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We’re a couple of months into 2018, which means that it might be time to assess your progress and re-evaluate your goal to eat healthier. In an effort to do so, some of you might have elected to adopt a low-carb diet such as Atkins, Whole 30, Paleo or the latest low-carb diet on the block, ketogenic.

Whenever there is talk about low-carb diets, the same questions seem to surface. Are carbs really bad for me? Is low-carb the best way to lose weight? What is a carb, anyways? To better understand low-carb diets, it is helpful to first understand what carbohydrates are and what they do for you.

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates (or “carbs”) are a source of calories, which give you energy. You also get calories and energy from proteins and fats. All three are essential to life, but everyone requires a different ratio of them depending on factors such as age, gender, activity, disease management, weight loss, etc.

Which foods contain carbs?

Most people will recognize sweets (candy or baked goods), soda, pastas and breads as sources of carbohydrates. But in actuality the list of carbohydrate sources is very long. It also includes fruits and vegetables, especially starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, peas and winter squash; plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes and soy; milk and yogurt; and seeds, nuts and grains.

What are carbs used for?

Carbs, proteins and fats are broken down and used by your body differently. Carbohydrates are digested fastest and are therefore the body’s preferred source of energy. Some carbohydrates are digested more quickly than others and will, therefore, affect blood sugars and satiety differently.

Carbohydrate sources that also contain fiber are typically of higher quality. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are all good sources of fiber and high-quality carbohydrates. The fiber is non-digestible, therefore taking up room in the stomach and helping to fill you up quicker and keep you full longer.

Rather than skipping carbohydrates entirely, swap out processed carbohydrates such as added sugars and refined grains with fiber-containing carbohydrate sources to help control weight. The daily recommendation for an adult is 25-38 grams of fiber per day, but the average American typically only consumes about 10-12 grams per day. This is one area of our diet that could stand some improvements.

Do low-carb diets really work?

When you cut major food groups out of your diet (fruit, grains, dairy — the main food groups that contain carbohydrates), that leaves you with a very limited selection of foods to eat. This will naturally create a reduction in calories, leading to fast weight loss. However, the method of weight loss really needs to be sustainable to keep that weight off. Unfortunately, strict diets that cause rapid weight loss are hard to maintain and almost always results in regaining weight. Cutting entire food groups out of your diet also makes you more likely to miss out on important vitamins and minerals, which can cause other health problems.

What should I do instead?

Although a low-carb diet may not be helpful, it is important to be mindful of the amount and source of the carbohydrates you are consuming. Carbohydrates can be easy to over-consume, so portion control is key. Balance your plate with appropriate portions of good-quality foods from all food groups to help you achieve this.

Here is an example of what this might look like.

  • Breakfast: One slice of whole grain bread, ½ cup of fruit, eight ounces (1 cup) of milk
  • Lunch: Half a sandwich (one slice whole grain bread, sliced tomatoes and lean protein), ½ cup of fruit, six ounces of yogurt
  • Afternoon snack: 1 cup roasted edamame
  • Supper: Cooked vegetables, one small whole wheat bun, three ounces of lean protein, ½ cup fruit.

A low-carb diet might be appropriate for some people. A registered dietitian can recommend what may be right for you, and help you learn how to include quality carbs as part of a healthy diet. Call Gundersen Health System’s Nutrition Therapy at (608)775-3447 to learn more.

Slow cooker chicken Parmesan with potatoes

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon dried rosemary

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 pounds baby red potatoes, quartered

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Directions

Season chicken with basil, oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste. Pour one tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken and sear both sides until golden brown, about two to three minutes per side. Drain excess fat and set chicken aside.

Place potatoes into a six-quart slow cooker. Stir together remaining olive oil, garlic and thyme; season with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over potatoes. Add chicken to slow cooker in an even layer. Cover and cook on low heat for seven to eight hours or high heat for three to four hours or until chicken is completely cooked through, reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

Serve immediately. Sprinkle with Parmesan and garnish with parsley if desired.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 370 calories, 14 g fat, 36 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 560 mg sodium

Chocolate black bean protein muffin

Makes: 9 servings

Ingredients

1½ cups (15 oz. can) black beans, drained and rinsed very well

4 tablespoons Dutch or regular unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup unflavored protein powder (we used Bob’s Red Mill primer whey protein powder)

¼ teaspoon salt

⅓ cup pure maple syrup

3½ tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon baking soda

Optional: ½ cup chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Combine all ingredients except chips in a food processor and blend until completely smooth. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Pour into a greased muffin tin. Bake for 15-20 minutes—until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Store in an air tight container.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 130 calories, 6 g fat, 6 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 200 mg sodium

Rebecca Cripe is a Gundersen Health System registered dietitian.

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