Diets Deconstructed: What You Should Know About Special Diets

Get an inside look at what it takes eat a low-carb, -sodium, or -cholesterol or gluten-free diet.


Low-Carb Diet

Carbohydrate affects blood glucose more than any other nutrient, so it makes sense for people with diabetes to limit carbohydrate somewhat. But carbs are the body's main source of fuel, and they appear in many foods, so eliminating them completely is both unhealthful and hard to do.

A Balanced Approach

In general, a low-carb diet emphasizes protein foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, and poultry, as well as nonstarchy vegetables, such as peppers, onions, carrots, and greens. Extreme low-carb diets exclude grains, beans, fruits, breads, pastas, sweets, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and peas. Most experts agree the best way to sustain low-carb eating over time is to find a balanced approach that includes foods from every food group, even if in moderate amounts. Most people consider a low-carb meal to contain 30-45 grams of carb or less.

A low-carb diet is a broad term that includes both a general eating plan as well as the model for popular diets like Atkins and South Beach. Simply reducing your intake of foods with carbohydrate -- especially foods that contain added sugars (think regular soda, fruit juices, and baked goods) -- can have a positive impact on your health and blood sugar control, as long as you don't replace the carbohydrate with foods that contain a lot of sodium and saturated fat, which many low-carb dieters tend to do.

A formal definition of a moderately low-carb diet is when carbohydrate accounts for about 40 percent of total calories eaten, or about 150 grams of carbohydrate per day for a person eating about 1,500 calories a day. An easy and healthful way to limit carbs is to eat meals using the plate method: Fill half of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, fill one-fourth of your plate with protein, and fill the last one-fourth with a starch or grain.

Reduced-Sodium Diet

Your body needs sodium to maintain fluid levels inside and outside of your cells. But the body is not designed to rid itself of an overload of sodium, making it important to avoid consuming too much in the diet.

Shake the Restaurant Habit

Have your fingers ever felt puffy the morning after eating a restaurant meal? If so, there was probably a lot of sodium in what you ate. A rack of baby back ribs, for example, contains 20,000 mg of sodium (that's 10 teaspoons of salt!). After you eat a high-sodium meal, your hands and feet may feel swollen due to edema, the accumulation of fluid in the body in an effort to dilute excess sodium, which can cause cellular damage. Counteract a high-sodium meal by eating low-salt, potassium-rich foods at other meals, such as low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, and fresh fish such as salmon or halibut.

Half of the U.S. population, including all people with type 2 diabetes, is advised to limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day (the equivalent of a rounded 1/2 teaspoon of salt).

Fact: Two out of three adults with type 2 diabetes also have hypertension (high blood pressure). While most people are aware of the link between hypertension and sodium intake, the average adult still eats 4,000 mg of sodium per day -- more than twice the recommended amount. But before you stash your saltshaker, you should know that salt added at the dinner table is not to blame (it accounts for only 6 percent of your intake). Almost 80 percent of the sodium you eat comes from restaurant and processed foods, such as frozen pizzas, hot dogs, fresh meats, condiments, canned soups, and packaged snacks. Because it's hard to control the sodium in these foods, it's best to limit them in your diet and buy low- or reduced-sodium versions whenever possible.

Tips to Try:

-- Try adding flavor to recipes in a salt-free way, such as a squeeze of citrus juice, a dash of vinegar, or a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

-- Potassium-rich foods can blunt the impact of excess sodium. Just five mushrooms contain the same amount of potassium as a small banana.

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