Low Carb Diet: A Beginner’s Guide, Meal Plan, and Tips

A low-carbohydrate diet is a dietary approach that restricts the intake of carbohydrates, typically to less than 20-40% of total daily calories, in order to promote weight loss and improve glycemic control in individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Main variations of a low-carbohydrate diet include the ketogenic diet, which severely limits carbohydrate intake to induce a state of ketosis, and the Atkins diet, which gradually increases carbohydrate intake over time while still maintaining a lower overall carbohydrate intake compared to a typical diet.

Main types of low-carbohydrate diets based on calorie intake include low-calorie low-carbohydrate diets, which restrict both carbohydrates and overall calories for weight loss, and moderate-calorie low-carbohydrate diets, which restrict carbohydrates while still providing a sufficient amount of calories for weight maintenance or minor weight loss.

Table of Contents

What is the Low Carb Diet?

A low-carbohydrate diet (also known as a low-carb diet) is a nutritional approach that restricts the intake of carbohydrates. This is typically defined as constituting less than 26% of daily macronutrient intake or less than 130g per day, according to Robert Oh, MD, MPH, Chief Wellness Officer at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. The diet aims to lower insulin levels, improve cardiometabolic function, induce weight loss, and increase satiety.

A 2006 study by Alain J Nordmann from University Hospital Basel has shown that low-carb diets are effective for rapid weight loss in the first 6-12 months. This approach encourages the body to burn fat for energy, leading to weight loss and improved metabolic health.

By restricting carbohydrate intake to less than 26% of daily macronutrient intake or less than 130g/day, the body enters a state of ketosis where it utilizes stored fat for energy. This can lead to rapid weight loss and improved overall health.

What is the origin of the Low-Carb Diet?

The origin of the low-carb diet can be traced back to 1860, making it a strategy for weight loss that has been around for over a century. The first recorded low-carb diet dates back to the same period, with William Banting’s publication of “Letter on Corpulence” in 1863, where he advocated for a low-carbohydrate approach to weight loss. Banting’s diet recommended restricting carbohydrates to a daily intake of less than 50 grams, a value that is still commonly used in low-carb diets today.

How does the Low-Carb Diet work?

The low-carb diet works by reducing the intake of carbohydrates, which in turn lowers insulin levels and promotes weight loss. It is defined as having around 20% of total calories from carbohydrates per day, an equivalent to 544.72 kJ or less.

how does the low carb diet work
How does the Low-Carb Diet work?

The Low Carb Diet is effective for weight loss, especially in the first 180-360 days. A 2013 study by Antonio Paoli from the University of Padova has shown that it can lead to rapid weight loss, with some individuals losing up to 2-3 times more weight compared to other diets. The mechanism behind this weight loss is still debated.

The Low-Carb Diet is also beneficial for people with insulin resistance because it helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. According to a 2020 study by Cara B. Ebbeling from Boston Children’s Hospital, reducing carbohydrate intake through a Low-Carb Diet can lead to better blood sugar control and lower insulin levels, thereby helping to manage insulin resistance. The reduced carbohydrate intake also encourages the body to enter a state of ketosis, where fat is burned for energy instead of carbohydrates.

What is the role of ketosis in a Low-Carb Diet?

The role of ketosis in a low-carb diet is to promote the utilization of stored fat for energy when carbohydrates are restricted. Ketosis occurs when blood ketone levels reach around 0.5 to 3.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) and the body switches to burning ketones for fuel instead of glucose.

The time it takes to enter ketosis on a low-carb diet varies depending on individual factors, but it typically takes about 2 to 7 days of consuming fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. This level of carbohydrate restriction helps deplete glycogen stores and triggers the production of ketones in the liver, leading to the state of ketosis.

What are the health benefits of the Low-Carb diet?

The low-carb diet has numerous health benefits, including weight loss, improved blood lipid profiles, reduced insulin resistance, enhanced glycemic control, better glycemic control, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased satiety and reduced appetite, improved mental clarity and focus, and reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.

  • Weight loss: A 2009 study by M S Westerterp-Plantenga from Maastricht University has shown that individuals following a low-carbohydrate diet can lose more weight in the first 3–6 months compared to those on balanced diets.
  • Improved blood lipid profiles: Based on a 2003 study by Bonnie J Brehm from the University of Cincinnati, a very low-carbohydrate diet led to more significant weight loss compared to a low-fat diet, with an average weight loss of 8.5 kg versus 3.9 kg over 6 months. While both diets improved cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure and lipid levels, no significant differences were observed between the two groups at the 3- or 6-month marks.
  • Reduced insulin resistance: According to a 2009 study by Jeff S. Volek from the University of Connecticut, a low-carb diet with a macronutrient distribution of 12% carbohydrate, 59% fat, and 28% protein led to significant improvements in insulin resistance. Subjects on the low-carb diet experienced a 50% reduction in insulin levels and a 55% improvement in insulin sensitivity over a 12-week period.
  • Better glycemic control: As per a 2008 study by Jörgen V Nielsen and Eva A Joensson, a low-carbohydrate diet consisting of 20% carbohydrates has shown lasting effects in managing insulin resistance among obese patients with type 2 diabetes. The study found that the mean HbA1c levels reduced from an initial 8.0% to 6.8% after 44 months on the low-carb diet, indicating improved glycemic control.
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease: The low-carb diet has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, including lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, and improved markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
  • Increased satiety and reduced appetite: The low-carb diet has been found to increase feelings of fullness and reduce appetite, which can lead to reduced calorie intake and weight loss. Studies have shown a decrease in hunger hormones and increased satiety hormones.
  • Improved mental clarity and focus: The low-carb diet has been reported to improve cognitive function, mental clarity, and focus. Some individuals on the diet report increased productivity and enhanced mental performance.
  • Reduced risk of metabolic syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels, that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. The low-carb diet has been shown to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome by improving these markers.
  • Enhanced athletic performance: The low-carb diet has been found to enhance athletic performance, particularly in endurance sports. By training the body to use fat as a fuel source instead of carbohydrates, athletes can potentially improve their ability to sustain energy during long-duration activities.

What are the health risks of the Low-Carb Diet?

The health risks of a low-carb diet, as outlined in a 2013 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, include nutrient deficiencies, constipation, bad breath, muscle cramps, fatigue, dizziness, and an increased risk of heart disease, kidney stones, and osteoporosis.

  • Nutrient deficiencies: Low-carb diets restrict certain food groups, leading to potential deficiencies in important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Constipation: The lack of fiber in a low-carb diet can result in constipation, making it difficult to pass stools regularly.
  • Bad breath: During ketosis, the body produces ketones which can cause a distinct odor in the breath, commonly referred to as “keto breath”.
  • Muscle cramps: The reduced intake of carbohydrates can lead to electrolyte imbalances, which may result in muscle cramps and spasms.
  • Fatigue: Initially, the body may experience fatigue as it adapts to using fat as the primary source of fuel instead of carbohydrates.
  • Dizziness: The transition to a low-carb diet can cause dizziness or lightheadedness, especially during physical activity, due to lower glycogen stores.
  • Increased risk of heart disease: Some low-carb diets that are high in saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease, as saturated fats can raise cholesterol levels.
  • Kidney stones: In some cases, low-carb diets can increase the risk of kidney stones due to the higher intake of animal protein and reduced fluid intake.
  • Osteoporosis: Restricting carbohydrates may lead to lower calcium intake, potentially increasing the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.

What are the variations of the Low-Carb Diets?

The low-carb diet comes in various forms tailored to individual needs and preferences, such as low-sodium, high-protein, diabetic-friendly, Mediterranean, high-fat, vegan, plant-based, low-sugar, low-cholesterol, gluten-free, and keto versions.

low carb diet variations
Low Carb Diet: A Beginner’s Guide, Meal Plan, and Tips

What is the Low-Sodium Low-Carb Diet?

The Low Sodium Low Carb Diet restricts carbohydrate intake to below 20% of total daily calories while also limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day. It aims to manage insulin levels and lower blood pressure.

This diet is used to control blood sugar levels and reduce hypertension. The low sodium aspect specifically aims to decrease water retention and lower blood pressure. Individuals with hypertension or pre-hypertension who are also looking to manage blood sugar could benefit from this diet.

What is a High Protein Low-Carb Diet?

The high protein low carb diet consists of about 30-35% protein and less than 20% carbohydrates. It aims for rapid muscle gain and fat loss. This diet is often used for bodybuilding and weight loss. The high protein content supports muscle growth and repair. Athletes, bodybuilders, or those looking for rapid weight loss could benefit from this diet.

What is the Diabetic Low-Carb Diet?

The Diabetic Low Carb Diet limits carbohydrates to 20-50g per day and focuses on low-glycemic foods. It is designed for better glycemic control. This diet is specifically tailored to help manage type 2 diabetes and reduce dependence on medication. It aims to stabilize blood sugar levels. Individuals with type 2 diabetes or those at risk of developing diabetes could benefit.

What is the Mediterranean Low-Carb Diet?

The Mediterranean Low Carb Diet merges the benefits of low-carb eating with heart-healthy Mediterranean cuisine, keeping carbs under 50 grams while focusing on consuming around 800-900 kJ from healthy fats like olive oil. It aims for cardiovascular wellness alongside weight management. This diet suits individuals looking to improve heart health while shedding some pounds.

What is the High-Fat Low-Carb Diet?

The high-fat low-carb diet encourages fat consumption to make up around 70% of daily caloric intake while limiting carbs to fewer than 50 grams. The aim is to enter a state of ketosis for sustained energy and weight loss. People looking for improved mental clarity and weight loss could benefit from this diet.

What is the Low-Carb Vegan Diet?

The low-carb vegan diet restricts carbohydrates to below 20% of total calories and excludes all animal products. It focuses on plant-based proteins and fats. This diet is used for weight loss and ethical or environmental reasons. It aims to provide the benefits of a low-carb diet without animal products. Vegans who are also looking to lose weight or manage blood sugar could benefit.

What is the Low-Sugar Low-Carb Diet?

For those concerned about sugar, the Low Sugar Low Carb Diet is a two-pronged approach that limits both carbs and added sugars to less than 25 grams each per day. This diet focuses on weight loss and stabilizing blood sugar. It’s especially suitable for individuals with insulin sensitivity or those aiming for targeted weight loss.

What is the Low-Cholesterol Low-Carb Diet?

The low-cholesterol low-carb diet restricts carbohydrate intake and limits cholesterol to under 300 mg per day. It aims for cardiovascular health and weight loss. This diet is used to improve heart health and lower cholesterol levels. It specifically targets LDL cholesterol reduction. Individuals with high cholesterol who are also concerned with weight management could benefit.”

What is the Gluten-Free Low-Carb Diet?

Eliminating gluten is the focus of the Gluten-Free Low Carb Diet, which restricts carbs to under 20% of daily caloric intake, equivalent to about 400-500 kJ, while also avoiding gluten-containing foods. It’s geared towards those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. If you’re suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivities and also wish to manage your weight, this diet could be beneficial.

What is the Low-Carb Keto Diet?

Focusing on ketosis, the Low Carb Keto Diet restricts carbohydrate intake to a mere 5-10% of total daily calories, or about 200-400 kJ, while promoting high-fat and moderate-protein consumption. This diet aims for rapid weight loss and mental clarity by encouraging the body to burn fat for energy. Those seeking rapid weight loss or dealing with specific neurological conditions may find this diet advantageous.

What types of Low-Carb Diets vary by calorie count?

Low-carb diets can vary significantly in calorie count, catering to different weight loss goals and maintenance strategies.

types of low carb diet
What types of Low-Carb Diets vary by calorie count?
  • 800-calorie low-carb diet: This is an extremely low-calorie plan often used for rapid weight loss but should be supervised by a healthcare provider due to its restrictive nature.
  • 1,200-calorie low-carb diet: This is a more moderate approach that can also lead to significant weight loss.
  • 1,400-calorie low-carb: This type of low-carb diet may be suitable for more gradual weight loss or maintenance.
  • 2,000-calorie low-carb diet: This type of low-carb diet is often used for weight maintenance or minor weight loss, and may also suit active individuals or those with higher energy needs.

How to Do a Low-Carb Diet

The following list shows 9 steps on how to do a low-carb diet.

  1. Limit your daily carbohydrate intake to less than 50g.
  2. Increase your consumption of protein-rich foods such as lean meats, poultry, fish, and tofu.
  3. Incorporate healthy fats into your diet, including avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
  4. Choose vegetables that are low in carbohydrates, such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini.
  5. Avoid sugary foods and beverages, including desserts, sodas, and fruit juices.
  6. Opt for whole, unprocessed foods and avoid processed and packaged snacks.
  7. Read food labels carefully to identify hidden carbohydrates and choose products with lower carb content.
  8. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  9. Monitor your progress and adjust your diet as needed to meet your health and weight goals.

What can you eat on the Low-Carb Diet?

On a low-carb diet, the food list typically focuses on high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables. Foods allowed often include menu items like chicken, fish, eggs, avocados, nuts, leafy greens, bell peppers, and low-carb fruits like berries.

  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Leafy Greens
  • Bell Peppers
  • Low-carb fruits

What foods should you avoid on the low-carb diet?

On a low-carb diet, you should primarily avoid foods that are high in carbohydrates, especially those that offer little to no nutritional value. The food list of items to steer clear of typically includes sugary beverages, bread, pasta, cereals, and high-sugar fruits, as shown in the list below.

  1. Sugary sodas
  2. White bread
  3. Pasta
  4. Breakfast cereals
  5. Bananas
  6. Cookies and cakes
  7. Beer
  8. Rice
  9. Potato chips

What is the Low-Carb Diet meal plan?

A low-carb diet meal plan is a structured menu that outlines what you’ll eat for each meal. The low-carb diet meal plan usually includes a variety of foods that fit within the low-carb criteria, featuring different meals each day to provide nutritional balance and avoid monotony.

Here’s a 7-day low-carb diet meal plan.

Day 1Scrambled eggs with spinach Grilled chicken salad (Carbs: 5g)Steak with sautéed vegetables
Day 2Greek yogurt with almondsTuna and avocado wrapsSalmon with lemon and dill
Day 3Smoothie with avocado and coconut milkZucchini noodles with pesto Chicken curry with coconut milk
Day 4Chia seed puddingCauliflower rice stir-fry Pork chops with Brussels sprouts
Day 5Bacon and mushroom omelet Turkey lettuce wraps Spaghetti squash with meatballs
Day 6Low-carb pancake with blueberries Shrimp and asparagus Lamb chops with zucchini
Day 7Black coffee and a protein bar Beef and broccoli bowlVeggie-stuffed bell peppers

What is the shopping list for a low-carb diet?

A shopping list for a low-carb diet is a curated list of grocery items that fit within the low-carb criteria, typically featuring a balanced distribution of protein sources, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats among other categories. This list helps you make informed choices while grocery shopping, ensuring you pick items that align with your dietary restrictions and nutritional needs.

This table outlines a shopping list for a low-carb diet.

MeatsChicken, Beef, Turkey, Pork, Lamb, Venison, Duck, Salmon
VegetablesSpinach, Kale, Cauliflower, Zucchini, Broccoli, Lettuce, Bell Peppers, Asparagus
FruitsBerries, Avocado, Lemons, Limes, Kiwi, Grapefruit, Coconut, Olives
DairyGreek Yogurt, Heavy Cream, Cheese, Cottage Cheese, Butter, Almond Milk, Sour Cream, Cream Cheese
CondimentsMustard, Soy Sauce, Vinegar, Salsa, Hot Sauce, Pesto, Mayonnaise, Guacamole
Healthy FatsOlive Oil, Coconut Oil, Avocado Oil, Flaxseed Oil, MCT Oil, Walnut Oil, Ghee, Lard

What are some popular Low-Carb Diet Recipes?

Some popular low-carb diet recipes include Turkey Taco Lettuce Wraps, Keto Beef Stroganoff, California Grilled Chicken, Cabbage Wrap Brats, and Spicy Sesame Salmon. These recipes feature a variety of proteins such as turkey, beef, and salmon, and use low-carb ingredients like lettuce wraps, cauliflower rice, and cabbage leaves as substitutes for high-carb foods.

What should you know about the Low-Carb Diet?

The Low-Carb Diet focuses on reducing carbohydrate intake for health benefits like weight loss and better blood sugar control. It is backed by experts such as Dr. Jason Fung, Nina Teicholz, Dr. David Unwin, Gary Taubes, Dr. Eric Westman, and Dr. Dominic D’Agostino. However, its long-term sustainability and health impact are still subjects of ongoing research.

facts about low carb diet
What should you know about the Low-Carb Diet?

Statistically, low-carb diets like Atkins and keto have been the subject of numerous studies, with evidence supporting their effectiveness for weight loss and metabolic health. In terms of trends, low-carb diets have gained significant traction in the years between 2015 and 2020, often trending on social media platforms. Cost-wise, this diet can be more expensive than others, as it emphasizes high-quality proteins and fats, which are generally costlier than carbohydrate-rich foods.

How many carbs can you have on the Low-Carb Diet?

The low-carbohydrate diet can vary in terms of the amount of carbohydrates allowed, but typically it involves consuming less than 26% of daily macronutrient intake or less than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. However, very low-carb diets may have less than 10% carbohydrates or 20-50 grams per day.

How do I count carbohydrates effectively on a Low-Carb Diet?

To count carbohydrates effectively on a low-carb diet, it is important to track the total daily carbohydrate intake and focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods while limiting added sugar and refined carbohydrates.

How should I calculate my caloric intake on a low-carb diet?

To calculate your caloric intake on a low-carb diet, you should first determine your daily energy expenditure, which is the amount of calories your body needs to function. From there, you can adjust your caloric intake based on your weight loss goals. It is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to determine the appropriate caloric intake for your specific needs and to ensure you are meeting your nutritional and health requirements while following a low-carb diet.

Can a low-carb diet be part of a healthy diet?

Yes, a low-carbohydrate diet can be part of a healthy diet plan as long as it is balanced and provides sufficient calories from other nutrient-rich sources such as protein, healthy fats, and vegetables.

Is a Low-Carb Diet sustainable for the long term?

No, the long-term sustainability of a low-carb diet is not definitively established, with concerns existing about cardiovascular health, lipid levels, and renal function. Therefore, it’s unclear whether a low-carb diet can be sustained over the long term.

How long should you do a Low-Carb diet?

The duration of a low-carbohydrate diet can vary depending on individual goals and preferences. Some people choose to follow a low-carb diet for a short period of time, such as a few weeks or months, for weight loss purposes, while others may choose to make it a long-term lifestyle change.

What other diets are considered a Low-Carb Diet?

Other diets that are considered low-carb include the Atkins Diet, the Ketogenic Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Dukan Diet. These diets vary in their approach but share the common goal of reducing carbohydrate intake for health benefits.

What is the Atkins Low-Carb diet?

The Atkins Low-Carb Diet is a phased approach that begins with a very low carbohydrate intake and gradually reintroduces carbs as you progress towards your weight goals. The main advantages of the Atkins diet are rapid initial weight loss and a well-structured plan, but it also comes with the downsides of potential nutrient deficiencies and long-term sustainability challenges.

What is the Ketogenic Low-Carb Diet?

The Ketogenic Low-Carb Diet focuses on high-fat consumption to induce a state of ketosis, where the body burns fat instead of carbs for energy. The ketogenic diet is lauded for fast weight loss and improved mental clarity, but critics point to the risk of nutrient deficiencies and a potential negative impact on lipid profiles.

What is the South Beach Low-Carb Diet?

The South Beach Low-Carb Diet emphasizes lean proteins and healthy fats to stabilize blood sugar and improve heart health. Its strengths include no requirement for calorie counting and a focus on whole foods, but it can be time-consuming and requires good cooking skills.

What is the Dukan Low-Carb Diet?

The Dukan Low-Carb Diet is a high-protein, low-carb regimen that provides a list of 100 allowed foods. The key benefits of the Dukan diet are its structured plan and quick weight loss results, although it also poses the risk of nutrient deficiencies and may be hard to maintain over the long term.