A low-carb diet and calorie counting share two qualities -- they’ll both help you lose weight and keep it off, as long as you stick with the plan. Otherwise, they’re very different. One counts carbs but not calories, while the other counts calories but not carbs. The low-carb plan has a specific list of acceptable foods, while almost any food is fair game when you count calories. You’re more likely to get quick results on a low-carb diet, but in the end, it’s important to choose the diet that works for you.
Different Approaches to Carbs
Calorie counting doesn’t restrict carbs. Some calorie-counting plans may not offer any carb recommendations at all. Others suggest getting 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories from carbs, which is based on recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. That works out to 168 to 244 grams of total carbs, based on consuming 1,500 calories daily.
Low-carb diets rely on counting net carbs, which are calculated by subtracting fiber from total carbs per serving. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do the math -- you can rely on resources that list the net carb content of foods and beverages, like the Atkins Carb Counter. While each low-carb plan is a little different, a typical program allows 20 to 25 grams of net carbs daily at the start, then gradually increases carbs as you lose weight. When your weight-loss goal is reached, you continue on a lifetime maintenance plan that allows 80 to 100 grams of net carbs daily.
When you count calories, you keep tabs on the calories in everything you eat and drink. This approach helps you lose weight as long as you take in fewer calories than you burn. The first step is to calculate the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. Tally daily maintenance calories by multiplying your weight times 15. Then subtract 500 to 1,000 calories daily to lose about 1 to 2 pounds weekly. For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds multiplies 150 by 15 to get 2,250 maintenance calories. Subtract 500 and you get 1,750 -- the daily calorie goal to lose weight gradually.
Low-carb diets don’t pay attention to calories -- they just count net grams of carbohydrates. Weight loss comes from a change in metabolism. As you restrict carbs, the body switches from using carbs for energy to burning fat. While you’re not required to count calories, low-carb plans recommend keeping calories in a healthy range. Women should aim for 1,500 to 1,800 calories daily, while men need 1,800 to 2,200 calories.
Foods Allowed and Restricted
Some calorie-counting diets focus only on calories without getting specific about the type of food to eat. Others suggest eliminating specific foods -- think of any fad diet -- or cutting down on fat. But when you’re reducing calories, it’s more important to make every bite nutritious. Fill your daily calories with lean protein, vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruits, nuts and fat-free dairy products. On the other hand, don’t pack your calories with sugar-sweetened candy, baked goods and beverages.
At the start of a low-carb diet, you can eat fish, poultry, meat, eggs, fats, oils and nonstarchy vegetables. At least 12 to 15 grams of net carbs daily should come from vegetables. You can also have 3 to 4 ounces of cheese, but it contains some carbs, so go easy. Cold cuts and cured meats should be avoided. As you lose weight and increase carbs, you're allowed to eat nuts, fruits and legumes. Once you reach the lifetime maintenance phase, whole grains and starchy vegetables are added to the list of approved foods.
Tips for Low-Carb and Calorie-Counting Diets
Low-carb diets tend to cause more rapid weight loss, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. But the biggest challenge is keeping the weight off, so choose the diet plan you can stick with for the long haul.
If you’re counting calories, you may find it easier to make a list of the foods you’ll include in the diet. Having a specific list -- and keeping those foods stocked at home -- will help you get in the diet groove. Plus, you’ll only have to look up the calories once, then you’ll have them handy every time you need to tally your intake.
For those going low-carb, remember that these diets allow any type of meat and fats like butter, some of which are high in saturated fats. You don’t want to skimp on fat because it’s your source of energy on a low-carb diet. But if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, plan to get mostly healthy unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, avocados and nuts.
- Atkins: Atkins 20 Diet Plan: How Does it Work?
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020: Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations
- Harvard Medical School: Calorie Counting Made Easy
- Atkins: Atkins 20 FAQs
- Colorado State University: What Is a Healthy Eating Pattern?
- Atkins: Phase One List of Acceptable Foods
- Harvard School of Public Health: Low-Carbohydrate Diets