Health Tips Science Update

The ultimate guide to following a low-carb diet

Ditching the bun on your burger can help reduce its carb content.

Turns out, what’s low carbohydrate for one person isn’t for another. “There’s no medical definition of what low carb is,” says Columbus, Ohio–based Kelly Schmidt, RD. Basically, it’s reducing the number of carbs you eat from your norm. In general, however, a low-carb diet may include 50 to 100 grams (g) of carbohydrates per day, she says. Below that is considered a ketogenic diet, while 100 to 200 g of carbohydrates per day is a moderate-carb diet.

How Cutting Carbs May Help With Weight Loss and Blood Sugar Management

You probably hear the most about low-carb eating for weight loss, but for some people, the approach could also help optimize their health, says Schmidt. “Research shows that women who are obese or have metabolic problems [may] do better hormonally on lower carbs,” says Schmidt, pointing out that other outcomes of the diet can include better sleep, mental clarity, and increased satiety.

As low-carb dietitian Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE, who’s based in Orange County, California, points out, when you cut back on carbs, blood sugar and insulin levels generally go down, which can be a good thing for some people. “Carbs are broken down into glucose, which raises your blood sugar and prompts your pancreas to produce insulin to drive sugar into your cells,” says Spritzler. “When you’re overweight or obese, your blood sugar goes up and your pancreas sends out insulin, but your cells may not be responsive, leading your pancreas to overproduce insulin,” she says. High insulin increases hunger and prompts fat storage, she explains.

A low-carb diet may therefore help keep your blood sugar in check and keep your insulin level low to potentially aid with weight loss. Because doctors often recommend that those with type 2 diabetes lose weight to better their blood sugar, this approach could possibly directly and indirectly improve blood glucose levels.

What Studies Say About the Benefits and Risks of Going Low Carb

First, the benefits may be reaped almost immediately. According to one study in October 2016 in PLOS One, people who ate three lower-carb meals (of less than 30 percent carbs each) reduced their insulin resistance by more than 30 percent compared with people who consumed higher-carb meals (60 percent carbs).

You can see the results, too. In January 2015, the Journal of Nutrition conducted two studies comparing lower-carb and low-fat diets, finding that of the two approaches, going lower carb helped people shave off more visceral fat, a type of belly fat that hugs organs and is linked to disease. A meta-analysis published in June 2016 in Obesity Reviews also concluded that in obese people, a low-carb diet reduced fat over the course of a year (but not body weight), with the greatest benefits seen in a very-low-carb diet.

That said, there isn’t an agreement that a low-carb diet is superior to any other kind of diet or that it’s healthier long term. A review in the December 2015 issue of Diabetes Therapy that looked at the diet among those with diabetes noted that when it comes to weight loss, a low-carb diet performs no better than other higher-carb diets; and that it doesn’t produce better glycemic control, either. Another report in Diabetes Care also found that over one year, those on a low-carb diet lost weight faster than those on a low-fat one, but after a year, weight loss and A1C levels (an average of blood glucose over about three months) were remarkably similar.

The Different Types of Low-Carb Diets You Might Try

Keto Diet This is the strictest plan, requiring you to eat less than 50 g of carbs per day and up your fat intake significantly. This is a popular weight loss diet.

Traditional Low Carb This approach includes 50 to 100 g of carbs per day; this is where many people start because it’s less restrictive than a keto diet meal plan but can still deliver results.

Atkins Diet The Atkins diet takes you through four phases, starting with very-low-carb consumption and then gradually introducing more carbohydrate-rich foods throughout. It’s good for people who like a more structured plan.

Dukan Diet This option also includes four phases: two weight loss and two maintenance. For instance, the first phase of the Dukan diet focuses on high-protein foods, the second adds vegetables back in, the third allows two “celebration” meals per week, and the fourth is about keeping your weight stable. Because you can follow the diet from the book, it also appeals to people who need a planned approach.

Paleo Just because the paleo diet eliminates grains doesn’t mean it’s low in carbs, especially if you eat root veggies (like sweet potatoes) and fruit, but it can be followed this way.

Low-Carb Diet Food List: The Best and Worst Things to Eat

While the food lists for low-carb diets vary based on the plan, here’s a look at the foods you’d generally eat and avoid when following a traditional low-carb diet.

Foods to Eat

  • Nonstarchy vegetables: zucchini (4 g carbs per cup), cabbage (5 g carbs per cup), broccoli (6 g carbs per cup), Brussels sprouts (8 g carbs per cup), leafy greens (like spinach, for example, at 1 g carbs per cup), and tomatoes (7 g carbs per cup)
  • Meat, such as chicken, beef, pork, and lamb (0 g carbs per 3 ounces [oz))
  • Fish and seafood, like shrimp (0 g carbs per 3 oz)
  • Eggs (0 g carbs per egg) (
  • Cheese, like cheddar (1 g carbs per 1 oz)
  • Olives (2 g carbs for 10 small olives)
  • Oil, such as canola oil, olive oil, and coconut oil (0 g carbs per tablespoon [tbsp])
  • Butter (0 g carbs per tbsp)
  • Cream (0.4 g carbs per tbsp)
  • Greek yogurt (8 g carbs per 7 oz, low fat)
  • Cottage cheese (6 g carbs per 1 cup, low fat)
  • Nuts, like almonds (6 g carbs per 1 oz)
  • Berries, like raspberries (15 g carbs per 1 cup)
  • Melon, like cantaloupe (13 g carbs per 1 cup)
  • Avocado (9 g carbs per half)
  • Dark chocolate (13 g carbs per 1 oz)

Foods to Limit or Avoid

  • Processed snack products, like crackers, chips, and cookies
  • Rice
  • Bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Pasta
  • Grains, such as farro, bulgur, and quinoa
  • Milk
  • Higher-carb fruits, like grapes and bananas
  • Beans and lentils
  • Starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes and potatoes, though these may be okay in moderation depending on your carb goal — but watch the portions.
  • High-sugar foods, such as cake, ice cream, candy, and soda

A 3-Day Sample Menu of a Low-Carb Diet

Your choices and portion sizes will depend on your individual carbohydrate goal and calorie needs, but here’s a mock meal plan for a low-carb diet to give you an idea of how it looks to eat this way.

Day One

  • Breakfast Veggie omelet topped with avocado
  • Lunch Burrito bowl (no rice or beans) with extra fajita veggies, extra meat (of choice), cheese, guacamole, and salsa
  • Dinner Grilled chicken breast with mixed roasted vegetables (broccoli or cauliflower) and a half of a sweet potato with butter
  • Snack Option Mixed berries with a dollop of almond butter

Day Two

  • Breakfast Chia seed pudding topped with nuts and melon
  • Lunch Arugula salad with grilled salmon
  • Dinner Chicken or steak tacos in lettuce wraps; side salad with tomatoes and vinaigrette
  • Snack Option Snack pack of olives, like Divina Pitted Olives, plus raw veggies

Day Three

  • Breakfast Eggs with sautéed greens (spinach or kale); strawberries or blueberries topped with Greek yogurt and chopped nuts
  • Lunch Chicken and vegetable soup (without rice or noodles)
  • Dinner Shrimp and vegetable stir-fry over cauliflower rice
  • Snack Option Epic bar (grass-fed meat-based protein bar) with strips of cucumber and red pepper

Who Shouldn’t Go on a Low-Carb Diet

Not everyone should opt for a low-carb diet. If you’re pregnant, it’s possible to be on a lower-carb diet (and may even be indicated if you are told you have gestational diabetes), but talk to your doctor to find out what’s right for you and to ensure that you’re covering any potential nutrient gaps. “Many women who are pregnant find that the thought of eating protein and fat makes them sick,” says Spritzler. This can be especially common in the first trimester. “They naturally want more carbs. You should always listen to your body,” she says.

Consider your lifestyle, too. If you’re someone who does intense CrossFit-style workouts, a low-carb diet may not fuel you properly, says Schmidt.

And the things weighing on you matter, too. “Anyone in a stressful state, like a divorce or dealing with a death in the family, needs carbs to support their adrenal system,” she notes.

As for if you’re dealing with health issues, you really have to defer to your doctor. For instance, if you have kidney disease, you also want to talk to your doctor about appropriate protein intake. If you have heart disease, you can still go low carb, but you may be better off opting for monounsaturated fats (avocados, nuts, and olive oil) over saturated fats (butter and red meat). Everyone’s cholesterol levels respond differently on a low-carb diet, so if yours are going up, switch to unsaturated sources of fats, Spritzler recommends. “In general, this is a diet most people can do. If you have a chronic condition, work with a doctor who understands low-carbohydrate diets to monitor you,” she adds.

The Takeaway: Should You Try a Low-Carb Diet for Weight Loss and Other Health Improvements?

While the jury is still out as to if a low-carb diet is superior to other plans for long-term weight loss, low-carb eating may be a springboard into greater health, especially if you’re used to eating the standard American diet, which is high in processed fare and low in vegetables, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

That said, you don’t have to jump in with both feet. Schmidt recommends trying to eat under 200 g of carbs a day initially (a moderate-carb diet) and then adjust lower based on how you feel. “If you start paying attention to the carbs in your diet, you’ll eat fewer processed foods,” she says. And it’s those whole foods that are the basis of good health.

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