Low carb, sugar-free foods- It’s not too complicated!

From my personal research and experience with Overeaters Anonymous, many people who are quitting sugar are also looking to cut down on carbohydrates. The great news is that accomplishing both is not as hard as many people think. Finding foods that are both low-carb and sugar free go hand in hand.

Before taking advice from my article below, it is important that you consult with a medical professional about making changes to your diet.

How are sugar and carbohydrates related?

Remember geometry class when we learned that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares? (I am a scientist and a math nerd!) Well a similar rule applies to sugars and carbohydrates. All sugars are carbohydrates, but not all carbohydrates are sugars.

The American Diabetes Association explains that there are three main types of carbohydrates [1]:

  1. Starches (also known as complex carbohydrates)
  2. Fiber
  3. Sugar

Each of these types of carbohydrates can be broken down into even more subcategories. Starches include some vegetables like peas and corn, and other foods like beans and grains. Fiber comes from plant sources and while we need it to maintain a healthy digestive system, it is actually not digested by our bodies! It’s kind of like a street sweeper for our digestive tracks and helps us from absorbing too much cholesterol. Fiber helps us feel full after eating.

Now for sugar. There are two types of sugar- naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruit, and refined sugar. The great thing about fruit sugars is that when eaten in the context of a fresh fruit, fruit sugars are also ingested with the natural fiber of the fruit. I’ve heard many professionals say that natural sugars are nature’s “trick” to get us to eat fiber.

This blog in general focuses on refined sugars. Refined sugars are just that- refined away from the fiber and nutrients that naturally accompany them. With the fiber and nutrients stripped away, the body has much less work to do to digest the food and get the energy boost from sugar. Our brains are smart, and like shortcuts. So if there is a quick and easy way to get energy from food, our brains will remember and remind us of that.

The problem is that refined sugars quickly raise our blood sugar levels and are stored as fat if not utilized quickly enough. Often times, because high sugar foods are usually also high in saturated fats, many people feel lethargic after over indulging on sweets. As most people in America do not even get the minimum amount of recommended exercise, there is little chance that the energy expended will be enough to compensate for the amount of sugar consumed.

Does your body need carbs to function?

Absolutely! As mentioned above, your body needs fiber and starches (complex carbs) for health. However, there are not healthy benefits to eating refined sugar. It may taste good and- if you are addicted- make you feel good, but refined sugar does not aid your health in the ways that the other 2 carbohydrates- fiber and starches- do.

Do you remember learning about the energy cycle in biology class? Most people don’t- it is very complicated! Here is one of the energy cycles the body uses. The important point is that the Krebs cycle towards the bottom is a key cellular process. The Krebs cycle allows us to get energy from the foods we eat.

It is not important to know the details of the cycle, but do you see the word glucose, and above that, the word glycogen? Well, refined sugars contain glucose. Starches contain glycogen. When you consume starch, the body has to break down the glycogen into glucose, which is then turned into energy. If you consume the glucose straight away, your body has less work to do to get the energy from your food. Your body spends less energy, also known as calories, breaking down your food. When we get too much energy stored up, we gain excess weight as fat.

Dangers of consuming too few carbohydrates- We need fiber and starches!

It is important that we do not ignore fiber and starches in pursuit of “low carb” foods! If we eliminate all carbohydrates, our energy cycle will not be as efficient. Yes, we will begin to burn fat faster (you can see in the chart that fats also enter the energy cycle), but this is a much less efficient way to burn calories. Biologically, this is a fail-safe. Our bodies perform best when we eat glycogen and starches, but can survive off of fat for a while until we eat healthy carbs again.

It is dangerous to only burn fat. If you follow a healthy diet, your body will naturally want to burn fat as it realizes it does not need to hold on to the extra energy. However, if you eliminate healthy carbohydrates, you are asking your body to function without fiber and starches, which we need to be healthy.

What are some convenient, low carb, sugar-free foods?

Now that we know the difference between healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates and a little bit about how the body gets energy from food, I think we can agree that when we are searching for healthy low carb food, we are really searching for low-sugar or sugar free food. We don’t want to sacrifice fiber and starches in our daily diets.

So what are some convenient, sugar-free foods that you can buy from a local grocery store (at least here in the U.S.)?

  • Ezekiel bread (or any other sugar-free, sprouted grain bread)
  • Plain oatmeal (feel free to add spices and nuts to make it tasty!)
  • Miracle Noodle pasta
  • Mixed Nuts
  • Greek yogurt (with natural sugars only)
  • Celery and peanut butter (add some raisins too, but watch your portions!)
  • Kale chips
  • Olives
  • Simple girl dressings and condiments

Key takeaways of low carb, sugar-free food

Before determining if low carb and sugar-free foods should be incorporated into your diet, please consult with a medical professional.

While I am a scientist by training, I am not a licensed medical professional. I have been working closely with psychologists, dietitians and other people who are quitting refined sugar so I am very knowledgeable on the subject, but it is important that you consult with a trusted healthcare provider before changing your diet.

I hope that you can see that there is a difference between health and unhealthy carbohydrates, and that we don’t have to avoid all carbohydrates in pursuit of a healthy, sugar-free diet.

Another good way to pursue low carb and sugar free foods is to get cooking! Browse for some sugar free meal plans to help get you started.

Let me know some of your favorite sugar-free foods in the comments!

References:

[1]. American Diabetes Association. “Types of Carbohydrates”. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/types-of-carbohydrates.html

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