What can you eat on a low-carb diet?
Carbohydrates or carbs are one of three main food types that the body needs to work properly. The other two are protein and fat. Carbs give the body energy. The body breaks carbs down to use immediately or later.
If the body does not need to use the carbs for energy as soon as a person eats them, it stores them in the muscles and liver to use later. However, if the body does not use these stored carbs, the body converts them to fat.
Why follow a low-carb diet?
Eggs are a low-carb food.
Many people follow low-carb diets on the basis that if the body does not receive extra carbohydrates, it will not store excess fat.
The idea, then, is that the body will burn some of the stored fat rather than the carbs, which will promote fat loss.
Research from 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who followed a low-carb diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet after 6 months, but not after 12 months.
The study noted that "longer and larger studies are required to determine the long-term safety and efficacy of low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diets."
Ten low-carb diet tips
Many people find following a low-carb diet challenging, particularly at the beginning of the diet. The following low-carb diet tips might help people stick to their diet and may help them lose weight successfully.
1. Knowing what foods are low-carb
Low-carb foods include:
- lean meats, such as sirloin, chicken breast, or pork
- leafy green vegetables
- cauliflower and broccoli
- nuts and seeds, including nut butter
- oils, such as coconut oil, olive oil, and rapeseed oil
- some fruit, such as apples, blueberries, and strawberries
- unsweetened dairy products including plain whole milk and plain Greek yogurt
2. Know the carb counts and serving sizes of foods
Most low carb diets only allow for 20 to 50 grams (g) of carbohydrates per day. Because of this, it is essential that people following low-carb diets choose foods that have a lower carb count but a high nutritional value per serving.
The foods in the quantities listed below all contain approximately 15 g of carbs:
- 1 tennis ball sized apple or orange
- 1 cup of berries
- 1 cup of melon cubes
- ½ medium banana
- 2 tablespoons of raisins
- 8 ounces of milk
- 6 ounces of plain yogurt
- ½ cup corn
- ½ cup peas
- ½ cup beans or legumes
- 1 small baked potato
- 1 slice of bread
- 1/3 cup of cooked rice
While the foods listed above all contain roughly equal amounts of carbohydrates, they are not all nutritionally equivalent. The dairy products on the list contain protein and vital nutrients, such as Vitamin D and calcium in addition to the carbohydrate content.
The fruit and vegetables also contain essential vitamins and minerals. Choosing whole-grain varieties of bread and rice will provide more nutrients than white varieties, even though the carb content is similar.
3. Make a meal plan
A meal plan can help a person organise their food for the forthcoming week.
A meal plan can help make things easier.
Anyone trying to follow a low-carb diet could try mapping out their week and plan all meals before heading to the grocery store.
Planning meals in advance can help people stick to the diet.
Knowing what they are going to eat for lunch and dinner can help a person avoid making unhealthful food choices, such as stopping at a fast food restaurant.
4. Meal prep
Planning is one thing, but preparing meals ahead of time can also help. Meal prep can help a person:
- avoid making unhealthful food choices
- save time during busier times of the week
- save money
Some people like to prepare a week's worth of breakfasts and lunches ahead of time and store the meals in containers, so they are convenient and ready to go. It is possible to freeze some meals too, meaning people can prepare even more food in advance.
Having lots of pre-prepared meals on hand can help people avoid choosing less healthful options.
Popular low-carb meals to prepare in advance include:
- egg muffins
- Greek yogurt bowls
- protein pancakes
- chicken lettuce wraps
- protein and vegetable stir fry with no rice
5. Carry low-carb snacks
Low-carb snack options for between meals include:
- hard boiled eggs
- unsweetened yogurt
- baby or regular carrots
- handful of nuts
It is essential to regulate portion size of any snacks to avoid overeating.
6. Consider carb cycling
Carb cycling involves eating very low-carb foods for a set amount of days, followed by one day of eating higher carb meals. This helps the body avoid fat-burning plateaus that can develop after weeks of low-carb dieting.
Carb cycling is not for everyone, and anyone considering it should talk to their doctor or nutritionist first.
7. Not all carbs are created equal
Carbs come in different forms.
Simple carbs consist of easy to digest sugars. Refined and processed carbs, such as white sugar and white flour, are simple carbs.
People who are starting on a low-carb diet need to think about reducing their intake of refined and processed carbs. Avoiding these carbs will be beneficial for reaching an ideal weight and for health in general.
However, not all simple carbs are created equal. Fruits include fructose, which is a simple carb, but eating fruit is recommended in a low-carb diet, as it is loaded with nutrients and is a whole-food source of carbs.
Complex carbs take longer to digest than simple carbs, as they need to be broken down into a simpler form. Complex carbs are found in more nutrient-rich foods, such as beans, whole-grains, and fiber-rich fruits, such as bananas.
Complex carbs also have the added benefit of making a person feel full faster, which might prevent them from overeating. Complex carbs also make people feel full for longer, which might help them avoid snacking between meals.
8. Be aware of alternatives
Lettuce leaf tacos are a recommended low-carb alternative.
Substituting high-carb foods for low-carb or no-carb foods can help reduce carb intake.
Some low-carb substitutions include:
- lettuce leaves instead of taco shells
- portobello mushroom caps instead of buns
- baked butternut squash fries
- eggplant lasagna
- cauliflower pizza crust
- spaghetti squash instead of noodles
- zucchini ribbons instead of pasta
9. Exercise appropriately
Exercise is an important part of overall health. People should avoid a sedentary lifestyle but refrain from excessive exercising.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults do moderate exercise for 150 minutes a week for a minimum 10 minutes at a time for moderate health benefits. For optimal health benefits, the CDC recommend 300 minutes of exercise. The CDC also suggest that people lift weights or do other strength training exercises to improve overall health.
Those on low-carb diets may want to avoid long periods of intense activity such as distance running. This is because people who are doing a form of exercise that requires extra endurance, such as marathon training, will need extra carbohydrates to fuel their bodies.
10. Use common sense
People should know about potential health risks before starting a low-carb diet.
Short-term health risks caused by a low-carb diet may include:
- high cholesterol
- brain fog
- lack of energy
- bad breath
- reduced athletic performance
Long-term health risks caused by a low-carb diet may include:
- nutritional deficiencies
- loss of bone density
- gastrointestinal problems
Some people should not follow a low-carb diet unless instructed to do so by a doctor. These groups of people include those with kidney disease and teenagers.
Not everyone will benefit from, or should even consider, a low-carb diet. Anyone thinking about doing a low-carb diet should speak with a doctor before starting.
A low-carb diet can have some benefits, including weight loss. With some planning and appropriate substitutions, most people can follow a low-carb diet. However, a low-carb diet may not be the best way to achieve long-term or sustainable health goals.
When following a low-carb diet, it is essential that people eat healthfully and do not overeat certain foods, such as very fatty meats.
People looking to lose weight or considering going on a low-carb diet should speak to their doctor or nutritionist before making any significant changes.