Which American Foods Can You Tolerate on Your Low Carb Diet? by Dana Carpender

Happy Birthday, America!

In honor of Independence Day, I thought I’d do a rundown of American foods. No, not fast food burgers and pizza, but rather those foods that are native to our nation, the foods the colonists might well have encountered for the very first time when they came to these shores. (Though some of them had already made it across the Atlantic, and started gaining popularity in Europe.) What foods are truly American?

Corn, of course, properly called maize. The English settlers were accustomed to using the word “corn” to signify all grain, and naturally applied it to the grain they found in their new home; this is why older writings often refer to “Indian corn” – to distinguish it from wheat, oats or barley. Corn is, of course, a poor fit for our low carbohydrate diets, with whole-grain corn meal running 94 grams per cup, with 9 grams of fiber. Yet cornbread is an enduring American classic, and a comfort food for many. I have made some really tasty cornbread by mixing small quantities of corn meal with almond meal, protein powder, and even some flax meal. The almond meal has a grainy texture similar to cornmeal, but at 22 grams of carbohydrate per cup, with 12 grams of fiber, it’s a far better fit for our nutritional needs.

It is interesting to note that long before the European settlers came, Native Americans learned to soak corn in an alkaline solution, usually either a weak lye solution or limewater. This process, called nixtamalization, freed up the niacin in the corn, and rendered the amino acids more available, increasing the nutritional value of the corn. How they figured this out is anybody’s guess, but this remarkable process prevented pellagra (niacin deficiency.) Indeed, one of the clues to solving the mystery of pellagra, a horrendous disease that disproportionately afflicted the Southern poor in the early part of the twentieth century, was the fact that while both the Southern poor and poor Mexicans subsisted largely on corn and beans, the rate of pellagra was far lower in the Mexican population. We now know that it was because they consumed their corn not as cornbread, but rather as tortillas, which are made with lime-treated cornmeal.

Americans love buttered corn on the cob, of course; I’m no exception. Can you afford one ear as a holiday Indulgence? A medium ear of corn has 17 grams of carb with 2 grams of fiber; that’s 15 grams of usable carb. You know your carb allowance better than I, but I sure wouldn’t have an ear of corn, a slice of watermelon, and a light beer, all three. But every summer at the county fair I have one ear of corn. The local Lion’s club roasts and sells it as a fundraiser, and it’s amazing. As a once-per-summer treat, I figure I can afford it.

Several varieties of beans originated here, including pintos and kidney beans. The one native bean that really works for our low carb way of eating, however, is the green bean. Why? Because we’re not so much eating the beans themselves, as the fleshy pod. A cup of green beans has just 9 grams of carbohydrate, with 3 grams of fiber, for a usable carb count of 6 grams.

The third New World staple was squash. Squash, corn, and beans formed the backbone of Native American agriculture, and were known as The Three Sisters, because they grew so well together. Squash can, of course, be divided into summer squash, such as zucchini, pattypan, and yellow squash, and winter squashes like butternut, acorn, Hubbard, and the venerable pumpkin. All summer squashes are quite low carb; a cup of zucchini contains only 7 grams of carb, with 3 grams of fiber, for a usable carb count of 4 grams. The winter squashes, however, are quite starchy, and therefore high in carbohydrate – a cup of mashed acorn squash has 22 grams of carb, with 6 grams of fiber. That’s 16 grams of usable carb. You’d have to be truly devoted to acorn squash for it to be worth your while. Pumpkin is a little lower, with 20 grams of carb in a cup of puree, 7 of which are fiber, so 13 grams of usable carb. I still wouldn’t make it a staple, you know? But a sugar-free pumpkin pudding or pie for a holiday dessert is fine, especially since these desserts generally contain protein and fat in the form of eggs and cream. This dilutes the carbs and blunts the blood sugar impact – so long as you use a low carb sweetener!

Spaghetti squash is also a winter squash, and while it has 10 grams of carb per cup, with 2 grams of fiber, 8 grams usable carb, it is so much lower carb than the spaghetti it usually replaces that it seems like a good idea. I’ve tried spaghetti squash in several casserole recipes, and been pleased with the results.

A fruit that is inextricably bound to American holiday traditions is the cranberry. Cranberries are quite tart, of course, and that’s good news for us: it means they’re low in sugar . 1 cup of cranberries contains 12 grams of carb and 4 grams of fiber, for a usable carb count of 8 grams. I make my own whole-berry cranberry sauce; it’s a snap. Just follow the instructions on the bag of fresh cranberries, substituting Splenda for the sugar. Takes maybe 10 minutes. Cranberries are one of the few foods that is still strictly seasonal. If you love cranberry sauce, grab a few extra bags during holiday time, and stash them in the freezer. They’ll keep for months.

Another all-American fruit is the blueberry, along with its close relative the huckleberry. Blueberries are higher in carbohydrate than a lot of berries – especially the strawberry, which is quite low – with 20 grams in a cup, 4 grams of which are fiber. Still, they’re very high in antioxidants, and appear to protect against diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, two of the most common causes of blindness. If you’re fond of them, a half-cup now and then, with plenty of cream, is a worthwhile carb investment.

One the best low carb American fruits is the avocado. Native to Mexico, but also to southern California (which, of course, was long a part of Mexico), the avocado is a staple for many low carbers. I adore them! 1/2 avocado – the portion I usually slice into a omelet – has 7 grams of carb with 3 grams of fiber, or a usable carb count of 4 grams. Avocados are, among other things, an outstanding source of potassium.

Then, of course, there’s perhaps the most popular American berry: the tomato. What would we do without them? Tomatoes are one of the things I’ve planted in my admittedly small garden this year, because few summer treats beat home-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes, with salt and a little chopped fresh basil. A medium tomato has 6 grams of carb with 1 gram of fiber, for a usable carb count of 5 grams. I can eat more than one, though! I also keep canned tomatoes on hand for anything where the tomatoes are going to be cooked, anyway – chili, soup, etc. Canned tomatoes are all canned at the peak of ripeness, whereas much of the year the tomatoes in the produce department are uninspiring, to say the least. Of course, canned tomatoes are also more convenient for these dishes. In case you were wondering, tomatillos are also pure American, as is their relative the ground cherry. Tomatillos are little; five of ‘em have 10 grams of carb with 3 grams of fiber.

Having mentioned chili, I can’t forget another great American food: The pepper. Bell peppers and chili peppers are both American, but boy, have they become world travelers! Where would world cuisine be without hot peppers, not to mention paprika? (What did the Hungarians eat before paprika made it across the Atlantic? It beggers the imagination.) A medium bell pepper has 8 grams of carb and 2 grams of fiber. It’s also a great source of vitamin C, and an even better source if you wait for it to ripen into a red pepper.

Another genuinely American flavor is maple. New Englanders, in particular, used maple syrup and maple sugar as their every-day sweeteners for a long time, for the simple reason that they could make these themselves, rather than spending hard-earned coin on it. Maple sugar is, of course a concentrated carbohydrate, as is maple syrup. It does have a few minerals in it, but not enough to make it worth the blood sugar hit. It’s inauthentic, and commercially made, and all, but I substitute sugar-free pancake syrup when I want a maple flavor in, say, a barbecue sauce, or a pumpkin pie.

For that maple-laced pumpkin pie, you might want to make a pecan crust; I do! Pecans are true American natives, as is their close relative, the hickory nut. You can even buy cross-bred ‘hican” trees; I’d love to add some of these to my yard, since it’s a little cold for true pecans here, but hickories do well. A quarter-cup of pecan halves has 5 grams of carbohydrate with 2 grams of fiber. My father-in-law, who lives in Southern Alabama, gives us the hugest pecans you ever saw! His butter-roasted, salted pecans are to die for, but I haven’t managed to pry the recipe out of him yet.

Last but certainly not least, let us recall the noble American bird, the turkey. Delicious, nutritious, always priced right, turkey is not only a must for Thanksgiving dinner, but a great choice any time you have a crowd to feed. I’ve brined a turkey and smoked it on the grill for summer barbecues, to great acclaim. No carbs here, of course! Turkey legs and thighs are great for slow-cooking. And I’ve occasionally picked up a half-turkey – sliced up the middle, one leg, one thigh, one side of the breast, one wing – for very little money. This makes a nice, manageable family-sized roast.

There are other New World foods, of course. Perhaps most notable are chocolate and vanilla, not to mention peanuts and potatoes. But all of these are from Central and South America, and are not native to the area that now makes up the United States.

One last interesting note: While researching this article, I ran across the interesting information that some paleo-diet enthusiasts shun all New World foods. Why? Because, they say, the Americas were not populated until about 15,000 years ago, and that makes all New World foods too new to the human diet for us to have adapted to them. I’m not sure I buy that argument. I don’t know why an organism that was adapted to European berries wouldn’t tolerate American berries, and I certainly don’t know why American meat would be a problem. But it was an interesting argument, and I thought I’d mention it to you.

Happy 4th of July! Have a great, safe, and low carb holiday.

© 2011 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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