Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard people talking about low-carb diets. But what are the best low-carb foods? What's an ideal low-carb meal plan? And how can you decide which low-carb diet to follow in the first place?
What Counts as Low Carb?
There's no one-size-fits-all solution for a healthy low-carb eating plan. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, adult men and women should aim to eat 130 grams of carbohydrates every day, equal to 45 to 65 percent of their daily calorie intake.
There are various types of low-carb diets that aim to lessen how many carbohydrates you eat each day. These range from the Atkins Diet, which starts you off eating 20 grams of carbs per day, to the ketogenic diet plan, also called "keto," where you aim to get just 5 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates (that's 6.5 grams).
To make things even more confusing, not all carbs are created equal. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whole grains and whole fruits and veggies contain carbs but are nutritionally much better for you than sugary treats or highly processed foods.
Read more: The "Do Not Eat" List for Low-Carb Diets
Do Low-Carb Diets Work?
People follow low-carb diets for a variety of reasons, but mainly for weight loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who stick to a low-carb diet can lose weight. Plus, there may be health benefits like reducing the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Yet, these secondary health benefits can only occur if you're getting protein and fat from healthy sources.
Another consideration is how many calories you're eating per day. Diets can lead to weight loss, but only if you're operating under a calorie deficit — meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn each day. You can achieve a calorie deficit by limiting your daily caloric intake and also by exercising regularly to burn more calories.
Low-Carb Diet Calorie Counts
You can estimate your daily caloric needs, which depend on your age, sex and activity level, using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans chart. For example, a sedentary female and male, aged 31 to 35, should consume around 1,800 and 2,400 calories each day, respectively. But if you're hoping to lose weight, you should either decrease your daily calorie consumption or increase your activity level to burn more calories per day.
Research suggests that following a low-carb diet may help you burn more calories. A study published in the November 2018 issue of the BMJ looked at 164 participants aged 18 to 65, who all had a BMI of 25 or higher.
All participants lost 12 percent of their total body weight, then were assigned to one of three diet groups: a high-carb diet group, a moderate-carb diet group and a low-carb diet group. They followed these diets for 20 weeks. Researchers found that the participants on the low-carb diet burned from 209 to 278 more calories every day than participants on the high-carb diet.
Best Low-Carb Diet Foods
If you're following a low-carb diet plan, you'll want to eat lots of tasty, healthy foods that keep you feeling full. Harvard Health Publishing stresses that getting enough protein is essential. But because high red meat intake is linked to heart disease, the site recommends prioritizing plant protein sources, like lentils, chickpeas, beans and green peas, over red meat sources. Other great high-protein, low-carb foods include salmon, halibut, tilapia, eggs, nuts and cheeses.
Load up your plate with nonstarchy vegetables like spinach, arugula, green beans, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, Swiss chard, kale and carrots. Leafy greens are always a good option, and a big green salad with some lean protein is an excellent low-carb meal choice.
Low-Carb Diet Risks
Harvard Health Publishing notes a few different things to think about if you're eating a low-carb or high-protein diet. According to the website, protein-heavy diets can worsen kidney problems. If you're eating lots of saturated fat, that can increase your risk of coronary heart disease and negatively affect your cholesterol. Finally, any diet with a lack of fiber and fresh fruit might cause constipation.
If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your physician to make sure any low-carb diet you're following is suitable. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Women's Mental Health stresses that pregnant women should be sure to get enough folate, a B-vitamin found naturally in some foods that's crucial because it helps prevent neural tube defects.
Folic acid is present in many of the enriched breads and cereals that women on low-carb diets are less likely to eat. Though taking folic acid supplements should be sufficient, you should check with your doctor about following any specific diet plan while pregnant.
Read more: PROs and CONs of the 10 Most Popular Diets
Low-Carb Diet Meal Ideas
To create a healthy low-carb eating plan, calculate how many calories you'd like to eat each day and how many of those calories should be carbs. Then find meals and snacks that work with your desired calorie count and carb intake.
Read more: Ketogenic Menus & Meal Plans
The easiest way to stick to a diet is to plan your meals in advance. That can mean meal prepping for the week ahead of time, planning a list of what to cook throughout the week and consulting the menu before going out to eat in order to make the most healthy choice for your diet. Ideas for low-carb meals include:
- Spicy Flank Steak Lettuce Cups (1 gram carbs)
- Cauliflower Rice with Herbs (7 grams carbs)
- Low-Carb Rainbow Nachos (8 grams carbs)
- Sunny-Side-Up Breakfast Sausage (3 grams carbs)
- Herb-Roasted Radishes (2 grams carbs)
- Pesto Zucchini Noodle Pasta with Avocado and Soft-Boiled Eggs (8 grams carbs)
- Gluten-Free Margherita Protein Pizza (6 grams carbs)
- Chicken and Spinach Alfredo (6 grams carbs)
- Cauliflower "Grilled Cheese" Sandwich (8 grams carbs)
- Keto Blueberry Muffins (8 grams carbs)
- Harvard Health: "Going Low-carb? Pick the Right Proteins"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020"
- Harvard Health: "Low-Carb, High-Protein Diets"
- MGH Center for Women's Mental Health: "Neural Tube Defects and Low Carb Diets During Pregnancy"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Carbohydrates"
- USDA: " Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex and Physical Activity Level"
- The BMJ: "Effects of a Low Carbohydrate Diet on Energy Expenditure During Weight Loss Maintenance"