What Is a Low-Carb Diet?
For starters, know that 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 very-low-carb, such as the ketogenic diet, while 100 to 200 g of carbohydrates per day is a moderate-carb diet.
Different Types Of Low-Carb Diets You Might Try
Common Questions & Answers
Potential Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet
As low-carb dietitian Franziska Spritzler, RD, 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 A1C, or the two- to three-month average of blood sugar levels. This may also help with weight loss, another common goal for people with type 2 diabetes.
Limitations of Low-Carb Dieting
Health Risks of Low-Carb Diets
What’s more, low-carb diets may be risky for certain groups.
If you’re pregnant or nursing, following a low-carb diet isn’t recommended (barring gestational diabetes, in which case, consult your healthcare team).
“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.
Separate from pregnancy, consider your lifestyle. 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, 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’re best off opting for monounsaturated fats (avocados, nuts, and olive oil) over saturated fats (butter and red meat). Indeed, this holds true for everyone, regardless of heart disease status.
Last, if you have a history of eating disorders, a low-carb diet (or any eating plan that is restrictive) can be risky, nutrition and mental health experts agree.
Types of Low-Carb Diets
Going low-carb looks different depending on which approach you’re going with. Here are a handful you may consider.
This is the strictest plan, requiring you to eat less than 50 g of carbs per day and up your fat intake significantly. You’ll eat a moderate amount of protein. 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.
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.
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.
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.
A Detailed Low-Carb Diet Food List
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 (less than 1 g carbs per 1/2 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 (7 g carbs per 6 oz, low fat)
- Cottage cheese (10 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
- Grains, such as farro, bulgur, and quinoa
- 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:
- 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
- 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, plus raw veggies
- 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
Resources We Love
Because of the trendy keto diet, it’s tough to find new books specifically geared toward eating simply low-carb (not very low-carb and high-fat, like keto). This book, by Katherine B. Chauncey, PhD, RD, goes back to basics with tips on how to choose foods, how to cook with those foods, and how to stick to the diet in the long-term so that you can maintain weight loss and health gains.
Atkins is a type of low-carb diet (and a brand itself with ready-to-eat foods). It is not the only way to follow a low-carb diet, but it can be a good starting point when you need guidance before diving into low-carb eating. Plus, some people find that they are more successful on structured diets, and if that’s you, you’ll want to check out their resources and plans.
If you’re new to the low-carb lifestyle, you’ll want to visit low-carb blogs regularly. Peace, Love, and Low Carb is organized in a way that you can target recipes specific to your diet goals and food preferences, and you’ll walk away with some pretty inventive spins on favorite dishes to help you really enjoy eating low-carb.
Find delicious inspo for any meal and snack from her large library of IG-worthy recipes, like Pistachio-Crusted Salmon, garlic-parmesan sauce, and pork tenderloin with chimichurri.
No one should be counting carbs in their head. To make it all easier — and relieve some stress — sign up for an app where you can easily count your macros (protein, fat, carbs). MyFitnessPal is one of the most user-friendly apps for food tracking.
Free, with in-app purchases
Summary: Should You Go on a Low-Carb Diet?
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.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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- Hashimoto Y, Fukuda T, Oyabu C, et al. Impact of Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Body Composition: Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Studies. Obesity Reviews. June 2016.
- Foley PJ. Effect of Low Carbohydrate Diets on Insulin Resistance and the Metabolic Syndrome. Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity. October 2021.
- Gross AM, Gower B, Soleymani T, et al. Effects of Weight Loss During a Very Low Carbohydrate Diet on Specific Adipose Tissue Depots and Insulin Sensitivity in Older Adults With Obesity: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Nutrition & Metabolism. August 2020.
- Dyson P. Low Carbohydrate Diets and Type 2 Diabetes: What Is the Latest Evidence? Diabetes Therapy. December 2015.
- Davis NJ, Tomuta N, Schechter C, et al. Comparative Study of the Effects of a One-Year Dietary Intervention of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Versus a Low-Fact Diet on Weight and Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care. July 2009.
- Basic Report: 11477, Squash, Summer, Zucchini, Includes Skin, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 11109, Cabbage, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 11090, Broccoli, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 11098, Brussels Sprouts, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 11457, Spinach, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 11529, Tomatoes, Red, Ripe, Raw, Year Round Average. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 15271, Crustaceans, Shrimp, Cooked. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 01123, Eggs. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 01270, Cheese, Cheddar. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 09193, Olives, Ripe, Canned (Small–Extra Large). USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 01145, Butter, Salted. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 01053, Cream, Fluid, Heavy Whipping. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 01287, Yogurt, Greek, Plain, Lowfat. USDA Food Data Central. October 2020.
- Basic Report: 01016, Cheese, Cottage, Lowfat. USDA Food Data Central. October 2020.
- Basic Report: 12061, Nuts, Almonds. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 09302, Raspberries, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 09181, Melons, Cantaloupe, Raw. USDA Food Data Central. December 2019.
- Basic Report: 09037, Avocados, Raw, All Commercial Varieties. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Basic Report: 19904, Chocolate, Dark, 70–85% Cacao Solids. USDA Food Data Central. April 2019.
- Ebbeling CB, Knapp A, Johnson A, et al. Effects of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Insulin-Resistant Dyslipoproteinemia — a Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September 2021.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 [PDF]. U.S. Department of Agriculture. December 2020.
- Lin PJ, Borer KT. Third Exposure to a Reduced Carbohydrate Meal Lowers Evening Postprandial Insulin and GIP Responses and HOMA-IR Estimate of Insulin Resistance. PLoS One. October 31, 2016.