Must-Have Items for Your Low-Carb Grocery List

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When you’re on a low-carb diet, a trip to the grocery store can be overwhelming—especially if you’re trying to avoid processed items and refined carbohydrates. Your local grocery may not have an easy to spot aisle dedicated to low-carb options, but as long as you know what to look for (and what to steer clear of) you can create a helpful shopping list that will serve as a guide.

Once you get your groceries home and put away, the frustration may pop up again on days when you’re flat-out busy and don’t have the time or energy to cook up a meal. If you have a pantry stocked with low-carb diet friendly foods, you’ll be armed to create quick, balanced, and tasty meals even when you’re pressed for time.

Low-Carb Foods

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends a daily carb intake of between 225 and 325 grams. If you’re following a low-carb diet, you’ll be aiming for between 90 and 130 grams per day, with a per-meal carb intake of 30 to 45 grams (or less).

Build your meals from rich sources of protein, some vegetables, and healthy fats. When you're shopping, be sure to look check nutrition labels. For the products you're considering, check carbohydrate and saturated fat content as well as sugar (some of which may be hidden sugar) before you buy.

When you’re reducing your carb intake, meals consisting mostly of protein and fat with some carbohydrates are crucial to ensuring your body is getting adequate nutrition. Remember, your goal is low-carb—not no carbs.

While the main focus of your diet will be low- and no-carb meals that are high in protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables, leave room for occasional, small servings of high-carb foods like whole grains and fruit.

With these guidelines in mind, here’s a low-carb grocery list to help guide you as you shop for everything you’ll need to create nutritious, easy, low-carb meals.

Produce

Many studies show diets rich in dark leafy greens helps lower your risk for many chronic diseases, including heart attack, stroke, and even some types of cancer.

There are no limitations on how many non-starchy vegetables you can eat on a low-carb diet, so the produce aisle will be one of your favorite places to shop. Try loading up your cart with these options:

While you're in the produce aisle, look for fresh herbs, such as basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, and oregano, which you can use to add flavor to meals and beverages.

Fruit can be a little trickier on a low-carb diet. Some types of fruit can have 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving. When you're choosing produce, reach for berries and melons which are the fruits lowest in sugar.

Meat, Poultry, Seafood, and Eggs

A well-rounded low-carb meal will include a rich protein source. Animal products contain vital nutrients, such as essential amino acids, vitamin B12, heme iron, and omega-3 fats.

For a low-carb breakfast, eggs are an inexpensive, quick, and easy option. They're also a strong source of B vitamins as well as choline, which boosts brain health. Try a hard-boiled egg, which has 6g of protein and 78 calories, as a snack or salad add-in.

For lunch and dinner protein, think carefully about the types of meat you choose as well as how you prepare it. For example, red meat (especially when heavily processed) has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

The quality of the meat you choose will also be affected by how the animals were raised: grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, chickens, and turkeys yield more healthy omega-3 fats than conventionally raised animals.

Having a steak or adding bacon to your breakfast are best as an occasional treat rather than a dietary staple.

For easy low-carb, protein-packed snacks you can eat on the go, try:

Dairy

Milk and milk-products are permitted on a low-carb diet, but some options will be healthier than others. Avoid flavored milk which is high in sugar; one cup contains almost 12 grams of carbs. When you’re at the dairy case, look for these options instead:

Fats and Oils

Most low-carb diet authors argue foods high in saturated fats (butter, coconut oil) are fine for low-carb diets, while others advise avoiding them. The one point of consensus seems to be the recommendation to avoid oils high in omega-6 fats, such as those made from soy, corn, most safflower, and sunflower.

Whether you're eating low-carb or not, foods with partially hydrogenated oils are best enjoyed in moderation. These oils contain trans fats, which increase harmful LDL cholesterol and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Sources of healthy, unsaturated fats to include on your low-carb grocery list, include:

Frozen Foods

Most of the foods you'd find in the produce aisle can also be purchased frozen. Having bags of frozen veggies on hand to toss in a quick stir fry or berries to add to a breakfast smoothie are convenient, tasty, and packed with nutrition.

Grains and Legumes

Grains, such as rice, oats, quinoa, millet, and amaranth, as well as legumes such as lentils, beans, and chickpeas are high in carbohydrates: one half-cup of cooked brown rice has 34 grams of carbs. These foods won't be a staple of your low-carb diet, but when you do have them, stick to small portions (1/4 to a 1/3 cup).

Try these low-carb swaps instead, especially if you enjoy baking.

  • Coconut flour
  • Flour made with flax
  • Almond flour and meal

Condiments and Shelf-Stable Items 

Low-carb condiments, spices, and dips can be a creative and versatile way to dress up the foods you eat regularly. Changing up the taste and texture of your low-carb diet standbys can help prevent boredom and curb cravings.

Fill your pantry with these low-carb friendly additions—many of which will keep for a long time, so you can buy in bulk.

  • Full-fat mayo (except those made with soy oil)
  • Sugar-free ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • Sugar-free salad dressings
  • Soy sauce (unless you are watching your sodium intake)
  • Pesto
  • Mustard
  • Broth or bouillon
  • Spices
  • Hot sauce
  • Sugar-free pickle relish
  • Sugar-free jams and preserves
  • Olives
  • Low-carb tortillas
  • Unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder
  • Unsweetened soy, coconut, almond, rice, or hemp milk

Partially hydrogenated oils should always be avoided as they contain trans fats, which increase harmful LDL cholesterol and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Deli Counter

The deli counter can be a great place to find low-carb foods. Rotisserie chicken is one healthy, take-home option—especially if you’re planning meals for your family. If you don't need the entire chicken, order a portion-sized serving of grilled salmon and an extra-thick slice of roast beef, pastrami, or turkey breast instead. You can also go for tuna, chicken, or shrimp salad which can be eaten as a meal on their own or wrapped in a low-carb tortilla or lettuce cup.

Prepared foods like crab cakes or meatloaf can be packed with hidden carbs. Unlike packaged items, you may not have the nutritional information and ingredients right in front of you to check. This is also the case for salad bar items, especially dressings (which can be high in sugar). Ask the deli counter employees about nutrition and ingredients for products you are considering before you buy.

Salad Bars

Salad bars can be an even better place to create a grab-and-go meal, and you can mix and match to your own tastes and dietary preferences. When in doubt about dressings, blue cheese or plain oil and vinegar are the least likely to have added sugar. You can also head over to the condiment aisle and check the labels on your favorite dressing, then buy a bottle to take home and add yourself.

When building your salad, choose mixed greens instead of iceberg lettuce (which doesn’t add much nutritional value). Don't skimp on the protein: add a proper serving of cubed chicken, tuna, beans, tofu, or a hard-boiled egg. You may want to pass on cubed ham, however, which is often cured in sugar.

Other Foods

You don't have to search endless aisles and labels to complete your low-carb, take-home meal. A general set of guidelines is often enough to guide you through your list. For more creative snack options, look to these ideas next time you hit the grocery store:

  • Pre-cut vegetables with a guacamole or hummus dip
  • Sugar-free yogurt and fresh berries
  • Low-carb fruits
  • Individually wrapped cheeses like Mini-Bel or Mini-Gouda
  • Black or stuffed olives
  • Deviled eggs or whole boiled eggs, often found in the cheese case
  • Sugar-free gelatin cups
  • Sliced tomato with mozzarella, basil, and balsamic vinegar
  • Buffalo chicken wings made with hot sauce and spices (no sugar-based, sticky sauces)
  • Roasted seaweed snacks
  • Parmesan cheese crisps
  • Dried roasted edamame (instead of mixed nuts)
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