A low-carb diet has many variations — the ketogenic, AKA “keto” model being one — and on a surface level is simply a diet low in carbohydrates. However, the reasons behind why a low-carb diet can be beneficial, if it is or isn’t right for you, and how to begin are a bit more complicated.
First of All, What is a Carbohydrate?
Before getting into the details of a low-carb diet, let’s make sure to have a proper understanding of what a carbohydrate is, exactly.
There are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Out of these three, fat is the slowest burning macronutrient (it takes the longest to break down in the body), followed by protein and then carbs. Carbohydrates are naturally occurring in certain foods such as starches, sugars, and fiber, and the healthiest sources are vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Unfortunately, the SAD (Standard American Diet) includes excessive carbs in the form of breads, pastas, baked goods, and processed/packaged foods. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, and there is a big difference between complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates.
Simple carbs are refined carbs that have had their vitamins, minerals, and fiber largely stripped via processing, and are the ones widely linked to a myriad of diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
What Constitutes a Low-Carb Diet?
Not all low-carb diets are created equal, either, as there are various ways to go about it depending on your goals, lifestyle, activity level, body composition, gender, age, and nutritional needs.
This is the most moderate version and is a great place to start. You can fairly easily reach this amount of carbohydrates by simply omitting refined sugars and grains, and eating the bulk of your carbohydrates from all veggies, fruits, and moderate amounts of whole grains. This option is great for moderate weight loss or for maintaining your current weight, along with supporting overall health and disease prevention.
This option is definitely more restrictive, and will usually lead to faster weight loss. It still allows for most all non-starchy veggies, some starchy veggies, and about one to two pieces of fruit per day.
30-50 Grams (Ketogenic Diet)
Eating under 50 grams per day (closer to 30), is known as the ketogenic diet. It’s quite restrictive but can offer some pretty impressive benefits to certain people. For example, if you are obese and/or suffer from a metabolic disorder (like diabetes), this diet can be very effective. Your body enters a state of ketosis, which basically switches your brain’s energy source from glucose to ketone bodies. On this low-carb model, you will eat a lot of low-carb veggies (like leafy greens) and very moderate amounts of low-carb fruits (like berries). Starchy veggies (like sweet potatoes, potatoes, and winter squashes) are prohibited, and you’ll get more of your calories from healthy fats.
If you’re considering a ketogenic diet, it is best to consult with a trusted healthcare professional, as this model is not appropriate for everyone.
Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet
Weight Loss (Especially Around the Mid-Section)
Multiple studies have shown that people lose weight faster on a low-carb diet versus a low-fat diet, without needing to restrict calories as much (meaning you can eat more calories on a low-carb diet than a low-fat diet and still lose weight).
Research also shows that low-carb dieters lose two to three times the weight compared to low-fat dieters and experience far fewer cravings and less hunger.
Low-carb diets are especially helpful in reducing visceral fat, which is fat that accumulates around our vital organs, giving us not only that “muffin top” look but also putting us at far greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
A Way to Eat Whole Foods
One nice side effect of eating a low-carb diet is that you will naturally phase out the “bad” carbs and focus in on the “good” carbs. Eating under 150 grams of carbs per day does not allow you to include refined flours and sugars like breads, pastas, and baked goods. Instead, you’ll be eating dark, leafy greens and other non-starchy veggies, and all of your carbs will come from nutrient-dense sources.
Support of Chronic Health Conditions
All low-carb diets (but especially the ketogenic diet) have been linked to prevention and treatment of neurological conditions and metabolic disorders. For example, the keto diet has been long studied for its treatment of epilepsy in children, and is also thought to support Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Low-carb diets are also known for their ability to treat metabolic syndrome (which involves high blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides along with low HDL/“good” cholesterol and excess abdominal fat).
Craving and Appetite Control
Plain and simple, you won’t stick to a diet that leaves you hungry and craving carbs. Low-carb diets really are the best way of eating to lose weight and experience less cravings and decreased appetite, since both fat and protein are slower to digest than carbohydrates and effectively work to regulate blood sugar levels and keep us satiated. In fact, many people find that they can lose weight on the low-carb model without counting calories.
What to Expect on a Low-Carb Diet and How to Assess Progress
After starting a low-carb diet, you can assess your progress in a few different ways. The number on the scale will probably drop, but remember that this isn’t the only (or best) marker of success. Your body composition will likely change (more muscle and less fat), and you can assess this by simply noting how your clothes fit. You can also keep body measurements using a tape measure (getting someone to help you makes it easier), or taking progress pictures.
The first days of a low-carb diet can bring on symptoms sometimes such as fatigue, cravings, and a foggy brain, which is the process your body is undergoing of learning how to turn fat into ketone molecules that supply energy to your brain. (This especially happens on the ketogenic diet.) The process of relying on fat for fuel instead of carbs can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the person.
What if I’m a Vegetarian?
While it is more challenging, vegetarians can also adopt a low-carb diet model. Reaching a state of ketogenesis will be nearly impossible (especially if you are vegan), but you can certainly still reap some of the benefits.
If you are willing to eat dairy, a low-carb diet will be easier. Excellent dairy sources of protein that are low-carb include Greek yogurt, eggs, grass-fed butter, ghee, and cheese. These foods also are higher in vitamin B-12 than plant foods.
Along with dairy, you’ll also need to include high protein, low-carb veggies and fruits such as cauliflower, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, eggplant, brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Berries are a great addition as are avocados, olives, and high-protein nuts and seeds. Coconut oil is one of the best fats to include for all low-carb dieters.
So, What’s the Verdict?
To learn more specifics of what to eat on the low-carb model, check out this article. There are various ways to go about a low-carb diet, and it is best to think of it as a long-term way of changing your eating habits — not as a short-term diet. Many studies have shown that the low-carb diet is truly one of the best in preventing future disease and achieving optimal health; however, like any diet, it won’t work for everyone.