Find out which foods contain carbs and get your low-carb diet questions answered by a nutrition expert.

Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
February 20, 2020

There is no standard definition for a low-carb diet. It is simply a diet that is lower in carbohydrates than what is recommended or than what most people consume. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that 45-65 percent of calories come from carbohydrates. So any diet with carb intake less than 45 percent of total calories is considered a low-carb diet.

What are carbs?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients in our diets. The other two are protein and fats. Carbs are the preferred source of energy for our brains and our bodies. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, grains, vegetables, dairy and foods with sugar.

Are carbs bad?

No! This is such a common misconception that people have about carbs. There are a wide range of healthy foods that contain carbs. When you cut carbs our of your diet, it's much easier to miss our on key vitamins and minerals (that's why keto diets have serious side effects). Eating simple refined carbs isn't as good for you as healthy complex carbs like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, brown rice and quinoa. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for those foods in your diet.

Will carbs make me fat?

Eating too much of anything will likely lead to weight gain. Carbs seem to get blamed for causing weight gain more than most other foods. That's probably because people are likely to lose weight on low-carb diets, although typically only in the short term. Restrictive, low-carb diets are hard to stick with and research shows that restricting a food, like carbs, makes the food more desirable. That means you're more likely to overeat them, which can lead to weight gain. Rather than restrict carbs, choose healthier ones more often.

Will carbs make me sleepy?

Maybe. It depends when you're eating and how much you're eating. People can feel sleepier after eating a big meal, especially one that's high in carbs. Carbohydrates make tryptophan (an amino acid) more available and can make you feel a bit drowsy. Also, if you eat a lot of simple carbs—think a big candy bar—they'll get digested quickly causing your energy to spike and crash, which can make you feel tired.

Get more sustained energy complex carbs along with healthy fats and a moderate amount of protein will provide natural energy.

Will carbs make my muscles bigger?

Not on their own, no. You'll need to do strength training exercises consistently and eat a healthy well-balanced diet to gain muscle mass. Carbs are stored as glycogen in your muscles, so it's important to eat a mix of carbs and protein after a workout to help replenish your muscles.

Which foods have carbs? Which foods don't?

Foods that have carbs:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Dairy (from the natural sugar, lactose)
  • Beans

Foods that do not have carbs:

  • Oils
  • Butter
  • Meat
  • Fish

Will carbs constipate me?

All depends on the type of carbohydrate you're eating. Carbs with fiber in it will help your digestive system work more efficiently. Eating whole grains, fruits, and veggies will help fight against constipation (here are foods to help you poop). Refined carbs, white rice, and white bread will not help with your constipation, since they don't contain much fiber. Slowly add fiber-rich foods to your diet and drink lots of water if you're feeling backed up.

Where do carbs go in your body?

Your body will break down your carbs into sugars. Since our bodies run off of glucose, carbs become our first source of energy. Once broken down, these sugars enter our bloodstream which then fuels our brain, muscles and other organs. Pair your carbs with healthy fats, protein, and fiber (which all slow digestion) to help slow down the quick absorption of sugar in the blood and give you a longer sustainable source of energy. This will help prevent those sugar spikes and energy crashes.

How many carbs should I eat in a day?

The Dietary Guidelines recommends between 45-65% of your daily calorie intake should be carbs. If you have diabetes, you should go over your carb goals with a Registered Dietitian. It's also good to keep in mind the type of carbs you are consuming. Getting 100 grams of carbohydrates from jelly beans isn't going to be the same thing as eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains from a nutrition standpoint.

Which carbs are good for people with diabetes?

People with diabetes should still eat carbohydrates. Remember that all carbs are broken down into simple sugar (glucose). Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables would be great sources of carbohydrates because they contain other nutrients and also fiber, to help slow digestion. I highly recommend speaking with a nutritionist or dietitian to help guide you as you figure out how to fit carbohydrates in your diet.

I'm way over on carbs, what do I do?

First things first—don't feel guilty. That's completely normal. Everyone overeats from time to time. Simply taking a walk after indulging in a good amount of carbs will help lower your blood sugar levels. You can also try these 12 healthy ways to lower your blood sugar.

Is it dangerous to mix fats and carbs?

I still don't understand where this myth comes from. You should actually be combining food groups to help regulate blood levels and sustain energy longer.

I'm on a low-carb diet and I'm not losing weight. Why?

Most of us correlate eating fewer carbs with losing weight. When you cut carbs drastically, your body may say, "Hey, wait a minute." At that point, your metabolism slows down, wanting to hold on to the fewer calories you're getting. This is our body's natural way of preserving itself. The other problem that happens on low-carb diets is if you restrict, you're more likely to binge on carb-rich foods which can set you up on a nasty cycle and also lead to weight gain.

If I am looking for a low-carb snack what should I reach for?

Read your nutrition labels. There are lots of healthy snacks that are naturally low in carbs. Veggies, nuts and seeds, olives, even plain yogurt and berries can fit in as part of a healthy lower-carb snack. Here's some other healthy low-carb snack ideas if you have diabetes.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.

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