Over the last few years, the popularity of low-carb diets has skyrocketed. More and more people are giving up carbs — and instead favoring healthy fats, protein, and plenty of fresh veggies — as a way to lose weight and improve their health.
Low-carb diets come in many shapes and sizes, but they all share a simple core idea: cutting down on your carb intake can help you look and feel your best.
But what exactly is a low-carb diet? And why is it good for you?
This beginner’s guide to low-carb dieting has everything you need to know about cutting out carbs to improve your health. It covers the benefits of low-carb, the different types of low-carb diet (ketogenic diet, Atkins diet, etc.), and how to get started on a low-carb diet today.
Carbs are a form of energy found in starchy and sugary foods — think whole grains, potatoes, pasta, bread, and so on.
On a low-carbohydrate diet, you cut down on carbs and replace them with fat and protein. Low-carb diets prioritize foods like red meat, wild fish, avocados, fresh vegetables, olive oil, and other low-carb foods that are rich in protein and fat.
A low-carb diet may focus on high-fat foods (like the ketogenic diet) or high-protein foods (like the Atkins diet).
Low-carb diets vary in the amount of carbs they recommend. Some diets suggest virtually zero carbs, while others allow for a fair amount of carbs each day.
Generally, low-carb diets can be sorted into three types[*]:
100-150 grams of carbs per day. Moderate low-carb diets are great for weight maintenance, serious/professional athletes, and people who are sensitive to carb restriction and don’t feel good eating fewer carbs. Examples of moderate low-carb diets include Paleo, Eco-Atkins, and the Zone Diet.
50-100 grams of carbs per day. This carb range is excellent for people who don’t want to give up carbs completely but want to lose weight, control their blood sugar, and manage their insulin levels. Lower-carb Paleo and Atkins 40 fall into this carb range.
0-50 grams of carbs per day. This is the strictest version of low-carb dieting, and it’s also one of the most popular. Cutting carbs to below 50 grams per day puts you into a state of ketosis, which has a variety of benefits ranging from weight loss and hunger suppression to more energy. Very-low-carb diets are great for people who want to lose weight fast, struggle with sugar cravings, or have insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, or another metabolic issue that makes them struggle to control their blood sugar levels. The ketogenic diet is the best example of a very-low-carb diet.
There’s no one style of low-carb diet that’s better than another. What matters is which type makes you feel good and gives you the best results.
If you grew up with the Food Pyramid, going low-carb may sound odd. For years, dietitians and nutritionists suggested a low-fat diet as the healthiest way to eat.
However, as nutrition research evolves, it’s becoming clear that low-carb, high-fat diets are an excellent way to improve your health.
There are quite a few health benefits to low-carb dieting, including:
Weight loss with minimal hunger
Low-carb diets stabilize your insulin and blood sugar levels, which can help a lot if you struggle with carb or sugar cravings.
A keto diet is especially good for weight loss because it both suppresses hunger[*] and helps you burn, on average, about 300 extra calories per day[*]. Less hunger and more calories burned is an ideal combination for losing weight, so it’s no wonder that more and more people are having success slimming down on a keto diet in particular.
Brain health and increased mental clarity
There’s a growing amount of evidence that eating low-carb is good for your brain, too. When you restrict carbs, your body begins to burn more and more fat as a fuel source. Metabolizing fat produces ketones, little bundles of energy that go throughout your blood and power your cells.
Your brain is especially good at running on ketones. You can picture ketones as an efficient and clean-burning fuel: they provide abundant energy for your brain while actively reducing inflammation[*][*][*].
Several studies have also found that low-carb diets reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease, with a particular benefit when it comes to heart disease risk. Low-carb diets contribute to low blood triglycerides and high healthy HDL cholesterol[*][*][*], both of which are markers of cardiovascular health.
Type 2 diabetes management
Numerous studies have found that low-carb diets — especially a keto diet — are excellent for managing type 2 diabetes. In fact, in several studies, a keto diet got rid of diabetes symptoms entirely, to the point where study participants could stop taking their insulin medication[*][*][*].
This happens because low-carb diets are excellent at stabilizing blood sugar — when your carbohydrate intake stays low, your insulin levels stay very stable, which is ideal for people with type 2 diabetes.
One reason low-carb diets are so popular is the variety of delicious low-carb food choices they allow. On a low-carb diet, you can have:
- Cheese and other low-sugar dairy products
- Olive oil
and a wide variety of other tasty foods. If you want to see an exhaustive compilation, check out this printable list of low-carb foods.
There are also foods you have to limit or avoid on a low-carb diet. Obviously, any high-carbohydrate dishes are off the table. That includes:
- Grains (even whole grains)
- Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, potatoes, and some squashes
- High-sugar desserts like cakes, candies, and cookies
When you’re on a low-carb diet, always check the nutrition label of the foods you buy. Fiber doesn’t count toward carb content because the human body can’t digest fiber, so to figure out a food’s net carbs, find the total grams of carbs on the label, then subtract the grams of fiber. In other words:
Net carbs = total carbs – fiber
You want to keep your net carbs somewhere between 0-150 grams per day, depending on which style of low-carb diet you choose to follow.
There are a lot of different ways to eat a low-carb diet. Options include:
This comparison of low-carb diets goes into each option in-depth. Take a look and choose which one looks best to you.
You can start keto right now. This complete beginner’s guide to keto has everything you need.
Ready to start low-carb? Dive right in with this free 7-day low-carb meal plan. It has easy, delicious low-carb recipes planned for every meal, and it’s a great way to get a feeling for how you respond to low-carb dieting. Give it a try and see how you feel.