A low carb diet is one that limits your consumption of carbohydrates, especially those found in bread, pasta, cereal, and sugary foods.
It is believed that consuming less carbohydrates can help stabilise your blood sugar levels and drop your insulin levels, which can in turn help manage type 2 diabetes and make it easier to burn fat stored on your body.
By eating more protein-rich foods you can increase satiety (the feeling of being full), which can help you eat only when you really feel hungry and thus lose weight (by consuming less calories overall).
What is the low carb diet?
On a low carb diet, you will eat very few carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and drinks – especially sugary foods and starchy foods – the other two being protein and fat.
They are the body’s primary source of energy. Our bodies break carbohydrates down into glucose, which provides energy for our bodies and brains.
On a low carb diet, instead of eating carbohydrates, you’ll replace them with protein-rich whole foods, vegetables and some fats.
There is no consensus on what constitutes a low carb diet, but a 2021 review defined it as one where your total consumption of carbohydrates is less than 26% or less than 130 grams per day.
Generally, a moderate low carb diet will allow you to consume up to 50 grams of net carbs per day, or for your carbohydrate intake to amount for 20 to 45 percent of your total energy consumption (which means the amount of carbohydrates you can consume will depend on your personal energy needs).
Low carb diet for beginners
A low carbohydrate diet can help you reduce the amount of carbs you eat per day, which in turn can be helpful to your weight loss aims or to better control your blood sugar.
The biggest restriction with this diet is the types of food you can consume, outside of that there are no calorie or timing restrictions, so you can eat however much you want and choose when to do so.
The low carb diet can help you lose weight by reducing excess sugar intake.
While there is a relative amount of flexibility with the low carb diet compared to other diets, there are likely to be major lifestyle changes if you are transitioning to this diet. You’ll have to learn how to stop eating pre-packaged carbs and many comforting snacks such as granola bars, cookies, and sweetened beverages.
You might need to change your shopping and eating habits and get better at reading food labels when shopping. We recommend you always enlist the help of a qualified professional who can ensure changes in your diet aren’t having negative effects on your health and to start any new eating habit incrementally, reducing consumption of non-compliant foods slowly.
One mistake many people new to this diet make is consuming high amounts of compliant but processed foods. This isn’t the healthiest approach and can have negative consequences on your health. Another mistake is to forget to consume fibre or consume too little of it. Many people new to a low carbohydrate diet suffer from constipation as a result.
How to start?
- Understand what macronutrients are and their relation to food.
- Determine how fast you want to make the transition based on your eating history.
- Limit your use of added sugar and refined carbohydrates, improve your food quality, and reach a moderate carbohydrate level in day-to-day life.
- Limit your carbs to those found in whole, unprocessed foods and consume more vegetables that grow above the ground, as these are generally lower in carbs.
What to eat on a low carb diet?
You will eat foods that are low in carbohydrates, such as:
- Vegetables: leafy green vegetables, beets, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini
- Fruits: coconut, lemon, avocado, apples, berries, cherries, grapefruit, kiwi, watermelon, melon
- Nuts and seeds: pecans, Brazil nuts, macadamias, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
- Fish: salmon, tuna, catfish, haddock, mackerel, trout, crab, shrimp
- Dairy: eggs, full-fat yogurt, sour cream, cheeses
- Meat: beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, bison
- Plant based: tofu, seitan, soy chunks
- Drinks: coffee, tea, water
Make sure you continue to include fruits, vegetables and legumes to your diet if following a low carb regime. While these are usually higher in carbs than fish and meat, they are essential for your health. Additionally, try to avoid protein form processed meats such as bacon or sausage.
What foods to avoid on a low-carb diet?
Anything high in carbohydrates should be avoided or consumed in very small quantities if you’re following this diet. Food high in carbs include:
- Sugars and sweets: cakes, deserts, candies, ice cream, sweetened beverages
- “White foods” such as: bread, pasta, cereal, flour
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, corn, butternut squash
Benefits of the low carb diet
- It can help you lose weight: by restricting foods people have a tendency to overeat, such as bread and sweets, the low carb diet can reduce your overall calorie intake and help you lose weight. This can also happen through the initial depletion of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) and its associated water stores. However, there’s not much research suggesting a low carb diet is a more effective approach than other diets for weight loss in the long term.
- Helps you feel satisfied: by eating less energy-dense and processed food, as well as having a higher protein intake, you can have better control over your appetite and feel fuller for longer. A 2016 systematic review featured in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that protein does, in fact, make people feel fuller.
- No need to count calories: calorie counting can be difficult and imprecise. It is also time consuming and can be the biggest barrier between people adhering to a new diet (which requires calorie counting) and going back to old habits. A low carb diet doesn’t require you to count calories by instead restricting your eating of carbohydrates in general.
- Manage type 2 diabetes: this diet seems to improve markers of insulin resistance. While more research is still needed in this area, studies so far seem to show that low carbohydrate diet can improve blood glucose control and push diabetes markers into remission (as long as the diet is sustained).
- Can help heart heath: A 20-year prospective study of 82,802 women found that women who ate low-carbohydrate diets that were high in vegetable sources of fat or protein had a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease. However, if the low-carb diet was high in animal fats or proteins, the women did not see any such benefits. Additionally, other long-term studies have found opposing results. Therefore, the effect of low-carb diets on cardiovascular risk factors continues to be controversial.
The low carb diet requires the elimination or serious reduction from many healthy whole-food groups such as grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables. This can have a negative impact on your gut and metabolic health or introduce nutrient deficiencies.
Cutting whole food groups from your diet always comes with caveats you’ll have to keep in mind, especially if these food groups were fulfilling some of your nutritional needs. You’ll need to educate yourself on how to replace food sources effectively.
While fruit is not at the centre of a low carb diet, it really shouldn’t be avoided as it plays an important role in a complete diet plan and your health. Generally, it’s important you consume more fruits and vegetables than any other food group, as these contain essential micronutrients your body needs to function well and prevent disease.
They also contain fibre, which is vital for your gut health. Not consuming enough fibre can lead to constipation and bloating.
For the most part, our bodies use the carbohydrates in food as the primary source of energy, so drastically reducing them from your diet can lead to fatigue while your body adapts. To mitigate these affects, make sure you’re enough calories to support your lifestyle. Even if weight loss is your goal, an extreme calorie deficit (required to lose weight) can have adverse effects.
When starting with the low carbohydrate diet, you might see negative effects on your athletic performance, as your glycogen energy stores will be depleted. While the effects might be minor to everyday athletes, they are something to consider if you regularly exercise at moderate to high intensities.
Always consult a qualified health professional before commencing a restrictive diet plan or making big changes to your diet.
- Zero-carb diet
- Keto diet
- Atkins Diet
- Paleo diet