Quickly growing in popularity, low-carb diets are increasingly a topic of hot debate in the media.
The central question always comes back to whether or not they are healthy.
And the answer? Low-carb diets have many exceptional health benefits.
However, there is a caveat; it is crucial to formulate the diet in the right way.
This article will provide a complete guide to optimizing health with a low-carb diet.
First, we’ll first take a look at the benefits and then we’ll move on to the foods you should be eating (and the ones you shouldn’t).
What is a Low-Carb Diet?
A low-carb diet is defined as a way of eating that restricts carbohydrate to a very low level.
The carbohydrate range can be anywhere between 0g and 100g carbohydrate per day.
Low carb diets should emphasize larger amounts of dietary fat, but the source of this fat is vital.
For example, there’s a huge difference between organic extra virgin olive oil and margarine.
Strict Low-Carb Diets Contain Less Than 25g Carbs Per Day.
A growing number of people are using this very low-carb diet as an alternative method of managing diabetes.
Other people just want to maximize the benefits a low-carb diet can offer and enjoy eating this way.
You can read the personal account of someone who changed his family’s life with low-carb here.
A More Liberal Low-Carb Diet
Anything up to around 100g/day carbohydrate can be considered a low-ish carb diet.
You can pick and choose the right level for you.
Very active people may prefer a higher amount of carbohydrate, while some prefer very-low-carb.
What Are the Best Low Carb Foods?
To point out the kind of foods that a healthy low-carb diet could contain, I made the graphic below.
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We’ll go through each of these sections in more detail a little later.
What Benefits Can Low Carb Diets Have?
Many recent studies have highlighted the benefits of a low-carb diet.
Here are four proven benefits of low-carb diets, all based on the latest science.
1. A Reduction in Blood Glucose and Insulin Levels
First of all, it’s a fact that carbohydrate has the biggest effect on blood sugar out of the three macronutrients (1).
The graph below shows the results of a study that compared the influence of a low-calorie diet and low-carb diet on blood glucose levels.
As can be seen, the very low-carb ketogenic diet (VLCKD) reduced blood glucose levels much more significantly than a low-calorie diet did.
Low-carb diets also help minimize insulin levels, making them a valuable tool for sufferers of diabetes or anyone with significant insulin resistance.
Here are the results of a study that compared the influence a low-carb, high-fat diet had on insulin versus a high-carb diet.
Notably, the diet high in fat controlled insulin levels significantly better.
2. Reduced Triglyceride Levels
Triglycerides are a major risk factor for cardiovascular heart disease (8).
A point often overlooked is that carbohydrate restriction is the fastest way to reduce circulating triglyceride levels.
One study found that carbohydrate restriction (<20g/day) was more effective than a low-calorie diet (<1500kcals/day) at reducing triglycerides (9).
A further study compared the effects of a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet with a high-carb, low-fat diet. The results showed that the LCHF diet induced a significantly higher drop in fasting triglyceride levels (10).
3. Improved Lipid Profiles
Another key point is that elevated levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are inversely associated with cardiovascular risk (11).
In view of this, it’s important to realize that carbohydrate restriction actually increases HDL levels.
In fact, low-carb diets tend to have a more favorable impact on the Metabolic Syndrome than low-fat diets do (12).
Specifically, LCHF diets resulted in:
- Increased HDL levels
- Lower triglyceride levels
- Reduced glucose and insulin levels
- Higher weight loss and decreased adiposity
- Reduced systemic inflammation (12)
This graph shows how a low-carb diet compared to other diets regarding cardiovascular risk factors:
The results were for the low-carb diet across the board.
One criticism that low-carb diets often receive is that they sometimes increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, especially if the diet is high in saturated fat.
It’s true that low-carb, high-fat diets may raise LDL. However, this is also in the context of increased HDL (12).
Additionally, recent research is showing that LDL cholesterol may not be as harmful as previously thought.
A recent study of 70,000 people revealed that there was no link between LDL and premature death. Further, those with the highest levels of cholesterol actually lived longer (13).
4. Low-Carb Diets Are a Proven Weight Loss Intervention
Have you ever tried losing weight by restricting calories to a ridiculously small amount?
Maybe you have tried eating tiny portions for breakfast and lunch, and then skipped dinner?
If so, then you’ll know that very low-calorie crash diets are not sustainable.
The science confirms this and most dieters usually regain all their lost weight.
In one recent study, two groups of people were each either put on a low-carb diet or a low-fat diet. The study was designed to analyze the impact of their diet on food cravings and appetite.
And the results?
Compared to the group eating a low-fat diet, the low-carb group had significantly lower food cravings.
Additionally, the study found that the low-carb group was “bothered less by hunger” (14).
There are also some other interesting advantages that low carb diets may provide.
The lesson is this: eating a diet full of nutrient-dense foods high in protein is great for satiety. And since it increases satiety, it helps to improve the likelihood of longer-term healthy eating.[clickToTweet tweet=”Optimizing Health With a Low-Carb Diet: The Complete Guide” quote=”Something to remember: when your body is hungry, it wants nutrients – not calories.” theme=”style2″]
Studies on Low Carb and Weight Loss
- A randomized controlled trial was conducted to compare a low-fat and low-carb dieting group. The low-carb group had a greater reduction in weight. Additionally, the low-carb group also had significantly reduced triglyceride levels and a more significant increase in HDL. (15)
- In a trial of obese adults, those assigned to a low-carb diet lost more weight over a year than adults allocated to a low-fat plan. (16)
- Harvard School of Public Health conducted a systemic review of randomized controlled trials. They analyzed 53 studies with a total of 68,128 participants. The results showed that participants using low-carbohydrate weight loss interventions experienced greater weight loss compared to low-fat groups. (17)
Choosing Healthy Low-Carb Foods
Let’s now take a look at the healthy eating graphic in a bit more detail.
Meat, Fish, Dairy, and Animal Fat
Animal foods are some of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence and provide a complete source of protein.
Many people have a long-held fear of animal fat due to the saturated fat content. This fear is unnecessary as it is an entirely natural nutrient, and humans have consumed it for millennia.
In fact, a recent study associated saturated fat from meat and cheese with a lower risk of cardiovascular heart disease (18).
Animal foods to include:
- Fish (ideally lower mercury fish such as anchovies, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and trout)
- Heavy cream
- Organ meats (heart, kidney, liver)
- Whole milk
- Whole yogurt
These are all nutrient-dense foods that are high in fat-soluble vitamins.
Note: if you have a tight budget, see this guide to low carb eating on a budget.
Low-Carb Plants and Plant-Based Fat
Vegetables and plant-based fats are essential for overall health.
Leafy greens such as spinach are especially healthful and provide an array of beneficial vitamins and minerals (19).
Plant-based fat should also play a role in a healthy diet.
Monounsaturated fat sources such as olive oil and avocados bring a wide variety of health benefits:
- Reduced levels of inflammation (20).
- Protection of LDL particles against oxidation (21).
- Provision of nutrients and phytochemicals with potential cardiovascular benefits (22).
Some great plant-based foods include:
- Avocado oil
- Berries (of all varieties)
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
Don’t worry about the carbohydrate content of vegetables as they are full of beneficial nutrients and fiber.
Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, and sweet potatoes can also fit into a low-carb diet.
However, these should be eaten in moderation or not at all (depending on how low-carb you want to be).
“What about fiber? Aren’t grains an essential food group?”
As shown in the image below, fruit and vegetables can be perfectly good sources of dietary fiber.
In fact, they are more fiber-dense than the majority of grains.
Additionally, they are not full of digestible starch (which quickly turns to glucose in the blood).
Yes, snacks! You can eat them on a low-carb diet; just make sure that they are healthy ones.
The idea of snacking on a low-carb diet isn’t to satisfy your ravenous hunger.
Low-carb snacks should be used to get in extra nutrient-dense foods that provide health benefits.
Some great low-carb snacks include:
- Boiled eggs
- Brazil nuts
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Dark chocolate (aim for 85% cacao or higher)
- Macadamia nuts
These foods are all nutrient-dense and extremely portable, so there’s no excuse to keep on eating unhealthy snacks such as potato chips and candy.
Fermented food has a lot of health benefits:
- Kimchi has been shown to have the capacity to fight oxidative stress (23)
- Lactic-fermented vegetables increase mineral bioavailability (24)
- Probiotic supplementation decreases allergies and downregulates inflammation in infants (25)
- A more varied microbiota is inversely associated with adult abdominal issues (26)
Personally, I try to include a source of fermented food each day.
Here are some low-carb-friendly fermented foods:
- Pickled vegetables
See this low carb shopping list for a detailed guide.
What Foods Should I Avoid on a Low-Carb Diet?
It is best to limit all ultra-processed foods with multiple ingredients.
You can usually find these foods in the middle aisles of the grocery store.
These foods include:
- Bread and other refined grains
- Crisps/potato chips
- Fast food
- Fruit juice
- Soda and other sugary drinks
These foods are factory-manufactured and usually made from a combination of potentially harmful ingredients. For example, the majority of these foods are a combination of flour, sugar, and vegetable oils.
In particular, refined sugars and processed fats do not support good health;
- Trans-fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular heart disease, even in younger women (27).
- Omega-6 vegetable oils have demonstrated pro-inflammatory mechanisms linked to disease progression (28).
- A recent study found that soybean oil was “more obesogenic and diabetogenic than fructose” (29).
- Several studies have implicated refined sugars in the development of obesity and disease pathways (30, 31, 32, 33).
If you enjoy a sweet taste and don’t feel ready to give it up, then see this article on the best sweeteners which aren’t too bad.
What Can You Eat On Low Carb Diets?
Here are some low-carb diet meal plans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Bacon and eggs, with mushrooms and sauteed chives.
- Mackerel, boiled eggs and steamed leafy greens.
- Cheese, chive, and onion omelet, fried in butter or lard.
- 4 fried eggs with mushrooms and vegetables.
- Scrambled eggs, some smoked salmon and an assortment of vegetables.
- Crustless cheese and vegetable quiche.
- A bowl of guacamole, containing pieces of bacon and soft-boiled eggs.
- A piece of cheese, a handful of nuts, some berries, and an avocado.
- Pieces of chicken in a leafy green salad, with cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and a liberal amount of extra virgin olive oil.
- Four hard-boiled eggs, a cup of fresh berries and some heavy cream.
- A glass of whole milk, a handful of almonds and an apple.
- Greek yogurt mixed with pieces of dark chocolate, blueberries, and nuts.
- Salmon sashimi salad: pieces of raw fish in a colorful salad, mixed with tamari soy sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice.
- Ricotta cheese, sliced tomato, and leafy greens drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Steak, mushrooms and an assortment of sauteed vegetables.
- Fillet of salmon in a coconut cream sauce, with mushroom, leeks, and chives.
- Baked mackerel, steamed leafy greens, a sweet potato and dark chocolate for dessert.
- A large pork chop with butter sauce served with an assortment of vegetables.
- Fathead pizza: the very best low-carb pizza around. See the recipe here. It’s delicious!
- Homemade burgers made with 100% ground meat and your choice of seasonings. Serve with a colorful side salad.
- Beef ribs marinated in tamari, garlic, ginger, and butter sauce. Serve with a wide variety of vegetables and mushrooms.
Depending on your goals, eating these kinds of food often improve satiety, which leads to weight loss.
In contrast, gaining weight on low carb is also very possible, and it is just a matter of eating more of the right foods.
Providing you choose the right food, then low-carb diets can be an extremely healthy choice.
Well-formulated low-carb diets have some outstanding health benefits, the food tastes great, and they are sustainable.
The key is to eat real foods and avoid the fake stuff manufactured in labs/factories.
If you need more help with low carb, then this A-Z resource contains lots of resources.
If you have any questions, check the low carb FAQ to see if the answer is there.
There are also some low carb myths to be aware of.
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