Low-carb diets might be a good choice to improve general health for any number of reasons, including losing weight, managing diabetes or lowering blood lipid levels. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion's Dietary Guidelines recommend 130 carbohydrates per day, thereby making any dietary intake below that amount technically low carb. However, typical diets for low-carb living limit the macro to 20 to 60 grams per day , according to the Mayo Clinic, with starchy and sugary foods topping the "do not eat" list.
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When following a low-carb diet, eliminate high-glycemic starches and sugary foods.
Don't Be Sweet on Sugar
Sugar is the number one food to cut out on any diet, but on a low-carbohydrate diet, it's especially vital. Candy, cookies, cake, frozen treats and most other desserts are no-nos for low-carb living, as sugar packs 200 grams of carbs per cupful or 4.2 grams per teaspoon.
Keep in mind that each gram of sugar contains an equal number of grams and carbohydrates. So a 12-ounce Coca-Cola with 39 grams of sugar would deliver 39 grams of carbs — more than the daily allotment for keto diet foods and more than half the daily allowance on 60-gram carb diets. Adding a tablespoon of sugar to your coffee zings you with 14 grams of carbs.
That doesn't mean you can't enjoy a sweet treat now and again, as long as it's low carb. Use stevia or erythritol to make your own at-home treats. Blend up a half-cup of heavy whipping cream, 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 2 teaspoons of either sweetener to create a chocolate mousse. Or make gooey-rich avocado brownie cookies using two eggs, two avocados, 1 cup of cocoa, 1/2 cup of erythritol and 1 teaspoon of stevia; then add other keto-friendly ingredients like nuts or cocoa nibs.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners
Stop Picking the Fruits
Fruit provides quick glucose to fuel the body, much as ordinary sugar does. However, most belong on the list of foods to avoid on a low-carb diet. The higher the glycemic index of a fruit — in other words, how much quick sugar it provides — the more carbs are in it.
Bananas, for example, pack 20 grams of carbs per 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces. The average banana weighs roughly 5 ounces when peeled, delivering more than a full day's carbohydrate allotment on either Atkins Phase 1 or for keto diet foods. Grapes have the second-highest carb count at 16 grams per 100 grams.
If you just can't get through summer without fresh fruit, there are a few low-carb exceptions to the fruit rule. Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries all contain 6 or fewer grams of carbs per 100 grams. Blueberries deliver twice that amount, but quell the craving by using berries sparingly. For example, sprinkle a few berries on a dollop of erythritol-sweetened whipped cream atop keto pancakes made with cream cheese, coconut flour and eggs.
Read more: Low-Carb Fast-Food Breakfast Options
Iron Out Starchy Veggies
If you believe in eating your veggies for good health, make sure you're eating the right ones that won't blow your low-carb diet. A basic rule of thumb is that vegetables that grow above the ground, such as zucchini, cauliflower and spinach, are more likely to have fewer carbs than those that grow below ground such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.
Sweet potatoes have 15 grams of net carbs per 100-gram serving, compared to just 1 gram for the same serving portion of spinach. Parsnip, celeriac, rutabaga, parsnips and beets are other vegetables to watch out for, delivering 6 to 13 grams of net carbs per 100-gram serving. Corn is one notable above-ground veggie that's high in starch at 16 grams of net carbs in each 100 grams.
Use Low-Carb Flavorings
Onions and carrots are common flavor ingredients. Combined with celery, they make up the ingredients for mirepoix, a common start to many French dishes and other world cuisines. Stay low carb by taking a page from Cajun cooking and making a base from onion, bell pepper and celery known as the Holy Trinity.
One cup of mirepoix delivers roughly 17 grams of net carbs — 7 from carrots, 8 from onion and just under 2 from celery. A cup full of Holy Trinity saves 4 grams of net carbs if you use all three ingredients in equal amounts. Use onion sparingly and increase the amount of bell pepper and celery to save even more carbs. Adding plenty of other low-carb ingredients, such as meat and fats, will ensure you are satiated without too much carb intake from your dish.
Read more: 10 Foods That Give You the Worst Gas
Go Against the Grain
For many, giving up bread and other products made from wheat is the most difficult part of a low-carb diet, as wheat products quickly convert to glucose in the body. Carbs in rice amount to 35 grams; bread packs 46 grams of carbs, and pasta has 29 grams for each half-cup serving. Although baked goods and other wheat products are a big no-no, they're not the only grainy foods to avoid on a low-carb diet.
Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are also notably high in carbs. Often touted as a superfood, quinoa includes 18 grams of net carbs for each 100 grams. Peas, beans, lentils and corn are other items that don't belong on a low-carbohydrate shopping list. Don't lose heart, though, as there are many alternatives to take the place of your favorites.
Fried, riced cauliflower can substitute nicely to anchor Asian cuisine. Erythritol adds sweetness, and xanthan gum acts as a thickening agent that's great for gravy as well. Coconut and almond flour breads make easy keto diet foods you can use to bookend a sandwich or roll flat for a tortilla. Make a keto-friendly alfredo sauce from heavy cream, garlic and Parmesan cheese and pour it over shirataki noodles or spiralized zucchini to get your pasta fix.
Check Keto Diet Food Labels
Hidden carbs in manufactured foods are nearly everywhere, as manufacturers often add sugar, flour or other ingredients that can convert to glucose in the body. Maltodextrin is made from starchy ingredients, such as rice, corn or potato starch, raising blood glucose and insulin levels. Any ingredient ending in -ose, such as sucrose, fructose, dextrose and lactose, are names for types of sugars that are foods to avoid on a low-carb diet.
Finally, some low-carb or keto products load up the sweetness factor with sugar alcohols such as xylitol and maltitol. Although the carb count is lower than that of sugar, both products cause a blood glucose and insulin spike equivalent to pure sugar, making them inappropriate for low-carb dieting.
Read more: 13 DOs and DON'TS of Intermittent Fasting
Beware of Too Much Protein
Protein is a staple of a low-carb diet, but you should avoid getting too much, according to Diet Doctor. Try to incorporate a minimum of 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal to make sure your muscles have enough amino acids for proper growth and functioning on a low-carb diet.
Your total protein intake for the day is based on your body weight. Diet Doctor recommends multiplying 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per your weight in kilograms — a kilo is 2.2 pounds. That means that a 170-pound person would weigh 77.27 kilograms and target 93 to 131 grams of protein daily. You could go as high as 2 grams of protein per kilo, the site advises, if you're recovering from injury, surgery or are very underweight. Less than 1 gram per kilogram is suited for therapeutic purposes such as managing cancer or other protein-sensitive disease.
Getting too much protein can defeat your low-carb diet through a process called gluconeogenesis. This happens when your body experiences an overload of protein and converts it to glucose. This could slow your weight loss as your body stores any excess sugars as fat.
Raise a Glass
Unlike many diets, alcohol in moderation is a perfectly acceptable part of a low-carb diet. Although many drinks can be high in sugar, such as those made with liqueurs and sweet mixers, most spirits like tequila and whiskey have no carbohydrates by themselves. That means that having a drink on the rocks, mixed with water or another low-carb base, lets you have a cocktail or two without feeling like you're cheating on your diet. However, there are some drinks you'll want to add to your "do not eat" list as well.
Going for a craft beer crawl with your buddies is a no-go on a low-carb lifestyle. Most beer contains 11 to 14 grams of carbs per 11- to 12-ounce serving, so if you absolutely want to tip back a cold one, order a frosty mug and a bottle of very light American beer. Budweiser Select 55 has just 1.9 grams, and both Michelob Ultra and Corona Premier serve up just 2.6 grams. Other low-carb beer options delivering about 3 grams per bottle include Busch Light, Miller Lite and Natural Light.
Avoid sweet mixed drinks such as rum and coke (39 grams), screwdriver (28 grams) and white Russian (17 grams). Even an innocuous-looking gin and tonic zaps your low-carb diet with 16 grams of carbs per glass. Instead, have a dry martini, vodka and soda, whiskey on the rocks or brandy. Each one contains zero carbs. But beware — some people find that alcohol has an intensified effect when they are on a very low-carb diet such as the ketogenic diet.
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations
- Mayo Clinic: Low Carb Diet — Can It Help You Lose Weight?
- Bulletproof: Keto Flourless Chocolate Avocado Cookies
- Diet Doctor: Ketogenic Diet Foods
- USDA Food Composition Database: Sugar
- What's Cooking America: Cooking Equivalent Measures
- Keto Diet App: 5-Minute Keto Chocolate Mousse
- List of Low-Carb Foods for Atkins 20 Phase 1
- Reference.com: How Many Ounces Is an Average Banana
- Diet Doctor: Keto Vegetables, The Best and the Worst
- Serious Easts: All About Mirepoix, Sofrito, Battuto, and Other Humble Beginnings
- Bodybuilding.com: Post Workout Carbs
- Diet Doctor: Sweeteners
- Atkins: Can Too Much Protein Stall Your Results?
- Diet Doctor: Low-Carb Alcohol
- Corona: Premier
- Diet Doctor: Ingredients to Avoid
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: Coca-Cola Can, 12 Fl Oz