In my work as a dietitian, one of the questions I get the most is about low carb diets. Every person I talk to has a different idea of what “weak” means, and every news article I see does too. Isn’t it carbs? Reduced carbs? Keto? Sugar free? Can you totally ignore calories? I loved the recent discussion on TODAY about a Harvard School of Public Health study on effective weight management with a low carb diet, and my favorite moment was when Al Roker said he ate about 100 grams of carbs a day. I bet that doesn’t sound low carb to a lot of people, but it sure is. This is a step towards solving part of the mystery! Let’s see if we can clear it up a bit more.
The classification of major diet types boils down to “macros” – the relative percentages of calories from each macronutrient group of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. In terms of carbs, the main styles are generally healthy, ketogenic, and low-carb — what this study calls the carb-insulin model.
A general, heart-healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is often a dietitian’s first choice because the best-studied human diets that most reduce the risk of chronic disease fall into this category. On average, about 50% of calories come from minimally processed carbohydrate sources. Even more can be healthy – most good quality plant-based diets will be at least 60% high in fiber, with complex carbohydrates.
Conversely, ketogenic diets are extremely low in carbs, requiring less than 5% of calories from carbs to keep you in a special metabolic state called ketosis, which typically results in rapid weight loss. Why not choose this one then? It’s a restrictive format that some people swear by, but for many it’s a struggle to maintain for the long haul. You don’t have to pay much attention to calorie counting, but you do have to be very careful even with small amounts of carbohydrates. Some people worry about the possible negative health effects, find it doesn’t fit in with their social life, or simply run out of bread! About a third of my weight management clients find me after regaining what they lost on keto while also trying to transition to something less extreme.
Enter the low carb or reduced carb diet. There’s a lot of variation from person to person, and it’s important to speak with your medical team to make sure this is right for you, but a low carb eating style is more like 30 to 40 % calories from carbs, 30-40% fat (emphasis on fish and plant-based), and 30% protein. It doesn’t force your body into ketosis, but this type of diet makes it easier to control blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight without feeling deprived. It’s also possible to track while eating at your favorite restaurants, cooking for a family, or saving a few indulgences. You can’t totally ignore calories, but just keeping your carb portions smaller does a lot of that work.
Sounds easy! Until you make your grocery list or order from a menu, that is. So what does a low carb diet actually look like? There are as many ways to do it as there are people. Let’s look at three general rules and some full-day menus with real food.
3 rules for eating low carb
Rule #1: Don’t eat all your carbs at once.
Spread your carb intake throughout the day. If you save all your delicious carbs and eat them in one big meal, it probably won’t serve you well. Most people find they overeat this way, perhaps because they’re making dinner decisions as their body sends a frantic message that it needs carbs (all carbs!) this moment. Skipping meals or eating vastly different amounts of carbs at different times of the day means that your body is always catching up with your blood sugar, and the result is that your levels will be more variable, with some spikes and dips, instead of the smoothest upward and downward flow we aim for.
Rule #2: Pair your carbs with fats, protein, and fiber.
what you eat with your carbs matter. If you try to control them by having just a glass of juice for breakfast or a mini soda for a snack, the sugars in that drink will be absorbed quickly without any fat, protein or fiber to slow them down. Even something healthy like a small piece of fruit can spike blood sugar if you don’t add a handful of nuts or a slice of cheese.
Rule #3: Be careful with sugar.
Although low-carb diets aren’t necessarily completely sugar-free, watch how much you eat. You’ll be healthier if you choose more whole, unprocessed, unsweetened foods. Sodas, juices, syrupy drinks from the cafe, the office candy bowl, honey mustard or other sweet dressings, the second trip through the office candy bowl, even more than a tablespoon of ketchup can really add up. You might be happier if you slowly cut these things down rather than going cold turkey overnight, but be careful.
In short, limit added sugars, try to eat a moderate amount of carbs more or less evenly distributed in your meals, and always include protein, fat, and fiber with your carbs. What if you never cook? Still skipping breakfast? Don’t worry, there are still ways to do this that might work for you.
An easier way to follow a low carb diet
Let’s first look at a regular meal plan.
You can certainly use a food diary app like My Fitness Pal to keep track of your carbs and calories, but ballparking works for a lot of people! The easiest way to do this is to use the Healthy Plate method: half non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter lean protein, and one-quarter starchy foods like rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, or bread . The version you may have seen on your way home from school with your kids includes more fruit, but if you’re looking to limit carbs, move your fruit to one serving at breakfast and another at snack time. Choosing complex, fiber-rich carbs can give you some carb-limiting wiggle room because they lessen the effect on your blood sugar, so opt for those at least half the time.
A sample 30% carb meal plan
So what might the ballpark of a 30% carb day look like? Here is an example :
Breakfast: 1 package McCann’s Instant Oatmeal with 1/2 cup berries and 1/4 cup nuts. You can add an egg or a sausage on the side. Coffee with a little half and half or up to a cup of unsweetened almond milk. (35g carbs)
Lunch: Turkey charcuterie and cheese on a rye sandwich with arugula, mustard and olive tapenade. Strips of peppers and snow peas with ranch dressing. Unsweetened sparkling water. (32g carbs)
To taste: Almond Caramel Bar (16 g carbs) or Chobani Mango Greek Yogurt (16 g carbs)
Having dinner: 4 oz baked salmon, 2 tbsp. roasted Mediterranean vegetables tossed with 1 oz Barilla red lentil rotini, parmesan cheese on top. Hibiscus iced tea. (28g carbs)
Eat fast ? Try this sample low carb meal plan
Is it child’s play to get enough fiber and vegetables if you buy all the ready meals? No. I wish you had more, but let’s just start by improving your restaurant choices and not try to jump straight to the ideal. Improvement is, well, improvement! So if you literally eat every meal in a restaurant or club, this one’s for you:
Breakfast: McDonald’s Breakfast Burrito (26g carbs) with coffee or tea. You can also choose any frozen Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich (all around 30g).
Lunch: Bowl of 30 whole chipotle steaks. Unsweetened iced tea. (23g carbs)
To taste: Starbucks Tall Caffe Latte (15g carbs)
Having dinner: Chilli 6 oz. sirloin with broccoli and mashed potatoes (42g carbs). Add a carb-free White Claw Hard Seltzer if you want to live it up a few times a week.
A Low Carb Intermittent Fasting Meal Plan
Don’t like breakfast? Try intermittent fasting with an 8-hour eating window, perhaps with your first meal at 11 a.m. and your last at 7 p.m. Most people would aim for around 45 grams of carbs in these 2 meals, with a good snack in between.
Lunch at 11 a.m.: Healthy Choice Cuban-Inspired Pork Energy Bowl (46g Carbs)
To taste: 1/2 cup tuna salad with 3 Finn Crisps flatbreads (11g carbs)
Having dinner: 2 chicken enchiladas, cheese and tomatillo sauce, 1/2 cup pinto beans, 1/2 cup cauliflower rice, sautéed peppers and onions. (50g carbs)
These are just a few examples; there are literally thousands of ways to put together a similar plate. It gets easier over time, but you don’t have to do it perfectly to have an effect. It may be slower than you want if you don’t count every gram, but that’s probably what I want to. Gradual weight loss is associated with change that is more likely to be lasting for you, as it gives you time to collect recipes you like and compile a list of take-out meals. This often means you’re maintaining or even gaining muscle, especially if you’re exercising. Finally, this gradual approach often means you’re happier, able to choose meals you really like, keep a few treats in your regular intake, and reduce stress. I’m a dietitian because I like to love my food. That’s what I want for you too.