What Is A Low Carb Diet?
A low carb diet is one that encourages people to eat a high amount of protein, fat, and fresh vegetables while at the same time dramatically reducing the amount of carbohydrates in the diet. This type of diet was created to foster fast weight loss, because the body goes into “fat-burning” mode and burns stored body fat for energy whenever a very low amount of carbohydrates are being consumed.
A lot carb diet is also used to restore health, since high levels of carbohydrate and sugary foods have been linked to insulin imbalance and an increased risk for developing diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. When it comes to weight loss, low carb diets work because the body goes into “fat-burning” mode, using up existing stored body fat for energy whenever a very low amount of carbohydrate foods are being consumed.
People who are successful on low carb diets love them because they require no calorie counting, measuring food portions, no strange meal replacements, and also feelings of “going hungry”, since low-carb, high protein and fat foods tend to be very filling.
Low carb diets that are healthy encourage eating real, whole foods that are low in starch and sugar, this way the body must rely on using its “fat storage” for energy. The foods that are considered low carb almost all have low scores on the “glycemic index”, which is a fancy way of saying that the foods are absorbed into the blood stream more slowly and won’t result in a sudden surge of sugar in the blood- which can lead to health problems and weight gain. Foods that are not considered low carb are those that have high levels of sugar, starch, and are lacking protein and healthy fats.
The exact amount of carbs encouraged on a low carb diet really depends on the specific kind that is being followed and how quickly someone wants to see weight-loss results. There are a range of low carb diets that are promoted today, some that encourage people to follow the diet plan for only several weeks or in stages (like the Atkins Diet), while others encourage people to adapt the low carb diet as a lifestyle long-term (like the Paleo Diet).
Why Does a Low Carb Diet Work?
- Why Does a Low Carb Diet Work?
- What are Ketones?
- Foods to Include:
- Foods to Avoid:
- The Benefits and Draw-Backs of a Low Carb Diet:
- 3 Day Meal Plan on a Low Carb Diet:
- Here is the opposing list of foods with the least amount of sugar/carbs (all contain practically zero carbs):
- Here is what a few days on a low carb diet would look like:
When someone is on a low carb diet they avoid sugar and starches, so their blood sugar stabilizes and the levels of insulin in their blood, which is a fat storing hormone, drops significantly. This increases the person’s fat burning ability. Low carb diets also usually make people consume less calories overall, since the types of foods they are eating make them feel very full and are difficult to over eat. They are filing foods because they contain high amount of protein and fat, which the body takes a long time to break down and digest.
Let’s look at more detail of how carbohydrates are processed by the body and turned into fat:
All foods containing carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars in the intestines. The sugar is then absorbed into the blood stream, which raises the blood sugar, or “glucose”, levels. This increases the production of the hormone insulin, which is our “fat storing hormone”. Insulin prevents fat burning and stores extra calories from food as fat cells. This is why it’s very important to not consume too many calories for your body over time, because this will lead to an increase in the amount of fat cells present. Someone is a lot more likely to over consume calories when they eat low protein, low fat, high carb foods that leave them feeling hungry.
Foods that spike insulin levels tend to make us hungry and not satisfied for very long, so we look for more food quickly after eating them. This creates a cycle of eating high carb foods and wanting even more high carb foods, which leads to overeating of calories and weight gain for many people.
On the other hand, a low amount of carbs from food gives us a more stable level of glucose (sugar) in the blood stream, which lowers the amount of insulin we produce. This increases the release of fat from your fat stores and facilitates fat burning. This usually leads to quick fat loss for people eating a low carb diet, especially if someone has a lot of weight to lose and is quite overweight.
All of the foods that are included in a healthy low carb diet will have these characteristics in common:
- Higher protein intake
- Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index score
- Low sugar, low starch
- Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
- Higher intake of, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals
What are Ketones?
As we’ve been discussing, when the body is running low on glucose, it uses fat stores for “fuel” instead. The more the body burns fat for energy, the more “ketone bodies” it produced. At the same time that ketone bodies increase in the body, blood sugar levels drop; these two have an inverse relationship with one another. As blood sugar (glucose) drops and consequently ketone body levels rise, the body experiences what is called "nutritional ketosis."
Most ketogenic diets promote eating high amounts of fats even more so than high amounts of protein. A typical ketogenic meal would include an appropriate amount of protein (not an unlimited amount) from a source like beef, eggs, or chicken, plus a source of natural fat (for example oil, butter, or natural fat from meat), plus some non-starchy vegetables (not potatoes or squash, but vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, etc.)
The ketogenic affect sometimes gets a bad reputation because ketones can sometimes rise to a very high level with patients who have uncontrollable type 1 diabetes. However, most researchers believe that the level of ketones in someone’s body after they have been following a low carb diet is much less than it is in someone’s body who has type 1 diabetes.
Researchers who support a low carb diet do not feel that the level of ketones in the body from this dietary approach are harmful; they believe ketone production is a natural mechanism that the body produces when it is faced with low levels of carbs and sugar but it needs a source of energy. The body burning ketones for energy is an adaptive mechanism that is believed to have evolved thousands of years ago when people had to “fast” for days at a time due to scare amounts of food being available. Supporters of “nutritional ketosis” believe that this natural process can be used to help the body improve conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disease, Alzheimer’s’ disease, gluten intolerance, and more, although there is still research needed on long-term safety and benefits of ketosis.
Foods to Include:
Meats: Any type. This can include beef, pork, game meat, chicken, etc. It’s best to choose organic or grass fed meat.
Fish and Shellfish: Any type. This can include salmon, mackerel, shrimp, lobster, scallops, etc.
Eggs: They can be cooked anyway. It’s best to choose organic eggs.
Fats: This can include oils like coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, or butter, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Non-Starchy Vegetables: All kinds. This can include any leafy greens, all cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, eggplant, spinach, mushrooms, cucumber, lettuce, avocado, onions, peppers, tomatoes etc.
Dairy Foods: Always select full-fat options like real butter, cream (40% fat), sour cream, Greek/Turkish yogurt and high-fat cheeses. Avoid low fat or flavored kinds.
Nuts: all kinds. This can include almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc.
Berries: These are the only fruit allowed and are okay in small amounts
Drinks: only water, seltzer, unsweetened coffee, unsweetened tea.
Foods to Avoid:
Foods with High Sugar Levels: soda, candy, juice, cookies, cake, sports drinks, ice cream, etc. Also avoid using added cane sugar or anything very sweet like honey and maple syrup.
Carbohydrate Foods: Breads, pastas, rice, potatoes, any grains. This even includes products that say they are “whole grain”.
Starchy Vegetables: All vegetable “tubers”- a family of vegetables that grow under the ground- including potatoes, carrots, radishes, and beets, turnips, and parsnips.
Alcohol: All kinds should ideally be avoided, or only had in very small amounts
Fruit: All fruit is off limits except for berries on occasion in small amounts
Drinks: Anything with sugar added like soda, juice, or sweetened coffee and tea
The Benefits and Draw-Backs of a Low Carb Diet:
Each person reacts differently to a low carb diet; some take to it very easily and find that they feel great almost immediately, while others struggle a bit more. Normally the more dependent someone is on carbohydrate foods, the more difficult it will be for them to give these foods up. However, most negative feelings resulting from a low carb diet usually go away with some time.
It’s also important to realize that many of the potential cons of eating low carb are actually psychological affects and not physiological ones, meaning food cravings and feelings of deprivation may be the most negative things you experience when eating this way. These feelings too normally go away with some practice and time, as you get more comfortable eating this way and are motivated by the great results you see.
So, pros of a low carb diet would include:
- Weight loss, usually happening quickly
- Decreased risk for developing serious conditions like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, auto-immune disease, and more
- No feelings of hunger since food is filling
- No need to count calories as long as you stick with low carb approved foods
- Ability to eat as much low starchy vegetables as you want if you are still hungry after a meal
- Increased energy levels, avoidance of mood swings
- Decrease in the amount of food cravings you experience
- Noticeable appearance in terms of your looks, you may appear more awake, thinner, and have a “glow”
And potential cons of a low carb diet would include:
- Initial cravings for carbohydrate foods, especially sugary treats like candy, cookies, chocolate
- Feelings of low energy especially initially, although these usually decrease quickly for most people
- Needing to avoid many common foods at restaurants, parties, etc. and instead to only stick with low carb offerings
- Possible feelings of deprivation since many carbs like bread and pasta tend to be some of people’s favorites
- Potentially spending more money on groceries since protein foods can be expensive at times
3 Day Meal Plan on a Low Carb Diet:
It’s best to limit your overall calorie intake as well as your carb intake, if you want to see fast weight loss results. For women, aiming for 1400 calories every day is a good idea, while 1600 for men is ideal. It is okay to have more than this, it just means you will lose weight at a slower pace most likely. If you are someone who exercises often, you can aim to add a couple hundred calories to your meal plan each day to avoid becoming overly hungry. Adding 100-200 calories to your diet on days when you are working out is a good number to aim for.
You will want to continue consuming at least 25 grams of carbohydrates, even when on a low carb diet, because this amount is required for the body to function properly. This is still considered very “low carb” but ensures you are maintaining your health at the same time as losing weight.
To understand which foods contain the most carbohydrates and sugars in them, let’s look at this list below of the foods with the most carbs (organized in order based on portion size, starting with the most carbs/sugar and decreasing):
Sugars, syrups & sweeteners
Soda or juice
Jams, jellies, preserves
Snacks like potato chips and cakes/crackers
Cookies or cakes
Processed flours (white flour, rice flour, potato flour, etc)
Breads, toast, bagels, pizza, muffins, pitas, rolls, other baked goods
Here is the opposing list of foods with the least amount of sugar/carbs (all contain practically zero carbs):
All meat products
Most fats like oils, butter, lard
Non starchy vegetables
Vinegars and sugar free condiments like mustard
Spices and herbs
Most full fat cheeses
Heavy cream or mayonnaise
Coffee and tea
Here is what a few days on a low carb diet would look like:
- Breakfast: 2 Egg Omelet with vegetables, made using healthy oil.
- Lunch: Salad with blueberries and a handful of almonds.
- Dinner: Cheeseburger (no bun), served with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon or ham and 2 eggs, plus however many vegetables if you’d like.
- Lunch: Leftover hamburger or other meat burger and veggies and salad.
- Dinner: Fish, for example salmon with oil/butter and vegetables.
- Breakfast: Eggs and vegetables, cooked in healthy fat like oil
- Lunch: Shellfish, like shrimp, with salad and healthy full-fat dressing
- Dinner: Grilled chicken with salad and vegetables.
- Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables and a handful of nuts
- Lunch: Smoothie with coconut milk, berries, nuts like almonds, seeds like chia seeds
- Dinner: Steak, salad, and veggies.
- Breakfast: Bacon and Eggs, plus berries.
- Lunch: Chicken over salad with some olive oil and vinegar dressing.
- Dinner: Fish with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Omelet with various veggies cooked in healthy fat, plus berries if you’d like.
- Lunch: Turkey burger, salad with walnuts.
- Dinner: Meatballs with various vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon and Eggs.
- Lunch: Fish, vegetables, and handful of berries.
- Dinner: Grilled chicken with a spinach salad and berries for dessert.
For more information on low carb diets, you may want to check out these resources and websites: