How To Formulate a Healthy Low Carb Diet (and Potential Benefits)

Last Updated on December 4, 2019 by Michael Joseph

Humans tend to spend a lot of time arguing over which diet is the best.

However, the simple truth about nutrition is that humans can subsist on a range of different foods.

Overall, good health largely depends on the overall composition and nutrient-density of the diet.

That said, some people find that a low carb diet can be an excellent dietary tool.

This article will look at what a low carb diet is, how to formulate it in a healthy way, and some potential benefits and drawbacks.

What is a Low-Carb Diet?

How To Formulate a Healthy Low Carb Diet (Infographic).

A low-carb diet is defined as a way of eating that restricts carbohydrate to a very low level.

For example, the carbohydrate range could be anywhere between 0g and around 100 grams per day.

Strict low carb diets are known as ketogenic diets, and “keto” plans typically contain fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day.

There is no right amount of carbohydrate for everyone, and some people may prefer a diet slightly higher in carbs, while others might prefer a minimal intake.

Key Point: Low-carb diets emphasize protein and fat, and contain smaller amounts of carbohydrate than regular diets.

What Foods Are Low Carb?

Technically speaking, any food can fit into a low-carb diet.

The reason for this is because it is the total amount of carbohydrate that counts, and minimal amounts of high-carb foods can still be part of such a dietary plan.

However, this section will discuss the typical food choices that generally fit well with a low-carbohydrate diet.

Should anyone feel confused about how to reduce carbohydrate intake, see this guide on simple ways to reduce carbohydrate intake.

Meat, Fish, Dairy, and Animal Fat

Meat, organ meats, and seafood are some of the most nutrient-dense food choices, and they all provide a complete source of protein.

Dairy products such as cheese and milk are also nutritious options that can fit into a low carb plan.

Here are some low carb-friendly food choices from this category:

Bacon Beef Bison
Butter Cheese Chicken
Cream Duck Eggs
Fish Ghee Goose fat
Kefir Lamb Lard
Milk* Organ meats Pork
Sausages Shellfish Sour cream
Tallow Venison Yogurt

*In Moderation

Among these foods, it is important to ensure a sufficient intake of omega-3, which is associated with better overall health, and a reduced risk of disease.

Focusing on getting at least 2-3 portions of oily fish per week is an excellent way to do this.

Some of the best oily fish options include anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and trout.

Note: if you have a tight budget, see this guide to low carb eating on a budget.

Plant Foods and Plant-Based Oils

A Variety of Low Carb Vegetables.

There is a bit of a myth that low carb diets are low in fruits and vegetables, but this isn’t the case.

A wide range of fruit and vegetables are low in carbohydrate, and aside from high-sugar fruits and potatoes, most plant foods are low carb friendly.

Additionally, other plant foods like nuts and certain cooking oils can all play a healthy part in the diet.

Here are some good examples of plant foods suitable for a low carb diet;

Asparagus Avocado Avocado oil
Beets Bell pepper Berries (all)
Brocolli Cabbage Carrots
Cherries Coconut oil Eggplant
Garlic Kale Kumquat
Leek Lemon Lettuce
Lime Mushrooms Nuts
Olives Olive oil Paprika
Seeds Pumpkin Spinach
Sprouts Tomatoes Watercress

For the most part, it is better not to worry about the carbohydrate content of green vegetables as they are full of beneficial nutrients and fiber. As a result, they contribute very little in the way of “net” (digestible) carbs.

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 the desired diet is).

Additionally, fermented vegetables are another healthy choice, and foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables are all excellent options.

Low-Carb Snacks

Snacks don’t have to be unhealthy, and numerous options can fit into a low carb diet.

The following ideas are all low in carbs and free of unhealthy oils;

Almonds Blueberries Boiled eggs
Brazil nuts Cheese Cherries
Cherry tomatoes Dark chocolate * Jerky
Macadamia nuts Pecans Pork rinds
Raspberries Strawberries String cheese

*Ideally 80% cocoa or above

For 38 low carb snack ideas and recipes, see this list here.

While sticking to nutritious meals is better than constantly snacking, the above foods are all better options than things like potato chips and candy.

See here for an example low-carb meal plan.

Key Point: A well-formulated low carb diet should include lots of fresh, nutrient-dense unprocessed foods.

Drinks

Water is always the healthiest option, but the following drinks are all compatible with low carb diets;

Black tea Coffee Green tea
Herbal/fruit tea Milk (in moderation) Water

For a guide to every almost every common drink alongside their full carb counts, see this low carb drinks guide.

For those who enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink, you’ll be glad to know that some alcohol options, such as wine are low carb-friendly.

See this guide to the best low carb alcohol options for a full review.

Foods To Limit/Avoid

A Collection of Junk Food (Fast Food).

This is true for all diets rather than just low-carb, but it is generally better to limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

These packaged foods usually contain a mix of flour, sugar, and oils and provide very little in the way of essential nutrients.

Additionally, since this is a low-carb diet we’re talking about, this means that foods containing high levels of carbohydrate are not suitable.

These food and drinks include:

  • Beer (but some low carb beers are OK)
  • Bread and other refined grains
  • Cakes
  • Candy
  • Cookies
  • Crisps/potato chips
  • Donuts
  • Fast food (most)
  • Fruit juice
  • Pastries
  • Soda and other sugary drinks

For some low-carb friendly fast food options, see this guide here.

While some pure fat sources (e.g. butter and oliver oil) can fit into a healthy diet, they are a poor source of nutrients and they should not make up a large part of the diet.

Key Point: Grains, sugars, and bakery products don’t fit into the low carb way of eating.

What Can You Eat On a Low Carb Diet?

To provide an idea of some potential low carb meals, here are some varied and simple meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Breakfast

  • Bacon and eggs with mushrooms and sauteed chives
  • Kippers or sardines with leafy greens
  • Cheese and onion omelet fried in butter
  • Steak, onions, and mushrooms
  • Yogurt, mixed nuts, and berries
  • A crustless cheese and vegetable quiche (or frittata)
  • Scrambled eggs, some smoked salmon, and an assortment of vegetables

Lunch

For those who are out of the house during weekdays, here are some packable on-the-go lunch options.

  • A piece of cheese, a handful of nuts, some berries, and an avocado
  • Chunks of chicken in a leafy green salad with cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil
  • Four hard-boiled eggs, a cup of fresh berries, and some heavy cream
  • Greek yogurt mixed with pieces of dark chocolate, blueberries, and mixed nuts
  • Salmon sashimi salad: pieces of raw fish in a colorful salad, mixed with tamari soy sauce and a squeeze of fresh lemon
  • A glass of whole milk, a handful of almonds, and an apple
  • Ricotta cheese, sliced tomato, and leafy greens drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Dinner

Here are some easy to make home-cooked dinner options;

  • Steak, mushrooms, and an assortment of sauteed vegetables
  • Fillet of salmon in a coconut cream sauce, with chives, leeks, and onions
  • Baked mackerel, steamed leafy greens, a sweet potato, and dark chocolate for dessert
  • A large pork chop with butter sauce served alongside your favorite vegetables
  • Liver and onions – a traditional classic, but one of the most nutritious meals you can eat
  • Homemade burgers made with 100% ground meat and your choice of seasonings – serve with a side salad
  • Beef ribs marinated in tamari, garlic, ginger, and olive oil – serve with mushrooms and a variety of vegetables

Depending on your goals, eating these kinds of meal—high in protein and fiber—often improve satiety, which can lead to weight loss.

In contrast, gaining weight on low carb is also very possible, and it is merely a matter of increasing calories and eating more.

For some more examples of low carb recipes, see these healthy and simple meal ideas.

Key Point: Low-carb meals don’t have to be complicated; emphasizing simple cooking and whole food ingredients can provide a sustainable and nutritious diet.

Potential Benefits of a Low Carb Diet

1. Low Carb Diets Are Clinically Proven For Weight Loss

Picture Representing Weight Loss On a Low Carb Diet.

Many people find that low carb diets work exceptionally well for losing weight.

Firstly, this depends on both adherence and the diet being well-formulated.

However, a lot of people find that low carb diets increase satiety levels and reduce overall food intake.

One reason for this could be that low carb dieters often have a higher protein intake, which is recognized as being the most satiating macronutrient (1).

Additionally, the diet restricts foods that people typically “crave” (the carbohydrate and fat combinations of donuts, pizza, and so on). For many people, abstaining from these foods is easier than eating them in moderation.

Systematic Reviews Support Low Carb As a Weight Loss Method

There are many ways we can lose weight, and weight loss doesn’t rely on following one particular diet.

Yes, it is true; we can lose weight on a low-fat, medium-fat, or any other diet.

However, when we examine the results of studies, systematic reviews demonstrate that low carb diets are just as effective, if not slightly more so, than low-fat interventions (2, 3, 4).

Key Point: Well-designed low carb diets consistently perform well in weight loss interventions. Additionally, they usually outperform low-fat diets in these studies.

2. Can Help Manage Type 2 Diabetes

Low carb and ketogenic diets are a popular nutrition intervention for those with type 2 diabetes.

Notably, one of the most significant merits of these diets is that they can beneficially influence — and help control — blood glucose and insulin levels (5).

Recently, Virta Health, a company who claim to offer a “clinically-proven method” to treat type 2 diabetes, released the results of a 12-month controlled study on 349 adults (6).

Their method is based on a very low intake of dietary carbohydrate and continuous support and health coaching.

The results showed that all patients in the program experienced a reduction in fasting blood glucose levels, lost weight, and reduced their diabetes-related medications.

Additionally, systematic reviews of randomized trials support these findings.

Several such studies find that low-carbohydrate dietary interventions safely reduce HBA1C (average blood-glucose levels) while also improving several cardiovascular risk factors (7, 8, 9).

Key Point: Very low-carbohydrate diets are effective for the management of type 2 diabetes.

3. Low Carb Diets Tend To Increase HDL (“Good Cholesterol”) Levels

HDL Cholesterol - Otherwise Known as the "Good Cholesterol".

High-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as “good cholesterol,” may be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular problems (10).

Numerous studies have examined the effect of low-carbohydrate diets on HDL levels.

On this note, randomized trials and systematic reviews consistently find that such diets lead to higher levels of HDL (11, 12, 13).

Based on current science, this rise in HDL (alone) may be a protective factor against cardiovascular risk.

For instance, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated that low blood levels of LDL are associated with increased cardiovascular risk. Additionally, the study found that higher HDL levels improve cholesterol efflux and lower cardiovascular events (14).

However, this potential benefit also depends on how the diet affects other markers of cardiovascular health.

Key Point: Low carb diets typically increase HDL cholesterol, which may result in lower cardiovascular risk.

4. Ketogenic Diets Are a Proven Nutrition Intervention For Epilepsy

Illustration of Brain With Epilepsy.

Given the recent media publicity, people would be forgiven for believing the ketogenic diet is a “new” thing.

Interestingly, the diet has been around for more than a century, with its roots going back to the 1920s. At that early point, the ketogenic diet was trialed as a dietary therapy for epilepsy in children.

Until recently, ketogenic diets were mostly known as a potential intervention for epilepsy, for which they are one of the default treatment options.

Systematic reviews examining the effectiveness of ketogenic diets for epilepsy are positive too.

Based on these studies, researchers show that a ketogenic diet achieves a 90% reduction in seizure occurrence after six months of treatment. Additionally, evidence supports the “cautious use” of the diet (15, 16).

However, levels of carbohydrate restriction required for ketogenic meals are something that young children need careful supervision with, due to the risk of initial side effects.

Anyone considering dietary therapy for epilepsy should always consult with their doctor or primary care team.

Key Point: Ketogenic diets are an effective nutritional therapy for epilepsy.

5. Low Carb Diets May Increase Satiety Levels and Help Suppress Appetite

Compared to typical low-fat diets, some studies show that low-carbohydrate interventions may improve feelings of satiety and better regulate appetite (17, 18).

In truth, this likely depends on the exact formulation of the diet and the overall food choices.

For one thing, it is a well-established fact that protein is the most satiating macronutrient (19).

On this note, evidence shows that high-protein meals reduce post-meal concentrations of the hunger hormone known as ghrelin (20).

The improvements in appetite regulation experienced from low-carb diets may also involve fiber; after protein, fibrous carbohydrate is the next most satiating.

On the positive side, low carb diets typically restrict refined carbohydrates such as sugar, flour, and starches, and involve a higher intake of fibrous carbs from low-sugar fruit and vegetables.

You can see some examples in these low carb recipes.

Key Point: Randomized trials and systematic reviews demonstrate that low carb and ketogenic diets could help to suppress appetite.

6. General Health Benefits of a Higher Protein Intake

Variety of High Protein Food Options.

As previously mentioned, low carb diets often contain more complete sources of protein from animal foods.

While we briefly touched upon protein’s potential impact on satiation, this macronutrient offers many other benefits too (21, 22, 23);

  • Better appetite regulation and decreased food cravings.
  • Helps with gaining muscle and lean body mass.
  • Protects bone and muscle health, particularly as we age and the rate of muscle-protein synthesis drops.
  • Essential for the growth and repair of all our body’s cells.
  • Plays a vital role in the production of enzymes and hormones.
Key Point: Eating a larger proportion of high-protein foods can have many health benefits.

7. May Help To Reduce Blood Pressure

In truth, it is likely that anything that can improve our overall lifestyle will have a beneficial effect on blood pressure.

For example; exercise, eating nutrient-dense foods, losing weight, good sleep habits, and controlling stress are all important.

Most people believe that salt has the biggest impact on our blood pressure levels. Since we continuously hear messages in the media to cut down on our salt intake, this is understandable.

For some people, cutting down on salt is probably the right advice.

However, very low carb interventions have reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressure — sometimes significantly so — in randomized trials (24, 25).

Key Point: Low carb diets are a potential intervention for high blood pressure

8. Lower Carbohydrate Diets May Help To Normalize Blood Glucose and Insulin Levels

Glucose Meter Showing Blood Glucose Level.

Perhaps the most notable benefit of cutting down on carbohydrate is the effect this has on glucose and insulin levels.

While glucose and insulin are part of a natural biological process and essential to our body, prolonged and excessively high levels can be harmful.

For one thing, chronically high insulin levels, known as hyperinsulinemia, vastly raise the risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia.

Regarding cardiovascular risk, studies demonstrate that the risk increases in a dose-dependent manner.

In other words; the higher fasting insulin levels are, the higher the risk (26, 27).

Over recent years, low carbohydrate diets have proven to be a robust dietary intervention for type 2 diabetes patients for these very reasons. They work well for controlling blood glucose levels.

Several systematic reviews demonstrate that blood-glucose and insulin levels reliably fall on low carb and keto diets (28, 29).

Key Point: Low carb diets are effective at improving insulin sensitivity and reducing fasting blood-glucose levels.

10. Low Carb Diets Typically Emphasize Whole Foods

This one is a benefit of low carb diets, but it isn’t exclusive to this particular way of eating.

For instance; what do whole-food, paleo, low-carb, and plant-based vegan diets all have in common?

The answer: they restrict ultra-processed, energy-dense foods. Examples of such foods include sugar, vegetable oils, and ultra-processed flours.

Sadly but not surprisingly, a recent study showed that almost 60% of calories in the American diet come from these ultra-processed foods (30).

Any diet that replaces these foods with low-carb foods like meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables will provide benefits.

For anyone struggling to cut out sweet-tasting foods, calorie-free sweeteners can be a good replacement for sugar.

Some of the most popular sweeteners include;

  • Allulose
  • Aspartame
  • Erythritol
  • Monk Fruit
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose
  • Swerve
  • Xylitol
Key Point: Like any diet that restricts ultra-processed foods, low carb diets have a higher ratio of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.

Potential Drawbacks of a Low Carb Diet

1. Effect On LDL Cholesterol

LDL Cholesterol: Sometimes Referred To as the "Bad Cholesterol".

First of all, low carb diets—particularly when higher in saturated fat—can raise levels of LDL cholesterol in some individuals.

In a recent randomized controlled trial of 30 healthy participants, each person experienced a rise in LDL cholesterol of between 5% and 107% (31).

However, it should be noted that this is not always the case. 

For example, a systematic review of eight randomized trials—featuring over 800 participants on a low carb diet—showed contrasting results.

In this study, carbohydrate-restricted diets resulted in no significant changes to LDL cholesterol levels after 6, 12, and 24 months (32).

This suggests that the rise in LDL is dependent upon the formulation of the diet, and probably a result of diets that emphasize more substantial amounts of saturated fat.

While LDL cholesterol is associated with cardiovascular risk, it is more complex when analyzing the risks posed by saturated fat.

For example, in a meta-analysis of 21 studies featuring 5-23 years of follow-up of nearly 350,000 participants, saturated fat intake had no association with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (33).

Is LDL a Problem?

First of all, there are clear associations between higher levels of LDL-C and cardiovascular disease (34).

However, in recent years, research has suggested that the topic may be more nuanced than LDL being “bad” and HDL being “good.”

On this note, one area of research involves the differences in particle sizes of LDL;

  • Phenotype A: large, buoyant LDL particles (>25.5 nm)
  • Phenotype B: small, dense LDL particles (<25.5 nm)

In 11,419 men and women, small-density LDL levels “were strongly correlated” with cardiovascular heart disease. Interestingly, this link was strong even in individuals with “low risk” based on their total LDL count (35).

Also, small dense LDL particles are more susceptible to oxidation and more likely to penetrate the arterial walls (36).

Several studies demonstrate that low carb diets result in a higher expression of ‘pattern A’ large LDL particles (37, 38).

However, there is no conclusive evidence that explains the comparative risks of small and large LDL particles. More research is necessary in this area (39).

Hyperinsulinemia

There are also some cardiovascular researchers who believe that hyperinsulinemia—chronic high levels of fasting insulin—are a more significant cardiovascular risk factor than LDL.

On this note, a meta-analysis of 22 studies featuring over 80,000 participants found that hyperinsulinemia was “significantly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease” (40).

Summary: Low Carb Diets May Increase LDL Cholesterol Levels

All in all, low-carb diets may increase LDL levels (as well as increasing HDL).

Since even cardiovascular researchers disagree on the precise cause of cardiovascular disease, it is understandable that some people may wish to be cautious if a low-carb diet raises their LDL levels.

For those with concerns on this issue, it may be worth;

  • Limiting the intake of isolated saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil.
  • Increasing intake of dietary fiber, and possibly supplementing with something like psyllium husk. Human clinical trials show that this supplement can lower LDL cholesterol levels (41).
  • Ordering a full lipid panel (cholesterol test) after 1-2 months on the diet to analyze any possible changes. Having a health check on any new diet is a sensible precaution, as different diets can affect us all in different ways.
Key Point: Low carb diets may cause a rise in LDL levels.

2. Some People Find Low Carb Diets Hard To Stick To

Bacon, beef, cheese, dark chocolate, and salmon… most carnivores and omnivores would be happy with any of these foods on their plate.

However, some people still find it hard to restrict higher carbohydrate foods.

In nutrition trials, it is rare for a study to have full compliance, and it is no different for low-carb diets.

For example, in a recent 12-month clinical trial, 148 adults were assigned to a diet with a daily carbohydrate intake of <40 grams.

After three months, the compliance rate was 74%. However, this fell to 60% after six months and dropped further to 45% at the 12-month mark (42).

A meta-analysis of 12 studies featuring 270 patients looked at compliance rates for various low carb and ketogenic diets. The average compliance rate across all studies was 45% (43).

This does not mean that low-carb diets are uniquely difficult to adhere to, and poor compliance is a common feature of studies on all kinds of diet.

However, it does show that the diet may be hard to stick to for people who;

  • Don’t enjoy the way of eating
  • Require help/education and don’t have the necessary support

Similar to all diets, a low-carb diet will only be sustainable if individuals enjoy the way of eating.

Key Point: Some people find it difficult to adhere to a low-carbohydrate diet.

Final Thoughts

As shown throughout this article, low carbohydrate diets may have several evidence-based health benefits.

However, they also have some drawbacks, and they may not be the right match for everybody.

Like all ways of eating, low carb diets can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the formulation.

Further Reading

What are the major differences between low carb and ketogenic diets?

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