Whether it’s keto, low-carb Paleo, Atkins or some other version, carb-restricted diets are here to stay.
No matter the diet, going “low carb” tends to mean something different to everyone. For some, it’s no sugar, grains or bread. For others, it’s counting grams of carbs per day or meal, and for others — it’s no carbs at all.
As you can see, there’s a lot of confusion about what a low-carb diet really is. Let’s clear it up!
WHAT IS A LOW-CARB DIET?
Low-carb diets became popular in the early 2000s with the Atkins diet. Atkins is a phase diet; you start off eating very low carb and then gradually increase your intake in phases until you reach “maintenance” level. At that point, you’ve lost the weight and figured out the perfect amount of carbs you need to maintain your weight loss.
The problem with phase diets is not everyone follows the guidelines as they were written. I can’t tell you how many people I worked with who were doing the Atkins diet but never actually read the book! They would typically jump in at the very restrictive beginning phase, stay there too long, and then give up because it became too difficult to maintain.
Fast forward a decade or two and we’ve largely replaced phase diets with a more standardized approach.
A low-carb diet today looks something like one of these options:
Very low-carb diet: 20–50 grams of carbs per day
Low-carb diet: 50–100 grams of carbs per day
Moderate-carb diet: 100–200 grams of carbs per day
Wondering which one you should try? Well, it depends. All three options can yield positive health benefits, but not everyone’s body chemistry is the same. While it’s tempting to go super low carb in hopes of achieving fast results, research shows it’s not always necessary. Modest reductions in carbohydrates can have the same positive effects on body composition, fat distribution, glucose metabolism, and weight as more restrictive diets.
If you’re considering a low-carb diet, I recommend you customize it to meet your calorie needs, activity level and food preferences. The one-size-fits-all approach is not always the most effective. We know a 250-pound man responds differently to a low-carb diet than a 140-pound woman.
When it comes to eating low carb, it’s all relative.
Set yourself up for success with a sustainable low-carb eating style by using the macronutrient feature on the MyFitnessPal app. Let the program calculate your total caloric needs and then choose the percentage you want from carbohydrates. For example, a low-carb, 2,000-calorie plan with 30% of its calories coming from carbohydrates would be 150 grams per day. The same percent for a 1,500-calorie plan would be only 112 grams per day. Play around with this feature until you find the best option for your lifestyle.
The metabolic benefits seen with lower-carb diets include better insulin sensitivity, lower fasting blood sugar, decreased blood pressure, and reduced belly fat. While these benefits are amazing, they are not exclusive to low-carb diets. The jury is still out on whether a low-carb diet is better than any other kind of diet when it comes to losing weight or managing metabolic conditions like diabetes.
THE BEST LOW-CARB FOOD CHOICES
When going low carb, you’ll want to focus on non-starchy, high-fiber vegetables and low-sugar fruits combined with a variety of nuts and seeds, healthy fats and oils, lean protein, eggs, and low-carb dairy foods like plain yogurt.
Having a well-stocked kitchen makes a low-carb lifestyle easy to follow. Use the grocery guide below to help you create a week’s worth of delicious meals at home.
Fresh herbs (basil, oregano, dill, thyme, parsley, rosemary, mint or cilantro)
Leafy greens like arugula, kale, spinach and Swiss chard
Tomatoes (canned and fresh)
MEAT & POULTRY
Chicken breast or thighs
Lean ground turkey
Sirloin or tenderloin
Canned fish (sustainable tuna, salmon, anchovies, clams and sardines)
DAIRY & EGGS
Semi-soft cheese (mozzarella, havarti, Monterey Jack)
Hard cheese (Swiss, cheddar, provolone, Parmesan)
Soft-ripened cheese (brie, camembert)
Plain Greek yogurt
NUTS & SEEDS
Vinaigrette salad dressing
LOW-CARB TIPS AND TRICKS
Keep some easy grab-and-go, low-carb snacks on hand (e.g. plain yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, olives) for when you’re out and about or traveling.
Organic rotisserie chicken is a great option for a zero-fuss, low-carb dinner. Serve it with a bagged salad for the ultimate easy dinner! Salad bags are usually cabbage-based with a mix of greens. To keep the carbs down, skip the bag of fixings and use your own low-carb salad dressing.
Think you can’t bake if you’re on a low-carb eating plan? Not true! There are plenty of low-carb baking recipes available on the MyFitnessPal blog, like this Low-Carb Banana Bread.
CLICK TO TWEET THIS ARTICLE > Meal planning for the week? Check out our ultimate low-carb grocery guide via @MyFitnessPal. #MyFitnessPal
SAMPLE LOW-CARB MEAL PLAN
Here’s a simple low-carb meal plan using recipes from the MyFitnessPal recipe collection. This sample day contains about 80 grams of carbohydrates (carb intake varies depending on portion sizes).
Breakfast: Low-Carb Crustless Quiche
Snack: Plain Greek yogurt with blackberries
Lunch: Turkey Lettuce Wraps
Snack: Guacamole with sliced cucumber and bell peppers
Dinner: Instant Pot Low-Carb Lasagna Stuffed Peppers with Vegan Green Goddess Salad
THE BOTTOM LINE
Followed correctly, a low-carb diet can help optimize health, reduce insulin resistance, decrease belly fat, and improve markers of metabolic syndrome. Having a well-stocked fridge, freezer and pantry makes eating low carb easy. Stay motivated by trying low-carb versions of your favorite foods to make the eating style sustainable for the long term.
Ready to take the next step? Unlock MyFitnessPal Premium to access custom goal settings, quick-log recipes, and guided plans from a registered dietitian. Premium users are 65% more likely to reach their weight loss goals!