One of the many advantages to joining the Cooking Light Diet is having access to our staff of professionals. In particular, members can tap into the expertise of our James Beard award-winning lead dietitian, Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, who’s been an instrumental part of the team since we launched our service in 2014.
As part of an effort to provide members with even more serviceable content to assist their respective journeys to good health, Dr. Williams will be answering questions posted in our community Facebook group. We wanted to know: If you could ask a dietitian anything, what would you ask? This is part two of an ongoing series.
Balancing carbohydrate choices and intake seems to be a struggle for many, myself included. Plus, carbohydrates are an area where there seems to always be some confusion and misunderstanding. Because of this, I thought it might be good to delve a little deeper into carbs than I did in my last post. So, I asked the Cooking Light Diet team what other carb questions they frequently received from members.
Hands down, the top questions concerned the SmartCarb option within the Cooking Light Diet. While members seem to love the SmartCarb specialization, they do have some questions. The two below summarize what they’re asking most frequently.
- “I’m following the SmartCarb plan, so why do I have oatmeal scheduled for breakfast?”
- “What is the SmartCarb plan?”
Both are great questions. As the lead dietitian/developer of the SmartCarb plan, I’m going to walk you through what—and why—it is.
How did we come up with SmartCarb?
SmartCarb is an option within the Cooking Light Diet that we launched at the behest of members wanting a lower-carb plan. The jury is still out on the health and weight-loss effects of low-carbohydrate diets, along with knowing what the most effective method for weight loss is. However, research does tell us that the type of carbohydrate eaten makes a big difference. Specifically, when it comes to how carbs affect satiety, cravings, and appetite. Those three things are key when it comes to sticking with a healthy eating plan long-term. Incidentally, research shows that’s the most essential element for successfully losing weight and keeping it off.
I also knew from personal experience that the type of carbohydrate I ate either helped me or hurt me when losing weight. While I hate labeling food “good” or “bad,” there were certain carbs that set me up for success. They made me feel full, kept my blood sugar stable, and eliminated a lot of cravings. Others never gave me a feeling of satiety, were difficult to control portion size-wise, and seemed to both play with my blood sugar and trigger cravings. All this to say, I agreed with members who said we needed a meal plan within the Cooking Light Diet that focused on choosing those healthier, smarter carbs. To create the SmartCarb plan, we focused on a combination of factors:
- What current research tells us
- Nutrient and ingredient contents
- Effects on blood sugar, portion control, and cravings
There’s also a lot more thought behind the effects that carbs have on some from a psychological standpoint—which is why we chose not to label SmartCarb as “low-carb,” or categorize it like other diets out there.
What SmartCarb is.
The SmartCarb option focuses on providing your daily carbs from whole foods like vegetables, beans, fruit, dairy, nuts, and some starchy vegetables. It doesn’t include refined grains and little-to-no added sugars. It also limits the whole-grain products which many are prone to overeat, like whole-grain pasta, bread, and brown rice. That’s not to say that these foods are unhealthy or you shouldn’t ever have them, but rather that on a daily basis, many people do better from an appetite, satiety, and craving perspective when they choose other carbs.
What SmartCarb is not.
SmartCarb is not a low-carbohydrate diet like the Atkins diet, but it is lower in carbs compared to the traditional Cooking Light Diet meal plan. Here’s what that means: It’s recommended that 45-to-65% of your total daily calories come from carbs each day. A low-carb diet like Atkins is going to fall significantly below 45%, with the goal being that you deplete carbohydrate stores and go into a state of ketosis.
Most days featuring the SmartCarb option come within the lower end of the recommended range (45-to-55% of calories from carbs), so it’s not “low-carb,” but it is significantly lower—and healthier—compared to what many are eating. This slight reduction, when combined with less processed and refined carb foods, can have a big impact on weight loss, satiety, and appetite. Also, I’ve found that staying on the lower end of the carb recommendation (but not below it) allows me to have plenty of energy to fuel my workouts. I’m able to stay on track, feel full, and have plenty of energy, but avoid the headaches and flu-like symptoms associated with low-carb diets.
Who was SmartCarb designed for?
SmartCarb is a healthy way to eat and lose weight—for everyone. However, individuals that may see the greatest benefit are:
- Struggle with carbohydrate and sugar cravings
- Seeking a plan with more whole, unprocessed foods and less added sugars
- Prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Have lost weight on the Cooking Light Diet but now feel weight loss has slowed
Also, the SmartCarb meal plan is not intended to be a diet for individuals with diabetes, but may be appropriate for some individuals with Type 2 diabetes. However, you should always consult your doctor first before changing your eating plan.
Which carbs are included—and which aren’t?
The SmartCarb meal plan is centered around foods and ingredients with minimal processing, little-to-no added sugar, and balanced, portion-controlled carbohydrates (carbs that also have protein and fiber). This means your meals and snacks are made up of these foods:
- Lean meat, fish, and poultry, as well as plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, and legumes
- Eggs and dairy foods with no added sugar
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Some portion-controlled, carbohydrate-rich foods with a lower glycemic index (such as sweet potatoes, corn tortillas, and some whole grains like quinoa, farro, and oats)
- Healthy fats (such as oils and avocado)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Portion-controlled whole fruit with no added sugar
Here are some foods you won’t see in SmartCarb menus:
- Refined bread products such as bread, flour tortillas, buns, and rolls
- Refined snacks such as crackers and pretzels
- Desserts and sweets
- Foods and recipes with more than 2 teaspoons added sugar per serving
- Carbohydrate-based entrees such as pasta and rice dishes
Why am I getting oatmeal in my SmartCarb plan?
The inclusion of some whole grains—but not all whole-grain foods—in the SmartCarb menus has been an area of confusion. Part of this stems from the initial perception that SmartCarb is a low-carb eating plan like the Atkins Diet. The other part of this stems from most diets ruling out whole food groups, which we don’t do. When it comes to identifying what whole grains are included, we look at the food’s nutrient content and effect on the body, along with using a less scientific method of asking, “Is this something that triggers me to eat more or that I have a hard time with controlling portion sizes?”
A great example of how two whole-grains can have different effects is to compare oatmeal and whole-grain pasta. We include oatmeal as a breakfast option on SmartCarb, but don’t include whole-grain pasta dishes. Here’s why: Oatmeal made with rolled or steel-cut oats isn’t usually something that you have to worry about overeating, and it leaves you pretty full and content. But, I can’t say that’s always the case for pasta. Personally, I have a hard time eating just a 1/2-or-1 cup serving size, not to mention that I seem to always want more but can’t get satiated. If you struggle with carb cravings, this is likely a feeling you can relate to—maybe not with pasta, but with whole-grain bread, tortillas, or rice.
All this to say, we try to look at whole-grain carbs not only from a science and nutrient perspective, but also from a psychological, appetite, and satiety-perspective. We’re not saying those whole grains aren’t healthy or that you shouldn’t ever eat them. Rather, we’re advocating that by making smarter carb choices—ones that will leave you feeling full, that don’t trigger cravings, or make you overeat portions—can set you up for better success on a daily basis.