In my work as a registered dietitian, one of the questions I get most is about low-carb diets. But does a low-carb diet mean no carbs or reduced carb? Is it the same as a keto diet? Is it sugar free? Can you totally ignore calories?
Classifying the main types of diets all comes down to the “macros,” or the percentage of calories you eat from each macronutrient group: proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
A general, heart-healthy diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables is often a dietitian’s first pick because the best-studied diets that are most effective at reducing chronic disease risk fall into this category. A heart healthy diet averages about 50% of calories from minimally-processed carbohydrate sources, but even more can be healthy — most good quality plant-based diets will be at least 60% high fiber, with complex carbohydrates.
Conversely, ketogenic diets are extremely low in carbohydrate, requiring fewer than 5% of calories coming from carbs in order to keep you in a special metabolic state called ketosis, which usually results in rapid weight loss. It’s a restrictive format that some people swear by, but for many, it’s a struggle to sustain long term. You don’t have to pay much attention to calorie counting, but you do have to pay very close attention to even small amounts of carbs.
Then there’s low- or reduced-carb diets. There’s a lot of variation from person to person, and it’s important to talk with your doctor to make sure it’s right for you, but a low-carb eating style is more like 30-40% of calories from carbohydrate, 30-40% fats (emphasis on the fish- and plant-based ones) and 30% protein. It doesn’t force your body into ketosis, but this type of plan makes it easier to control blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight without feeling deprived. It’s also possible to follow while still eating at your favorite restaurants, cooking for a family, or keeping a few indulgences in. You can’t totally ignore calories, but just keeping your carb portions smaller does a lot of that work.
So what does a reduced-carb diet actually look like? There are as many ways to do it as there are people. Here’s what to know.
How does a low-carb diet work?
To start, there’s no one low-carb diet. Different plans cut carbs down to different levels. The strictest diets aim to cut carbs down to zero. Others target 150 grams or less per day. As a comparison, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 225 to 325 grams a day as part of a healthy eating plan that doesn’t try to limit carbs.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table,” points out that carbs aren’t all nutritionally the same. A slice of whole-grain bread, a small piece of fruit and four packets of sugar could all have about 15 carbs. “Those food all have completely different health profiles,” she said. The bread has fiber, vitamins and minerals, and can help you feel full. The fruit might have fiber and antioxidants. The sugar has no nutritional value except for energy.
“If you want to eat more healthfully and lose weight, you have to think about what your body needs and your health needs, not just your weight-loss needs,” Taub-Dix says.
What are the benefits of a low-carb diet?
With low-carb dieting, you might see improvements in blood sugar levels and weight loss, Jen Bruning, registered dietitian, tells TODAY.com. But the weight loss might not last. “Research also suggests a tendency to regain any lost weight when eating patterns return to normal,” she says.
Sticking with a low-carb eating plan may help you maintain weight loss, though. According to the Mayo Clinic, low-carb diets might help prevent or improve metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Some experts say this approach is more effective and more sustainable than counting calories. “When people get the diet right by limiting carbs, eating moderate amounts of protein and embracing fat, they feel full and naturally restrict calories without having to count them,” Jeff Volek, RD, Ph.D., professor at Ohio State University, previously told TODAY.com.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that for people with Type 2 diabetes, diets that were low in carbs helped them lose weight and reduce the medication they needed to take to control of their diabetes.
Is low-carb a good choice for you?
You might want to try a low-carb diet if you’re looking to lose weight in the short term or to prevent or improve metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease.
A low-carb diet includes a lot of other food options, so if you don’t like diets with severe food restrictions you might like the variety it offers.
You may also want to look at the kinds of carbs you’re eating to see where you can make changes. “If you examine your diet and feel you are lacking in non-starchy vegetables but eat lots of added sugar, you may choose to lower your refined carbohydrate intake in favor of more veggies,” Bruning explains.
And remember that low-carb diets are low in certain nutritious foods. “Plenty of higher-carbohydrate foods are very healthful. Think legumes, fruit and whole grains,” Bruning says. “Low-carb diets also tend to be low in fiber, and fiber is known to be protective against heart disease and some cancers.”
Taub-Dix says she’s wary of any diet that eliminates an entire food group. “No one food or food group is going to be magical for you or horrible for you unless you have a food allergy or intolerance,” she adds. “We shouldn’t demonize any one particular food or food group. That should be a red flag when choosing a diet — if a food group is eliminated, steer clear of that diet.”
What do you eat on the low-carb diet?
Generally, low-carb menus will include foods that are higher in protein and fat, such as:
- Some nonstarchy vegetables
You’ll cut out or limit:
- Legumes like lentils, beans and peas
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and butternut squash
- Sometimes nuts and seeds
Tips for low-carb diets
Don’t eat your carbs all at once.
Distribute your carb intake across your day. If you just save up all of your delicious carbs and eat them in one big meal, it probably won’t serve you well. Skipping meals or eating wildly different amounts of carbs at different times of day means your body is always playing catch-up with your blood glucose, and the result is that your levels will be more variable, with some spikes and drops, instead of the gentler up and down flow that we’re aiming for.
Pair your carbs with fat, protein and fiber.
What you eat with your carbs matters. If you try to keep them in check by having nothing but a glass of juice for breakfast or a mini soda for a snack, the sugars in that drink will be absorbed quickly without any fat, protein or fiber to slow them down. Even something healthy like a small piece of fruit might spike blood glucose if you don’t add a handful of nuts or a slice of cheese.
Be careful with sugar.
Although lower-carb diets are not necessarily sugar-free, watch how much you are getting. You will be healthier if you choose more unprocessed, unsweetened, whole foods. Sodas, juices, syrupy coffee shop beverages, candy, honey mustard or other sweet dressings, including ketchup, can really add up. You might be happier if you slowly cut back on those things rather than going cold turkey overnight, but do pay some attention.
In short, limit added sugars, aim to eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates spread more or less evenly among your meals, and always include some protein, fat and fiber with your carbs.
You don’t need to track everything precisely.
You certainly can use a food diary app to track your carbs and calories tightly, but ball-parking works for a lot of people. The easiest way to do that is to use the healthy plate method: half non-starchy vegetables, one quarter lean protein and one quarter starches like rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, or breads. But if you’re looking to limit carbs, move your fruit to one serving at breakfast and one at a snack. Choosing complex, high fiber carbs can give you carb limit wiggle room because they lessen the effect on your blood sugar, so opt for those at least half the time.
Low-carb meal plan: 30% carbohydrate sample plan
So what might the ballpark of a 30% carbohydrate day look like? Here’s one example:
Breakfast: 1 packet McCann’s instant oatmeal with 1/2 cup of berries and 1/4 cup of nuts. You could add an egg or sausage on the side. Coffee with a little half and half or up to a cup of unsweetened almond milk. (35 g carbs)
Lunch: Deli turkey and cheese on sandwich rye with arugula, mustard and olive tapenade. Pepper strips and snow peas with ranch dressing. Unsweetened sparkling water. (32 g carbs)
Snack: Caramel Almond Kind Bar (16 g carbs) or Chobani Mango Greek yogurt (16 g of carbs)
Dinner: 4 oz baked salmon, 2 c. roasted Mediterranean vegetables mixed with 1 oz Barilla red lentil rotini, Parmesan on top. Iced hibiscus tea. (28 g carbs)
Low-carb meal plan: Fast food sample plan
Is it a snap to get enough fiber and vegetables if you’re buying all prepared meals? No. I’d like you to have more, but let’s start with just improving your restaurant choices and not try to skip straight to ideal. Improved is, well, improvement! So, if you eat literally every meal from a restaurant or box, this one is for you:
Breakfast: McDonald’s breakfast burrito (26 g of carbs) with coffee or tea. You could also choose any frozen Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich (all around 30 g).
Lunch: Chipotle Whole 30 Steak Bowl. Unsweetened iced tea. (23 g of carbs)
Snack: Starbucks Tall Caffe Latte (15 g of carbs)
Dinner: Chili’s 6 oz. sirloin with broccoli and mashed potatoes (42 g of carbs). Add a carb-free White Claw Hard Seltzer if you want to live a little a couple of times a week.
Low-carb meal plan: Intermittent fasting sample plan
Not a breakfast person? Try intermittent fasting with an 8-hour eating window, perhaps with your first meal at 11 am, and your last by 7 pm. Most people would aim for about 45 grams of carbs in those 2 meals, hopefully with a good snack in between.
Lunch at 11 am: Healthy Choice Cuban-inspired Pork Power Bowl (46 g of carbs)
Snack: 1/2 cup tuna salad with 3 Finn Crisps flatbreads (11 g carbs)
Dinner: 2 chicken, cheese and tomatillo sauce enchiladas, 1/2 cup of pinto beans, 1/2 cup cauliflower rice, sautéed peppers and onions. (50 g carbs)
Low-carb meal plan: A 7-day sample plan
Looking for a more tailored, time-based plan to get you started? Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian in private practice in Ohio, developed this 7-day plan with foods that fill and fuel you:
1. Crustless quiche cups: With a handful of berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries)
2. Cinnamon toast: One piece of whole-grain sprouted toast topped with no added sugar almond butter, coconut flakes and cinnamon
3. One cup of plain yogurt: With chopped almonds or walnuts and ground flax seed
4. Soft-boiled egg: With sliced avocado drizzled with olive oil
5. Nutrient-packed egg frittata
6. Protein smoothie: Two scoops of any no-added sugar, organic, plant-based protein powder, one cup unsweetened almond milk, two tablespoons pure cocoa powder and ice for consistency
7. Low-carb zucchini muffins
1. Grilled wild salmon salad: With two or more cups arugula with a mix of olive oil and lemon juice. Top with tomatoes and shredded Parmesan cheese
2. Turkey chili: One pound of ground turkey mixed with diced tomatoes, no added sugar tomato sauce, cinnamon and chili powder. You can add in green peppers. Top with cheddar cheese and, to pack an even more nutrient dense punch, throw in a bag of riced broccoli.
3. Chicken or salmon salad: Mix canned chicken or salmon with organic mayo, add in herbs, salt and pepper and chopped onions and celery. Put salad on top of two rice cakes (100 percent whole-grain).
4. Shaved Brussels sprout salad: With tempeh strips
5. Miso soup with spinach and tofu
6. Salmon cakes
7. Avocado boats: Take half an avocado and season with salt and pepper, crack an egg in the middle and bake 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees — top with cheese in the last few minutes.
1. Freeze dried or baked cheese balls and cheese discs
2. Peanut butter balls: Mix half a cup of crunchy peanut butter with two tablespoons of ground flax seeds. Form into balls and store in freezer.
3. Mixed nuts
4. Celery with almond butter and cinnamon
5. Roasted chick peas
6. Tofu, turkey or salmon jerky
7. Turkey rolled around string cheese stick
8. Kale chips
9. Handful of berries or one small apple
10. One square of raw pure cocoa
11. Guacamole or salsa with paleo nut type crackers
The low-carb diet is similar to:
- Keto diet, which typically limits carbs to 50 grams a day or less
- Keto/FLEX 12/3, which blends a low-carb diet and fasting
- Low-carb, high-fat diet, which pairs a reduction in carbs with an increase in high-fat foods
- Paleo diet, which tends to be low-carb in practice because it emphasizes a lot of low-carb foods
- Atkins diet, which has a four phases of carb intake levels
- Zero-carb diet, which aims to reduce carbs to (you guessed it) zero