How to Make Your Favorite Carbs More Diet-Friendly

05/12/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Have you been passing on potatoes, skipping spaghetti, and banning bread in an effort to get leaner for summer? If so, your diet strategy may backfire because research suggests these favorite foods aren't the diet disasters that they've been made out to be.

A recent review of 19 studies with more than 3,000 subjects published in PLoS One found that among non-diabetic dieters, low carbohydrate and high-carbohydrate diets do not differ in the amount of weight lost in the first few months or for up to two years after the initial weight loss.

In fact, one recent study found that those who consumed 47 to 64 percent of their total calories from carbohydrates -- considered a high-carbohydrate diet -- had the lowest risk of being overweight or obese.

Any eating plan that scales back on calories, whether it's Atkins, Mediterranean, or Paleo, will help you peel off pounds. But the real key -- what will help improve your chances for long-term success, according to studies -- is whether you can stick with it. For most of the clients I see, a diet that permits potatoes, pasta, and bread is an eating style that can last a lifetime.

How can you have your carbs and eat them, too? Try these tricks.

If you think pasta is fattening, consider this: Italians eat over 50 pounds per person per year, compared to 19 pounds per person for Americans, yet only 11 percent of Italian adults are obese vs. 35 percent of U.S. adults. Not all refined grains are created equal. Unlike many refined grain products that contain added sugars or unhealthy saturated fats, pasta is simply made with durum wheat and water. Pasta is an enriched complex carbohydrate that is naturally higher in protein because it's made from durum wheat, a variety of wheat that packs in more of the satiating nutrient. In fact, there are six grams of protein per two ounces of dry pasta (about one cup cooked) and 200 calories.

Due to its protein content and structure, pasta also has a lower glycemic index than many other carbohydrate-containing foods. "Pasta is a smart choice -- its low glycemic index value means that it doesn't cause blood sugar levels to rise too quickly," says Seattle-based registered dietitian Kerry Neville, MS, RD. Low GI foods also help you keep you fuller longer.

Slimming Strategies

  • Strive for a 50-50 pasta-to-produce ratio. Great produce picks include tomatoes, roasted veggies, and dark leafy greens.
  • Try whole-wheat varieties that are made with a combination of durum wheat and other grains to get an extra dose of fiber and protein. (Just be sure to watch cooking times closely, as overcooking whole-wheat can make noodles gummy.)
  • Stick to no more than 1 to 1 ½ cups of cooked pasta at a meal to keep calories in check. (Two ounces of dried pasta equals about 1 cup cooked.)

Bread may be one of the most highly craved carbs, but there's no reason to banish it from your diet. An ounce of bread (a slice or small roll) has about 80 to 120 calories. Whole-wheat or seeded varieties have more protein, fiber, and fat to keep you fuller longer but also contain more calories. However, most Americans don't eat the recommended minimum of three whole grain servings per day, so whole grain breads are your best bet to shore up that gap.

Slimming Strategies

  • Look for "Whole Grain" or "100 percent Whole Grain" on the label. The first ingredient listed should be whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, rye, sorghum or another whole grain.
  • The healthiest slices will have at least two grams of fiber and three grams protein per serving.
  • Choose whole-grain breads where you can actually see the grains or seeds and that feel dense (not squishy) when you give them a gentle squeeze. "I buy Dave's Killer Bread 21 Whole Grains and Seeds because what you see is what you get. It has 5 grams protein, 5 grams fiber 22g of whole grains and 260 mg omega 3s per slice," says Neville. It also has no artificial preservatives, no artificial ingredients, no high fructose corn syrup, and it's organic.

Potatoes are thought of as a diet don't because of how we eat them -- as high-calorie French fries, potato chips, and mashed with butter and gravy. But a medium potato (5.3 ounces) has just 110 calories, so it won't make a dent in your daily calorie budget. (Plus, it is an excellent source of both vitamin C and potassium, is rich in B-vitamins, and chips in two grams of fiber.)

Slimming Strategies

  • Enjoy it baked, broiled, roasted, or grilled. You may be surprised to discover you can satisfy your fry cravings with a healthier roasted version.
  • Skip high-calorie toppings, like butter, sour cream, and bacon, and opt for healthier ones, like steamed broccoli or kale, chili, beans and salsa, plain Greek yogurt, or cottage cheese.
  • Opt for red potatoes and fingerlings; they have a lower glycemic index (glycemic index is a measure of how much and how quickly blood sugar rises after eating a specific amount of a carb-rich food) than Russet (baking) potatoes. Lower GI foods are recommended, as they don't cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar that can trigger hunger and cravings.
  • Heat then cool your potato. For instance, make a Mediterranean-style potato salad with small colorful potatoes that have been boiled then cooled. This lowers the GI by raising the amount of "resistant starch" in the potatoes. For an extra boost, use extra virgin olive oil in place of mayo; the unsaturated fats and other bioactive compounds in EVOO help keep you satisfied longer.