Carbohydrates are the body’s major source of energy. The digestive system converts these nutrients into glucose, which is used as an energy source for all cells to function. Carbohydrates can have simple or complex structures. Simple carbohydrates, which are essentially sugars, occur naturally in vegetables, fruits and dairy products, and are added to some foods during processing. Complex carbohydrates are starches and fiber found in vegetables such as potatoes, legumes and whole grain products.
What Carbohydrates Do
The human body breaks down both simple and complex carbohydrates into glucose. Fiber, on the other hand, is not changed into glucose, but it serves a crucial health function by carrying fats out of the body and lowering blood cholesterol. Fiber also helps regulate how efficiently the body uses glucose and helps prevent constipation.
Carbohydrates are necessary for the body to function, but if there is more glucose in the system than needed, it is stored in the muscles and liver as a substance called glycogen. When the body has reached its maximum storage of glycogen, excess glucose is changed into fat.
Reasons to Eat Low-Carb Snacks
Because they can turn into fat, carbohydrates have been exalted and vilified in the scientific community and the popular media with regard to their health and weight-loss benefits. The USDA recommends that healthy adults should make carbohydrates the source of 45 to 65 percent of daily caloric intake. Someone who eats 2,000 calories each day would therefore need to consume 900 to 1,300 calories from carbohydrates.
Some groups of people, however, want to restrict their carbohydrate intake such as those who are overweight, or people who want to quickly build muscle. Some individuals may simply enjoy the features of a low-carb diet, or want to change their overall eating pattern. The presence of certain medical conditions necessitates a close watch on carbohydrates, including diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
Emerging scientific evidence shows that cutting certain carbohydrates may be more beneficial for overall health and weight loss than others. Researchers have developed a quality measurement called the glycemic index with these findings in mind. The glycemic index describes how different foods affect blood sugar. For instance, a high glycemic index means foods are digested quickly and cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, whereas a low score refers to foods that are slowly digested and raise blood sugar levels gradually.
Desserts and high-sugar foods typically have a high glycemic index, but so do starchy foods such as white bread, white rice and low-fiber crackers. The presence of fiber in foods such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice and whole oats lowers the score. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, foods with a glycemic index of 70 or more are considered high; whereas below 55 is a low score.
Some research studies show a link between low glycemic index diets and a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Other studies suggest that sticking to low glycemic index foods facilitates weight loss—but there is little scientific evidence about the long-term effects of low glycemic index weight-loss plans.
Regardless of the reason for doing it, choosing nutrition-packed low-carb snacks as part of a sensible, well-rounded eating plan can benefit practically anyone’s health.
Tasty and Healthful Low-Carb Snacks
People choosing low-carb snacks should look beyond the glycemic index to nutritional value. Some candy bars, for instance, have a low glycemic index of around 40, but they are not a good choice because they are high in sugar and fat. The following list describes no-carb and low-carb snack choices that have substantial nutrition value.
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products: Milk, yogurt and cheese have a low glycemic index and are high in protein and calcium. Vitamin A and vitamin D are also added to some dairy foods.
- Eggs: A hard-boiled egg is packed with protein and also contains folate, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Egg yolks are high in fat, but emerging research is showing that for healthy people, one egg per day is not considered harmful for heart health. In addition, the presence of the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein (which give yolks their color) may help reduce the risk of some diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration.
- Lean meats: An ounce or two of minimally processed turkey or chicken can take the edge off of hunger and provide a significant amount of daily protein needs. Meat also contains vitamin B12, which is not found in plant-based foods.
- Fruits and vegetables: While these have natural sugars, the presence of fiber helps the body absorb it more slowly. Fiber is also filling and regulates the digestive system. A diet high in fruits and vegetables is beneficial in preventing a host of health problems including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
- Legumes: Peanuts and peanut butter are an easy snack choice from the legume category. While peanuts seem to belong in the nut family, they are classified as legumes because they contain starches. They are also high in fiber. People needn’t fear the fat in peanuts because it is a plant fat, which has been shown to help lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
- Nuts: A handful of practically any nut (aim for low sodium or salt-free) is a perfect low-carb snack. Almonds, for instance, have negligible carbs, but are high in fiber and vitamins. Walnuts in particular have been shown to have many health benefits.
- Seeds: Common examples are sunflower kernels and pumpkin seeds. Once again, choose unsalted whenever possible. Seeds, like nuts, have vitamins, minerals and significant amounts of fiber.
Combining snack foods from several categories can keep it interesting, such as cream cheese and celery, or a turkey-and-cheese roll-up.
A diet too low in carbohydrates can be dangerous to your health, as it can deprive your body of many essential nutrients. Drastically cutting out carbohydrates can also cause (usually temporary) side effects such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakness and digestive problems. People can benefit from consulting a medical professional or dietitian before reducing the carbs in their daily nutrition plan.
- Medline Plus
- Medline Plus
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Harvard School of Public Health
- Harvard School of Public Health
- National Institutes of Health
- American Heart Association
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
- Harvard Medical School’s Joslin Diabetes Center
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 25
- National Institutes of Health News in Health (Newsletter)
- National Cancer Institute Glycemic Index Values Database
- Bright Focus Foundation