In my work as a certified nutritionist, I get the most questions about low-carb diets. Every person I speak to has a different idea of what “low” means, and so does every message I see. Isn’t it a carb? Less carbs? keto? Sugar free? Can You Ignore Calories Totally? I loved TODAY’s recent discussion of a Harvard School of Public Health study on effective weight management with low-carb diets, and my favorite moment was when Al Roker volunteered that he eats about 100 grams of carbs a day. I bet that doesn’t sound like low-carb to a lot of people, but it certainly is. This is a step towards solving some of the mystery! Let’s see if we can clean up a bit.
The classification of the major types of diets all boils down to the “macros” – the relative percentages of calories that come from each macronutrient group of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. When it comes to carbs, the main styles are generally healthy, ketogenic, and low-carb — what this study calls the carb-insulin model.
A general, heart-healthy diet high 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. You average about 50% of your calories from minimally processed carbohydrate sources. Even more can be healthy—most good quality plant-based diets are at least 60% fiber with complex carbohydrates.
Conversely, ketogenic diets are extremely low-carb, requiring less than 5% of calories from carbohydrates to keep you in a special metabolic state called ketosis, which usually results in rapid weight loss. Then why not choose this one? It’s a restrictive format that some people swear by, but for many it’s a struggle to maintain over the long term. You don’t have to pay much attention to counting calories, but you do do Even small amounts of carbohydrates must be carefully considered. Some people are concerned about possible negative health effects, find it doesn’t fit into their social life, or just miss bread! About a third of my weight management clients find me having regained what they lost on keto when trying to transition to something less extreme as well.
Get on the low-carb or reduced-carb diet. There are many differences from person to person and it’s important to speak to your medical team to make sure it’s right for you, but a low-carb eating style is more likely to be 30-40% of calories from carbohydrates, 30-40 % fats (focus on fish and vegetable fats) and 30% protein. It doesn’t force your body into ketosis, but this type of plan makes it easier to control blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight without feeling deprived. It’s also possible to follow while still eating at your favorite restaurants, cooking for a family, or keeping a few indulgences. You can’t completely ignore calories, but just keeping your carb portions smaller takes a lot of work.
Sounds easy! Until you actually make your shopping list or order from a menu. What does a carbohydrate-reduced diet actually look like? There are as many ways to do this as there are people. Let’s look at three general rules of thumb and a few real food all-day menus.
3 rules for a low-carbohydrate diet
Rule #1: Don’t eat your carbs all at once.
Spread out your carbohydrate intake throughout the day. If you just save all your delicious carbs and eat them in one big meal, it probably won’t do you any good. Most people find they overeat this way, perhaps because they’re making dinner decisions while their body is frantically signaling that it needs carbs (all carbs!) right now. If you skip meals or eat wildly different amounts of carbohydrates at different times of the day, it means your body is always catching up with your blood sugar levels, and the result is that your levels are more variable, with some spikes and dips, rather than being more mellow up- and downward flow that we are aiming for.
Rule #2: Combine your carbs with fat, protein, and fiber.
What they eat With Your carbohydrates are important. If you’re trying to keep them at bay by having nothing but a glass of juice for breakfast or a small soda for a snack, the sugar in this drink absorbs quickly with no fat, protein, or fiber to slow it 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.
While low-carb diets aren’t necessarily completely sugar-free, be mindful of how much you’re getting. You’ll be healthier if you choose more unprocessed, unsweetened, whole foods. Sodas, juices, syrupy cafe drinks, the office candy dish, honey mustard or other sweet dressings, the second trip through the office candy dish, even more than a tablespoon of ketchup can really add up. You might be happier cutting these things down slowly instead of going cold turkey overnight, but be careful.
In short, limit added sugars, try to eat a moderate amount of carbs spread more or less evenly across your meals, and always add some protein, fat, and fiber to your carbs. But what if you never cook? Always skip breakfast? Don’t worry – there are still ways to do this that might work for you.
An easier way to eat low carb
Let’s look at a regular meal plan first.
You can certainly use a food journal app like My Fitness Pal to keep track of your carbs and calories accurately, but ballparking works for a lot of people! The easiest way to do this is the Healthy Platter method: half non-starchy vegetables, one-fourth lean protein, and one-fourth starches like rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, or bread. The version you might see coming home from school with your kids has more fruit, but if you want to limit carbs, shift your fruit to one serving for breakfast and one for a snack. Choosing complex, high-fiber carbs can give you wiggle room at the carb limit since they reduce the effect on your blood sugar, so choose these at least half the time.
A sample meal plan with 30% carbohydrates
So what might the baseline 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 sausage on the side. Coffee with some half and half or up to a cup of unsweetened almond milk. (35g carbohydrates)
Having lunch: Gourmet turkey and cheese on rye sandwich with arugula, mustard and olive tapenade. Pepper strips and snow peas with ranch dressing. Unsweetened sparkling water. (32g carbohydrates)
Snack: Caramel Almond Kind Bar (16g carbs) or Chobani Mango Greek Yogurt (16g carbs)
Dinner: 4 ounces baked salmon, 2 c. roasted Mediterranean vegetables mixed with 300g red Barilla lentil rotini, parmesan on top. Hibiscus iced tea. (28g carbohydrates)
Eat on the go? Try this sample low carb meal plan
Is it a cinch to get enough fiber and veggies when you buy all ready meals? no I want you to have more, but let’s start by improving your restaurant choices and try not to jump straight to the ideal. Improved is, well, improved! So if you literally eat every meal out of a restaurant or box, this one is for you:
Breakfast: McDonald’s Breakfast Burrito (26g carbs) with coffee or tea. You can also choose any Jimmy Dean frozen breakfast sandwich (anything around 30g).
Having lunch: Chipotle Whole 30 Steak Bowl. Unsweetened iced tea. (23g carbohydrates)
Snack: Starbucks Tall Caffe Latte (15g carbs)
Dinner: Chilies 6 oz. Roast beef with broccoli and mashed potatoes (42g carbs). Add in a carb-free White Claw Hard Seltzer if you want to live a little a few times a week.
A low-carb meal plan for intermittent fasting
Not a breakfast person? 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 those 2 meals, hopefully with a good snack in between.
Lunch at 11 a.m.: Healthy Choice Cuban-Inspired Pork Power Bowl (46g Carbs)
Snack: 1/2 cup Tuna Salad with 3 Finn Crisps Flatbread (11g carbs)
Dinner: 2 enchiladas with chicken, cheese and tomato sauce, 1/2 cup pinto beans, 1/2 cup cauliflower rice, sautéed peppers and onions. (50g carbohydrates)
These are just some 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 she want if you don’t count every gram, but that’s something I want. Gradual weight loss comes with a change that is likely to be more sustainable for you as you have time to collect recipes you enjoy and compile a list of favorite meals. It often means you’re maintaining or even gaining muscle, especially when you’re working out. Finally, this step-by-step approach often means you’re happier, able to pick meals you really love, keep some treats in your usual intake, and relieve stress. I’m a nutritionist because I love loving my food. I wish the same for you.