Skip to main content

The low-carb diet guide: How to eat better and optimize your health

This is everything you need to know about embracing a low-carb diet

fried eggs.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

One of the best ways to take control of your health is through the implementation of a well-optimized wellness plan. The two biggest components that most people start to focus on first usually happen to be exercise and, more importantly, diet. All diets focus on the big three macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Sugars, starch, and fiber, which are types of carbohydrates, are found in nearly all foods to some degree, but in much higher quantities in foods like bread, oatmeal, pasta, cereal, and other grains, along with fruits, legumes, potatoes, and certain dairy products. Even the healthiest vegetables like kale and broccoli contain carbs. In contrast, foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and fish, are low-carb foods, with most of the calories coming instead from protein or fat.

While there are benefits to consuming carbohydrates, some people believe that carbs lead to excessive weight gain and cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar. While that may not seem like a great fear for most, usually those individuals also have issues with portion control when it comes to consuming carbs. A low-carb diet aims to minimize carbohydrate intake as much as possible by focusing on consuming protein and fat and limiting high-carb foods. If you love steak, chicken, and scrambled eggs, you may find that a low-carb diet is the best way for you to lose weight without feeling deprived. Keep reading for our complete guide on getting started with a low-carb diet to decide if ditching the bread is your path to better health.

Cast-Iron Chicken Thighs with Crispy Kale.
Tastemade

What is a low-carb diet?

Low-carb diets, by definition, restrict carbohydrate intake. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how many carbs you can consume on a generalized low-carb diet. There are specific low-carb diets, such as the keto diet, with strict carbohydrate intake values, but the term “low-carb diet” is an umbrella term that embodies any eating pattern that limits carbohydrate intake. The typical foods for a low-carb diet may vary from person to person, as there are also no particular foods you have to eat. That said, the macronutrient split in a low-carb diet usually limits carbohydrates to 25% of the daily caloric intake. Protein and fat make up the remaining 75%, with flexibility in the relative proportions of each.

Sliced steak on a plate.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What are the benefits of a low-carb diet?

Like most popular diets, low-carb diets are intended to help people lose weight and improve markers of health. Excessive sugar consumption is associated with weight gain and obesity, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes because it increases the production and exposure to the hormone insulin. By limiting carbohydrates, sugar intake is drastically reduced, which reduces insulin secretion, and indices of health often improve.

Moreover, many people experience significant weight loss after starting a low-carb diet, with some reporting feeling fewer cravings, easier satiety, and less desire to binge. Moreover, because high-carb foods tend to be more readily available and easy to eat mindlessly (potato chips, pretzels, crackers, pasta, cookies, or even fruit), following a low-carb diet can reduce the availability of binge-able foods and their accessibility—and thus, caloric intake—by default. Those who have insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or type 2 diabetes often report improvements in blood sugar regulation after adopting a low-carb diet.

Salmon.
Zorra Tin / Shutterstock

What foods can you eat on a low-carb diet?

Low-carb diets encourage the consumption of unprocessed foods high in protein and/or fat, along with a moderate intake of non-starchy carbohydrates to get antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber:

  • Meat: Beef, pork, veal, lamb, venison, bison, etc.
  • Fish and seafood: Salmon, trout, cod, sardines, tuna, mackerel, lobster, crab, scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, etc.
  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, quail, etc.
  • Eggs: Chicken eggs, turkey eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, etc.
  • High-fat dairy: Whole milk, cheese, cream, butter, cottage cheese, etc.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, asparagus, radishes, etc.
  • Low-sugar fruits: Pears, melons, oranges, apricots, berries, lemons, kiwi, coconut, tomatoes, etc
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, etc.
  • Healthy fats and oils: Olive oil, avocados, flaxseed oil, coconut oil
  • Herbs and spices: Basil, thyme, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, rosemary, cumin, chili powder, etc.
  • Unsweetened beverages: Water, tea (herbal tea, green tea, black tea, etc.), red wine, coffee, milk

The following can be eaten in moderation depending on your particular dietary and energy needs:

  • Root vegetables: Carrots, parsnips, beets, etc.
  • Fruits: Bananas, pineapple, papaya, apples, pomegranate, plums, etc.
  • Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.
  • Sprouted grains and seeds: Quinoa, barley, oats, brown rice, etc.
  • Chocolate
A table full of pastries at Tosha Bakery in Liman, Israel.
Andrew Davey / The Manual

What foods are not permitted on a low-carb diet?

The guiding principle of the low-carb diet is to limit anything sugary, starchy, or high in carbohydrates. As such, most foods rich in carbohydrates are excluded or should be eaten only rarely and in small amounts. Again, the goal is to consume no more than 25% of your daily caloric intake from carbs, and of those, the majority should be high-fiber, complex carbohydrates rather than sugars. Low-carb diets avoid the following:

  • Most grains: Pasta, bread, crackers, rice cakes, cereal, oatmeal, bagels, rice, couscous.
  • Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes
  • Dried fruit: Dried apricots, raisins, dried dates, prunes, etc.
  • Sweeteners: Sugar, honey, agave, corn syrup, jellies, jams, pudding, fruit juices, soda, sweet tea, applesauce, etc.
  • Desserts and sweets: Ice cream, pastries, cookies, doughnuts, pies, pudding, sweetened yogurt, etc.
Chicken salad
Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

Sample low-carb diet meal plan

Curious about what a day of eating might look like on a low-carb diet? Below, we share a sample low-carb meal plan:

  • Breakfast: Omelet with cheddar cheese, green pepper, and onion, coffee
  • Lunch: Chicken salad lettuce cups, tomato, and feta salad
  • Snack: Berries and walnuts
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon, zucchini noodles, asparagus
  • Snack: Coconut milk smoothie with chocolate protein powder and almonds
Nuts and seeds.
RoDobby / Pixabay

Sample low-carb diet snacks

You may have to snack more when following a low-carb diet, so you want to be armed with plenty of low-carb snack ideas, as some planning is necessary. Here is a list of some great ideas for your snacks:

Savory snacks:

  • Hard-boiled eggs: A classic high-protein snack with only 0.5 grams of carbs per egg.
  • Beef jerky: Choose varieties with no added sugar, around 2 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Pork rinds: Crunchy and satisfying, about 1 gram of carbs per serving. Dip in guacamole or salsa for added flavor.
  • Cucumber slices with cream cheese: Refreshing and light, with around 2 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Celery sticks with almond butter: Creamy and crunchy, with around 3 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Avocado slices with smoked salmon: Rich and decadent, with around 4 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Olives: Tangy and flavorful, around 1 gram of carbs per olive.
  • Nuts and seeds: A good source of healthy fats and protein (watch portion sizes) with 6 grams of carbs per ounce for almonds; 5 grams of carbs per ounce for pumpkin seeds.

Sweet snacks:

  • Berries with unsweetened whipped cream: Delicious and rich with antioxidants, around 5 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher): Rich in antioxidants and satisfying, around 6 grams carbs per serving.
  • Greek yogurt with berries and chia seeds: Creamy and packed with protein, with around 8 grams of carbs per serving.
  • Coconut chips: Toasted coconut flakes with a natural sweetness, around 8 grams carbs per serving.
  • Bell pepper slices with a low-carb dip: Crunchy and refreshing, with around 4 grams of carbs per serving.

A low-carb diet is a great way to reduce systemic inflammation and improve overall health. Regardless if you decide to opt-in to this diet for a short time, or the long haul, it surely is one of the tastiest choices around.

Editors' Recommendations

Amber Sayer
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Amber Sayer is a fitness, nutrition, and wellness writer and editor, and was previously a Fitness Editor at Byrdie. She…
Dark chocolate, beets, kale, and more: These 15 foods are high in antioxidants for optimal health
Add these foods to your diet and take advantage of the rich antioxidants
Foods high in antioxidants

Have you ever heard the advice to “eat the rainbow”? Essentially, this refers to consuming fruits and vegetables that span the color palette — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. As you browse the produce aisle in your favorite grocery store, you may notice all the different natural pigments. These colors are due to the specific phytonutrients and antioxidants present in the food.
Antioxidants and phytonutrients are compounds in plant-based foods that reduce oxidative damage in the body and can reduce the risk of certain diseases. Consuming these foods high in antioxidants is a great way to improve your health and feed your body with micronutrients and disease-fighting natural compounds. “Eating the rainbow” ensures you get a variety of types of antioxidants that provide your body with a well-rounded nutritional profile for optimal wellness. Improve your health and keep reading for a list of the rich antioxidant foods.

Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate may seem like just a delicious indulgence, but while you enjoy each creamy, sweet yet bitter bite, you're also giving yourself plenty of powerful nutrients. For example, it contains zinc and iron. In fact, one ounce of dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa) contains 3.42 mg of iron or 19% of the RDI for women and 42% for men. Unsweetened baking chocolate is an even better source of iron, with 5 mg per ounce. Dark chocolate is also a good source of antioxidants, which is why it is often considered a superfood. A 3.5-ounce portion has nearly 15 mmol (millimoles per liter), which is actually much higher than many of the healthiest fruits and vegetables!

Read more
Bone broth benefits: 9 fantastic reasons to add it to your diet
It adds more than vitamins and minerals to your diet
Cup of bone broth

Every few years, there’s a wellness trend that seems to take over like wildfire, spreading from niche health markets to mainstream culture. From granola to the vegan diet, Epsom salt baths to apple cider vinegar, we are always on the quest for natural solutions to help us feel better, look younger, sleep more soundly, and so on. A few years ago, bone broth entered the scene as a nutritional superfood with purported benefits spanning the gamut from making skin look younger to burning body fat.
It was heralded by Paleo dieters, ancestral health advocates, and CrossFit enthusiasts, and soon conventional food brands and big box stores started making and stocking bone broths, and boutique bone broth cafes opened in major cities around the country, where they exclusively offered gourmet bone broths as soups, drinks, and shots.
Though the clamor surrounding bone broth has quieted from a roaring boil to a more tempered simmer, it’s still a touted health elixir favorite of many athletes and wellness fans. Whether you have yet to sip your first cup of bone broth or it’s been a while since you added it to your grocery list and you’re wondering if bone broth lives up to the hype, keep reading to learn more about the benefits of bone broth.

What is bone broth?
Although it may be a somewhat recent fad, bone broth has actually been prepared and consumed for thousands of years. Bone broth is a nutritious stock made by simmering the bones of animals such as cows, chickens, fish, pigs, bison, and turkeys, along with spices, herbs, and vegetables. Animal hooves, tendons, beaks, and other connective tissues may also be used. The extensive simmering process brings out the minerals, amino acids, vitamins, and healthy fats stored in the bones and connective tissues, creating a nutrient-dense broth. Bone broth may be used as a stock for other soups, consumed as a liquid broth as is, or turned into a health drink.

Read more
From Mediterranean to Paleo, these are the best diets for men to look and feel great
One of these diets will fit your needs
Healthy foods with fruits and vegetables

It seems like eating should be simple: You eat the foods you like in the quantities that satiate you, and that’s that. However, while that’s one way to approach things, most of us find that such a freestyle approach to our diet is too loose and can lead to overeating, nutrient imbalances, and feeling poorly. Plus, we all want to be healthy and maintain our ideal weight and body composition. For these reasons, there are many popular diets that aim to provide structure and rules or principles to guide everything about your eating, from what you should eat and what you should avoid to when you should eat and how much you eat.
Each of these diets has its own guaranteed benefits and specific goals, with a unifying theme supporting overall health and ideal body weight. From Paleo to Whole30, the Nordic Diet to the Ornish Diet, and vegan to Atkins, the menu of diets seems to be constantly growing. While it’s always nice to have choices when making decisions, the overwhelming number of popular diets these days can ultimately lead to paralysis by analysis. How can anyone be expected to sift through all the options and pick the best diet? Speaking with your physician or registered dietician can be a useful approach, or you can try various diets and see how you feel.
Everyone’s body is different, so what works best for you may not work as well for someone else. That said, the best diets for men typically have certain commonalities that make them effective, such as emphasizing healthy vegetables and nutritious fruits, limiting sugar, and focusing on whole, natural foods instead of processed and refined ingredients.
If you’re looking for a good place to start with a few vetted suggestions, keep reading to find out our top picks for the best diets for men.

Best overall: Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet wins our vote for the best diet overall because the evidence speaks for itself -- it’s probably the most researched and tested diet around, with findings demonstrating its superior ability to lower the risk of many chronic diseases, reduce body fat, and improve physical health and performance. The Mediterranean diet is modeled after the typical eating patterns of the Mediterranean region -- especially Greece -- around the 1960s, due to the fact that this population had notably low rates of lifestyle diseases like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
What makes the Mediterranean diet successful is that it relies on sound nutritional principles: Eat whole, natural foods in moderation, and avoid processed foods. The diet encourages the consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil, which provides anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy fats. Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt can be consumed in limited amounts, and red meat is discouraged. Foods to avoid include processed meats like hot dogs and sausages, refined oils, trans fats, processed foods, refined grains like white bread and pasta, sweetened beverages, and any foods with added sugars like ice cream and jelly.

Read more