Most of us carry around rules (or guidelines) about food in our heads. In fact, rules can be very useful when it comes to food selection—imagine if we had to choose anew among the tens of thousands of foods in the grocery store every time we shopped. The important thing is to make sure your food rules are serving you, not working against you.
Not only do rules simplify food choices, but as time goes on they can become part of your eating identity. This carries its own momentum to help you continue to make wise choices. So what starts out as a conscious rule morphs into “just the way I eat,” with little thought required. No more agonizing over the bakery section instead, you no literally longer care about the bakery section. Cookies just don’t make sense anymore.
Here are some low-carb food rules to consider adding to your arsenal. Note that these rules aren’t meant to be the be-all and end-all—just helpful guidelines. The very best rules are the ones you come up with yourself, that make sense to you.
1. Fats Are Your Friend
The Swedes have it right—we love the LCHF T-shirts they’ve been seen wearing. Low Carb High Fat. For many of us, this is the most helpful rule we can absorb.
Most people in the U.S. carry around an unwritten rule that is the opposite of this—that fats are to be avoided. This is actually dangerous to your way of eating because avoiding fats practically guarantees that you will eat more carbohydrate in their place.
Of course, it’s important to avoid unhealthy fats. Cutting out trans fats is vital, and low-carb experts agree that not overdoing the omega-6 fats (soy oil, corn oil, etc.) is important to a healthy low-carb diet. On the other hand, saturated fats are being found to not be the problem it was once thought, and lots of fat sources are really good for us.
2. Treat Sugar as Toxic
Although there are those who will argue that sugar is literally toxic, it isn’t poisonous in the traditional sense. But for those of us whose bodies don’t process sugars well, the effects of sugar in our bodies can be quite devastating over the long haul. For this reason, it can be helpful to think of sugar as toxic.
Starch isn’t sweet, so it’s easy to forget that what’s inside that baked potato is simply long strands of glucose, ready to break down to sugar in our bodies.
Particularly problematic are the processed starches, which are practically pre-digested for us. If we could get rid of two aisles in the grocery store, we’d start with the sugary drinks and then quickly move to the cereal aisle. Almost all of those cereals are made of grains that have been processed to within an inch of their lives, even if they are labeled “whole grain.”
4. Avoid Foods Labeled Low-Fat, Gluten-Free, High-Protein, Etc.
Basically, labels like this are a) a signal that this is a manufactured food and therefore likely to be junk-filled and b) a signal of the priority of the manufacturer. These foods are usually high in sugars and refined starches. Even when the label is “low-carb” they can have a lot of suspicious ingredients that some people react poorly to (e.g. substances that are technically “fiber” in nature but by the time they are installed in a processed food do raise blood glucose in many people).
Caveat: If you are someone who must follow a gluten-free diet, there are a handfull of foods labeled gluten-free that you can eat, e.g. soy sauce. But the vast majority of the time, the gluten-free label means it’s a high-carb food.
5. Eat Your Greens
And other non-starchy vegetables. If you aren’t a vegetable eater, this is the time to try to ease more into your diet. They are not only loaded with nutrients and likely to prevent dread diseases, but they can be really great substitutes for starches, as vehicles for dips, spreads, pasta sauces, etc.
6. Think “Fat, Fiber, Protein”
Each time you eat, try to include sources of these three nutrients, which will nourish you and keep you feeling satisfied.
Bonus: Don’t Have too Many Rules
Keep your rules simple, and few. If you have too many, it’s like having complicated rules, which don’t work very well.
Also, break rules occasionally! If you think you’re ruled by your rules, you may rebel. Remember your goal: that the rules become a natural part of how you eat. You may be surprised at how quickly this can happen if you give it a chance.