Low Carbohydrate Diet
A low-carb diet is one that has a limited amount of carbohydrates such as sugars, bread, pasta, starchy vegetables, and sweet fruits.
The low-carb diet can lead to a variety of benefits, including lower blood sugar levels, decrease fluctuation of blood glucose, weight loss, and improved brain, heart, and overall health. It focuses on eating clean protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables.
In this article, we will explore foods to enjoy and foods to limit, the benefits of lower-carb eating, comparison to the ketogenic diet, and pitfalls to watch out for.
What is a low carbohydrate diet?
There are many versions of low carb eating and what exactly you put on your plate will depend on your health goals, activity level and unique medical history.
The difficult thing about low carbohydrate diets is that there is no one specific definition of just how many carbs they include. The Standard American Diet ranges from 45-65% of calories coming from carbohydrates which are up to 325 g of carbs/day for a 2000-calorie diet.
Many research publications study around 130 g of carbs for a low carb diet. While it is debated whether greater than 130 g/day of carbohydrates is considered low carb, there is a consensus in the field of nutrition that under 130 g /day of carbs (~100 g net carb) is considered a low carb diet. For a 2000-calorie diet, this is about 26% of calories come from carbohydrates.
The macronutrient breakdown will vary based on your individual health goals, lifestyle, and the number of calories you are consuming. A general guideline for low carb eating:
16-35% calories from carbohydrates
20-30% calories from protein
35-64% calories from fat.
Foods to eat and foods to avoid: the complete food list
Focus on whole, nutrient-dense food options
- Fish/seafood such as salmon, cod, tuna, trout, haddock, mackerel, herring, shrimp, scallops, and crab
- Meats such as poultry, beef, pork, lamb, and wild game
- Plant proteins such as beans, lentils, edamame, and tofu
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, butter, ghee, coconut, nuts, and seeds
- Full-fat dairies such as yogurt, kefir, milk, and cheese
- Vegetables, including all non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, green beans, zucchini, mushrooms, and others
- Fruits such as low glycemic fruits including berries, cherries, grapefruit, oranges, pears, apples, and peaches
- Beverages such as water, unsweetened coffee, tea, and sparkling water
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, winter squash, purple potatoes, corn, beets, parsnips
- Whole grains such as brown rice, wild black rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and oats
- Dark chocolate – 70% or higher
Foods to avoid
- Sugar: sweetened beverages, fruit juices, sweets, ice cream, candy, cookies, added sugars, high fructose corn syrup
- Refined grains: white bread, cereals, pasta, bagels, white rice
- Highly processed foods: look for ingredients you recognize
- Highly processed fats and oils: trans fats, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, vegetable oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, palm oil, soybean oil
Simple Versus Complex Carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Simple and complex carbohydrates act very differently in the body. When following a low-carb diet and you are choosing which foods contain carbohydrates to eat, it is best to opt for complex carbs.
Simple carbohydrates are easily digested and absorbed and can cause a blood sugar spike. A spike in blood sugar can trigger inflammation in the body and then leaves you with a dip in energy. It can also contribute to diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, and even “ brain fog” and memory loss. You will likely find yourself craving more and more.
In addition, the nutrient value of these foods is minimal and they do not contain fiber which helps to keep you full.
Simple carbohydrates include white bread, white pasta, white rice, sugar, sweets, candy, pastries, and sweetened beverages.
Complex carbohydrates are a better option to fuel your body. Complex carbs digest slower and leave you with longer-lasting energy. They contain fiber to promote a gradual, natural blood sugar rise instead of a spike and then a dip. They are more nutrient dense and often contain more B vitamins, iron, folate, potassium, selenium, and magnesium.
Complex carbs leave you feeling more satisfied with fewer calories.
Complex carbs include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, and oats.
Many complex carb foods, such as fruits, have a mix of carbohydrates including both natural sugar and fiber. It is good to be aware that the more tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango and papaya as well as dried fruits tend to have higher amounts of natural sugars.
Simple swaps to boost your complex carb intake:
- Pasta —> zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, miracle noodles, palmini, lentil pasta, black bean pasta, soybean pasta, chickpea pasta.
- Crackers —> almond flour crackers, nut and seed crackers.
- White rice —> brown rice, wild rice, cauliflower rice.
It is better to calculate the carbs that you receive from a meal as the net carbs.
Net carbohydrates = total carbohydrates – fiber.
For example, a serving of red lentil curry is 30 g of carbs but 11 g of fiber, so the net carb is the total carb (30 g) minus the fiber (11 g) and will give you 19 g of net carbs.
Fiber is a form of carbohydrate that is not digested and absorbed by the body, and it does not negatively impact blood sugar. Fiber delays the absorption of carbs from a meal and helps to avoid a blood sugar spike and a dip.
Net carbs are the carbohydrates left over that will be absorbed by the body
By looking at net carbs, it allows for more variety and plant food options to fit into your low carb eating plan. Examples are beans and lentils, which are rich in fiber and low in simple carbs.
Aim for about 100 g or less of net carbs per day, for a low carb eating style. Try to spread out the carbs throughout the day by eating smaller portions at each meal and snack, instead of all at one time.
Benefits of the low carb diet:
The benefits of a low carb diet will vary from person to person. Benefits include:
- Promoting weight loss
- Improving blood sugar and insulin levels
- Reducing the need for medication to help control blood sugar
- Improving heart health and brain health
- Preventing the development of chronic disease and neurological diseases
Low carb diet compared to keto diet
The low carb diet and keto diet can be easily mixed up, and you might even find some sources using these names interchangeably. There are, however, a few big differences between these two styles of eating.
The keto diet is a very low carb diet that restricts legumes, fruits, grains and starchy vegetables, which can, in moderation, fit into a low carb diet. The goal of the keto diet is to get the body into a state of ketosis, burning fat as the primary fuel source. The low carb diet allows enough carbohydrates that the body is typically not running on fat alone.
Both diets focus on healthy fats, proteins and vegetables at each meal and promote healthy blood sugar levels, weight loss, and brain health.
If you are looking for a more gentle and inclusive lower carb eating style, then the low carb diet would be the choice for you.
Pitfalls of a low carb diet
Make sure to get adequate healthy fats on a low carb diet such as 1-2 Tablespoons of healthy oil like olive oil or ½ avocado with meals, in order to promote satiety and curb carb cravings. Otherwise, you will be hungry and prone to overeat. Healthy fats include olive oil, avocado, avocado oil, butter, cold water fish and fish oil, full fat cheese, nuts, seeds and olives.
Make sure to eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables because these will be the staple food to your diet. Vegetables are low in carbohydrates and calories and contain fiber which helps keep you feeling full and satisfied after a meal.
The low carb eating style can take time to plan and prep in order to have meals and snacks available for when you are hungry and ready to eat.
Discuss with a Registered Dietitian about your personalized low carb eating plan to assess just how many calories and carbohydrates would best to optimize your health.
What a balanced low carbohydrate diet looks like
In general, each complete meal should contain a protein component such as fish, beans, lentils, chicken, beef, eggs, or pork, and two non-starchy vegetable sides such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, salad, spaghetti squash and more.
When focusing on low carb eating, you should prioritize vegetables to fill up half or over half of your plate. Vegetables are high in nutrients but low in calories and provide fiber that fills your stomach and leaves you feeling full and satisfied after a meal. When cooking at home, choose two different non-starchy vegetables to fill your plate to keep your meal colorful and diverse.
When choosing LifeChef components opt for two vegetable sides to leave you feeling satisfied and energized.
Healthy fat is also important to include to create balanced meals. Aim for about 1-2 Tablespoons of healthy fat such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, ground flax seed, chia seeds, nuts or seeds or ½ an avocado, 8 olives or 1 oz cheese with meals. Healthy fats are helpful for promoting satiety after eating, providing antioxidants, promoting hormone health and slowing the increase of blood sugar. Fats are not the problem, it is eating unhealthy fats or too much fats that can contribute to weight gain and other health issues.
You do not need to go overboard with the fats because these can add a significant amount of calories to your diet. How much fat you include with your meals will depend on your unique health goals and calorie needs.
In addition to protein, vegetables, and healthy fat, you may also choose one portion of a starchy vegetable side such as sweet potato or roasted root vegetables. Whole grains can also fit into a low carb eating style in moderation such as ½ cup oats, ⅓ cup brown rice, ⅓ cup wild rice, or ½ quinoa on occasion. Starchy vegetables and whole grains contain fiber which helps to reduce the net carb count, but be careful of serving size and aim for one of these types of foods no more than once a day.
Fruit, in moderation, can be a part of a low carb diet. Aim for 1-2 servings / day. One serving is ¾ cup berries, 1 small piece of fruit, 1 cup melon, ½ grapefruit, 12 cherries, 15 grapes, or ½ cup unsweetened applesauce. Pair fruit with a few nuts or with a meal to avoid a blood sugar spike.
LifeChef low carb diet
LifeChef makes eating low carbs easy and enjoyable! We take out the guesswork and make sure each meal has no more than 30 g net carbs so that you can keep within the low carb boundaries. Many meals will be less than 30 g net carbs but this number allows room to include plant proteins and complex carb vegetables for more flexibility and diversity of healthy foods.
The carbs from our low carb meal plan come from whole food sources, complex carb foods, and high quality ingredients. You will not find added sugars or highly processed foods here!
You will choose from a large variety of protein and vegetable options to keep diversity and enjoyment in your diet.
In addition, LifeChef meal components already include healthy fats such as olive oil, full fat coconut milk, butter, or cheese. You do not have to worry about keeping the balance because we do it for you!
Eliminate the stress of meal planning, recipe browsing, and food prepping and save time for friends, family, relaxation, and fun activities. Enjoy your customized, heat and eat, whole food, low carb meals delivered right to your door!
By Amy Laessig, RDN, LDN, CHC.