A low carb diet for beginners
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 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 below.
Or watch a summary of the guide in this video:
Key takeawaysWhat is a low carb diet?
On a low carb diet, you eat fewer carbohydrates and a higher proportion of protein and fat. Learn more
Foods to eat on low carb
The best foods to eat on a low carb diet include meat, seafood, eggs, cheese, and above-ground vegetables. Here’s why
Benefits of low carb
Limiting carbs has been proven to help with weight loss, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. Find out how
1. What is low carb?
A low carb diet means that you eat fewer carbohydrates and a higher proportion of protein and fat. This can also be called a keto diet.4 However, not all low carb diets result in ketosis.
For decades we’ve been told that fat is detrimental to our health. Meanwhile, low-fat “diet” products, often full of sugar, flooded supermarket shelves. This coincided with the beginning of the obesity epidemic and, in hindsight, was likely a major mistake. While the proliferation of low-fat products doesn’t prove causation, it’s clear the low-fat message didn’t prevent the increase in obesity, and we believe that it has contributed.5
Studies now suggest that there’s little reason to fear natural fats.6 Instead, on a low carb diet you don’t have to fear fat. Simply minimize your intake of sugar and starches, make sure you are getting adequate protein — or even high amounts of protein — and you can eat enough natural fat to enjoy your meals.7
When you avoid sugar and starches, your blood sugar tends to stabilize, and the levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin drop, which may make it easier to burn fat stores in the body.8 In addition, the higher protein intake and presence of ketones (if eating very low carb) may make you feel more satiated, thereby naturally reducing food intake and promoting weight loss.9
- 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.
Below are examples of what you could eat, alternatively check out our 1000+ low carb recipes.
Who should NOT do a strict low carb diet?
Most people can safely start a low carb diet.10 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 — such as advanced liver or kidney failure — you’re good to go! You can read more in our post about contraindications to keto diets.
This guide is written for adults with health issues, including obesity, who 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.
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 low carb food groups from which you can choose until satisfied:
The numbers above are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of food. Fiber is not counted; you can eat all the fiber you want.11
All foods above contain less than 5% carbs by weight. Sticking to these foods will make it relatively easy to stay on a moderate low carb diet (less than 50 grams of net carbs per day) or even a strict low carb diet, with less than 20 grams of net carbs per day.
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:
What to drink
What drinks are good on a low carb diet? Water is perfect, and so is coffee or tea. Preferably don’t use sweeteners.12 A modest amount of milk or cream is okay in coffee or tea (but beware of caffe latte!).13
The occasional glass of wine is fine, too.
For more, check out our complete guides to low carb drinks and low carb alcohol.
Browse our over 1,000 delicious low carb recipes or head over to our 30-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:
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.
The numbers represent grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the food, unless otherwise noted.
Detailed list of foods to avoid
How low carb is a low carb diet?
The lower your carbohydrate intake, the more powerful the effects may be on weight and blood sugar.14 For this 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 desired (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 net carbs per day.15
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.
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:
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.
- Brazilian Portuguese
- Bulgarian (different version)
- Chinese, Chinese (Taiwan)
Do you have another translation or a significant improvement of one of the earlier ones? E-mail us.
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:
Most people start eating fewer carbs to lose weight. Studies have shown that low carb diets are at least as effective — if not more effective — than other diets.17 Low carb makes it easier to lose weight without hunger and without having to count calories.18
According to recent studies, a low carb diet can even result in burning more calories than other diets.19 Learn more
- How to lose weight – the full guide
- Why low carb can help you lose weight
- How to lose weight with a low carb diet
- Top 10 weight-loss tips for women 40+
- 600+ success stories
Reverse type 2 diabetes20
Low carb diets can help reduce or even normalize blood sugar and thus potentially reverse type 2 diabetes.21 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.22
A grateful gut
Low carb might help settle a grumpy gut, often reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramps, and pain.23 Indigestion, reflux and other digestive issues can sometimes improve, too.24
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.25 Learn more
Reduce sugar cravings
Are you struggling to stay away from sweet foods, even though you try to eat them in “moderation?” Many people do.26
A low carb diet can often reduce and sometimes even eliminate cravings for sweets 27
Weight loss, lower blood sugar, improved mental clarity, and a calmer digestive system are the most frequently cited benefits of low carb eating.28
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,29 less acne and better skin,30 fewer migraines,31 improved mental health symptoms, better fertility,32 and more.33
The links below share more scientific research, as well as inspiring testimonials, about potential low carb benefits.All low carb benefits
We’ve been sent over 600 amazing low carb success stories and get more all the time. Start with a few, below, or check out the links to all success stories, sorted by category:
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 get enough protein? How do you eat more healthy fats? And what’s important to think about when dining out?
Here are helpful tips to get you started.
Breakfast is a great time to eat low carb. Who doesn’t love bacon and eggs? In the unlikely event that you answered “I don’t,” there are even great options with no eggs at all.
Another strong option is to just have a cup of coffee, as many people are less hungry on a low carb diet and may not need breakfast.34 This can save you plenty of time.
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 from our variety of recipes and meal plans.
Check out our recipes to learn to cook amazing low carb meals
Instead 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.
It’s very possible to eat low carb even when leaving your house, for example at restaurants. Just avoid starchy foods, double up on the protein, and include natural fats for taste (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
You probably don’t need to snack as much on a low carb diet, as you’ll likely feel satisfied longer.35
However, if you want something right away you could have cheese, nuts, cold cuts or even an egg. There are lots of amazing options
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 enough protein
Many low carb diets are also higher in protein as compared to what most people are accustomed to eating. Since numerous studies show higher protein diets are beneficial for weight loss, metabolic health, muscle maintenance, and increased satiety, prioritizing protein is an important part of any eating plan.36
You can learn much more about higher protein diets and how to add more protein in our main protein guide
How to eat more fat
Fat can be an amazing flavor enhancer and can provide needed energy calories when you reduce your carbohydrates. But how much fat should you really eat? Hint: enough to enjoy your food but not so much that you overeat calories.
Learn all about it in this guide
Avoid “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
How 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 cheating
Is it a good thing to occasionally stray from a low carb diet? That depends. And it’s worth thinking about what’s right for you. Learn more
Top videos about low carb basics
Here are some of our hundreds of low carb videos:
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. The symptoms usually last a few days, up to two weeks, and there are ways to minimize them (see below).37
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.38
Here are side effects that may occur when you suddenly start a strict low carb diet.
By far the most common short-term side effect is called the induction flu. It’s what makes some people feel poorly for a few days (up to a week) after starting low carb.
Here are common symptoms:39
These side effects rapidly subside as your body adapts and your fat burning increases. Within a week or two, they are usually gone.40
The primary reason for this may be that carbohydrate-rich foods can increase water retention in your body.41 When you stop eating high-carb foods you’ll lose excess water through your kidneys. This can result in dehydration and increased sodium loss 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-existent.42
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.43
There are also more things you can do to minimize any problems, which you can read about by following the links below:
Less common issues
These are less common issues, generally affecting 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, some people claim that the brain needs dietary carbohydrate to function appropriately. Well, that’s simply wrong.44
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 TV
Get insight, enjoyment, and inspiration to help you succeed, from the top low carb channel on the planet. Select from hundreds of videos — and we’re adding new ones regularly.Visit the Low carb video site >
How 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?
Scientific studies on low carb
Questions 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