In the past two decades, low-carb diets have skyrocketed in popularity. People are looking to decrease carbohydrate intake — while increasing consumption of fat, protein, and vegetables — to fight obesity, inflammation, and chronic illnesses. But is there such a thing as the best low-carb diet?
The truth is, not all low-carb diets are created equal. Below, you’ll learn the differences between 12 popular low-carb diets, the benefits of each, and how to select one that is right for you.
A low-carb diet aims to improve overall health and support weight loss by reducing your carbohydrate intake from processed foods, while increasing fats and protein-rich foods. A low-carb diet can either focus on high-fat foods (like the ketogenic diet) or high-protein foods (like the South Beach diet) and vary in the amount of recommended carbs.
Low-carb diets can be divided into three types:
- Liberal: 100–150 grams of carbs per day. Liberal carb consumption is best for weight maintenance, people who exercise regularly or are sensitive to carb restriction. The Eco-Atkins and Zone Diet are good examples of liberal low-carb diets.
- Moderate: 50–100 grams of carbohydrates per day. Moderate carb consumption helps people lose weight at a gradual rate while controlling blood glucose levels. The Atkins 40 diet is a prime example.
- Strict: 0–50 grams of carbs per day. Strict carb consumption is ideal for people who want to lose weight quickly and enter ketosis to use ketones as energy instead of glucose. The ketogenic and Atkins 20 diets are good examples.
Carbohydrates turn into glucose in your body, becoming the primary energy source for your cells. When you eat a banana or a sandwich, the glucose from the carbs is absorbed into your bloodstream.
Next, your pancreas produces insulin. Insulin regulates your carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. Eating too many carbs can disturb the balance between insulin and glucose, putting you at risk for several chronic conditions.
#1: Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes
Insulin resistance happens when your cells don’t respond well to insulin, and can’t properly absorb the glucose that insulin carries into your bloodstream. To make up for it, your pancreas produces more insulin. Overtime, this causes both your blood sugar and insulin levels to go up[*].
Insulin resistance is one of the precursors to type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes. It’s also closely related to obesity, although you can experience insulin resistance without being overweight[*].
#2: Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Insulin resistance is also a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Since insulin regulates the metabolism of fat, carbs, and protein, it naturally stimulates fat production[*].
When you eat carbs, your liver stores excess glucose as fat. If your liver produces too much fat, you can develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the most common chronic liver disease in adults and children in the United States[*].
#3: Weight Gain
Many studies show that low-carb diets are more effective for weight loss than low-fat diets. This holds true even if participants do not limit their caloric intake on a high-fat diet. A high-fat, low carbohydrate diet also appears to be a more effective fat loss tool, specifically reducing visceral fat around the abdomen[*].
#4: Cardiovascular Disease
Insulin resistance triggered by a high-carb diet has adverse effects on your heart health. Insulin resistance greatly increases your risk of a number of cardiovascular diseases, which can lead to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, heart attack, and stroke[*].
#5: Energy Crashes
Foods with a high glycemic index have more carbs and contribute to energy crashes. One study found that those who consumed a high glycemic meal had increased blood sugar and insulin levels, causing participants to fall asleep faster than those who ate a low-glycemic meal[*].
Here are four incredible perks that can come from adopting a low-carb diet.
#1: Rapid Weight Loss
Research shows that low-carb diets are effective for rapid weight loss and are recommended for people who are obese or have high cholesterol[*].
A low-carb diet can help fight off cravings, modify food preferences, and decrease hunger, leading to natural weight loss. Eating a strict low-carb diet with 20 or fewer grams of carbs per day has been shown to reduce cravings, increase satiety, and make you feel fuller, longer[*]:
#2: Enhanced Exercise Performance
Eating a low-carb diet five to six days per week, followed by an increase in carbohydrates for one day to replenish glycogen levels, has been shown to improve athletic performance. Athletes on a low-carb diet performed better and burned more fat without depleting their glycogen stores, which is necessary for muscle health and growth. These athletes also experienced an increase in endurance and fat oxidation[*]
#3: Improved Mental Clarity
The energy molecules fat creates in your body are called ketones. Fat can offer considerable benefits to cognitive performance that glucose cannot. When your body gets energy by using the ketones eating fat create as fuel, your brain performance improves because of low glutamate levels in your brain. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that, in excess amounts, can cause neuron damage and death. Ketones effectively flush them out of your brain[*].
#4: Disease Prevention and Treatment
A low-carb diet can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of several medical conditions. Studies show that low-carb, high-fat diets, like the keto diet, decreases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and cancer[*][*][*][*][*]. It has also been shown to greatly reduce inflammation, which is known to cause a number of diseases[*].
While some foods are not allowed on a low-carb diet, here’s a generic food list for what you can eat on the best low-carb diet. You’ll consume meat, eggs, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some dairy.
- Red meat, including grass-fed beef, venison, pork, lamb, deer, organ meats, and bone broth
- Poultry, including chicken, turkey, duck, and eggs
- Seafood, including salmon, halibut, cod, trout, sardines, shrimp, and flounder
- Dairy, including soft and hard cheeses, butter, milk, yogurt, kefir, and sour cream
- Fats and oils, including coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil
- Nuts and seeds, including almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Non-starchy veggies, including broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens, zucchini, and bell peppers
- Low-sugar fruits including blueberries, lemons, limes, and raspberries
- Herbs, spices, and zero-sugar sweeteners
On a low-carb meal plan, you’ll cut out starch, sugar, and most grains. Here’s what you should avoid on a healthy, low-carb diet:
- Processed or cured meats, like hot dogs and sausages
- Grains (even whole grains) such as rice, wheat, rye, quinoa, and millet
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, parsnips, corn, and peas
- High-glycemic fruits including bananas, mangoes, papaya, apples, oranges, grapes, and dried fruit
- Sugar, including cane sugar, coconut sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, and honey
- Processed foods, including baked treats, ice-cream, chips, soda, and candy
Wondering which is the best low-carb diet for you? Compare and contrast the 12 most popular below.
#1: Atkins Diet: 20 and 40 Method
The Atkins diet is a low-carb diet developed in 1972 by cardiologist Dr. Robert Atkins. He discovered a low-carb approach provided weight loss benefits — without the usual hunger pangs — by testing it on himself and 65 others. He published his findings in his book “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”
The current Atkins diet is divided into two methods: Atkins 20, where people aim to lose more than 40 pounds, and a more moderate Atkins 40 approach, where individuals aim to lose less than 40 pounds.
Those following Atkins 20 will consume between 20–100 grams of net carbs per day, while those on Atkins 40 will consume between 40–100 grams. Followers of both approaches are encouraged to eat three meals and two snacks per day, made up of non-starchy vegetables, protein from animal and plant based sources, and nuts and seeds as snacks.
How Atkins Works
The Atkins diet is divided into four phases. As you move from one phase to the next, you will gradually increase your carb intake. You will also start consuming foods that were eliminated in a previous stage. Since so many foods are eliminated within the earlier stages, supplementing with vitamins B5, B7, D, E, or choline, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, iodine, potassium, magnesium, molybdenum, sodium, and zinc may be necessary[*].
The four phases include:
- Phase 1: Consume 20–25 grams of carbs, strictly sticking to protein, cheese, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
- Phase 2: Increase your net carb intake to 25–50 grams, introducing low-sugar fruits, legumes, and other vegetables back into your diet.
- Phase 3: Once you are within 10 pounds of your goal weight, you can increase your carb consumption to 50–80 grams. You will begin introducing starchy vegetables and whole grains into your diet.
- Phase 4: To keep your weight stable, steadily increase your carb consumption by 5 gram increments. You can consume all foods, as long as you stay within your daily carb count.
#2: Eco-Atkins Diet
Created in 2009, the Eco-Atkins diet is a high-fat vegetarian version of the Atkins diet[*].The goal of Eco-Atkins is to reduce weight and LDL cholesterol using vegetarian protein sources in a model similar to the Atkins diet. Followers of the diet usually get 43% of daily calories from fat, 31% of calories from protein, and 26% from carbs.
How Eco-Atkins Works
Like Atkins 20 or 40, Eco-Atkins is divided into phases. However, since many plant-based proteins also contain carbohydrates, the first (and most restrictive) phases of Atkins is not attainable, bringing the number of phases down to three.
On Eco-Atkins, you could consume 130 grams of carbs per day on average — quite high compared to other low-carb diets. Protein sources include nut bread, soybeans, veggie bacon, tofu, and nuts and seeds.
#3: Bulletproof Diet
The Bulletproof diet was invented by entrepreneur and blogger Dave Asprey in 2014. It aims to help people lose weight, boost energy, increase physical and mental performance, increase nutrient stores, and strengthen immune function.
The Bulletproof Diet is arguably the least restrictive diet on this list, but no studies have been conducted to account for its effectiveness. The Bulletproof Diet believes that you should listen to your body. Therefore, you shouldn’t count calories or weigh your food, although the recommended macro guidelines including 50–70% from healthy fats, 20% from protein, and 25% from carbs from fruits and vegetables.
How the Bulletproof Diet Works
The diet works on a spectrum of foods you eat to hit your macros, referred to as green, yellow, and red. Green foods are those you can eat freely, yellow foods can be consumed in moderation, and red foods should be completely eliminated.
- Green Zone foods: Meat, seafood, low-glycemic fruits and vegetables, and coconut.
- Yellow Zone foods: Nuts, seeds, corn, potatoes, and fruits with higher amounts of sugar.
- Red Zone foods: Soy, soft drinks, dried fruits, all cheese, vegetable oils, gluten, chickpeas, lentils, and chia seeds.
#4: Dukan Diet
The Dukan diet is a high-protein, low-fat, low-carb diet created by Dr. Pierre Dukan in 1970. After seeing positive weight loss results in his patients, he published the book “The Dukan Diet” in 2000.
The Dukan eating plan is considered extremely restrictive, only allowing 100 foods in total. Of these, 68 come from proteins and 32 come from non-starchy vegetables. However, it’s also considered effective for weight loss and preserving muscle mass[*].
How Dukan Works
Like the Atkins diet, Dukan is divided into four phases. It encourages light exercise, and the consumption of oat bran each day. Even in the stabilization (last) phase, people are encouraged to eat only protein one day per week.
- The attack phase: Only foods from the 68 allowed proteins are consumed.
- The cruise phase: The 32 non-starchy vegetables are introduced.
- The consolidation phase: Starchy foods, whole grain bread, and cheese into your diet.
- The stabilization phase: There are no restricted food groups to help stabilize your weight.
#5: The Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is a strict low-carb, high-fat diet that was invented to treat children with epilepsy in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a largely researched diet that has shown many positive effects in metabolic markers, including fast and effective weight loss, improved body composition, reduced cravings, improved blood glucose levels, and improved insulin levels[*][*][*].
On keto, the goal is to switch your metabolism to burning ketones (rather than glucose) for fuel, a fat-burning state known as ketosis. To do so, you will consume 70–80% of your calories from fat, 20–25% from protein, and just 5–10% from carbs. When transitioning into ketosis, some people experience minor, negative side effects known as keto flu.
How Keto Works
On the keto diet, you will get the majority of your calories from fat, including coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and MCT oil. You will consume moderate amounts of protein, and minimal carbohydrates. There are four types of ketogenic diets:
- Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD): This is the most common and recommended version of the diet. You’ll stay within 20 to 50 grams of net carbs per day.
- Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD): The TKD is designed to improve exercise performance. You eat 25 to 50 grams of net carbs or less around 30 minutes to an hour before exercise.
- Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD): This version alternates between high-carb and low-carb cycles. You eat a traditional keto diet for several days followed by two days of eating high-carb, then cycle back to the ketogenic diet. This can help athletes regain glycogen, increasing muscle recovery and performance.
- High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD): It’s identical to a standard keto diet, but with additional protein.
#6: Scandinavian Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (LCHF)
Sweden was one of the first countries to denounce the low-fat dogma and turn to a low-carb, high-fat diet. The goal of the Scandinavian LCHF is to reduce carbs and increase fat intake, hopefully leading to weight loss and the prevention of a number of diseases.
There are no macro guidelines or calorie counting on the diet. Evidence indicates it can improve lipid profiles, reduce insulin resistance, and lower the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver syndrome[*]
How the Scandinavian LCHF Works
The diet is meant to be a lifestyle change rather than a program. Processed foods should be eliminated entirely, as should high-sugar fruits, starchy veggies, and fruit juice should be consumed in moderation.
Since there are no elimination phases or step-by-step processes, the diet can be difficult to follow. The effectiveness of it relies on each person.
#7: The Paleo Diet
The paleo diet was developed by Dr. Loren Cordain. It’s based on the concept that you should only eat what was accessible to your caveman ancestors. Grains, legumes, sugar, and processed foods are eliminated entirely while meat, seafood, bone broth, fruit, and vegetables are consumed freely on a paleo meal plan.
Followers of the paleo diet have shown short-term improvements in five metabolic components: waist circumference, triglycerides, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and blood sugar[*].
The paleo diet does not have any macronutrient guidelines associated with it, and proponents of the diet claim it is not, in fact, a low-carb diet. However, since the diet eliminates all grains (including gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa) and sugar, you might naturally decrease your carb intake while on the diet.
How Paleo Works
A paleo diet is intended to be a lifestyle, not a temporary diet. It doesn’t have stages like the Atkins or Dukan diets. You adjust your eating habits and adopt a diet similar to what people in the Stone Age would eat. Paleo dieters eat plants and animals, including seafood, meat, fats, fruits, bone broth, and vegetables.
Paleo dieters consume some high-carb foods that are eliminated by other diets on this list. For example, paleo places no restriction on starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, and turnips, and fruit, including high-sugar fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas.
#8: Slow Carb Diet
The Slow Carb diet was created in 2010 by author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who published the rules in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Body.” It’s based on the Minimum Effective Dose principle (MED), which states that “the smallest dose will produce the greatest effect or outcome.”
Theoretically, the diet promises to induce a rapid loss in weight and body fat without counting calories. While there are no macro guidelines, followers are only allowed to eat from five food groups: protein, fats, legumes, veggies, and spices. Cottage cheese is the one dairy product allowed, although critics say this has no scientific basis.
How the Slow Carb Diet Works
The slow carb diet is similar to the cyclical keto diet. It allows dieters to eat from the approved food groups six days per week, then eat freely on day seven.
There are five rules in the diet:
- Avoid white carbs: This includes processed bread, pasta, and anything made with refined white flour.
- Eat the same meals repeatedly: This is supposed to eliminate the guesswork that could lead to indulgences.
- Don’t drink calories: Stick to water, with the occasional glass of red wine.
- Don’t eat fruit: This is suggested since fruit is believed to impede weight loss.
- Have a cheat day: Pick one day a week to eat the foods you normally couldn’t eat on this diet.
#9: South Beach Diet
The South Beach diet is a three-step high-protein weight loss plan created in 2003 by cardiologist Arthur Agatston. It’s described in his best-selling book, “The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss.”
The South Beach diet claims you can lose eight to 13 pounds in the first two weeks. There are no daily macro or calorie goals. Instead, dieters are told to place an emphasis on consuming high-protein food choices, while restricting high-carb foods.
How South Beach Works
You can eat three meals and two snacks a day while following an exercise plan. The diet is divided into three phases:
- Phase 1: Reset your body by eating plenty of high-protein, low-carb foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and soy.
- Phase 2: Slowly introduce healthy carbs from whole grains, legumes, low-sugar fruits, and non-starchy vegetables in hopes of losing 1–2 pounds per week.
- Phase 3: To maintain weight loss, all foods are permitted, but a heavy emphasis remains on protein.
Whole30 is a 30-day program which was created by sports nutritionists Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig in 2009. The diet acts as a detox, where dieters can only eat meat, seafood, eggs, veggies, fruits, fats, and spices for 30 days. Followers of the Whole30 are instructed not to weigh themselves and not to count calories.
Like paleo, there are no macro guidelines, and certain whole, unprocessed foods that are higher in carbs — like starchy vegetables and fruit — are allowed. However, Whole30 is completely against foods that mimic certain indulgences. For instance, low-carb recipes for pancakes, treats, and breads are completely forbidden.
How Whole30 Works
Whole30 promotes eating natural, whole foods for 30 days. Foods including legumes, dairy (even full-fat dairy), grains, sugar, and alcohol are completely eliminated for 30 days. If you “cheat,” you have to start over.
The are no steps or phases. You commit to eating whole, low-carb foods that aren’t in the banned categories. There’s an emphasis on reading food labels to avoid additives and processed ingredients.
#11: Zero Carb Diet
The Icelandic-Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson first spoke out about the benefits of a zero carb diet in the early 1990s. After living with the Inuit tribe, he noticed their diet consisted of mostly meat and fish, and the only carbs they ate were berries during the summer.
He ate the same way for a year to test the diet’s effectiveness. He remained healthy, partly because he consumed plenty of organ meats, which provide nutrients lacking in traditional muscle meat.
How the Zero Carb Diet Works
On the Zero Carb Diet, you’ll consume 80–95% of your total calories from fats and proteins. The rest is covered by carbs that come from glycogen in meat.
There’s no specific book or plan that launched this diet, so there are no official rules. You either:
- Remove all sources of carbs, including grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits and processed foods.
- Incorporate extremely limited amounts of low-carb veggies into your diet.
#12: The Zone Diet
The Zone diet was first proposed by biochemist Barry Sears in 1999 in his book “The Zone Diet,” which gained traction and endorsements by celebrities like Madonna. It hoped to spark a lifestyle change that sheds excess pounds, reduces the risk of chronic disease, improves mental and physical performances, and decreases inflammation by constructing balanced meals.
On the Zone diet plan, you restrict your calorie intake, aiming for 1,200 for women and 1,500 for men. In terms of macros, roughly 40% of your calories will come from carbs (far higher than the rest of the diets on this list), 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. Despite the large portion of carbs, this diet is still considered low-carb because it emphasizes low-glycemic fruits and veggies, but grains and starches are used sparingly.
How Zone Works
The Zone diet lets you eat three meals and two snacks per day, and no food group is completely excluded. Meals are planned according to plate distribution:
- Protein: One-third of your plate. It must be lean protein about the size and thickness of your palm. Examples include egg whites, fish, poultry, lean beef, or low-fat dairy.
- Carbohydrates: Two-thirds of your plate. Choose low-carb veggies and small amounts of low-glycemic fruits.
- Fat: Add a dash of monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, avocado, or almonds.
Now that you know about the most popular low-carb eating plans, you may be wondering which is the best low-carb diet for you.
The best low-carb diet is the one that works for you and your lifestyle. Choose one backed by science, that offers a sustainable path toward weight loss, and that doesn’t feel too restrictive.
Some diets, including Whole30, Bulletproof, and the Scandinavian LCHF lack scientific basis. Others, including the Slow Carb Diet, Dukan, and Zone may feel too restrictive.
The ketogenic diet has been shown to provide sustained weight loss, improved mental clarity, and increased athletic performance. It also has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. If you are interested in trying the keto diet for yourself, try reading the beginners guide to keto and get ready to reap the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.