How to Start a Low-Carb Diet

Going low-carb isn't about eating more steak. Learn why a low-carb diet might be a healthy option for you, including what foods to eat more and less of when you're cutting carbs the healthy way.

Maybe you have a neighbor who went on a low-carb diet plan and lost a lot of weight. Or you heard about a 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.

But does it really work? Yes, but not necessarily any better than a low-fat diet.

According to a 2020 review in the journal BMJ, both low-carb and low-fat diets had similar results at six months regarding weight loss and reduction in blood pressure. And low-carb diets had less of an effect on lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol than low-fat diets did. Low-carb diets did seem to raise HDL ("good") cholesterol, though, whereas low-fat diets did not.


Pictured recipe: Cauliflower Fried Rice with Steak

Reasons to Start a Low-Carb Diet

Weight loss is the prime reason people go on low-carb diets, says Cassie Bjork, RD, owner of Redefined Weight Loss. "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," says Bjork.

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., RDN, owner of Plant-Based with Amy in Stamford, Connecticut. "And, of course, make sure that you're not taking in excess calories that could ultimately lead to weight gain," adds Gorin. 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 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—that's 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. What you eat should bring you joy.

With that said, if you're on a low-carb diet to help manage your diabetes, then working with your healthcare practitioner 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.

Low-Carb Basics

It's important to know which foods have carbs, then build your plate based on this knowledge.

Grains, like bread and rice, are a top source of carbs, along with starchy veggies, like potatoes and corn, and legumes like kidney beans. Fruits and milk are also big sources of carbs. Nonstarchy veggies like leafy greens, broccoli and bell peppers have some carbohydrates, but typically aren't big sources for most people. Protein (chicken, fish, seafood, beef, eggs) and fats (butter, oil) do not contain carbs.

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 of cutting out all carbs, 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.

Not including enough healthy fat 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.

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 and prevent that brain fog feeling.

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.

How to Count Carbs

If you want an idea of how to count carbs, particularly if you're aiming for a certain number per day, here 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.
  • Nonstarchy veggies (think broccoli and kale) have around 5 grams of carbohydrates 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 it'll become second nature and you can stop counting.

Avoid Going 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 grains. Try our 7-day healthy-carb swaps dinner plan where vegetables shine instead of starchy carbs.

Bottom Line

A low-carb diet is a good choice for some people. Going too low with your carbohydrate intake, however, can leave you feeling lethargic, brain-foggy and unsatisfied. Before diving into a low-carb diet, do your research—learn what high-carb foods to replace with lower-carb options, and how you can eat to reach your goals while still feeling satisfied and enjoying eating.

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