Lo-carbing Basics


Low-carb diets have been a trend for the past several years. See more weight loss tips pictures.
(c) iStockphoto.com/photoangelina

You hear about low-carb diets everywhere -- there's the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Hampton's Diet and the 30-day Low-carb Diet Solution. All sorts of people are trying some form of low-carbing, from movie stars to your mailman. In fact, there's a good chance that as you're reading this, you're also thinking about a co-worker or relative that has recently lost weight on one of these plans. You might even be trying a low-carb lifestyle yourself.

Some people are totally behind the idea and really do consider it a true diet revolution but others think it's yet another passing trend. For years the medical community has recommended a balanced diet -- rich in complex carbohydrates with lots of fiber and vegetables, and a limited intake of red meat and fatty foods. Low-carb plans advise something almost completely opposite. So, what's the real story?

In this article, we'll take a look at carbohydrates, the basic idea behind low-carbing and the concept of net carbs. An increasing number of grocery stores and restaurants are responding to the needs of the low-carb consumer. Many folks following a low-fat or low-calorie plan find fast-food out of the question. Not so for the low-carb dieter. We'll take a quick peek at how you can stay true to a low-carb plan while on the go and how the fast-food industry is joining the low-carb craze.

What is Low-Carbohydrate Dieting?

In 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins first published his book, Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, which suggested a new way to diet. Up until this time, dieting pretty much consisted of lowering the number of calories eaten per day or lowering both the amount of fats and carbohydrates eaten. But with a totally new approach, Dr. Atkins' diet was strictly focused on limiting carbohydrate consumption. Since then, a number of low-carb plans have come and gone and even come back again. Face it, low-carbing has been around for more than thirty years -- and given the daily barrage of new products, menus, diet plans and recipe books out there, it could easily be popular for another thirty. So, by now you're probably wondering "What are carbohydrates, exactly and how can restricting my consumption of them help me lose weight?"

About Carbohydrates

There's a strong chance that you've heard of "carbohydrates" and "complex carbohydrates." They come in many forms including rice, pasta, bread, crackers, cereal, fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates provide your body with its basic fuel. You can think about the relationship between your body and carbohydrates in much the same way you would consider the relationship between a car engine and gasoline.

The simplest carbohydrate is glucose. Glucose, also called "blood sugar" and "dextrose," flows in the bloodstream so that it is available to every cell in your body. Your cells absorb glucose and convert it into energy to drive the cell.

The word "carbohydrate" comes from the fact that glucose is made up of carbon and water. The chemical formula for glucose is:

You can see that glucose is made of six carbon atoms (carbo...) and the elements of six water molecules (...hydrate). Glucose is a simple sugar, meaning that to our tongues it tastes sweet. There are other simple sugars that you have probably heard of:

  • Fructose
  • Galactose
  • Lactose
  • Sucrose
  • Maltose

Glucose, fructose and galactose are referred to as monosaccharides. Lactose, sucrose and maltose are called disaccharides (they contain two monosaccharides). Monosaccharides and disaccharides are called simple carbohydrates. When you look at a "Nutrition Facts" label on a food package and see "Sugars" under the "Carbohydrates" section of the label, these simple sugars are what the label is talking about.

There are also complex carbohydrates, commonly known as "starches." A complex carbohydrate is made up of chains of glucose molecules. Starches are the way plants store energy -- plants produce glucose and chain the glucose molecules together to form starch. Most grains (wheat, corn, oats, rice) and things like potatoes and plantains are high in starch. Your digestive system breaks a complex carbohydrate (starch) back down into its component glucose molecules so that the glucose can enter your bloodstream. It takes a lot longer to break down a starch, however. If you drink a can of soda full of sugar, glucose will enter the bloodstream at a rate of something like 30 calories per minute. A complex carbohydrate is digested more slowly, so glucose enters the bloodstream at a rate of only 2 calories per minute (reference). Complex carbs can be either high in fiber such as broccoli or low in fiber such as bananas or potatoes.

Carbohydrates are not the only substances the body uses for energy. The body also uses proteins and fats for fuel. Protein is contained in foods like red meat, poultry fish and cheese. Fats are also an important part of our diet. Many foods contain fat in different amounts. High-fat foods include dairy products like butter and cream as well as mayonnaise and oils. The idea behind low-carbohydrate dieting is to restrict the amount of carbs you eat and increase your consumption of protein, good carbs (like high-fiber vegetables) and sometimes fat.

Why Count Carbs?

The USDA Food Guide Pyramid
The USDA Food Guide Pyramid
USDA Food pyramid courtesy Food and Nutrition Information Center

Now you know what carbohydrates are and how your body uses them. But, how does following a low-carb plan result in weight loss? The theory goes something like this: According to low-carb proponents, certain carbohydrates have a huge impact on blood sugar levels, while other carbohydrates have a minimal impact. By regulating your blood sugar levels and avoiding spikes (like those that occur after eating a meal rich in carbohydrates) you'll be able to better regulate your appetite. It's believed that sugar spikes can cause some of our cravings and overeating habits. For example, have you ever been hungry after lunch and eaten a candy bar to "hold you over" until dinner -- only to be even more hungry afterward? Low-carb plans avoid this pitfall by focusing a person's diet on foods -- like meat, cheese and high-fiber vegetables, that don't instigate a blood sugar roller coaster.

Battle of the Food Pyramids

The USDA Food Pyramid recommends a diet rich in carbohydrate consumption. As you can see in the image below, the foundation of the pyramid is a recommended six to eleven servings of carbohydrates daily.

Low-carb dieters follow an entirely different food map. For example, consider the Atkins Food Guide Pyramid.

The Atkins Lifestyle Food Guide Pyramid™ The Atkins Lifestyle Food Guide Pyramid™
The Atkins Lifestyle Food Guide Pyramid™
Image courtesy Atkins®

Unlike the traditional food pyramid, the Atkins pyramid places dietary emphasis on protein sources as opposed to whole grain foods.

Net Carbs

This Blimpie's Durango Roast Beef Sandwich boasts a mere 8 net carbs.
This Blimpie's Durango Roast Beef Sandwich boasts a mere 8 net carbs.

Thanks to the ever-present nutrition labels on most every packaged food item today, the average dieter can count calories, fat and cholesterol 'til their heart's content. For carb watchers, things are slightly more difficult. The latest word in the low-carb world is that it's not the overall carb count that truly matters -- it's the net effective carb or net carb count that low-carbers need to know.

As we discussed earlier, low-carb dieting is based on the theory that certain carbohydrates, more so than others, have a greater impact on blood sugar levels. It's those carbohydrates that matter in the counting game. To figure out the net carb count of a food item, you need to identify the carbs that don't have a high impact -- those from fiber and sugar alcohol, and subtract that total from the overall carb count. For example, right now at my desk, I've got a small can of roasted, salted almonds. From the nutrition label on the back of the can, I can see that each one-quarter-cup serving contains:

  • Calories: 170
  • Fat: 16 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: 85 milligrams
  • Total Carbs: 5 grams (Fiber: 3 grams and Sugars: 1 gram)
  • Protein: 6 grams

To figure out the net carbs, you simply take the total number of carbohydrates (5 grams) and subtract the total amount of dietary fiber (3 grams). So, one serving of these almonds has 2 net carbs. Had there been any sugar alcohol content, that figure would have also been subtracted from the total. For example, consider the nutrition facts for a CarbSelect Pria Power Bar:

  • Calories: 170
  • Fat: 8 grams
  • Cholesterol: 5 milligrams
  • Sodium: 160 milligrams
  • Total Carbs: 21 grams (Dietary Fiber: 2 grams; Sugars: 1 gram; Sugar Alcohol: 17 grams)
  • Protein: 10 grams

This pretty tasty snack also has 2 net carbs. If you take the total carb count (21 grams) and subtract the dietary fiber and sugar alcohol content (2 grams + 17 grams = 19 grams), you're left with a mere 2 net grams of carbs!

OK, so now you can figure out how many net carbs are hiding in your pantry. But, with the busy schedules we all keep these days, who has time to even think about this stuff when we're on the go. Many of us spend our lunch hours running errands -- dropping off the dry-cleaning, paying bills and so on -- there's barely any time for actually having lunch. On the way back to the office, the easiest thing to do is drop by the nearest fast-food joint for some take-out. In times past, this would be a diet-derailing nightmare. Fortunately, today's low-carb consumer doesn't have to ditch their diet; fast food restaurants around the country are stepping up to the plate and dishing out some handy low-carb alternatives.

Eating on the Go

Blimpie's Carb Counter Menu
Blimpie's Carb Counter Menu

In response to the low-carb craze, many fast food restaurants have added low-carb options to their menu -- McDonalds has low-carb alternatives, as does Subway, Burger King, Hardee's, Arby's and Blimpie. Let's take a look at Blimpie and their new carb counter menu.

Man Cannot Live By Bread Alone

Blimpie is a company that has -- for four decades -- been known for subs and sandwiches made with just-cut meat and cheese and vegetables on freshly baked bread. While the meat, cheese and veggies are totally in-line with the average low-carb plan, the thing that literally holds it all together isn't.

The fast-food industry is one of convenience. And, what if anything, could be more convenient than a sandwich? It's a quick, well-rounded meal all encased in its own edible wrapper. Ah, but there's the low-carb rub -- the wrapper. Most anyone even remotely familiar with low-carbing knows that regular bakery bread is enemy-number-one. So, what's a fast-food company to do? The easiest thing to do is eliminate the bread and serve salads. But, for restaurants like Blimpie that know which side their bread is buttered on -- the sandwich side -- going solely for the salad seems to give their regular clientele short shrift. So, the folks at Blimpie went straight to the heart of the problem by finding a low-carb bread to house the normal Blimpie fixings. Now, the low-carb customer can still feed his or her Blimpie craving with a hearty sandwich without missing a thing -- well, except all those extra carbs. With four sandwiches to choose from and two salads for good measure, there's some variety. Here's what you'll find on the Blimpie Carb Counter menu:

  • Durango Roast Beef & Cheddar Sandwich with wasabi horseradish sauce: 8 net effective carbs
  • Baja Turkey & Cheese Sandwich with southwestern chipotle sauce: 8 net effective carbs
  • Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with sun dried tomato sauce: 9.5 net effective carbs
  • Tuscan Ham & Swiss Sandwich with yellow mustard: 11 net effective carbs
  • Buffalo Chicken Salad with bleu cheese dressing: 5 net effective carbs
  • Sicilian Salad with light Italian dressing: 7 net effective carbs
  • Blimpie's Carb Counter Chips (they're soy, not potato): 5 net effective carbs
  • SoBe Lean Diet Cranberry Grapefruit drink: 1 net effective carb

All of the sandwiches are served on the 7-grain onion low-carb bread.

No matter what phase, level or stage you're in of your low-carb plan, there's pretty much something here for everyone. For example, during the initial phase of the Atkins plan (the most stringent of the four phases), you're not supposed to have any bread, period. And, with a maximum of 20 carbohydrates daily, there's no wonder why. The Buffalo Chicken Salad would be a good selection for lunch or dinner with 15 carbs to spare for the remaining meals and snacks for the day. Meanwhile, for folks who have met their weight loss goal and are trying to maintain their new svelte selves -- that's easily done with any of these menu items.

The amount of carbs someone can consume to maintain their weight varies -- but on average, it's anywhere from 40 to 80 grams of carbohydrates. So, even by going for the highest carb item and the chips too, your meal would remain well below 20 total carbs:

  • Tuscan Ham & Swiss Sandwich: 11 net carbs
  • Blimpie's Carb Counter Chips: 5 net carbs
  • SoBe drink: 1 net carb
  • Total carbs: 17 net carbs

Of course, you can reduce the carb counts even more on any of these menu items by simply switching the condiments around. Usually sauces cost you at least a carb or two, sometimes even three. Replace the wasabi horseradish with plain old mayo and you'll probably save a couple of carbs. And, with the meals you can skip the SoBe drink and opt for a glass of ice water, unsweetened tea or a diet soda and save another carb. Reportedly, several of the Blimpie locations are also offering a brownie -- yes, that is the well-loved chocolate baked good. And -- drum roll, please -- because the brownies are made with a sugar alcohol, it supposedly has no net carbs. Zero, zilch, nada, nothing.

For those of you who aren't lucky enough to have a Subway, Arby's, Hardee's or Blimpie nearby, you can take your cue from these accommodating fast-food eateries and give low-carb convenience a try in your own kitchen. You can get fresh-cut meat and cheese from the deli counter at the local grocery, an ample supply of veggie fixings like lettuce, tomatoes, green and red peppers, cucumbers and sprouts and some kind of low-carb bread. You might even be able to find some soy chips, too!

For more information on the low-carbing lifestyle, low-carb fast-food dining and related topics, check out the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links