A low-carb diet for beginners

A low-carb diet is one that restricts carbohydrates, primarily found in sugary foods, pasta, and bread. Instead of eating carbs, you eat whole foods including natural proteins, fats, and vegetables.

Studies show that low-carb diets can result in weight loss and improved health markers.1 These diets have been in common use for decades and are recommended by many doctors.2 Best yet, there’s usually no need to count calories or use special products. All you need to do is to eat whole foods that make for a complete, nutritious, and filling diet.3

Learn more about low carb and how to use it for your personal goals here.


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1. What is low carb?

A low-carb diet means that you eat fewer carbohydrates and a higher proportion of fat (with adequate amounts of protein as well). This can also be called a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF) or a keto diet.4

For decades we’ve been told that fat is detrimental to our health. Meanwhile, low-fat “diet” products, often full of sugar, have flooded supermarket shelves. This has likely been a major mistake, that coincided with the start of the obesity epidemic.5 While this doesn’t prove causation, it’s clear the low-fat message didn’t prevent the obesity increase, and it is possible it contributed.

Studies now show that there’s no reason to fear natural fats.6 Instead, on a low-carb diet fat is your friend. Simply minimize your intake of sugar and starches, make sure you are getting adequate protein, and you can eat all the fat you need to feel satisfied.7

When you avoid sugar and starches, your blood sugar tends to stabilize and the levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin drop.8 This helps increase fat burning and may make you feel more satiated, thereby naturally reducing food intake and promoting weight loss.9

Studies show that a low-carb diet can make it easier to lose weight and to control your blood sugar, among .10

The basics

  • Eat: Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables growing above ground and natural fats (like butter).
  • Avoid: Sugar and starchy foods (like bread, pasta, rice, beans and potatoes).

Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied. It can be that simple. You do not need to count calories or weigh your food.11 You don’t need low-fat products.12

Below are examples of what you could eat, alternatively check out our 700+ low-carb recipes.

Who should NOT do a strict low-carb diet?

Most people can safely start a low-carb diet.13 But in these three situations you may need some preparation or adaptation:

  • Are you taking medication for diabetes, e.g. insulin? Learn more
  • Are you taking medication for high blood pressure? Learn more
  • Are you currently breastfeeding? Learn more

If you’re not in any of these groups, and don’t have other severe chronic medical conditions, you’re good to go! You can read more in our post about contraindications to keto diets.

Disclaimer: While a low-carb diet has many proven benefits, it’s still controversial. The main potential danger regards medications, especially for diabetes, where doses may need to be adapted (see above). Discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor. Full disclaimer

This guide is written for adults with health issues, including obesity, that could benefit from a low-carb diet.

Controversial topics related to a low-carb diet, and our take on them, include saturated fats, cholesterol, whole grains, red meat and restricting calories for weight loss.

Getting started fast

Do you want to get going with low carb right away? Make it truly simple by signing up for our free two-week low-carb challenge. Or get unlimited meal plans, shopping lists and much else with a .

For extra support, join our Facebook community.

In 60 seconds

Does low carb still seem complicated? Check out our visual low-carb in 60 seconds guide

2. What to eat on a low-carb diet

In this section you can learn exactly what to eat on low carb, whether you prefer visual guides, detailed food lists, delicious recipes or a simple get started guide.

Let’s start with a quick visual guide to low carb. Here are the basic food groups you can eat all you like of, until you’re satisfied:

Low-carb diet foods: Natural fats (butter, olive oil); Meat; Fish and seafood; Eggs; Cheese; Vegetables that grow above ground

The numbers above are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces). Fiber is not counted, you can eat all the fiber you want.14

All foods above are below 5% carbs. Sticking to these foods will make it relatively easy to stay on a strict low-carb diet, with less than 20 grams of carbs per day.

Detailed low-carb foods list

 

Try to avoid

Here’s what you should not eat on low carb – foods full of sugar and starch. These foods are much higher in carbs.
Foods to avoid on low carb: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit, beer, soda, juice, candy

The numbers are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), unless otherwise noted.

Detailed list of foods to avoid

 

What to drink

Low-carb drinks: water, coffee, tea, and dry wine

What drinks are good on a low-carb diet? Water is perfect, and so is coffee or tea. Preferably use no sweeteners.15 A modest amount of milk or cream is okay in coffee or tea (but beware of caffe latte!).16

The occasional glass of wine is fine too.

For more, check out our complete guides to low-carb drinks and low-carb alcohol.

Visual low-carb guides

Here are more detailed visual guides to the amount of carbs in common foods. Is a specific food item low or high in carbs? Click to find out:

Recipes

Browse our over 700 delicious low-carb recipes or head over to our 14-day low-carb meal plan for inspiration. You can always find our recipes under “Recipes” in the top menu. Here are a few popular ones:

Meal plans

Use our premium meal planner tool to access tons of weekly meal plans, complete with shopping lists. You can adapt the diet plans to your liking, skipping any meal, choosing how many people you’re cooking for, and the shopping lists adapt. You can even start a new plan from scratch (of from pre-existing ones), tailor them completely and save them.

The meal plans below is available through Diet Doctor Plus. Not a member? Sign up for a FREE 30-day trial to get all our meal plans and many other membership benefits. After the free trial ends, it’s only $9.99/month or $99/year.

Low carb: Easy cooking

Don’t feel like much of a chef but still want to serve and have healthy homemade meals? This is the meal plan for you! Boost your confidence in the kitchen with these delicious and easy-to-make recipes that help you stay below 25 grams of carbs per day.

Full meal plan →

Low carb: Back to basics #1

This is a varied low-carb meal plan filled with delicious meals. If you’re in need of new inspiration or just curious to see what low-carb is all about, this meal plan is for you. It will help you stay below 25 g of carbs per day.

Full meal plan →

Low carb: Budget-friendly #1

This week’s meal plan really has it all! It’s fresh, varied, filling and also affordable. It will help you stay below 25 grams of carbs as well.

Full meal plan →

Check out the meal-planner tool

How low carb is a low-carb diet?

The lower your carbohydrate intake, the more powerful the effects on weight and blood sugar appear to be.17 For that reason we recommend initially following the dietary advice fairly strictly. When you’re happy with your weight and health, you may carefully try eating more carbs if you want to (although we find many people don’t want to).

Here are three examples of what a low-carb meal can look like, depending on how many carbs you plan to eat per day:

A strict low-carb diet is often called a keto or ketogenic diet. It’s not a no-carb diet, but it contains less than 20 grams of carbs per day.

Video course

How to Eat Low-Carb, High-Fat Video Course

Here’s an 11-minute video course on how to eat low carb, high fat. Sign up for our free newsletter18 for instant access to it:

 

Get started

Keen to get started? Then sign up for our free 2-week low-carb challenge, where you’ll be guided step-by-step through your low-carb journey.

Get started on a low-carb diet

Leaflet

Here’s a leaflet with basic low-carb advice, that you may want to print and have around, or give to friends who are curious:

Keto-for-beginners_folder_181214b

countries3

Low-carb advice in 40 languages

We have written advice on a low-carb diet in 40 languages, including our full Diet Doctor site in Spanish or Swedish.

3. Health benefits of a low-carb diet

Why would you consider eating fewer carbs? There are many potential benefits, proven by science and supported by clinical experience, like these:

 

Low carb and weight lossLose weight

Most people start eating fewer carbs to lose weight. Studies have shown that low-carb diets are often more effective than other diets.19 Low carb makes it easier to lose weight without hunger, and without having to count calories.20

According to new science, a low-carb diet can even result in burning more calories than other diets.21 Learn more

Ready to lose the weight for good?

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Low carb and diabetes reversalReverse type 2 diabetes22

Low-carb diets can help reduce or even normalize blood sugar, and thus potentially reverse type 2 diabetes.23 Since the data to date have focused on very strict low carb diets, we do not know if more liberal low-carb diets will also result in type 2 diabetes reversal. However, as the American Diabetes Association notes, carbohydrate reduction of any level is likely an effective tool for blood sugar control.

Low carb can also be helpful in managing type 1 diabetes.24


Low carb and a calmer stomachA grateful gut

Low carb might help settle a grumpy gut, often reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such a bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramps, and pain.25 Indigestion, reflux and other digestive issues can sometimes improve, too.26

For some, this is the best part of going low carb and happens usually within the first few days, or first week, of starting the diet.27 Learn more


Reduce sugar cravings with low carbReduce sugar cravings

Are you struggling to stay away from sweet foods, even though you try to eat them in “moderation”? Many people do.28

A low-carb diet can often reduce and sometimes even eliminate cravings for sweets 29


Bonus benefits

Weight loss, shrinking fat stores, lower blood sugar, improved mental clarity, and a calmer digestive system are the most frequently cited benefits of low-carb eating.30

But some people experience even more improvements, some of which can be life-changing: lower blood pressure and other improvements in risk factors for heart disease,31 less acne and better skin,32 fewer migraines,33 possibly improved mental health symptoms, better fertility,34 and more.35

The links below share more inspiring testimonials and scientific research about potential low-carb benefits.

All low-carb benefits


Success stories

We’ve been sent over 600 amazing low-carb success stories, and get more all the time. Here are a few, and links to all of them sorted by categories:

  • Eight years of zero-carb eating and "have never looked or felt better!"
  • A low-carb diet: Maintaining a 70-pound weight loss for five years
  • "I have so much energy"

4. Low-carb tips and guides

To make a low-carb diet truly simple and enjoyable requires a few new skills. For example, how do you cook low-carb breakfasts that you love? How do you eat more healthy fats? And what’s important to think about when dining out?

Here are all the guides you need.

 

Low-carb breakfastsBreakfast

Breakfast is a great time to eat low carb. Who doesn’t love bacon and eggs? In the unlikely event that you answered “I”, there are even great options with no eggs at all.

Another strong option is to just have a cup of coffee, as many people get less hungry on a low-carb, high-fat diet and may not need breakfast at all.36 This can save you plenty of time.

There are many other options – both delicious and fast


Low-carb mealsMeals

So, What’s for lunch and dinner on a low-carb diet? You could have mouth-watering, delicious dishes full of meat, fish, chicken, vegetables and full-fat sauces. The options are nearly limitless as you will see by our variety of recipes and meal plans.

Check out our recipes to learn to cook amazing low­-carb meals


Instead of potatoesInstead of potatoes, pasta and rice

Who needs starchy sides when you can have cauliflower mash or cauliflower rice instead? Not to mention butter-fried green cabbage, yum!

In short, we can show you plenty of great low-carb alternatives that are both tasty and healthy. You may even end up liking them better than their carb-heavy predecessors.


Dining out on low carbEating out

It’s very possible to eat low carb even when leaving your house, for example at restaurants. Just avoid starchy foods and ask for some extra natural fat (e.g. olive oil or butter).

This guide helps you with tips for fast food, other restaurants, buffets and for when you eat at a friend’s house


Low-carb snacksSnacks

You probably don’t need to snack as much on a low-carb diet, as you’ll likely feel satisfied longer.37

However, if you want something right away you could have cheese, nuts, cold cuts or even an egg. There are lots of amazing options


Low-carb breadBread

Do you have a hard time living without bread?

You may not have to. Just be aware that there are good and bad low-carb bread options. Spoiler: you’ll probably want to stay away from “low­-carb” bread from the grocery store! Here’s why, and what to do instead


How to eat more fat on a low-carb dietHow to eat more fat

Fat can be both satiating and an amazing flavor enhancer. But how do you get enough of it in your diet? And how much fat should you really eat? Hint: enough to feel satisfied and not hungry.

Learn all about it in this guide


Avoiding processed low-carb foodsAvoid “low-carb” junk food

Many who are eating a low-carb diet can get seduced by creatively marketed “low carb” products — cakes, cookies, candies, chocolate, pastas, breads, ice cream and other substitute foods.

Unfortunately this rarely ends well, especially not for weight loss. These products are usually lacking beneficial nutrients and are often higher in carbs than their labels imply. We recommend avoiding them entirely if possible. Learn more


A low-carb diet on a budgetHow to make low carb cheap

A low-carb diet doesn’t have to be expensive. In this guide, you’ll learn how to make it cheap.

With a little planning and preparation you could save a ton of money


Low-carb cheatingLow-carb cheating

Is it a good thing to occasionally stray from on a low-carb diet? That depends. And it’s worth thinking about what’s right for you. Learn more


More guides

Do you want more low-carb guides? We have more low-carb guides!

All low-carb guides

5. Potential side effects on a low-carb diet

If you stop eating sugar and starch cold turkey (recommended) you may experience some side effects as your body adjusts. For some people these side effects are mild, while others find the transition more difficult. It usually lasts a few days, up to two weeks, and there are ways to minimize it (see below).38

Another option is to decrease the intake of carbohydrates slowly, over a few weeks, to minimize side effects. But the “Nike way” (Just Do It) may be the best choice for most people. Removing most sugar and starch often results in several pounds lost on the scale within a few days. This may be mostly fluids, but it can still be great for motivation.39

Here are side effects that may occur when you suddenly start a strict low-carb diet.

 

The low-carb induction flu, aka keto fluInduction flu

By far the most common short-term side effect is called the induction flu. It’s what makes some people feel really poorly for a few days (up to a week) after starting low carb.

Here are common symptoms:40

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Irritability

These side effects rapidly subside as your body adapts and your fat burning increases. Within a week or two, they are usually gone.41

The primary reason for this may be that carbohydrate-rich foods can increase water retention in your body.42 When you stop eating high-carb foods you’ll lose excess water through your kidneys. This can result in dehydration and a lack of salt during the first week, before the body has adapted, resulting in the symptoms above.

You can minimize the induction flu by drinking more fluids and by at least temporarily increasing your salt intake. A good option is to drink a cup of bouillon/broth one or two times a day. This usually keeps the induction flu minor or even non-existant.43

Alternatively, drink a few extra glasses of water and put more salt on your food.

Learn more about induction flu and how to treat it

Other common issues on low carb

Beyond the induction flu, there are six more relatively common side effects on a low-carb diet. It seems like many of them can also be mostly avoided by getting enough fluid and salt.44

There are also more things you can do to minimize any problems, click to read more if you’ve experienced one of these issues:

 

Less common issues

These are less commonly noticed issues, that generally only affect a minority of people:

All low-carb side effects and how to cure them

 

Low-carb controversies

Beyond the mostly transient side effects that may occur on a low-carb diet (see above) there are many controversies, misunderstandings and a few pure myths that simply don’t hold up to closer scrutiny. For example, your brain is supposed to stop working unless you eat carbs. We’ll, that’s simply wrong.45

Read all about these topics on our low-carb controversies page, or choose a specific topic below:

 

6. Learn more

Here’s the sixth and final section of this low-carb page. Do you want to truly understand low carb, and get answers to your remaining questions? Or do you want extra inspiration for yourself or for people you’re trying to help?

Find it here, and start becoming a low-carb expert.

Low-carb TVLow-carb TV

Get insight, enjoyment and inspiration to help you succeed, from the top low-carb channel on the planet.

Select from hundreds of awesome videos, and we’re adding 2-4 more new ones every week. Enjoy! The service is only available for members, but we offer a free trial.

 

Low-carb TVHow low carb works

What are you designed to eat, and why can sugar and starch be a problem? Essentially, how does a low-carb diet work?

Learn how low carb works

Scientific studies on low carb

 

Low-carb questions and answersQuestions and answers

Are you having problems on low carb? Are you not losing weight like you want to? How many carbs should you eat?

Get answers to your low-carb questions

For extra support, join our Facebook community.

 

Why fat is your friendWhy fat is your friend

A lot of people still fear natural fat. But really, the whole idea that we should fear fat is based on low quality science that does not support the broad sweeping conclusion. Recent research and many open-minded experts now agree.46

Read more in our evidence based guide to saturated fat and our guide to healthy fats.

Low-carb eventsUpcoming low-carb events

Do you want to learn much more, and meet experts and other people who are interested in low carb? Here’s a current list of upcoming low-carb conferences and other events.

 

The Food Revolution

Do you want a summary of the ongoing food revolution? From failed low-fat diets and an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, through a growing realization of our mistakes, and towards a potential health revolution.

Watch this talk by Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, the founder of Diet Doctor:


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Diet Doctor Eat — Try our amazing keto recipe app

What’s the best keto recipe app for iPhone and Android? Diet Doctor Eat! Download for free, and enjoy our entire recipe collection in a beautiful and easy phone-friendly format.


 

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Don’t miss

Low-carb foods
14-day low-carb diet meal plan
  1. Scientific studies now prove that compared to other diets, low carb is generally more effective for weight loss and certain health markers:

    PLOS ONE 2015: Dietary intervention for overweight and obese adults: comparison of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. A meta-analysis [strong evidence]

    Here are two of the top studies showing more weight loss and improvements in health markers on low carb:

    For many more studies on the topic, have a look at our low-carb science page.

    Hundreds of success stories: Low-carb success stories

  2. Hundreds of medical doctors recommending a low-carb or ketogenic diet

  3. While calories count, you probably don’t have to count them for good results. Low-carb diets tend to result in more weight loss, even though most studies of it do not advocate counting calories:

    British Journal of Nutrition 2016: Effects of low-carbohydrate diets v. low-fat diets on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. [strong evidence for more weight loss]

    The reason could be that people’s appetite tends to be suppressed on low-carb diets so that people can eat fewer calories and still be satisfied:

    Obesity Reviews 2014: Do ketogenic diets really suppress appetite? A systematic review and meta-an