Low-carb diets are hugely popular right now. Why? Because they’ve helped many people lose weight, balance their energy levels, and curb their cravings.
Low-carb brings health benefits, in other words.
Still, there’s plenty of confusion about low-carb living. Depending on the source, it’s not always clear how you should structure your low-carb diet.
In this guide to starting a low-carb lifestyle, you’ll learn the distinction between low-carb and keto, the benefits of low-carb, and how to start a low-carb diet. Plus, you’ll even get a sample 7-day meal plan. Read on.
A low-carb diet is a diet low in carbohydrates. These diets limit grains, starchy vegetables, sugar and other “carby” foods.
On a low-carb diet, instead of consuming carbs, you eat more protein and fat to meet your calorie needs.
Fat is the main source of calories on low-carb eating plans. That’s because—of all the macronutrients—fat has the smallest effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.
When you keep blood sugar and insulin levels low, your body begins burning fat for energy. This fat can either be dietary fat or body fat, depending on how recently you’ve eaten.
This fat-adaptation, by the way, is largely responsible for the benefits of low-carb living. More on this soon.
Low-carb diets come in many shapes and sizes. The ketogenic diet, carb cycling, the Atkins diet, and the paleo diet are all popular—though paleo isn’t necessarily low-carb by design.
By now you’re probably wondering: How does keto fit into the low-carb picture?
What’s the Difference Between Low-Carb and Keto?
The keto diet is a low-carb high-fat diet that has you eating 60% fat, 30% protein, and 10% carbs throughout the day. Keeping calories in these ratios helps you enter ketosis—a unique metabolic state in which you rely more on fatty acids and ketones (and less on sugar) for energy.
Keto, in fact, is a type of low-carb diet. But to be clear: not all low-carb diets are keto.
Many low-carb diets allow for more than 10% carbs per day. In fact, one study published in the British Journal The Lancet bracketed anyone eating under 40% calories from carbs per day as “low carbohydrate”[*].
A 40% daily carb intake is definitely not keto. It’s a stretch to even call it low-carb.
Consuming 40% carbs per day probably won’t lead to fat adaptation. The thing is: The lower you go on carbs, the more easily you’ll access stored body fat.
The takeaway is that many low-carb diets are more flexible about carbs than keto. But keep in mind: The more the carb count creeps upwards, the less the following benefits will apply.
When you limit carbs, blood sugar and insulin levels stay low—helping you enter fat-burning mode. Here’s why that’s beneficial.
#1: Weight Loss
People commonly go low-carb to lose weight. Very often, it works.
Low-carb diets work for weight loss, in part, because they reduce insulin levels. Insulin is your fat-storage hormone, so you don’t want insulin hanging around when you’re trying to shed pounds.
In one study, women on a very low-carb diet lost more weight than women on a calorie restricted diet. The low-carb ladies ate more calories and still lost more weight[*].
The point is: Weight loss isn’t just about cutting calories. Cutting carbs often works better.
#2: Reduced Cravings
Of all the macros, carbs raise blood sugar levels the most. When that blood sugar inevitably crashes, say hello to hunger.
Limiting carbs limits fluctuations in blood sugar, preventing these hunger crises.
Eating fat is also more satiating than eating carbs. In fact, research has shown that low-carb diets suppress ghrelin, your hunger hormone[*]. Less carbs, less hunger.
#3: Stable Energy
Eating low-carb not only smooths out your appetite. It also smooths out your energy.
Yes. Getting off the blood sugar roller coaster—and onto the smooth and steady fat train—helps you avoid the dreaded afternoon slump. Who needs coffee when you can have fat?
#4: Cognitive Health
Your brain runs on two types of fuel: glucose and ketones[*]. As you age, your brain gets worse at using glucose and better at using ketones.
The keto diet, in fact, shows promise for preventing cognitive decline in elderly people[*].
But even if you’re not keto, limiting carbs may help your mental game. In one study, people who drank a glucose solution saw a subsequent decline in cognitive performance compared to those given a placebo drink[*].
In other words, too much sugar can negatively impact brain power.
Going low-carb isn’t easy, but it’s made easier by planning. These steps will help get you started.
#1: Consider your goals
Are you going low-carb for weight loss? For cognitive benefits? Decide what you want to get out of this diet, then…
#2: Choose your low-carb plan
Once you set your goals, you’ll have a better idea which plan will suit you best.
If you really want to shift your metabolism, strict keto is probably your best bet. But if you need more flexibility to eat, say, sweet potatoes—a low-carb paleo diet could work better.
Here are your main options. (Click the links for a deeper dive).
- The keto diet
- Cyclical keto
- The paleo diet
- Some combination (any whole foods diet that restricts carbs)
For a plug-and-play solution, use the meal plan at the end of this article.
#3: Remove carbs from your house
After you commit to a low-carb plan, remove all temptations. Get rid of your pasta, bread, chips, crackers, and anything with sugar in it.
If it can be donated, donate it. Out of sight, out of mind.
#4: Track Macros
Okay, you’re ready to start your low-carb diet now. When you do, be sure to track your macros.
If you’re on a keto diet plan, you’ll want to eat less than 10% of your calories from carbs. If you’re not doing keto, feel free to crank that percentage up to 25 or 30%.
Also, use this handy keto calculator to ensure your diet is on track.
Going low-carb isn’t complicated. Just focus on whole foods with naturally low carbohydrate content.
Your diet can include:
- Meat like poultry, beef, lamb, and organ meats
- Fish like salmon and tuna
- Healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and MCT oil
- Nuts like hazelnuts, macadamias, and walnuts
- Non-starchy vegetables like spinach, kale, and asparagus
- Low-carb fruits like avocados and berries
For a complete low-carb food list, see this comprehensive post.
Low-carb diets are mostly about avoiding carbs, but there’s more to it than that. Basically, you’ll want to avoid:
- Anything with added sugar (sorry, no ice cream)
- Most packaged foods
- All grains (including whole grains)
- Industrial seed oils
- Trans fats
You’ll also want to limit:
- Roots, tubers, and starchy vegetables
- Dairy (unless it’s well tolerated)
- Most fruits
How much you indulge in that last list will depend on your low-carb plan. If you’re keto, for instance, fruits and tubers will not be on the menu. Too many grams of carbs.
Who might want to try low-carb?
Almost anyone can try a low-carb diet, but those with metabolic issues (like insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes) may benefit most.
Who is low-carb not good for?
Elite athletes and bodybuilders may benefit from additional carbs to fuel growth and performance. Restricting carbs is also not ideal for underweight or malnourished folks needing to gain weight.
How do I decide between low-carb and keto?
This depends on your goals and personality. Low-carb allows more flexible eating habits than strict keto, so it may be easier for you to follow. Nonetheless, if you want the benefits of ketosis, consider a month-long keto trial.
Any side effects from starting a low-carb diet?
Some people experience headaches, fatigue, and irritability in the first few weeks of going low-carb. This condition—called the keto flu—can stem from dehydration, electrolyte deficiency, or carb withdrawal. It should be temporary.
Aren’t carbs essential for life?
No, carbs are optional. When you limit dietary carbohydrate, your body makes its own glucose through gluconeogenesis.
Do I need carbs for exercise?
Not necessarily. The research shows that most activities can be fueled by fat[*].
Can I build muscle on a low-carb diet?
Absolutely. One study showed that a low-carb diet worked better than a high-carb Western diet for muscle gains[*]. Also, low-fat diets have been shown to suppress testosterone—a key muscle-building hormone[*].
What about low-carb diets for gut health?
Low-carb diets limit many sources of fiber, but you can compensate with non-starchy veggies. Also, according to gut expert Dr. Michael Ruscio, low-carb diets can help those with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) by starving bad bacteria in the gut[*].
To help you along your low-carb journey, here’s a sample meal plan—complete with low-carb recipes made with whole foods. If you’re doing low-carb paleo, feel free to add the occasional sweet potato, potato, or carrot into the mix.
- Breakfast: Blueberry Muffin Keto Mug Cake
- Lunch: White Turkey Chili with steamed broccoli
- Dinner: Quick Keto Egg Roll in a Bowl
- Breakfast: Quick n’ Easy Keto Egg Muffins
- Lunch: Low Carb Crispy Keto Chicken with leafy greens
- Dinner: Zesty Keto Taco Salad
- Breakfast: Keto Oatmeal: 5-Minute Low-Carb N’oats
- Lunch: Crispy Skin Salmon with Pesto Cauliflower Rice
- Dinner: Creamy Mushroom Chicken
- Breakfast: Acai Almond Butter Smoothie
- Lunch: Portobello Bun Cheeseburger with Celeriac Everything Oven Fries and Homemade Keto Mayo
- Dinner: Delicious Low-Carb Keto Meatloaf
- Breakfast: Savory Crustless Breakfast Keto Quiche
- Lunch: Zesty Chili Lime Keto Tuna Salad
- Dinner: Fathead Pizza: Low-Carb Keto Pizza
- Breakfast: Avocado Breakfast Bowl
- Lunch: Crispy Cheesy Chicken Salad
- Dinner: Savory Shrimp Keto Stir Fry
Starting Your Low-Carb Diet
This article was written for you. Specifically, it was written to provide you with the tools, knowledge, and resources to start a low-carb diet.
Feel free to bookmark this page, and return whenever you like for guidance. Thanks for reading.