The Complete Low-Carb Diet Guide

Gauging the Real Impact of Cutting Carbs

Low-carb diets have been popular in the United States since the early 1970s for both health and weight loss objectives.

But, what can you eat on a low-carb diet? How many carbs can you have on a low-carb diet?

In this low-carb diet guide, we will discuss what a low-carb diet plan is, the foods you can and cannot eat on a low-carb diet, its benefits, and discuss if the keto diet and the low-carb diet are one and the same.

Let’s get started!

A sign that says low carbs plus low carb foods.

What Is a Low-Carb Diet?

The typical American diet is classified as a high-carb diet.

According to the Institute of Medicine, the average American adult consumes about 45 to 65% of their total daily calories from carbohydrates.1Oh, R., Gilani, B., & Uppaluri, K. R. (2021, July 12). Low Carbohydrate Diet. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537084/#

‌There isn’t an official consensus as to what defines a low-carb diet. By definition, a low-carb diet limits carbohydrates, which are one of the three macronutrients alongside protein and fat.

Most health and nutrition experts categorize a diet as a “low carb diet” if 10 to 30% of the calories come from carbohydrates.

According to Stat Pearls,2Oh, R., & Uppaluri, K. R. (2019, July 29). Low Carbohydrate Diet. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537084/ low-carb diets can be grouped in tiers based on the relative percentage of calories coming from carbs;

  • Very low-carbohydrate: Less than 10% of total daily calories from carbs or 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day
  • Low-carbohydrate: Less than 26% of total daily calories from carbs or less than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day
  • Moderate-carbohydrate: 26%-44% of total daily calories from carbs
  • High-carbohydrate: 45% or more of total daily calories from carbs

Other than limiting carbohydrate intake, a low-carb diet is rather loose and undefined. The remainder of your caloric intake can be divided between calories from fat and protein however you see fit.

For example, someone could follow a low-carb diet consuming 25% of their total daily calories from carbs, 35% from protein, and 40% from fat whereas someone else could still eat only 25% of calories from carbs, but divide the remaining 75% of calories as 20% from protein and 55% from fat

The keto diet macro percentages.

Are Keto and Low Carb Diets the Same?

The primary difference between keto vs low carb diets is that the keto diet is a specific and “very low-carb diet.” 

The keto diet is also designed to be a high-fat diet as much as it is a low-carb diet plan, whereas a low-carb diet can distribute the protein and fat macros with flexibility.

Although there is some flexibility and variations in the specific macronutrient ratios on the keto diet, experts suggest that the keto diet should involve consuming 70–75% of your calories from fat, 20-25% of your calories from protein, and 5–10% of your calories from carbohydrates. 3Indian Journal of Medical Research. (n.d.). Journals.lww.com. https://journals.lww.com/ijmr/pages/default.aspx

‌This is because extreme carb restriction is necessary coupled with very high fat intake to induce a state of metabolic ketosis, which is the ultimate goal of the keto diet.

In contrast, the purpose of a low-carb diet is to restrict carbohydrate intake enough to achieve other potential health benefits (such as improved blood sugar regulation, insulin sensitivity, and weight loss), but not specifically to trigger ketosis.

Low carb foods such as avocado, fish and meat.

What Foods Can You Eat on a Low-Carb Diet?

Unlike some diet plans that specify exactly what you can and cannot eat a low-carb diet plan is really just a framework in terms of the macros that you are eating.

For this reason, there are no specific foods that you have to eat on a low-carb diet meal plan or foods that you can never eat.

Unlike the keto diet, you can still have a fairly high carbohydrate intake while still being considered to be following a “low-carb meal plan.”

This leads to even more flexibility in terms of your food choices.

However, if you are trying to follow a low-carb diet for weight loss, you will need to be mindful of your caloric intake, opting for nutrient-dense foods that are low in calories but satiating.

The best low-carb diet plans focus on eating unprocessed foods that are high in protein and/or fat, along with a moderate intake of non-starchy, low-sugar carbohydrates to get antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber:

A low carb plate of food.

Here are some foods to include in a low-carb meal plan:

Low-Carb Diet Foods

  • Meat: Beef, pork, veal, lamb, venison, bison, etc.
  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, quail, etc.
  • Fish and Seafood: Salmon, tilapia, trout, cod, sardines, tuna, mackerel, lobster, crab, scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, etc.
  • Eggs: Chicken eggs, turkey eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, etc.
  • Dairy: Milk, cheese, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. If you are following a very low-carb diet, closer to the keto diet macros, you should have full-fat dairy including whole milk, cream, grass-fed butter, etc.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: Spinach, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, asparagus, radishes, etc.
  • Low-Sugar Fruits: Pears, melons, oranges, apricots, berries, lemons, kiwi, coconut, tomatoes, etc.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, etc.
  • Healthy Fats and Oils: Olive oil, avocados, flaxseed oil, coconut oil
  • Herbs and Spices: Basil, thyme, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, rosemary, cumin, chili powder, etc.
  • Unsweetened Beverages: Water, tea, Red wine, coffee, seltzer, etc.

The following foods are still generally considered to be quite healthy, but they are high in carbohydrates.

Therefore, these high-carb foods may be eaten in moderation on a low-carb diet meal plan, depending on your particular carb intake.

A salad.

High-Carb Foods

  • Root Vegetables and Tubers: Carrots, parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes, winter squash, potatoes, etc.
  • Fruits: Bananas, pineapple, cherries, grapes, papaya, apples, pomegranate, plums, etc.
  • Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, soy, etc.
  • Whole Grains: Quinoa, barley, oats, whole wheat, teff, brown rice, etc.
  • Chocolate

What Foods Are Not Permitted on a Low-Carb Diet?

Again, there are no specific foods that you cannot eat on a low-carb diet.

However, the overall principle of low-carb diet plans is to limit carbohydrates, particularly foods that are high in sugar or starchy carbs. 

The best low-carb diet food list will prioritize complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and vitamins to maximize the nutritional value of the carbs that you are eating and glean the specific benefits that carbohydrates can provide.

Therefore, you will want to avoid (or at least limit) the following foods on a low-carb meal plan for weight loss:

Foods To Avoid On A Low-Carb Diet

  • Fruit juice
  • Soda
  • Refined grains: Pastries, breakfast cereals, muffins, pancakes, cakes, bagels, white bread, white pasta, crackers, etc.
  • Sweeteners: Sugar, honey, agave, corn syrup, jellies, jams, pudding, fruit juices, soda, sweet tea, applesauce, etc.
  • Desserts and Sweets: Ice cream, pastries, cookies, doughnuts, granola bars, pies, pudding, sweetened yogurt, etc.
A person eating a salad.

What Are the Benefits of A Low-Carb Diet?

There are several potential benefits of a low-carb diet plan.

Low-carb diets have been shown4Ebbeling, C. B., Feldman, H. A., Klein, G. L., Wong, J. M. W., Bielak, L., Steltz, S. K., Luoto, P. K., Wolfe, R. R., Wong, W. W., & Ludwig, D. S. (2018). Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance: randomized trial. BMJ363, k4583. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4583 to help control blood sugar and may support weight loss.5Nordmann, A. J., Nordmann, A., Briel, M., Keller, U., Yancy, W. S., Brehm, B. J., & Bucher, H. C. (2006). Effects of low-carbohydrate vs low-fat diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. In www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (UK). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK72960/

Plus, a general low-carb diet is typically more sustainable in the long term than the stricter keto diet because it is easier to follow, less extreme, and gives dieters more flexibility in terms of what they can and cannot eat without feeling restricted.6Brouns, F. (2018). Overweight and diabetes prevention: is a low-carbohydrate–high-fat diet recommendable? European Journal of Nutrition57(4), 1301–1312. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-018-1636-y

The general theory surrounding a low-carb diet is that reducing carbohydrate intake will help decrease insulin levels.

Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to glucose (blood sugar) levels in the bloodstream. When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down in the body into simple sugars, such as glucose.

Glucose, which provides energy to the cells, enters the bloodstream, and insulin is secreted because the cells cannot take up and use the glucose without insulin.

A plate of low carb foods.

Chronically elevated levels of insulin can cause insulin resistance, which can escalate to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disturbances including weight gain and obesity.7Kolb, H., Stumvoll, M., Kramer, W., Kempf, K., & Martin, S. (2018). Insulin translates unfavourable lifestyle into obesity. BMC Medicine16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1225-1

Thus, following a low-carb diet can reduce the chronic levels of insulin, which may help preserve the sensitivity of your cells to this hormone.8Harvey, C. J. d. C., Schofield, G. M., Zinn, C., Thornley, S. J., Crofts, C., & Merien, F. L. R. (2019). Low-carbohydrate diets differing in carbohydrate restriction improve cardiometabolic and anthropometric markers in healthy adults: A randomized clinical trial. PeerJ7, e6273. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6273

High levels of insulin can also cause weight gain, so this is another means by which researchers theorize that low-carb diets can be good for weight loss.9Kolb, H., Stumvoll, M., Kramer, W., Kempf, K., & Martin, S. (2018). Insulin translates unfavourable lifestyle into obesity. BMC Medicine16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1225-1

Any diet can theoretically be good for weight loss as long as you are maintaining a caloric deficit. 10Weight Loss Depends on Less Calories, Not Nutrient Mix. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/weight-loss-depends-less-calories-not-nutrient-mix

Similarly, a low-carb diet can cause weight gain if you are still eating more calories than your body needs, even when those excess calories are coming from protein and fats instead of carbohydrates.

However, studies have found that people do tend to lose weight, at least initially on a low-carb diet.11Nordmann, A. J., Nordmann, A., Briel, M., Keller, U., Yancy, W. S., Brehm, B. J., & Bucher, H. C. (2006). Effects of Low-Carbohydrate vs Low-Fat Diets on Weight Loss and Cardiovascular Risk Factors. Archives of Internal Medicine166(3), 285. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.166.3.285

Some of the initial weight loss is due to a loss of body water if you are following a very low-carb diet because water is stored with glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates).

Additionally, studies suggest that foods that are high in protein and fat might be more satiating, potentially causing people to eat less.12Paddon-Jones, D., Westman, E., Mattes, R. D., Wolfe, R. R., Astrup, A., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition87(5), 1558S1561S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558s

To learn more about some popular low-carb diets, check out our comparison of the keto vs paleo diets here

People eating salads.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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