In my work as a registered dietitian, one of the questions I get most is about low-carb diets. Every person I talk to has a different idea about what “low” means, and every news item I see does, too. Is it no carb? Reduced carb? Keto? Sugar free? Can you totally ignore calories? I loved the recent discussion on TODAY about a Harvard School of Public Health study of effective weight management with low-carb eating, and my favorite moment was when Al Roker volunteered that he eats about 100 grams of carbohydrate a day. I’ll bet that doesn’t sound low-carb to a lot of people, but it certainly is. That’s a step toward taking some of the mystery out! Let’s see if we can clear up a little more.
Classifying the main types of diets all comes down to the “macros”— the relative percentages of calories coming from each macronutrient group of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. In terms of carbohydrates, the main styles are general healthy, ketogenic, and low-carbohydrate — what that study calls the carbohydrate-insulin model.
A general, heart-healthy diet high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is often a dietitian’s first pick, because the best-studied human diets that reduce chronic disease risk the most fall into this category. They average about 50% of calories from minimally-processed carbohydrate sources. Even more can be healthy— most good quality plant-based diets will be at least 60% high fiber, with complex carbohydrates.
Conversely, ketogenic diets are extremely low in carbohydrate, requiring fewer than 5% of calories coming from carbs in order to keep you in a special metabolic state called ketosis, which usually results in rapid weight loss. Why not choose that one then? It’s a restrictive format that some people swear by, but for many, it’s a struggle to sustain over the long term. You don’t have to pay much attention to calorie counting, but you do have to pay very close attention to even small amounts of carbs. Some people are concerned about possible negative health effects, find that it doesn’t fit into their social lives, or they just miss bread! About a third of my weight management clients find me after regaining what they lost on keto as they tried to transition to something less extreme, too.
Enter the low- or reduced-carb diet. There’s a lot of variation from person to person, and it’s important to talk with your medical team to make sure it’s right for you, but a low-carb eating style is more like 30-40% of calories from carbohydrate, 30-40% fats (emphasis on the fish- and plant-based ones), 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 in. You can’t totally ignore calories, but just keeping your carb portions smaller does a lot of that work.
Sounds easy! Until you go to actually make your grocery list or order from a menu, that is. So what does a reduced carb diet actually look like? There are as many ways to do it as there are people. Let’s look at three overall rules of thumb, and a few full-day menus with actual food.
3 rules for low-carb eating
Rule #1: Don't eat your carbs all at once.
Distribute your carb intake across your day. If you just save up all of your delicious carbs and eat them in one big meal, it probably won’t serve you well. Most people find they overeat that way, maybe because they are making decisions about dinner when their body is frantically messaging that it’s in need of carbs (all the carbs!) right now. Skipping meals or eating wildly different amounts of carbs at different times of day means your body is always playing catch-up with your blood glucose, and the result is that your levels will be more variable, with some spikes and drops, instead of the gentler up and down flow that we’re aiming for.
Rule #2: Pair your carbs with fat, protein and fiber.
What you eat with your carbs matters. If you try to keep them in check by having nothing but 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 might spike blood glucose if you don’t add a handful of nuts or a slice of cheese.
Rule #3: Be careful with sugar.
Although lower-carb diets are not necessarily totally sugar-free, watch how much you are getting. You will be healthier if you choose more unprocessed, unsweetened, whole foods. Sodas, juices, syrupy coffee shop beverages, the office candy bowl, honey mustard or other sweet dressings, the second trip by the office candy bowl, even more than a tablespoon of ketchup can really add up. You might be happier if you slowly cut back on those things rather than going cold turkey overnight, but do pay some attention.
In short, limit added sugars, aim to eat a moderate amount of carbohydrate spread more or less evenly among your meals, and always include some protein, fat, and fiber with your carbs. But what if you never cook? Always skip breakfast? Don’t worry — there are still ways to do this that may work for you.
An easier way to eat a low-carb diet
Let’s look at a regular meal plan first.
You certainly can use a food diary app like My Fitness Pal to track your carbs and calories tightly, but ballparking works for a lot of people! The easiest way to do that is to use the Healthy Plate method: half non-starchy vegetables, one quarter lean protein, and one quarter starches like rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, or breads. The version you may have seen come home from school with your kids includes more fruits, but if you’re looking to limit carbs, move your fruit to one serving at breakfast and one at a snack. Choosing complex, high fiber carbs can give you carb limit wiggle room because they lessen the effect on your blood sugar, so opt for those at least half the time.
A 30% carbohydrate sample meal plan
So what might the ballpark of a 30% carbohydrate day look like? Here’s one example:
Breakfast: 1 packet McCann’s instant oatmeal with 1/2 cup of berries and 1/4 cup of nuts. You could add an egg or sausage on the side. Coffee with a little half and half or up to a cup of unsweetened almond milk. (35 g carbs)
Lunch: Deli turkey and cheese on sandwich rye with arugula, mustard and olive tapenade. Pepper strips and snow peas with ranch dressing. Unsweetened sparkling water. (32 g carbs)
Snack: Caramel Almond Kind Bar (16 g carbs) or Chobani Mango Greek yogurt (16 g of carbs)
Dinner: 4 oz baked salmon, 2 c. roasted Mediterranean vegetables mixed with 1 oz Barilla red lentil rotini, Parmesan on top. Iced hibiscus tea. (28 g carbs)
Eating on the go? Try this low-carbohydrate sample meal plan
Is it a snap to get enough fiber and vegetables if you’re buying all prepared meals? No. I’d like you to have more, but let’s start with just improving your restaurant choices and not try to skip straight to ideal. Improved is, well, improvement! So, if you eat literally every meal from a restaurant or box, this one is for you:
Breakfast: McDonald’s breakfast burrito (26 g of carbs) with coffee or tea. You could also choose any frozen Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich (all around 30 g).
Lunch: Chipotle Whole 30 Steak Bowl. Unsweetened iced tea. (23 g of carbs)
Snack: Starbucks Tall Caffe Latte (15 g of carbs)
Dinner: Chili’s 6 oz. sirloin with broccoli and mashed potatoes (42 g of carbs). Add a carb-free White Claw Hard Seltzer if you want to live a little a couple of times a week.
A low-carb, intermittent fasting meal plan
Not a breakfast person? Try intermittent fasting with an 8-hour eating window, perhaps with your first meal at 11 am, and your last by 7 pm. Most people would aim for about 45 grams of carbs in those 2 meals, hopefully with a good snack in between.
Lunch at 11 am: Healthy Choice Cuban-inspired Pork Power Bowl (46 g of carbs)
Snack: 1/2 cup tuna salad with 3 Finn Crisps flatbreads (11 g carbs)
Dinner: 2 chicken, cheese and tomatillo sauce enchiladas, 1/2 cup of pinto beans, 1/2 cup cauliflower rice, sautéed peppers and onions. (50 g carbs)
These are just a few examples; there are literally thousands of ways to put a similar plate together. 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. Gradual weight loss is associated with change that is more likely to be sustainable for you, because it gives you time to collect recipes you like and compile a list of go-to meals out. It often means you are keeping or even gaining muscle, especially if you are exercising. Finally, that gradual approach often means you're happier, able to choose meals you really love, keep some treats in your usual intake, and take stress down. I’m a dietitian because I love to love my food. That’s what I want for you, too.