Low-Carb Diet Overview

In This Article

If you're thinking about starting a low-carb diet, perhaps you've heard it's a fast way to lose weight. Or maybe, like some people, you have come to believe that "carbs are bad." Many people fall prey to this belief without even knowing what carbs are—they simply assume they're synonymous with starchy food.

Or maybe you're hesitant, thinking: "Isn't it bad to cut out an entire food group?" Avoiding all forms of an important food group could certainly present problems if you aren't optimizing the foods you do eat. When well-planned and varied, low-carb diets can certainly fulfill all of your nutrient requirements. You just need to be sure to choose foods wisely.

Low-carb diets do have benefits, and many people find they can lose weight and even manage chronic health problems by sticking to low-carb plans. If you're wondering if a low-carb diet could be right for you, learn more about how, what's involved, and the steps you'll need to take to get started.

Understanding Carbohydrates

If you've ever been out to dinner and a friend refuses the bread basket because they're "watching their carbs," you're already aware of the prevailing attitudes about carbs in our society.

But these beliefs about carbs don't just oversimplify the science; they also fail to capture what a low-carb diet is really about. While it's true that starchy foods such as bread, pasta, and potatoes are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are starch.

Carbohydrates are a nutrient made up of simple sugars (monosaccharides). When these sugars bind together, they form complex molecules. Depending on how the sugars are combined, they can create disaccharides (double sugars like lactose and sucrose), oligosaccharides (short chain sugars called glycoproteins and glycolipids), and polysaccharides (long chain sugars, like starch and cellulose).

When you eat carbohydrates like starch or sugar, your body converts them into glucose for fuel. Some carbohydrate-rich foods get broken down more quickly than others.

When this happens, it causes a sudden spike in blood sugar. We measure these spikes using a system called the glycemic index (GI).

Many of us eat more carbohydrates than our bodies need. People with conditions like diabetes may be in danger if they eat more carbohydrates than their body can handle, as it will affect their blood sugar levels.

A low-carb diet aims to help you reduce how many carbohydrates you eat, which can be helpful if you're hoping to lose weight, better control your glycemic index, or just want to improve your overall health.

It's important to note that a low-carb diet isn't equal to a no-carb diet.

Your body requires carbohydrates to function properly. On a low-carb diet, you'll work toward maintaining an intake of carbohydrates balanced to your body's needs. That means avoiding being deprived of carbs or eating them in excess.

Are Low-Carb Diets Good for Everyone?

Most everyone will benefit from reducing excess sugar intake. Major health organizations recommend limiting the added sugars to several teaspoons per day.

The extent to which people will benefit from greater carbohydrate reduction has to do with how well our individual bodies handle carbohydrate, as sugars and starches in our food all end up as sugars in our bodies.

People with certain types of health concerns are more likely to benefit from low-carb diets than other dietary approaches. Health conditions that may benefit from low-carb diets include:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Prediabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Normal weight obesity

If you are taking medication to lower blood glucose or blood pressure, check with your doctor before making changes to your diet. When you lose weight, the dose of certain medications you take may need to be readjusted.

Low-Carb Plans

The term "low-carb diet" actually refers to many different dietary plans, but all these plans have one shared characteristic: the elimination of most sugars and many starches. Low-carb diets are sometimes called reduced-carbohydrate or low-glycemic diets.

The term "low-carb" may be defined in different ways. Sometimes, it refers to slightly less carbohydrate than is generally recommended. In other diets, the term may represent a very low allowance of daily carbohydrates.

There are three general approaches to eating low-carb:

  1. Reduce Overall Carbohydrates: Using a low-carb food pyramid as a guide, you can put together meals based on a balanced diet of low-carb vegetables, low-sugar fruits, healthy fats, and ample proteins (ideally under 35 percent of your daily caloric intake).
  2. Determine Your Individual Carbohydrate Tolerance: Each of us has a different degree of carbohydrate tolerance. Some plans are centered around helping you find out what yours is and adjusting your diet accordingly. This includes the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Paleo Diet.
  3. Try a Ketogenic Diet: One of the more popular plans is a ketogenic diet, a very low-carb diet that causes the body to use fat for energy rather than glucose. This puts the body into a state referred to as keto-adaptation in which the burning of fat can increase stamina and vitality.

Low-Carb Foods

Plan-specifics aside, most low-carb diets include lots of non-starchy vegetables; meats and/or eggs, and other sources of protein; low-sugar fruits (such as berries); dairy foods (such as cheese and yogurt); nuts and seeds; and foods with healthy fats.

There are some nice "extras" available to complement these foods, such as low-carb tortillas and low-carb condiments. You might be surprised at the wide variety of meals with low-carb ingredients—even baked goods and desserts.

If you don't eat meat, you can follow a low-carb vegetarian diet. These diets use non-meat protein sources like nuts and beans.

Once you are eating the right amount of carbohydrate for you, you'll likely notice a change in your appetite. In general, you should practice eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're satisfied.

When you're hungry, reach for foods that are in sync with the plan you've chosen. However, keep in mind that just because a food is allowed on a low-carb diet, it doesn't mean you can overindulge (cheese is a good example).

Getting Started

First, particularly if you are managing a health condition, it's wise to involve your healthcare team in your decision to go low-carb. It's a good idea to have your doctor "sign off" on whether or not a low-carb eating plan is appropriate for you, monitor how your carb intake is affecting your overall health, and provide guidance along the way.

When embarking on a low-carb diet, start by making incremental changes, focusing first on reducing the less-healthy carbs in your diet.

Choose one or two foods at a time. You'll likely see progress even after making a few small tweaks.

Avoid added sugars and other refined carbohydrates. The "no white food" rule— which involves the elimination of sugar, white flour, white rice, and potatoes from the diet—can be a straightforward way to start.

One of the most direct ways to reduce your carb intake is to eliminating sugary drinks. Despite being low on the glycemic index, these beverages add sugar and calories without any real nutritional value.

Know Your Limits

Each of us has a different degree of carbohydrate tolerance. As we age, that tolerance tends to decline, which can result in "rollercoastering" blood sugar levels—particularly if we eat high-carb diets. Some people may develop insulin resistance or pre-diabetes.

Plans that seek to help you find your optimal carbohydrate level usually advise reducing carbohydrate to a fairly low level, then gradually adding carbohydrate back until some or all of the following occur:

Regardless of the plan you choose, always listen to your body. Consider adjusting your diet if aren't feeling good or seeing progress. It can also be helpful to consult with your physician and/or a dietitian.

Adjustment Period

Low-carb eating may be entirely new territory for you. It's helpful to be aware of common mistakes people make on a low-carb diet, including avoiding fat and forgetting fiber (constipation is one potential side effect of low-carb diets).

It may also be a new territory for your body. Many people who embark on a low-carb way of eating speak of "carb crash" which can include symptoms like jitteriness, lethargy, or just not quite feeling like themselves.

Knowing what to expect during your first low-carb week can help you prepare physically and mentally.

Seek Support

Viewing a low-carb diet as a temporary measure or trend can set you up for a negative experience. Instead, try viewing your choice as being a long-term strategy for improving your health—one that can be changed, and will evolve, as you do.

Making lifestyle changes is never easy, particularly if you have people or habits that sway you from reaching the goals you've set for yourself. To prevent this, surround yourself with people who understand your goals and may even join you in making the same changes.

This is especially important during the first three months of adopting a low-carb diet (or any lifestyle change, for that matter). After the first few months, your new lifestyle practices will begin to settle in as a routine.

If you don't have immediate support, join an online forum or support group where you can share your challenges and celebrate your achievements. Ongoing positive reinforcement is essential to the long-term success of any lifestyle change.

A Word From Verywell

Once your body adapts to your new way of eating, you'll likely experience more benefits than you expected. For example, people who have long suffered from heartburn often find dietary changes can lessen or even help cure the condition. Others find they have more energy, can concentrate better, or think more clearly.

Knowledge is power. The more you know about your options (and yourself) before you begin a low-carb diet, the better prepared you'll be to make changes and stick to them.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Glycemic Index and Diabetes. American Diabetes Association

  2. Sugar 101.  American Heart Association

  3. Hu T, Yao L, Reynolds K, et al. The effects of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite: A randomized controlled trial. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2016;26(6):476-88. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2015.11.011

  4. Hu FB. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(6):1541-2. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.29622

Additional Reading