How to Start a Low-Carb Diet
Hint: It's not just about eating more steak! Learn why a low-carb diet might be a healthy option for you. Plus, what foods to eat more of and less of when you're cutting carbs the healthy way.
Pictured recipe: Cauliflower Fried Rice with Steak
Maybe you have a neighbor who went on a low-carb diet and lost a lot of weight. Or you heard about so-and-so celeb who did it for a role or to lose the baby weight. Whatever your motivation, sometimes a low-carb diet can seem like the magic solution for weight loss.
And it does work: a 2016 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that compared to low-fat diets, those on a low-carb diet lost more weight after following the diet for at least six months. The downside was that low-carb followers increased their "bad" LDL cholesterol levels, too, possibly because of an increase in fat intake. So it's important to weigh the pros and cons for your personal health.
Related: Healthy Low-Carb Recipes
Reasons to Start Eating Low-Carb
Weight loss is the prime reason people go on low-carb diets, says Cassie Bjork, R.D., from healthysimplelife.com. "Then there's the added benefit of reduced sugar cravings. Since carbs turn to sugar in the body, eating fewer carbs can reduce sugar cravings and helps with weight loss," she says.
But simply cutting carbs does not guarantee you'll lose weight. Balanced meals are important to ensure you're getting the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and feel satisfied. "Following a low-carb eating plan does not always result in weight loss. No matter what eating plan you're following, you need to make sure that you're taking in a diet that provides enough nutrients-protein, fat, carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals-to keep your body properly fueled," says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, New Jersey. "And, of course, make sure that you're not taking in excess calories that could ultimately lead to weight gain," she adds. Think: overdoing it on burgers and cheese.
The key is to start a low-carb diet responsibly. That doesn't mean loading up on all the cold cuts, steaks and cheese your heart desires. Nor does it mean (unless directed by a doctor to go very low) that carbs become the enemy-you can still eat them. Depending on the program, how many carbs you're advised to eat in a day varies widely. At EatingWell, we recommend that on a low-carb diet you get about 40 percent of your calories from carbs, or at least 120 grams of carbs total per day. That amount helps you maintain a balanced diet and get all your nutrients in. It's also more doable than following super-low-carb diets. Their stringency can make them too difficult (and not fun) to follow. And what you eat should bring you joy.
One note: If you're on a low-carb diet to help manage your diabetes, then working with your doctor and/or a registered dietitian is your best option. They'll recommend how many carbs you should be eating in a day and help give you guidelines on how to count them.
Related: 30 Healthy Low-Carb Foods to Eat
The First Steps to Going Low-Carb
Know which foods have carbs, then build your plate. Grains, like bread and rice, are a top source of carbs, along with starchy veggies and legumes like potatoes, corn and beans. Fruits and milk are also big sources. Protein (chicken, fish, seafood, beef, eggs) and fats (butter, oil) do not contain carbs. Nonstarchy veggies like leafy greens, broccoli and bell peppers have some carbohydrates, but typically aren't big sources for most people.
Keep whole grains, dairy (like plain yogurt and milk), fruit and veggies in your diet. "Whole grains, fruit and vegetables provide fiber, which can keep you satiated and may help lower cholesterol," says Gorin.
Instead, Gorin recommends reducing the types of carbs that aren't healthy, such as added sugar and refined carbs. Think cookies, soda, and sugary cereals. Instead of sweetening your oatmeal with maple syrup, use fruit. A dollop of almond or peanut butter on a sweet potato with dinner can replace brown sugar.
One mistake is forgetting to add good fats into your meals. "A lot of people think that low carb means eating steaks all day long, but an often overlooked component is getting plenty of healthy fats," says Bjork. "Healthy fat keeps you full and will take the place of some of the carbs you used to be eating," she says. This is the main reason why people get hungry-and fall off the wagon into a face full of granola bars and snack mixes. Examples of healthy fats include avocado, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.
Related: No-Sugar-Added Meal Plan
How to Put a Low-Carb Diet Together
Make sure to space out your carbohydrates throughout the day, says Gorin. Carbs provide glucose, which is the fuel your brain runs on, so this will help you feel on top of your game.
When building your plate, Gorin recommends a meal with four components: protein (e.g., chicken, salmon), healthy fat, a fruit or nonstarchy vegetable and a whole grain or starchy vegetable. If you're limiting carbs, you might have a half-cup of brown rice, rather than a whole cup, or a small sweet potato, not a huge one.
If you want an idea of how to count carbs, particularly if you're aiming for a certain number per day, there are some general guidelines. Starch (grains, beans, starchy veggies) and fruits contain around 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Milk has 12 grams per serving. And nonstarchy veggies (think broccoli and kale) have around 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving. Meats, fats and oils contain zero grams of carbs. A food diary app (like MyFitnessPal or Lose It!) can also help you keep track of your daily carb intake.
It can feel annoying to keep track of carbs at first, but with practice you'll get an idea of how you like to divvy them up in your meals, and soon you can stop counting-it'll feel like second nature.
Don't Go Too Low
While a low-carb diet might help with weight loss in the long run, you don't want to go too low. Make sure to still consume carbs from healthy sources, like fruits, vegetables and whole whole grains. Try our 7-day healthy-carb swaps dinner plan where vegetables shine instead of starchy carbs.
Related: Low-Carb Vegetarian Meal Plan