HOW TO START A LOW-CARB DIET: A STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE
By now, you’ve heard about low-carb diets as a way to lose weight, enhance energy levels, and optimize metabolic function. Many people even use low-carb diets to control diabetes and insulin resistance.
You know that you’re supposed to limit carbohydrates on a low-carb diet by ditching foods like pasta, bread, and pastries. But is that all there is to it?
It turns out that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to go low-carb. Whether you’ve tried limiting carbs before or it’s your first time, you’re about to learn five simple steps to adopting a low-carb diet practically and sustainably.
We'll address your personal goals, your body's unique needs, specifics of what low-carb eating looks like (the do's and don'ts), why meal planning is crucial, and how to keep the diet fun and interesting, so you never have to feel like you're missing out. Here's how to start a low-carb diet, step-by-step.
How to Start a Low-Carb Diet: A Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1: Setting a Goal
Your first step before jumping into a low-carb lifestyle is goal-setting. Most people are drawn to the low-carb lifestyle because they have a health goal in mind. Setting a specific goal can help keep you motivated when the lure of higher-carb options starts to catch your eye.
Luckily, there are plenty of benefits to switching to low-carb. Health benefits include weight loss, improved energy, improved metabolic health, reduced blood lipids and LDL cholesterol, improved blood sugar and insulin activity, and improved cognitive function.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
Perhaps your goal is in line with one of these benefits or the many other improvements that people see when they begin to cut carbs. The key is to not only have a goal in mind but to make it sustainable.
The difference between sustainable health goals and quick fixes comes down to longevity. While you may see rapid results with a quick fix, fad diets usually lead to rebounding and yo-yo dieting behavior. Let’s break down the most common goals for a low-carb diet:
Weight loss is one of the most common goals of low-carb dieting — but it's also the one that can easily slip into the "unsustainable" category if it's not done right. For example, a sustainable weight loss goal may look like losing one pound a week for three months. This slow and steady approach will ensure that it stays off when the weight is gone. It also gives you more flexibility in your diet as you work towards the goal.
Research shows that setting realistic goals is one of the key aspects to long-term weight loss, so make sure your goal isn’t just something you can achieve this month, but it’s something you can continue to work towards.
Improved Blood Sugar
Another health goal that many low-carb dieters are after is blood sugar regulation. For people with diabetes and prediabetes, cutting carbs can make a significant difference in their glucose levels and the way their body handles fuel. In fact, cutting carbs may even help you become more insulin sensitive.
Finding the right ratio of carbs that works for you is crucial when it comes to blood sugar control, so this one may take a little trial and error. To make it sustainable, avoid the urge to throw away every carb you see – this will only result in cravings. Instead, get to know where your body is at right now and play with the number of carbs you can handle while staying within a low-carb, healthy blood sugar range.
With all of the benefits of low-carb dieting, many people choose this diet simply as a way to live a healthy lifestyle. If you fall into this category, remember that moderation is key. While filling your plate with healthy fats, protein, and lots of veggies will certainly help improve your body's health, if you get too rigid, your mind will start to fight back.
In fact, research shows that rigid dieting ultimately ends in more weight gain than maintaining a more flexible diet. Keep it sustainable by adding variety and allowing yourself a treat here and there.
Step 2: Knowing Your Body’s Limits
Part of following a low-carb diet (and any diet for that matter) is knowing how your body responds to the diet and what works for your unique makeup.
While most people can start a low-carb diet with no problem, there are a few cases in which you may want to take extra caution.
If any of the below apply to you, you might want to check with your doctor or be extra cautious when it comes to blood sugar regulation. You can also consider a device that tests your blood glucose and ketone levels regularly, so you know exactly what’s going on in your body.
You’re on Diabetes Medication
A low-carb diet for diabetics can be extraordinarily helpful, as long as it's done right.
If you're on diabetes medication, it means that your blood sugar is already being controlled, which could create issues if you drastically cut your carbs. Anyone with diabetes or prediabetes should consult with their doctor before beginning a new dietary protocol.
Low-carb dieting is an excellent way to reduce blood glucose, but this could mean that you need to adjust your diabetes medication to match your new regular blood sugar levels. It also means that once you adjust that medication, you'll want to stay in close contact with your health care provider if you decide to go off the low-carb diet.
You’re on High Blood Pressure Medication
Low-carb dieting has been shown to help reduce blood pressure naturally, which is excellent if you struggle with high blood pressure. However, much like those who are on medications for diabetes, when you start a low-carb diet, you'll want to consult with your prescribing physician and keep an eye on your blood pressure levels.
While a low-carb diet can increase energy and stamina for some, carb restriction may leave you feeling depleted if you’re breastfeeding. And in some cases, it can be dangerous.
Although uncommon, there have been case reports of breastfeeding women going into ketoacidosis (marked by toxic levels of ketones in the blood). Exactly why breastfeeding and strict low-carb create ketoacidosis conditions is still unknown, but there seems to be a weak connection.
To be safe, if you want to try low-carb while you're breastfeeding, be sure to keep your carbs around or above 50 grams per day, and make sure to consume adequate calories to keep your breastmilk supply high.
Step 3: Planning Your Low Carb Diet
Once you've established your goals and taken inventory of what your unique physical needs are, it's time to plan your low-carb diet.
The most shocking fact for most people just starting out on a low-carb diet is the variety of foods to choose from. Eating low-carb doesn’t mean eating the same thing every day. In fact, you'll get the greatest benefits when you consistently mix it up.
It can be easy to get stuck in a food rut, but allowing for variety in your diet will ensure that you’re getting a range of nutrients. Furthermore, research shows that diversity in your diet is crucial for the health of your gut microbiome.
What to Eat on a Low Carb Diet
The below foods should make up the bulk of your low-carb diet. Choose which ones you like, and remember that variety will not only help to keep things interesting, but variety in your diet will also translate into a variety of nutrients for your body.
The fat you add to your meals will help to enhance flavor and texture, and best of all — it contributes zero carbs.
"Natural fats" refer to fat that occurs in nature with little to no processing. Fat is a crucial aspect of health as every cell in your body requires a healthy layer of fat, known as the cell membrane. Healthy cell membranes help your cells communicate and to allow the transport of nutrients in and toxins out.
Natural fats are a type of fat that your body will seamlessly recognize and incorporate into its cells and tissues. In fact, your brain is made up of around 60% fat, making healthy dietary fat a critical part of any diet. Some excellent sources of natural fat include:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Meat is one of the best protein sources available, and provides a variety of vitamins and minerals as well. While you may find scant amounts of carbohydrates in meat, it's virtually carbohydrate-free, making it the perfect addition to your low-carb diet plan.
The key to consuming meat is to keep it high quality. Conventionally-raised meat could be pumped with antibiotics, hormones, and genetically-modified feed —all of which makes its way onto your plate. Keep in mind that the way an animal is treated will directly impact the health and quality of the meat.
With that in mind, always aim for 100% grass-fed for red meat, and free-range for all animal products. And, of course, organic whenever possible.
Some common sources of meat include:
Fish and Seafood
Much like meat, fish and seafood offer an excellent source of protein with very few carbohydrates. However, an extra benefit of fish is the abundant omega-3 fatty acid levels. Omega-3 fatty acids can be hard to find in the diet, and are crucial for controlling inflammation and supporting neurological health.[14, 15]
Here are some fish and seafood options to include in your diet:
Eggs are rich in an array of nutrients and provide a significant protein and fat source. They're a nutritionally well-rounded addition to a low-carb diet and make an excellent choice for breakfast.
When choosing dairy products on your low-carb diet, be sure that they're sugar-free, as many manufacturers will add sweeteners to their dairy products. You should also watch out for low-fat or fat-free varieties as these will be higher in carbs and lower in fat — the opposite of what you're looking for on a low-carb diet. Be sure to also choose organic dairy whenever possible as many non-organic varieties are pumped with growth hormones.
Some low-carb dairy options include:
- Full-fat cream
- Whipping cream
- Full-fat yogurt
- Greek yogurt
- Full-fat cottage cheese
- Butter or ghee (also excellent sources of fat)
- Full-fat cheese
Vegetables Growing Above Ground
Most vegetables that grow below ground are starchy and will contribute too many carbs to your diet. Therefore, stick to the above-ground vegetables and make them central to your diet. Most vegetables are naturally low in carbs and calories, making them the perfect base for every meal. Don’t be afraid to pile your plate high with leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and more.
Here are some of the most popular low-carb vegetable options:
- Leafy greens (spinach, arugula, kale, romaine lettuce)
- Brussels sprouts
- Bell peppers
- Bok choy
- Summer squash
- Avocado (technically a fruit)
What Not to Eat on a Low-Carb Diet
When trying to remember what not to eat, it can be helpful to ask yourself this question; what's the number one worst carb? The answer, of course, is sugar. Sugar will not only spike your blood glucose but can spark cravings that keep you going back for more.
While there are plenty of other high-carb foods, sugar is public enemy number one for low-carb dieting. Here are some other foods to avoid that will throw your low-carb efforts off track:
Soda, Juice, and Beer
Consuming carbs in liquid form is one of the easiest ways to fall off a low-carb diet and one of the worst things you can do for your health. Even so-called “healthy” juices are loaded with sugar and have little to no nutritional benefit.
Bread and bread products like bagels, wraps, pita, and naan are all high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. These items can eat up your daily carb allotment at one sitting, so it's best to avoid them altogether. Luckily, there are plenty of pre-made low-carb options these days, not to mention fantastic recipes for low-carb baked goods you can make from scratch.
Baked goods take bread to the next level by adding an excessive amount of sugar and low-quality fats. Now you not only have carbs from the grains, but you're adding in more carbs with sugar.
Foods in this category include:
Chocolate Bars and Candy
Chocolate bars and candy are not only high-carb due to all of the sugar, but most of them are also made with very low-quality ingredients like hydrogenated oils and artificial coloring and flavoring.
As mentioned, vegetables that grow underground tend to have a higher carb content due to the starch. Examples of root vegetables to avoid include:
- Sweet potato
- Acorn squash
- Butternut squash
Most whole grains are too high in carbs to take a central role in your low-carb diet. However, depending on your specific goals and biological needs, you may be able to sneak a few of these in here and there. With that being said, generally try to avoid the following:
Some lower-sugar fruit is okay on your low-carb diet when enjoyed in moderation. However, several fruits are too high in sugar and should be avoided altogether, these include:
Step 4: Low-Carb Meal Prep
Now that you have an idea of what to include in your low-carb diet, it's time to create your low-carb meal plan. Meal prep is by far the easiest way to stick to your low-carb lifestyle, and ultimately cuts down on your time in the kitchen.
Higher-carb meals and snacks like bagels, cereal, chips, and crackers suddenly need to be replaced with low-carb alternatives. Having simple snacks like boiled eggs, pre-cut veggies, and organic cheese prepped and ready to go will keep you from binging on high-carb snacks.
Three benefits to meal planning for a low-carb diet include:
It Saves You Money
This is true whether you're following a low-carb diet or not. Every time you eat out, you're likely spending $10 or more on one meal. Meal prepping at home (especially with a lot of vegetables) will ultimately cost a fraction of the price.
Yes, high-quality protein like grass-fed steaks and organic chicken can get pricey. But it’s much more expensive when you’re eating out.
Since a good portion of your diet will include high-quality protein, it's best to buy it in bulk at the store and cook it ahead of time instead of trying to find restaurants that offer grass-fed or organic meat, which will be significantly marked up. Save those dinners out for a special occasion.
It Can Save You Time in Food Preparation
One of the biggest complaints people have about starting a new diet is the time it takes to prepare their meals. While it would be nice if we all had the extra time to make our meals from scratch three times a day, most people simply don’t have the time to spare.
When you meal prep, you set yourself up for success by taking the time to cook in bulk, so come mealtime, all you need to do is reheat your food and you're ready to go.
It Helps You Stay Away from Unhealthy Food
Sticking to a healthy food plan can be challenging when your stomach is growling and there are no healthy options in sight. Meal prep is an excellent way to ensure that unhealthy options won't tempt you by providing a safety net that you know you can rely on.
Preparing delicious dishes with low carb counts is the key to success, especially for the food lovers out there.
Step 5: Consider Low-Carb Diet Alternatives
By now, enough people have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon that some interesting and incredibly satisfying alternatives have made their way into the mainstream food landscape. This is great news for a low-carb dieter because it means that you don't have to say goodbye to your old favorites — foods like pizza, cookies, ice cream, and more.
If you're craving more variety in your diet, turning to low-carb alternatives is a great way to make sure you stay satisfied.
Here are some alternatives to consider:
Craving your high-carb favorites? Low-carb substitutions are the perfect solution. Here are just a handful of low carb substitutions that you can enjoy:
- If you're craving potatoes, swap them out for lower-carb options like rutabaga, cauliflower, turnips, or radishes.
- If you love your morning cereal, try a low-carb alternative by using crunchy chia seeds, coconut shavings, and hemp seeds.
- Instead of using wheat flour for your favorite baked goods, switch it out for almond flour, coconut flour, or psyllium husk.
Starting a low-carb diet may seem overwhelming, but all it takes is a little preparation, and you'll be set for success.
Keep in mind that your goal will be your driving force, but creating unrealistic or unsustainable goals is a recipe for disaster. For example, low-carb diet weight loss goals should aim to be around one to two pounds per week — nothing more.
And if you really want to set yourself up for success, meal prep. Following a high-protein low-carb diet may get expensive and time-consuming if you try to make all your meals from scratch, or eat every meal at your local organic restaurants.
The good news is there are plenty of low-carb diet foods that you can choose from to make your meals satisfying.
While many people can benefit from eating low-carb, there are a few exceptions, and you want to make sure you're doing what's right for your unique body.
If you're new to low carb or you've tried low-carb in the past and it didn't stick, you might consider working with a coach.
The Biocoach Program is specifically designed to assist you on your journey from prediabetes, diabetes, insulin resistance, or unwanted weight gain back to optimal health.
The best part? You receive a state of the art Bluetooth glucose and ketone meter, along with access to a powerful smartphone app and custom coaching for only $1 a day.