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Low Carb Diet: Things to Know

"Andrea is a copywriter and editor specializing in holistic nutrition, health, and wellness. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from McMaster University, is a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP) with the Institute of Holistic Nutrition."

Everywhere you turn, it seems like someone is talking about a low carbohydrates diet.

Realistically, such diets seem to be the biggest thing since sliced bread (which ironically would be a no-no on a low carb diet). There appears to be a never-ending list of benefits associated with decreasing your intake of carbohydrates, and with the continued popularity of the low carb movement, there’s also no shortage of delicious, healthy foods and snacks available. 

But for a lot of people, there’s still a nagging question: Is this diet healthy?

While there are a number of ways to define and practice it, most research agrees that knocking back your carb count, mostly through reducing added or refined sugars, can do a lot of good for overall health and well-being. 

So let’s chat about everything you need to know about.

Despite popular perception, following this diet doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, the principles mimic that of a typical, balanced diet: focus on consuming whole foods, limit processed and refined foods, and be mindful of your balance of macronutrients.

What Is Low Carb Diet?

While there are no official guidelines for what constitutes a low carb diet, eating “lower carb“ simply means you’re eating fewer carbohydrates than the typical guidelines of 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates. Based on a typical 2,000 calorie per day diet, consuming 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates could range from 225g-325g of carbohydrates per day. If an individual consumes about 1800 calories per day, a normal carb intake could range from 202g-292g of carbohydrates per day.

So there are two common, more formalized versions of low carb diets are [1]:

  1. Very low carbohydrate (less than 10% carbs) = 20-50 grams/day
  2. Low carbohydrate (less than 26% carbs) = less than 130 grams/day

With a lower carbohydrate intake, fat and protein consumption will naturally increase to compensate for the reduction of calories that results from a reduction of carbs. For example, the ketogenic diet is very similar in carbohydrate consumption to a very low carbohydrate diet. However, on a keto diet, fat intake is about 75% and protein intake is about 20% of total daily calories. Some other diets may encourage a higher protein intake and more moderate fat intake. 

These diets have gained popularity due to the fact that many studies have found that reducing carbohydrate intake causes levels of insulin to decrease. Insulin is an essential energy-regulating hormone that can be anabolic, but in excess will promote a fat-storing state [1]. Furthermore, studies have shown that transitioning to a low carb diet plan may be superior to other dietary approaches for exhibiting rapid weight loss. On the flip side, excess carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrate and sugar intake, is related with type II diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Low Carb Meal Plans: Food Examples

What to Eat on a Low Carb Diet

Since it refers more to how many carbs to eat, rather than what exactly to eat, there is lots of flexibility within this diet. Building a diet around good sources of protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates can be a great place to start when putting together a meal plan.

Here are some low-carb foods:

  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant
  • Meat: Beef, pork, venison, bison, elk
  • Eggs
  • Fish and Seafood: Salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, herring, mackerel, oysters, mussels, crab, lobster
  • Full-fat or low-fat dairy (no or minimal added sugar): Yogurt, cheese, kefir
  • Lower-Glycemic Fruits: Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, lemon, lime, apples, pears
  • Non-starchy vegetables: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, zucchini, tomato, eggplant, carrot, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts
  • Starchy vegetables (in moderation): Sweet potato, yam, parsnip, rutabaga, turnip, beet, winter squash, pumpkin
  • Beans and legumes (in moderation)
  • Healthy fats:
    • Olives and olive oil
    • Coconut and coconut oil
    • Avocados and avocado oil
    • Butter/ghee
    • Nut butter 
    • Nuts and seeds

Looking for some low-carb menu inspiration?

Low carb meals

Chicken or Beef burrito bowl with cauliflower rice

Baked salmon with asparagus lemon-garlic butter sauce

Shrimp or chicken lettuce wraps

Beef bolognese with cauliflower rice or spaghetti squash

Hamburger beef soup

Garlic butter chicken meatballs

Keto crustless pizza

Low Carb Snacks

Raw veggies (celery, cucumber, carrots, peppers) with keto ranch dip

Hard-boiled eggs

Meat jerky (no nitrates or added sugar)

Kale chips

Charcuterie board (meats, cheese, olives, pickles)

Low carb cheese crackers

Guacamole

Mixed berry mousse

Low carb Breakfast Ideas

Sausage and egg muffins

Almond blueberry chia pudding

Cheesy chicken fritters

Low-carb blueberry muffins

Berry protein smoothie

Low-carb pancake

Foods to Limit or Avoid in Your Low-Carb Menu

You may limit consumption of high-carb foods, but regardless of what style of eating you follow, many of these foods should be limited anyways, as overconsumption can be linked to many negative health outcomes.

  • Refined sugar: Cookies, cakes, pastries, sweetened yogurts 
  • Processed carbohydrates: White pasta, bread, bagels, processed cereals
  • Alcohol
  • Fruit juices and sugar-sweetened sodas

Low Carb Diet for Weight Loss

For decades, we’ve been told that fat is the enemy where weight loss is concerned. However, when food manufacturers started to remove fat from food products, they had to add something to replace the flavor - enter more sugar. The rise in low-fat products coincided with the beginning of the obesity epidemic and research has shown that rather than ending obesity, low-fat further contributed to it [2, 3]. 

There are a number of mechanisms that may make a low carb diet effective for weight loss. One hypothesis suggests that a higher intake of fats and protein increases satiety and produces less concomitant hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) [1]. This increase in satiety and less rebound hypoglycemia results in decreased appetite and overall food intake, thus producing a calorie deficit and facilitating weight loss. Other hypotheses suggest that such diets can enhance metabolic burn, which can lead to an extra 200 to 300 more calories burned compared to an iso-caloric high-carb diet [4, 5].

Additionally, restricting carbs to under 50 grams per day when following a ketogenic diet results in glycogen depletion, enhanced ketone production, and greater fat mobilization and oxidation for energy. Greater endogenous fat oxidation, therefore, reduces body fat stores and aids in weight loss. Simply put, your body burns fat for fuel when it doesn’t have easy access to use carbs for energy. 

Low Carb Diet Benefits

While many people gravitate towards diets for the known weight-loss benefits, that’s not the only benefit this diet has to offer.

1. Better blood sugar regulation

A high carb diet is notorious for causing blood sugar and insulin imbalances, which can lead to a host of issues, including increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other health complications. Several studies show that reducing carbohydrates (<130g/day) can improve glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes [6, 7, 8]. Better glucose and insulin control can also help to regulate appetite and reduce cravings, which may ultimately lead to reduced food intake and weight and fat loss.

2. Improves markers of cardiovascular health

Cardiovascular diseases are some of the leading causes of death worldwide. Despite many low carb diets being high in fat—which was once demonized for harming heart health—more recent studies show that they may be protective against cardiovascular risk factors. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that overweight and obese people who reduced consumption of refined carbohydrates while increasing fat intake saw greater improvements in cardiovascular disease risk factors than people consuming a diet that was lower in fat and higher in carbs [9]. Some evidence even shows that replacing some “healthy” carbs like brown rice and whole wheat bread with higher fat foods resulted in striking improvements for a variety of metabolic disease risk factors, including triglycerides and HDL.

This follows along with a large body of evidence suggesting that the Mediterranean diet—one that’s rich in healthy fat from nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil and low in refined carbohydrates and sugars—is associated with better cardiovascular health outcomes, including significant reductions in rates of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and total cardiovascular disease [10].

3. Better gut health

A healthy gut may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but research suggests that reducing the intake of refined carbohydrates can do great things for the microbiome. And because gut health has such far-reaching effects on the rest of the body—production of bioactive compounds, pathogenic protection, energy homeostasis, nutrient metabolism, and regulating immune function—keeping it healthy is one of the keys to maintaining health and well-being [11]. Studies also suggest that the typical Western diet—one that’s high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, and low in fiber—reduces the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and can shift gut microbiota metabolism to the production of detrimental metabolites. This in turn promotes proliferation of bacteria associated with chronic inflammation [11].

When it comes to starting a new diet plan - it’s always important to remember that nutrition is highly individual and it’s always best to consult with a doctor or dietitian if you have questions. While there are a number of benefits, it may not be recommended for all populations like athletes, elderly individuals, and pregnant women. 

If you choose to follow a low carb diet - remember that there is a wide variety of fun foods and recipes to explore to help balance your diet and enjoy your meals! 

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