber and important nutrients like potassium,” says Ansel.
Ansel suggests keeping whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat couscous, barley, oatmeal, and farro in your diet—as long as you also keep an eye on how much you’re eating. Many whole grains, like oats and barley, naturally lower your cholesterol and are great sources of fiber and other good-for-you nutrients. Problem is, while a half cup of quinoa serves up just 19 grams of carbs, many of us pony up for four times as much in one sitting. So serve it as a side dish, or, if it’s part of your main, bulk it up by mixing in a healthy serving of steamed veggies, to keep portions reasonable.
Rodgers, however, disagrees. While we can’t live without fat and protein, “we absolutely do not NEED grains and legumes in our diets,” she says. She recommends swapping grains and legumes for potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other plant sources, which she says are more nutrient-dense and better digested for many than grains. “When you compare one cup of cooked sweet potato to one cup of whole-wheat hot cereal, for example, sweet potatoes win by a long shot. They’re full of beta carotene, vitamin C, B6, and have twice as much fiber,” says Rodgers. She adds that whole grains have a lot of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, plus wheat, rye, and barley contain the protein gluten, which some people are allergic to and “can cause a host of difficulties, and not just in people with celiac disease.”
Dairy contains a type of sugar called lactose, so most low-carb diets usually eliminate it—but Ansel says you don’t have to. “Dairy supplies key minerals that few of us get enough of, such as calcium and potassium, plus it’s a really good source of high-quality protein,” says Ansel. “If you’re just trying to eat fewer carbs, a serving of dairy isn’t going to push you over the edge as long as it doesn’t have extra added sugar like you’d get from fruit-flavored yogurt.” One cup of milk has 12 grams of carbs, while a cup of plain Greek yogurt has just six grams.
Got a milk allergy or otherwise just aren’t into dairy? You’ll need to eat other low-carb sources of calcium and potassium, like canned salmon with bones, sardines, sesame seeds, bok choy, kale, and almonds. “But without dairy, you’ll need to eat lots of these to get the 1,000 milligrams of calcium and the 4,700 milligrams of potassium you need each day,” says Ansel. Although calcium supplements can help fill the void, she says, potassium supplements can be dangerous for heart health.
There are of course the obvious carb cuts that anyone could make. “If you’re looking to go low-carb, taking out highly-processed carbs can help you to achieve a lot of your goals,” says Ansel. That includes white bread, cookies, bagels, donuts, white rice, crackers, soda, iced tea, and lattes—which are easy to nix and don’t offer a lot of nutritional benefits.
Bread is another easy cut. “Most of us eat way too much bread, even the whole-grain stuff. Everyone could cut down,” says Ansel. You can either cut it out entirely, or have an open-faced sandwich instead of your usual two slices. Same story for pasta. “There’s no biological reason you need it,” says Ansel. You can also swap out half of your portion for zucchini noodles, mushrooms, or tomatoes to get additional bulk.
While nutritionists simply aren’t on the same page as to what foods you need and which you can cut, they do agree that you do need to find a diet that works for you. “There are plenty of people who do very well on a low-carb diet. Some people can do better on a standard American diet than others, we’re all different,” says Rodgers. “Not everyone needs to reduce their carb intake, but in my opinion, most Americans eat way too many processed carbs.”
“Low-carb doesn’t have to be no carb,” adds Ansel. She suggests starting by eating smaller servings of less-processed carbs. “You’ll be surprised by how many carbs you can eliminate,” says Ansel.