Thinking of going low-carb to shed pounds? You have the right idea. Low-carb diets not only help you shed weight, but they may also keep you feeling fuller than other diets because they're packed with filling healthy fats and protein. If you're new to eating low-carb, though, putting together an initial meal plan can feel daunting. But don't worry -- just fill your diet with an array of weight-loss-friendly foods, and you'll be able to stick to your plan.
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Fresh Vegetables for Weight Loss
Veggies should form the foundation of any weight-loss diet, and a low-carb diet is no exception. Fibrous veggies are extremely low in digestible carbs -- the type that actually affect your blood sugar, also called net carbohydrates. A 2-cup portion of raw spinach, for example, has less than a gram of net carbs, while a cup of sliced white mushrooms has roughly 1.5 grams of net carbs; both have less than 20 calories per serving. "Eat the rainbow" each day by selecting fibrous veggies with green, red, orange, yellow, purple/blue and white hues -- that way, you'll be sure to eat several servings of vegetables and get a range of nutrients.
While most veggies are great for weight loss and a low-carb diet, some vegetables should be eaten in moderation or avoided entirely. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, lima beans, corn and peas, come loaded with carbohydrates that can break your low-carb diet -- a medium russet potato, for example, has 33 grams of net carbs. Carrots also contain a significant number of carbs, about 8 grams per cup.
Lean Meat and Fish
Meat and fish should also make regular appearances in your low-carb meal plan. Plain versions -- or ones seasoned with carb-free flavorings, like garlic salt or chili powder -- are virtually carb-free and supply tons of protein to keep you full and nourish lean muscle. A 3.5-ounce serving of grilled turkey breast, for instance, has 30 grams of protein, while the same size serving of salmon has 20 grams. And 93-percent lean ground beef offers 26 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to avoid red meat for weight loss. One study, published in Nutrients in 2014, reported no difference in weight loss between people who ate a weight-loss diet that contained chicken, compared to those who ate a diet that featured pork or beef. Fattier cuts of pork and beef can be higher in calories, though. Trim away any visible fat, and select lean cuts -- like pork roast or beef flank steak -- to keep your calories in check.
Unsweetened Low-Fat Dairy
Next on your shopping list? Consider dairy products with no added sugar -- like unsweetened Greek yogurt, which has just 6 grams of net carbs per serving. You can also shop for cheeses -- an ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, has just 1 gram of net carbs. Mozzarella, pepper jack and Parmesan cheese also work well in a low-carb diet. Regular milk is higher in carbs -- about 12 grams per cup -- but may work in less restrictive low-carb diets.
And while conventional wisdom tells you to opt for low-fat dairy, you don't have to go that route on a low-carb diet. One study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2014, found that switching to reduced-fat dairy actually increased study participants' carb intake from dairy products. So if you prefer the taste of higher-fat dairy, feel free to reach for that instead of low- or no-fat fare.
What to Eat in Place of Carbs
Most "comfort" foods -- like pasta, rice, ice cream and potatoes -- aren't allowed on many low-carb diets, but that doesn't mean you can't make lower-carb substitutes for your favorite foods. Instead of making mac and cheese, which is high in carbs due to its pasta content, make a cheese sauce from cheddar, mustard, paprika and chicken broth -- with coconut flour as a thickener -- and use it to top steamed cauliflower. Use spiral-cut zucchini or turnips in place of spaghetti, and top with a spoonful of pesto and an ounce or two of grilled chicken for a filling meal. Replace rice with riced cauliflower, made by pulsing cauliflower in a food processor, for low-carb risottos and "rice" salads. Low-carb sweets are harder to come by, but you can make lower-carb baked goods by switching out all-purpose flour for lower-carb coconut or almond flours -- or shopping for low-sugar ice cream.