There’s an equal amount of confusion and hype surrounding a low-carb diet. Research shows low-carb diets may be an effective way to shed pounds — although not necessarily superior to weight-reduction results achieved by other diets, such as a low-fat or reduced-calorie diet.
But a low-carb diet plan isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Even the simplest question — how many carbs are in a low-carb diet? — doesn’t have just one easy answer, but it’s important to know your goals and make a plan before you get started.
Here are nine tips for starting and maintaining a low-carb diet.
1. Learn How Many Carbs Are in a Low-Carb Diet
The recommended carbohydrate range for adults, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories.
“A low-carbohydrate diet can have a wide, unclear definition,” says Holly Klamer, M.S., R.D., “but in general terms, it means following a diet that has less than 45 to 65 percent of [total daily] calories from carbohydrates.”
Some low-carb diets, like the modern Atkins diet, limit trans fat and sugar in addition to carbs, while a ketogenic diet drastically reduces carbs, and reduces protein, and replaces them with fats.
In general, however, most low-carb diets focus on limiting refined grains and starches (like white bread, pasta, and potatoes) in favor of lean protein, whole grains, non-starchy veggies, and low-glycemic fruits.
The main intention behind any low-carb diet — to reduce the amount of less healthy more processed carbs you consume on a regular basis — isn’t inherently a bad idea, but you need to be smart about how you execute it. As always, talk to a medical expert and registered dietitian before starting any new diet plan to make sure it will meet your unique needs.
2. Go Slow
Adopting new eating habits takes time and patience, which is why it’s important to go slowly and be realistic about your expectations for weight loss.
“Many people get discouraged when starting a low-carb diet because it can take weeks to see results [from actual fat loss],” says Sharon George, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Though you might see a lower number on the scale in the first week of eating low-carb, this change is probably a result of losing water weight. The process of shedding fat is more gradual. If that’s the case, remember that slow and steady is more sustainable over the long-term.
3. Understand Portion Sizes
One easy trick: read that label on the back of the box. It’s hard to go overboard on leafy greens, which have very few calories, but if you accidentally cook up and eat four servings’ worth of steel-cut oats for breakfast, you’ve thrown your daily plan off before you even got started. Understanding portion sizes can help prevent overeating while also ensuring you consume enough nutrients to fuel your body properly.
4. Cut Back on Less-Healthy Carbs First
Just because a food is low-carb doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. Highly processed foods like bacon, many deli meats, and low-carb snack bars don’t have many carbohydrates, but they’re often loaded with excess sodium, fat, trans fats, and other additives.
And other processed items such as many chips and desserts — even if their labels say low-carb — won’t supply your body with enough vital nutrients.
“If you’re looking to reduce carbohydrate intake,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N. “I recommend reducing the types of carbs that aren’t beneficial — [like] processed foods that contain added sugars and refined [grains].”
You don’t need to completely nix these foods from your diet. Just enjoy them sparingly.
5. Don’t Eat Too Much Unhealthy Fat
Eating low-carb isn’t an excuse to go nuts on beef, pork, eggs, butter, cheese, and other foods with high trans or saturated fat content.
According to the American Heart Association, too much “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and not enough “good” cholesterol (HDL) may put you at risk for certain types of disease.
In fact, one study carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health found that a low-carb diet high in animal protein (dairy and meat) was associated with higher all-cause mortality, while a vegetable-based low-carb diet high in plant protein (like tofu, beans and lentils) and lower in trans fat was associated with lower all-cause mortality rates.
Monitoring saturated fat intake is also an approach to maintaining good cardiovascular health. One review of research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the issue of what to replace saturated fat with in the diet. Researchers found that substituting saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats and limiting consumption of refined carbohydrates may be beneficial for overall health.
The overall takeaway: Cut back on trans and saturated fat consumption, while also reducing refined carbs (think: white bread, enriched pasta, white rice, white bread and bagels, sugary pastries, cookies, etc.).
Instead, eat healthier fats, such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Great sources of these types of fats include salmon, flaxseeds, walnuts, avocados, seeds, nuts, and extra-virgin olive oil.
6. Don’t Eat Too Much Protein
Eating fewer carbs certainly means you’ll need to eat more protein — especially if you want to crush your workouts. “Getting enough protein is hugely important for both health reasons and because it aids muscle recovery,” says Denis Faye, M.S., and Openfit’s executive director of nutrition. (Protein breaks down into amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle.)
But it’s important not to go overboard.
“When [your] carbohydrate intake is significantly decreased, the body starts breaking down stored carbohydrate sources [glycogen, for energy],” says Klamer. “When these stores get depleted, the body will start breaking down protein, and fat, to make carbohydrates, the body’s preferred energy source.”
This means the body has to convert this excess protein into either glucose or fat storage, possibly negating the effect of eating low-carb and making it more difficult to lose weight.
To avoid getting too much of a good thing, aim for protein to make up a solid 30 percent of your diet, not half. These healthy, high-protein snacks should help.
7. Don’t Eat Too Many Carbs
This one sounds obvious, but just as it’s possible to eat too few carbs when starting a low-carb diet, it’s also possible to eat too many.
What constitutes an excess of carbs varies for each individual depending on metabolism and activity level, but in general, consuming more than 45 percent of your total daily calories from carbs isn’t technically a low-carb diet plan, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The easiest way to slip up is, again, not paying attention to portion sizes. If your one allotted serving of whole-grain crackers is actually the equivalent of three servings, whoops, you might’ve gone over your daily limit.
8. Take Your Activity Level Into Account
So what’s the ideal amount of carbs to eat? That depends, in part, on your level of activity — exercise is a key component of any weight-loss plan — and how much weight you want to lose.
“Carbs are fuel,” says Faye. “They’re massively important and the body is super efficient at processing them, which is a blessing and a curse. If you get the right amount [of carbs], they’re the ideal fuel for exercise, health — most importantly for fueling your brain.”
9. Focus on Consuming Whole, Healthy, Nutritious Carbs
It’s important to remember: Even on a low-carb diet, carbs aren’t the enemy.
They provide our bodies with the natural, sustained energy we need to function and stay active.
High-quality carbs also have vital nutrients like B vitamins, potassium, fiber, and vitamin C. Klamer says reducing your carbohydrate intake to too-low levels puts you at risk for deficiencies in these areas.
“Naturally occurring carbohydrates like the ones found in whole foods such as whole grains, dairy like yogurt and milk, and fruits and vegetables, provide important nutrients,” says Gorin.
For more fiber and nutrients, Klamer recommends whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pasta, and brown or wild rice.
Looking for other nutritious carbs? Here’s a short list of carbs you can feel good about adding to your shopping cart.
- Sweet potato
- Beans (kidney, black, garbanzo, white, lima, fava, etc.)
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
- Potato, mashed or ½ medium
- Corn on the cob
- Oatmeal, rolled
- Pasta, whole-grain
- Couscous, whole wheat
- Bread, whole-grain
- Pita bread, whole wheat
- Bagel, whole-grain
- Tortilla, whole wheat
Fruits and Vegetables:
- Peppers (sweet)
- Winter squash