Made famous by the Atkins diet and other similar weight-loss plans, low-carb diets are most well-known for shedding pounds fast. Despite what might initially come to mind when you think about low-carb diet plans or what you may have been told about why low-carb diets are bad for you, research suggests that a balanced low-carb diet poses few health risks if done right.
In fact, certain low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have been shown to not only be very effective for weight loss, but also for improving other health markers, such as blood sugar levels as well as neurological health, hormonal balance and more.
What Is a Low-Carb Diet? The Basics
A low-carb diet is a diet that limits carbohydrate foods — such as foods with added sugar, grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — and emphasizes foods high in protein and fat.
Low-carb diets are nothing new and have been used in the medical community for a variety of purposes for more than a century.
What are the benefits of a low-carb diet? Based on decades of research, low-carb diets have been linked to benefits including:
- fast weight loss
- reduced hunger
- better control over insulin and blood sugar
- enhanced cognitive performance
- lower risk for heart disease factors
- reduced risk for certain types of cancer
You may be wondering: How do low-carb diets work? Why do I feel better on a low-carb diet?
The low-carb diet plan is effective because it causes glucose (sugar) stores to quickly run out, and when your supply becomes low enough, your body turns to fat for fuel as a backup source — whether it’s fat coming from your diet or your own stored body fat.
Additionally, while many of us follow a high-carb, low-fat diet loaded with processed foods, added sugar and extra calories, the low-carb diet plan eliminates many of these harmful ingredients and prioritizes nutritious, whole foods instead.
How many carbs on a low-carb diet should you eat? How many carbs should a woman eat daily to lose weight?
Although these amounts can vary quite a bit depending on which type of low-carb diet plan you follow, most involve restricting carb intake to less than 30 percent to 40 percent of total daily calories.
Different Types of Low-Carb Diets
People can mean many different things when referring to low-carb diets, which creates some confusion about what a low-carb diet might actually look like. There are several unique plans available, each of which varies based on how many carbs in a low-carb diet are included, plus the amounts of other nutrients in the diet, such as protein or fat.
Finding the best low-carb diet plan for weight loss or better health all comes down to deciding what works best for you. Whether it’s a high-protein, low-carb diet plan; a high-fat, low-carb diet; a low-carb vegetarian diet; or even low-carb vegan diet, there are variations out there for nearly everyone.
High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet
Generally speaking, people who are not intentionally controlling their protein take usually get about 15 percent to 25 percent of their daily calories from protein foods.
If you choose to follow a low-carb, high-protein diet, your diet will be roughly distributed as 30 percent to 35 percent protein, 20 percent or less carbohydrates and about 45 percent to 50 percent fat. With every meal you’ll want to incorporate one to two palm-sized portions of protein, such as fish or meat.
The main difference between high-fat and high-protein diets is the amount of protein — in the form of meat, fish, eggs, etc. — that someone eats. Higher-fat diets like the keto diet call for more healthy fats in the form of butter, oil and fattier cuts of meat, while higher-protein diets still include fats but less of them.
High-Fat, Low-Carb Diet
A ketogenic diet — one form of a low-carb, high-fat diet — is an eating pattern that strictly eliminates almost all sources of glucose in order to put the body into “fat-burning mode,” also called nutritional ketosis. The ketogenic diet goes by several different names, including the “no-carb diet” or “very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet.”
Ketogenic diets have been used by doctors to treat patients with epilepsy and metabolic conditions since the 1920s. They have well-documented benefits, including helping treat epilepsy and promote rapid weight loss.
Some research has also found that a very low-carb diet for diabetics could also be useful for stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing diabetes risk.
Plus, not only have studies over the past century shown that the keto diet can reduce the amount of seizures patients suffer from, but it can also have positive effects on body fat, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, hunger and neurological health.
When you’re following a traditional ketogenic diet, you consume around 75 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats, 5 percent from carbohydrates and approximately 20 percent from protein. In general, ketogenic diets typically limit daily net carb intake to just 20–30 grams, which is calculated by subtracting the number of grams of fiber from the total number of carbs.
While the low-carb keto diet is a great fit for the right type of person, many people still experience great results when eating a modified keto diet that is a bit higher in carbs. This is called “keto-cycling” or “carb-cycling” in which people boost carb intake on certain days of the week.
Compared to high-protein diets, the ketogenic diet is considered “moderate protein.” It’s important not to overconsume protein on the keto diet because this can interfere with your ability to produce ketone bodies for energy and enter nutritional ketosis.
Low-Fat, Low-Carb Diet
Many people think that you need to follow a low-carb, low-fat diet to lose weight and improve your health. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, although dietary fat is often associated with body fat, filling up on healthy fats can actually be incredibly beneficial for overall health.
Monounsaturated fats from foods like olive oil, in particular, have been linked to reductions in body weight, blood sugar levels, triglycerides and blood pressure. Meanwhile, polyunsaturated fats found in ingredients like nuts, seeds and fish may help improve several aspects of heart health.
Ideally, you should get a good amount of healthy fats in your diet from foods like fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. These foods can help amplify the results of the low-carb diet plan to promote better health.
Low-Sugar, Low-Carb Diet
Just like on a low-carb diet, a low-carb, low-sugar diet minimizes consumption of starches and sugars to propel the body into fat-burning mode. Both diets focus on reducing added sugars from foods like candies, sweetened beverages, refined grains and processed foods.
Instead, these diets emphasize healthy fats and high-quality proteins from nutritious whole foods rich in essential vitamins and minerals.
Foods to Eat
On a high-protein, low-carb diet, your diet should be rich in healthy fats, high-quality proteins and non-starchy vegetables. Here are a few examples of the top foods to eat on a low-carb diet plan.
1. Healthy Fats
- MCT oil
- Cold-pressed coconut, palm fruit, olive, flaxseed, macadamia and avocado oil
- Butter and ghee
- Chicken or duck fat
2. Quality Proteins
- Grass-fed beef and other types of fatty cuts of meat, including lamb, goat, veal, venison and other game
- Organ meats, including liver
- Poultry, including turkey, chicken, quail, pheasant, hen, goose, duck
- Cage-free eggs and egg yolks
- Fish, including tuna, trout, anchovies, bass, flounder, mackerel, salmon, sardines, etc.
3. Non-Starchy Vegetables
- All leafy greens, including dandelion or beet greens, collards, mustard, turnip, arugula, chicory, endive, escarole, fennel, radicchio, romaine, sorrel, spinach, kale, chard, etc.
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower
- Celery, cucumber, zucchini, chives and leeks
- Fresh herbs
- Other low-carb veggies, including asparagus, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bell pepper, sugar snap peas, water chestnuts, radishes, jicama, green beans, wax beans, tomatoes
- Avocado (technically a fruit)
4. Full-Fat Dairy
- Full-fat cow’s and goat milk (ideally organic and raw)
- Full-fat cheeses
- Bone broth (homemade or protein powder)
- Beef or turkey jerky
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Extra veggies (raw or cooked) with homemade dressing
- 1/2 avocado with sliced lox (salmon)
- Minced meat wrapped in lettuce
- Spices and herbs
- Hot sauce
- Apple cider vinegar
- Unsweetened mustards
- Cocoa powder
- Vanilla extract
- Unsweetened coffee (black) and tea
- Fresh made vegetable juice
- Bone broth
Foods to Avoid
On a low-carb diet, you should limit your intake of sugars, refined grains, processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Here are a few of the specific foods that you should limit or avoid when following a well-rounded high-protein, low-carb diet plan.
- White, brown, cane, raw and confectioner’s sugar
- Syrups like maple, carob, corn, caramel and fruit
- Honey and agave nectar
- Any food made with ingredients such as fructose, glucose, maltose, dextrose and lactose
2. Refined Grains
- Wheat, rice, quinoa, bread, pasta, cereal
- Corn and all products containing corn, including popcorn, tortillas, grits, polenta and cornmeal
- All types of products made with flour, including bread, bagels, rolls, muffins, pasta, etc.
3. Processed Foods
- Crackers, chips, pretzels, etc.
- All types of candy
- All desserts, like cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream
- Pancakes, waffles and other baked breakfast items
- Oatmeal and cereals
- Snack carbs, granola bars, most protein bars or meal replacements, etc.
- Canned soups, boxed foods, any prepackaged meal
- Foods containing artificial ingredients like artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.), dyes and flavors
4. Sweetened and Caloric Beverages
- Alcohol (beer, wine, liquor, etc.)
- Sweetened teas or coffee drinks
- Milk and dairy replacements (cow’s milk, soy, almond, coconut, Lactaid®, cream, half and half, etc.)
- Fruit juices
Low-Carb Meal Plan and Sample Menu
A healthy, low-carb diet meal plan doesn’t have to be boring or flavorless. Check out these simple low-carb diet recipes and meal plan for seven days for some inspiration to help transform your diet:
- Breakfast: veggie omelet with tomatoes, bell peppers and spinach
- Lunch: Teriyaki Salmon with sautéed kale and mushrooms
- Dinner: grilled chicken with broccoli and cauliflower rice
- Breakfast: full-fat, plain yogurt with blueberries, walnuts and cinnamon
- Lunch: veggie burger with lettuce bun and side salad
- Dinner: Mediterranean Grilled Lamb Chops with asparagus
- Breakfast: Crustless Spinach Quiche
- Lunch: taco salad with ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, avocados, bell peppers and salsa
- Dinner: herb-roasted turkey breast with Brussels sprouts
- Breakfast: coconut chia pudding with unsweetened coconut flakes and almonds
- Lunch: Eggplant Rollatini with mixed veggies
- Dinner: baked grouper with zucchini fries
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs and tempeh bacon
- Lunch: chicken lettuce wrap with cauliflower fried rice
- Dinner: Lamb Stew with garlic roasted broccoli
- Breakfast: High-Fat, Low-Carb Pancakes
- Lunch: stuffed bell peppers with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley and cheese
- Dinner: baked chicken with grilled cabbage steaks
- Breakfast: smoothie with Greek yogurt, almond milk, blueberries, cinnamon and vanilla
- Lunch: Gluten-Free Baked Meatballs and zucchini noodles
- Dinner: Greek salad with spinach, feta, black olives, cucumbers, onions and chickpeas
Filling your fridge with low-carb diet foods makes it easier than ever to stick to your diet and keep your carb consumption under control. Check out this simple, low-carb diet food list, and stock up on these healthy ingredients next time you hit the supermarket:
- Grass-fed meat: beef, goat, venison, lamb, veal, organ meats
- Free-range poultry: chicken, turkey, duck, goose, etc.
- Wild-caught fish: salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, sardines, etc.
- Eggs and egg whites
- Fruits: avocado, berries, lemons, limes, melon
- Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, bell peppers, leafy greens, celery, asparagus, Brussels sprouts
- Healthy fats: olive oil, coconut oil, lard, MCT oil, butter, ghee
- Full-fat dairy: cow milk, goat milk, hard cheeses
- Herbs/spices: basil, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, thyme, rosemary pepper, etc.
Tips When Eating Out
Wondering what to eat on a low-carb diet when you’re at restaurants or out and about? Here are a few tips to stick to your low-carb diet menu when dining out:
- Check out the restaurant’s menu online prior to arriving to plan out what you’ll order in advance.
- Enjoy a light, low-carb snack before eating out to curb cravings and prevent overeating.
- Skip the pasta, pizza or rice, and select protein-based entrees instead.
- Substitute non-starchy vegetables in place of fries for a tasty, low-carb side dish.
- Ditch the burger buns, and opt for lettuce wraps.
- If available, ask for rice, pizza crust or potatoes made from cauliflower to keep your carb count low.
- Look for meat that is grilled rather than breaded.
- Pay attention to sauces and condiments. Some are high in sugar and can crank up your carb intake.
- Choose low-carb drinks in place of sugar-sweetened beverages like juice or cocktails.
- Instead of dessert, enjoy a cup of unsweetened coffee or tea to help round out your meal.
Risks and Side Effects
Is a low-carb diet dangerous? A balanced high-protein, low-carb diet can be healthy and nutritious, plus associated with a number of impressive health benefits.
However, there are several potential side effects that you may want to be aware of.
Overall, there seems to be a lot of variability when it comes to how low-carb dieting and changes in moods and energy levels — with some people feeling great and others struggling a bit initially. This is why it’s important to pay attention to how you feel as you change your diet and make adjustments as necessary.
Self-reports, along with data from certain trials, indicate that very low-carb diets or ketogenic diets might increase symptoms like fatigue, keto diet constipation, brain fog and irritability in some people — side effects that have been nicknamed “the carb flu” or “keto flu symptoms.”
However, this is usually the case when cutting back carbs dramatically to just about 5 percent to 10 percent of total calories. Most low-carb diet side effects usually clear up within one to two weeks of changing your diet, after your body adjusts.
Obviously, reductions in the desire to be physically active, experiencing brain fog and being cranky are pretty counterproductive for people looking to feel healthier and lose weight, so these effects are something to monitor.
If you’re feeling very sluggish and moody or have “brain fog” and can’t think clearly, try reintroducing some carbs several days a week until you feel better. Experiencing the benefits of low-carb diets can take some trial and error, plus a good amount of patience.
- The low-carb diet plan is a type of eating pattern that limits the consumption of carbohydrates from foods like sugar, starches and grains. Instead, it emphasizes healthy fats and protein foods rich in important nutrients.
- Is a low-carb diet healthy? Many studies have found that following a nutritious, low-carb diet results in improvements in blood sugar control, weight management, heart health, brain function and more.
- There are several different types of low-carb diets available, each of which varies based on the amount of carbs consumed and the other macronutrients included.
- You may be wondering: How many carbs should I eat on a low-carb diet? Depending on the type of plan, it can vary quite a bit. In general, however, most low-carb diets limit carb consumption to less than 30 percent to 40 percent of total daily calories.
- Although there are many low-carb diet benefits and risks to consider, it can be a good option for those looking to reduce hunger levels, lose weight and improve their overall health.