You've decided you're going on a low-carb diet. So what do you actually eat? The key to not feeling deprived is to consume a variety of foods from all the food groups—even grains can fit nicely into low-carb eating.
Pictured Recipe: Chicken Enchilada-Stuffed Spaghetti Squash
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 and less restrictive than following super-low-carb diets.
Pictured Recipe: Quinoa Lasagna
Quinoa's one of the grains with the biggest fanfare, thanks to its protein content (8 grams per cup) and fiber (5 grams per cup). But remember, just because it's a higher-protein grain doesn't mean it's low in carbs. One cup of cooked quinoa has 39 grams of carbohydrate, so make sure to plan that into your day or serve up a half-cup on your plate.
Pictured Recipe: Chocolate Banana Oatmeal
If you're going to have a big bowl of carbs—even on a low-carb diet—make it oatmeal. Oats contain beta-glucan, which helps slow digestion. In a study in Nutrition Journal, eating oatmeal helped reduce appetite over four hours better than cold cereal containing the same amount of calories. Whether you're going for a serving of old-fashioned or quick oats, they both contain 27 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup dry. Make sure you buy plain versions rather than flavored instant oats, which come with a lot of added sugar.
Pictured Recipe: Creamy Polenta
Made from cornmeal, polenta is a staple of Italian cooking. You can whip it up at home or buy ready-to-eat polenta in rolls that you slice. A 3.5-ounce portion (one-fifth of the roll) contains only 15 grams of carbs, quite low when it comes to grains. If you're gluten-free, polenta also makes a good choice.
Pictured Recipe: Parmesan Cloud Eggs
One large egg packs 6 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat and less than 1/2 gram carbs all in a nice 72-calorie package. Eat the yolk: new research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that while eggs do contain cholesterol, they don't increase your risk of heart disease—even if you have a gene that makes you more sensitive to dietary cholesterol. They also pack important nutrients, including vitamin D, lutein and choline.
Pictured Recipe: Cauliflower Tortilla Beef Tacos
Meat is fair game because it's all protein and no carbs. (Keep in mind, while it has a good amount of vitamins and minerals, meat also contains no fiber. Translation: You shouldn't overdo it on the meat and crowd out the whole grains, fruits and vegetables that add fiber in your diet.) You know chicken is a lean source of protein, but 20 cuts of beef are also considered "lean" or "extra lean" by the USDA. Smart choices include eye of round roast, sirloin tip side steak, bottom round roast and top sirloin steak.
Pictured Recipe: Green Tea-Peach Smoothie Bowl
The best thing about these is that you can sprinkle hemp on foods like yogurt, salads or oatmeal to add a nutty crunch and good source of vegetarian protein. A 3-tablespoon serving contains 9 grams of protein, 1 gram of fiber and 170 calories. Plus, they're a rich source of iron, magnesium and zinc.
Pictured Recipe: Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto & Shrimp
These crustaceans are great to add to meals, especially if you're looking to lose weight. Three ounces of shrimp offers a whopping 20 grams of protein for only 84 calories. Just make sure to prep them grilled or lightly sautéed—breading and frying add unnecessary carbs and calories.
Pictured Recipe: Thai Coconut Curry Soup
Whether it's edamame, tofu or soymilk, soy is a good choice when you need ample protein for little carbs. A 3.5-ounce serving of extra-firm tofu packs 10 grams of protein and only 2 grams of carbohydrate. A cup of edamame has 18 grams of protein and is a little higher in carbs with 14 grams. One cup of soymilk has 7 grams of protein and only 4 grams of carbs. If you go for soymilk, make sure you're drinking unsweetened; sweetened versions pack more than twice the carbs because of the added sugar.
Pictured Recipe: Dan Dan Noodles with Seitan, Shiitake Mushrooms & Napa Cabbage
You might think you have to stay away from seitan—a vegetarian meat substitute made from wheat gluten—because, well, it's made from wheat. However, a 3-ounce serving offers just 2 grams of carbs and an impressive 12 grams of protein.
Pictured Recipe: Chocolate Peanut Butter
Peanuts are technically a legume (the same family as beans), so they do have 7 grams of carbs per serving. But 2 tablespoons of peanut butter packs 7 grams of protein and 16 grams of healthy, satiating fats. Many brands flavor with sugar, including honey and maple syrup. To limit sugar (and carbs), choose those made with only peanuts. Other nut butters, like almond butter, cashew butter and pistachio butter are also great choices.
Pictured Recipe: Homemade Trail Mix
Think almonds (23 whole ones offer 6 grams of protein and 6 grams of carbs), walnuts (14 halves pack 4 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs) or pistachios (49 nuts have 6 grams of protein and 8 grams of carbs). The great thing about nuts is that they're also a stellar source of fiber, another nutrient that gives your meals and snacks staying power. These choices all supply 2 to 4 grams of fiber per serving. (Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day.)
An easily portable serving of protein, one cheese stick contains just 80 calories for 6 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of carbohydrate. Plus, a small recent study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that eating cheese may produce good bacteria that keep your gut healthy.
Pictured Recipe: Sicilian Marinated Olives
There's a reason you may be served a small dish of olives (rather than bread) in countries like Spain and Portugal before your meal: they're bursting with flavor. Olives are also brimming with heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. And a quarter cup is just 40 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrate, plus 1 gram of fiber. Now you can find these in handy snack packs for conveniently toting around.
Jerky recently got a gourmet makeover, and is now available with ingredients like responsibly raised turkey, chicken, beef and bison in inventive flavors (like herbs, citrus and teriyaki). With about 7 grams of protein and just 2 grams of carbs per 1-ounce stick, this is a great way to stave off mid-afternoon munchies without reaching for chips. Just try to find a brand with the least sodium.
Pictured Recipe: Roasted Beet Hummus
Non-starchy crunchy veggies like cucumbers and celery are great picks for dipping into hummus (about 4 grams of carbs per 2-tablespoon serving). The chickpeas in hummus provide protein and ample B vitamins, which are vital for helping your body convert food into fuel. Want another dip? Try salsa or mix Greek yogurt with lemon juice, garlic and herbs.
Pictured Recipe: Cauliflower Pizza Crust
This brassica is having a moment as a popular veggie. Low carbers will appreciate it because it can be mashed like potatoes. Or throw it into the food processor to make "cauliflower rice," which can then be used in "rice" bowls and stir-fries. Some grocery stores even sell packaged cauliflower rice for easy kitchen prep.
Pictured Recipe: Spiralized Zucchini & Summer Squash Casserole
We love zucchini because it's so versatile. Using a vegetable peeler or a handy spiralizer, zucchini can be transformed into spaghetti- or linguini-like "noodles" as a low-carb substitute for pasta. Don't miss our veggie noodle recipes including zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash and more!
Pictured Recipe: Spaghetti Squash with Roasted Tomatoes, Beans & Almond Pesto
Another great pick, spaghetti squash can be baked or roasted and then, using a fork, the "squash noodles" pulled out. Like zucchini noodles, you can top them with pasta sauce. Or, bake these into casseroles or lasagna—the squash is great at taking on whatever flavors it's paired with. See our delicious spaghetti squash recipes for inspiration.
Pictured Recipe: Sweet Potato Skins with Guacamole
All taters are starchy veggies (along with others like corn and peas), so they have more carbs. A medium sweet spud contains 24 grams of carbohydrate, so pair it with baked chicken or fish and a green veggie like broccoli for a well-rounded meal. The fiber (4 grams) helps slow digestion, and sweet potatoes are bursting with disease-busting antioxidants called carotenoids.
Pictured Recipe: Raspberry Yogurt with Dark Chocolate
Berries are winners because they're lower in sugar and high in fiber, so they keep your body on an even energy keel. Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries are all good picks when you're hankering for fruit. One cup of blueberries delivers 84 calories and 21 grams of carbs, a cup of blackberries has 62 calories and 14 grams of carbs, sliced strawberries deliver 53 calories and 13 grams of carbs per cup and raspberries have 64 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrate in 1 cup.
Pictured Recipe: Orange Fruit Salad
Super-refreshing, this melon ranks lower on the calorie scale of fruits—just 50 calories per cup of cubes, and 13 grams of carbs.
Pictured Recipe: Purple Fruit Salad
These are great because they're usually on the smaller end, so they have built-in portion control. One fruit contains just 30 calories, 8 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of fiber. Plus, these are also portable for on-the-go eating.
No matter what type of fruit you're eating, make sure you choose fresh rather than juice or dried fruit. Juice contains no fiber, so the sugar can spike your blood sugar quickly. Dried fruit is often sweetened with added sugars or juices, and cup-for-cup generally contains four times the calories (and carbs).
Pictured Recipe: Strawberry-Chocolate Greek Yogurt Bark
Dairy isn't out just because you're low carb. Go for Greek yogurt, which has a higher protein content compared to regular yogurt. One 6-ounce container offers 17 grams of protein and only 6 grams of carbs, plus it's a good source of bone-maintaining calcium. It's a low-carb choice only if you go plain, though. Fruit blends pack a few teaspoons of added sugar and three times the amount of carbs. Make your own with our DIY recipe for Greek yogurt.
Pictured Recipe: Berry-Kefir Smoothie
While kefir—a tangy fermented milk drink—contains just as many carbs as milk, it's got the added benefit of probiotics, which help improve your gut health. It's also lactose-free, so if you have trouble stomaching regular milk, kefir can be a good way to get protein (1 cup provides 11 grams), vitamin D (one-quarter of your daily quota) and calcium (nearly one-third of what you need in a day).
Pictured Recipe: Blueberry Almond Chia Pudding
Obviously, this isn't dairy, but if you're looking for a nondairy alternative to cow's milk, know they're not all equal when it comes to nutrition. Low-carb choices include nut (like almond) and coconut milk. Avoid rice and oat milks, which will run you over 20 grams of carbs per cup, and watch out for added sugars.
Pictured Recipe: Cottage Cheese Veggie Dip
Don't forget about cottage cheese. It's a protein powerhouse rivaling Greek yogurt, with 24 grams per cup. Turn to cottage cheese when you want to switch up your breakfast routine, or as a quick snack topped with cinnamon and berries.
Pictured Recipe: Coconut Whipped Cream
We're talking the stuff from a can (not the nondairy milk substitute). One-third of a cup of "lite" coconut milk contains 50 calories and 1 gram carbs. Scoop out the thick, custard-like milk up top and whip it into a nondairy whipped cream to top berries for a low-carb dessert. See how to make DIY coconut whipped cream.
Pictured Recipe: Oatmeal-Almond Protein Pancakes
Next time you're baking a dessert, swap out some regular flour for almond flour (also called almond meal). Made from finely ground almonds, the flour adds vitamin E, belly-slimming monounsaturated fats and some extra protein to cookies, cakes and sweet breads.
Pictured Recipe: Chocomole Pudding
You can make avocado pudding by whirling together nut milk, avocado and flavorings like cocoa powder in a food processor. Avocado may be a fruit, but it's a rich source of good-for-you fats. Careful on the calories here: one whole avocado contains about 320. The upside is that it also packs nearly 14 grams of filling fiber and respectable 4 grams of protein.