Following a low carb diet means you’ll limit the number of carbohydrates (carbs) you consume every day. Research has linked low carb diets to some health benefits, such as weight loss and blood sugar management.
Is it worth saying “see ya!” to some of your fave high carb foods, like pasta and sourdough? Maybe. But it’s not right for everyone.
Here’s how to know what to eat, what to skip, and whether a low carb diet is right for you.
Eating according to a low carb diet means you’ll restrict the proportion of carbs to other calories you eat every day.
For low carbohydrate diets, that means getting less than 130 grams of carbs per day, or less than 26 percent of your total calories from carbs. For very low carbohydrate diets, it’s 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day, or less than 10 percent of total calories from carbs.
This might seem like a simple rule to follow, but for most people this would be a big change from their normal diet. Americans usually get 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbs.
You can build your low carb diet by figuring out what works best for you, but there are also popular diets you can follow.
The ketogenic (keto) diet comes in many forms, but the standard keto diet means you’ll get 70 percent of your calories from fat, 20 percent from protein, and 10 percent from carbs.
The Atkins diet requires eating 20 grams of carbs each day for the first 2 weeks and then slowly increasing until you reach 50 grams of carbs per day.
Although keto and Atkins are prob the most recognizable low carb diets, there are plenty of others out there, like the Low Carb, High Fat (LCHF) diet; the Bulletproof Diet; and the Dubrow Diet.
Low carb diets can contain a wide variety of foods, including some that are higher in carbs, depending on the macro composition of your preferred low carb diet.
Eat more of these foods
If you’re following a low carb diet, you’ll want to get most of your daily calories from whole, nutritious foods like these:
- Nonstarchy veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, greens, onions, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus
- Protein sources: eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, red meat, low carb protein powders
- Fats: olive oil, avocados, unsweetened coconut, coconut oil, ghee
- High fat dairy: full-fat cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir
- Nuts and seeds: macadamia nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, peanut butter, walnuts, pumpkin seeds
- Low carb fruits (in moderation): blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, lemons
- Zero carb drinks: coffee, herbal tea, water, sparkling water
Foods to eat in moderation
Depending on your level of carb restriction, you may need to limit or avoid the following foods:
- Starchy veggies: potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, plantains
- Higher carb fresh and dried fruits: apples, raisins, mangos, grapes, pears, bananas, kiwi
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans
Other higher carb foods and beverages, like grains and wine, can be included in more moderate low carb diets.
Regardless, the most important factor when planning a low carb diet is to make sure you’re staying within the recommended carb intake for your specific diet.
In general, you’ll want to say “so long” to foods with a high proportion of carbs, such as these:
- Grains and pasta: wheat, rice, quinoa, spaghetti, and other noodles
- Bread and bread products: rolls, pita bread, pizza, wraps, bagels
- High carb sweets: cakes, cookies, sugary cereals, doughnuts
- Starchy veggies and legumes: potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, plantains, black beans, chickpeas
- Fruits, dried fruit, and fruit juice: pineapple, apples, dried mango, bananas, orange juice
- Added sugar and sugary foods: table sugar, honey, agave, ice cream, candy, sweetened yogurt
- Sweet beverages: soda, fruit punch, flavored milk, energy drinks
- Certain alcoholic beverages: beer and sugary mixed drinks
- Other high carb foods: chips, crackers, sugary sauces
Remember that many of these foods, especially fruits, starchy veggies, and beans, can be a part of many low carb diets. The amount you can eat depends on your level of carb restriction.
There are a bunch of different low carb diets, each with its own recommended carb intake.
Here’s a 1-week menu for a very low carb ketogenic diet. This plan contains less than 50 grams of carbs per day.
- Breakfast: 2 eggs fried in coconut oil, served with sautéed peppers and spinach
- Lunch: bunless cheeseburger and a green salad topped with sliced avocado and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice
- Dinner: salmon with broccoli sautéed in butter
- Breakfast: omelet made with feta, tomatoes, and arugula
- Lunch: chicken salad made with mayo and celery atop a bed of greens with homemade cream of tomato soup
- Dinner: chicken, broccoli, and cheese casserole
- Breakfast: keto noatmeal
- Lunch: arugula salad with hard-boiled eggs, turkey, avocado, and blue cheese
- Dinner: meatballs and spaghetti squash “noodles”
- Breakfast: full-fat yogurt parfait with walnuts, unsweetened coconut, and raspberries
- Lunch: taco bowl with ground beef, veggies, guacamole, and sour cream
- Dinner: stuffed peppers
- Breakfast: low carb granola over coconut yogurt
- Lunch: low carb chili
- Dinner: keto Parmesan chicken and broccoli
- Breakfast: keto veggie frittata
- Lunch: salmon salad and a keto-friendly green smoothie
- Dinner: low carb turkey and peppers
- Breakfast: keto pancakes with whipped cream
- Lunch: chicken Caesar salad with avocado
- Dinner: coconut milk chicken curry over cauliflower rice
Keep in mind that this is a very low carb plan, so it’s not appropriate for those on more moderate low carb diets.
Low carb diets have been linked to some health benefits. Doctors often prescribe them in a clinical setting to manage certain medical conditions.
Might help you manage your blood sugar
Going low carb could help improve blood sugar levels in people with prediabetes and diabetes.
The low carb diets also led to a much bigger decrease in triglyceride levels. (High triglyceride levels are common in people who have high blood sugar and can increase the risk of heart disease.)
Research suggests that adopting a very low carb ketogenic diet may even help people with type 2 diabetes reduce or discontinue their blood sugar medication.
Could help you lose weight
Low carb diets are all the rage in the weight loss world, and there’s evidence to support this popularity. Studies suggest low carb diets are at least as effective as low fat diets — and sometimes even more effective.
A small 2020 study found that older adults with obesity who followed a very low carb diet lost more body fat in 8 weeks than those who followed a low fat diet.
The people in the very low carb diet group also lost about three times as much visceral fat as the low fat dieters did. Visceral fat is a type of fat that surrounds your organs and is linked to an increased risk of many chronic diseases.
But research suggests that more moderate low carb diets can also be effective for promoting fat loss, and they’re generally easier to stick to. So if you’re looking for a more reasonable approach to long-term weight management, you can prob skip the very low carb options.
Some studies have also found that low fat diets are just as effective as low carb diets, as long as the calorie content is the same.
Other health benefits
Keto diets have been used in the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy for a long time. They’ve also shown promise in treating other neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Low carb diets may help treat medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome and fatty liver disease. More research is needed, but some studies suggest they could even be a valuable supplement to cancer treatments.
Keep in mind that research in these areas is ongoing, meaning there’s still a lot to learn about low carb diets and their impact on health.
There’s a wide range of low carb diets, and some diets might be really helpful for one population but really dangerous for another.
Who shouldn’t follow a low carb diet?
In general, it’s important to check with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a low carb diet.
Very low carb diets aren’t appropriate for people with certain medical conditions, like pancreatitis and liver failure. These diets can also lead to nutrient deficiencies if you’re not intentional about what nutrients you’re getting.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, a moderate low carb diet might be OK. But a keto diet is typically not recommended unless you’re under medical supervision for a health condition like drug-resistant epilepsy.
Side effects of low carb diets
Depending on genetic factors and each person’s overall health, very low carb diets can have varying effects on measurements like insulin resistance and blood lipid levels. This is why it’s important to be monitored by a healthcare provider if you’re following a very low carb diet.
Switching to a very low carb diet may cause unpleasant side effects like headaches, constipation, and fatigue. You might have heard of this “keto flu.”
There’s a lot to learn about low carb diets, including how to do them properly and whether they’re healthy and safe to follow.
Even though this article offers some helpful advice, it’s best to work with a registered dietitian or another healthcare provider if you’re interested in following a low carb diet.