A Low-Carb Diet for Beginners
Do you want weight loss without hunger? Or type 2 diabetes reversal and other health benefits? Then a low-carb diet is a good choice.
You can eat all you need to feel satisfied – there’s no calorie counting required. No products. No pills. No surgery. Just real food.
A low-carb diet restricts sugary foods, and starches like pasta or bread. Instead you’ll eat delicious real foods, including protein, natural fats and vegetables.1
Low-carb diets just work. They’ve been used for over 150 years and just about everyone knows someone who has successfully tried it. Scientific studies now prove that compared to other diets, low carb is more effective.2 Below you can learn how to use low carb to achieve your personal goals.
What is Low Carb?
A low-carb diet means you eat fewer carbohydrates and a higher proportion of fat. This is often called a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF).
Most importantly, you minimize your intake of sugar and starches. You can eat other delicious foods until you are satisfied – and still lose weight.3
- 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, until you’re satisfied. It’s that simple. Here are examples of what you could eat:
There are solid scientific reasons why low-carb diets works. When you avoid sugar and starches your blood sugar stabilizes and the levels of insulin, the fat-storing hormone, drop. This increases fat burning and makes you feel more satiated.
Who should NOT do a strict low-carb diet?
Most people can safely start any kind of low-carb diet right away. But in the following three situations you may need extra preparation or adaptation:
- Are you on medication for diabetes, e.g. insulin? Learn more
- Are you on medication for high blood pressure? Learn more
- Are you breastfeeding? Learn more
If you’re not in any of these groups, you’re good to go. Great!
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What to Eat on a Low-Carb Diet
Here’s a quick visual guide to low carb. For details check out the links below. Let’s start with the foods you can eat all you like of, until you’re satisfied.
All the numbers are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces). Fiber is not counted, you can eat all the fiber you want.
All the foods above are below 5% carbs, as you can see. 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.
So what do you drink on low carb? Water is perfect, and so is coffee or tea. Ideally, use no sweeteners, and a modest amount of milk or cream if you like (beware of caffe latte!).
The occasional glass of wine is fine too (low-carb alcohol guide).
Try to avoid
Here’s what you should not eat on low carb – foods full of sugar and starch:
The numbers are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), unless otherwise noted.
Visual low-carb guides
Get lots of weekly low-carb meal plans, complete with shopping lists and everything, with our amazing premium meal planner tool (free trial).
How low to go?
The fewer carbohydrates you eat, the bigger the effects on weight and blood sugar will be. I recommend following the dietary advice as strict as you can. When you’re happy with your weight and health you may carefully try eating more liberally (if you want to).
Here are three examples of what a low-carb meal can look like, depending on how many carbs you eat per day:
A strict low-carb diet is often called a ketogenic (or “keto”) diet.
For everything you need to get started – meal plans, shopping lists, daily tips and troubleshooting – just sign up for our free 2-week keto low-carb challenge:
Advice on LCHF in other languages
Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, (pdf) (another version), Chinese, Chinese (Taiwan), Croatian, Czech, Danish (Word), Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian (pdf), Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish (pdf), Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish (Word), Swahili, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian and Uzbek.
How Low-Carb Diets Work
What are you designed to eat?
Humans evolved over millions of years as hunter-gatherers, without eating large amounts of carbohydrates. We ate the food available to us in nature by hunting, fishing and gathering all the edible foods we could find. These foods did not include pure starch in the form of bread, pasta, rice or potatoes. We have only eaten these starchy foods for 5 – 10,000 years, since the development of agriculture. Our genes only undergo limited adaptions in such a relatively short time.
With the Industrial Revolution, 100 – 200 years ago, we got factories that could manufacture large amounts of pure sugar and white wheat flour. Rapidly digested pure carbohydrates. We’ve hardly had time to genetically adapt to these processed foods.
In the 80’s, the fear of fat gripped the Western world. Low-fat products popped up everywhere. But if you eat less fat you need to eat more carbohydrates to feel satiated. And it’s at this time in history that our disastrous epidemics of obesity and diabetes started. The most fat-phobic country in the world, the USA, was hit the hardest and is now the world’s most obese country.
Today, it’s clear that the fear of real food with natural fat contents has been a big mistake.
The problem with sugar and starch
All digestible carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars in the intestines. The sugar is then absorbed into the blood, raising blood glucose levels. This increases the production of the hormone insulin, our fat-storing hormone.
Insulin is produced in the pancreas. In large amounts it prevents fat burning and stores surplus nutrients in fat cells. After some time (a few hours or less) this may result in a perceived shortage of nutrients in the blood, creating feelings of hunger and cravings for something sweet. Usually, at that point people eat again. This starts the process again: A vicious cycle leading to weight gain.
On the other hand, a low intake of carbs gives you a lower, more stable blood glucose, and lower amounts of insulin. This increases the release of fat from your fat stores and increases the fat burning. This usually leads to fat loss, especially around the belly in abdominally obese individuals.
Weight loss without hunger
An LCHF diet makes it easier for the body to use its fat reserves, as fat release is no longer blocked by high insulin levels. This may be one reason why eating fat produces a feeling of longer-lasting satiety than carbohydrates. This has been shown in a number of studies: When people eat all they want on a low-carb diet, caloric intake typically drops.
So, no counting or food weighing is necessary. You can forget about the calories and trust your feelings of hunger and satiety. Most people don’t need to count or weigh their food any more than they need to count their breathing. If you don´t believe it, just try for a couple of weeks and see for yourself.
Do you want to know more? Here are our top videos on the topic:
Health as a bonus
No animals in nature need the assistance of nutritional expertise or calorie charts to eat. And still, as long as they eat the food they are designed to eat they stay at a normal weight and they avoid caries, diabetes and heart disease. Why would humans be an exception? Why would you be an exception?
In scientific studies not only is the weight improved on a low carb diet – the blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol profile (HDL, triglycerides) are also improved. A calm stomach and less cravings for sweet food are also common experiences.
Here are the most common benefits:
Initial side effects
If you stop eating sugar and starch cold turkey (recommended) you may experience some side effects as your body adjusts. For most people these side effects tend to be mild and last a just few days. There are also ways to minimize them.
Common side effects in the first week:
- Heart palpitations
The side effects rapidly subside as your body adapts and your fat burning increases. They can be minimized by drinking more fluids and by temporarily increasing your salt intake a bit. A good option is to drink broth every few hours. Alternatively, drink a few extra glasses of water and put more salt on your food.
The reason for this is that carbohydrate-rich foods may increase the water retention in your body. 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.
Some people prefer to decrease their intake of carbohydrates slowly, over a few weeks, to minimize the side effects. But the “Nike way” (Just Do It) is probably 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’s great for motivation.
The 6 most common problems on low carb
Less common issues on low carb
There are many unfounded fears about low carb, that are mostly based on myths and misunderstandings. Read all about them on our low-carb fears page, or choose a specific topic below:
The Food Revolution
This talk from 2016 summarizes the history and science behind the ongoing LCHF revolution.
Top videos about low-carb basics
Several of the world’s biggest experts on the subject explain the theory and practice of carb restriction:
Low-Carb Tips and Guides
Choose a topic below for a thorough low-carb guide on it.
Breakfast is a great time to eat low carb – think eggs & bacon with coffee. And there are many more great options. Below are a few of our most popular low-carb breakfast recipes.
No fan of eating breakfast? On low carb you may not feel hungry in the morning. If so, it’s fine to skip breakfast – many people do.
There’s no end to the amazing food you could have for lunch and dinner on low carb. These are the currently most popular low-carb meal recipes.
Low-carb side dishes
Shopping list for beginners
Print this list and bring it to the grocery store:
- Heavy cream (40% fat)
- Sour cream (full fat)
- Meat (minced, steaks, stew pieces, fillets, etc.)
- Fish (ideally fatty fish like salmon or mackerel)
- Cheese (preferably high-fat)
- Turkish yoghurt (10% fat)
- Cabbage (cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, etc.)
- Other vegetables that grow above ground
- Frozen vegetables (broccoli, wok vegetables, etc.)
- Olive oil
Clean out your pantry
Want to maximize your chances of success? Especially if you have difficult cravings / sugar addiction, it’s smart to throw out (or give away) sugary and starchy foods, low-fat products, etc. These include:
- Potato chips
- Soft drinks and juices
- Sugar in all forms
- Wheat flour
- Breakfast cereals
- Everything that says “low fat” or “no fat”
- Ice cream
The Serpent in Paradise
Be very skeptical of special “low-carb” products, such as pasta or chocolate. Unfortunately these products usually work poorly. They have prevented weight loss for loads of people. They’re commonly full of carbs once you see through the creative marketing.
How about low-carb bread? Be careful: if it’s baked with grains, it’s certainly not low carb. But some companies still try to sell it to you as a low-carb option. Here’s an example:
Low-carb chocolate is usually full of sugar alcohols, which the manufacturer does not count as carbs. But roughly half of these carbs may be absorbed, raising blood sugar and insulin. The rest of the carbs ends up in the colon, potentially causing gas and diarrhea. Furthermore, any sweeteners may maintain sugar cravings.
If you want to be healthy and slim, eat real food instead.
For all of our low-carb recipes check out our main low-carb recipe page.
Low Carb is Fantastic for Reversing Type 2 Diabetes and Normalizing Blood Sugar
Do you have type 2 diabetes? If not, you most likely know someone who does. And low carb is fantastic for treating type 2 diabetes.
A better blood sugar from day 1. Less need for medication. And weight loss as a bonus. Low carb is a fantastic treatment for type 2 diabetes.
PS: People with type 1 diabetes can also benefit from a low-carb diet. Learn More
Losing Weight Effortlessly
on Low Carb
Some people lose weight fantastically well on low carb, immediately on the first try. Perhaps the weight even stays off forever.
For others it can be a more of a challenge. Do you want to lose more weight or lose weight faster? There are many things you can do to improve your chances.
Normalizing Blood Pressure on Low Carb
An elevated blood pressure reliably drops on low carb. This can be clearly seen in scientific trials, and it’s a very common experience for people trying it.
In fact, this effect can be so marked that people on blood pressure medication may end up feeling dizzy and tired from too low blood pressure. They’ve basically become too healthy for their medication!
If this happens you’ll have to reduce the dose of your blood-pressure medication, or stop taking it completely, with guidance from your doctor.
Avoiding Side Effects on Low Carb
Do you struggle when starting low carb? Do you get a headache, leg cramps, constipation or any of the six most common side effects? It’s usually possible to avoid them – and feel great while losing weight.
The main solution to most common problems when starting low carb is to increase the intake of water and salt. It’s even better to do it preventatively during the first week. If you do, you’ll most likely not experience any of these problems, or they’ll only be minor.
1984 Fear of Fat →
2014 “Eat Butter”
Chances are you’ve heard that a low-carb diet will kill you. This as a low-carb diet normally means we eat a higher proportion of fat instead.
This old idea is based on the belief that natural fat is not good for us. Even though humans have always been eating fat, somehow it’s supposed to mess up our bodies, raising our cholesterol and giving us a heart attack.
The good news is that we now know that this idea was simply wrong. Check out these two covers of TIME magazine. The first one is from 1984 – the start of the intense fear of fat. Instead of natural food we got lots of low-fat products, loaded with added sugar and starch. This, not so coincidentally, marked the start of the modern obesity epidemic.
The second cover is more current, from 2014. It says “Eat butter” and the story is about how scientists are now realizing they were wrong to fear fat. What a difference 30 years make!
Just about everybody already knows that low-carb works for weight loss (and some other things). The good news is that we now also know it’s safe… and likely even a very healthy way to eat.
Learn more about the obsolete fear of fat
The unnecessary fear of fat and cholesterol started the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Modern science shows what the mistake was.
We thought that all cholesterol was harmful. That a low cholesterol was always good, and that a high cholesterol was always bad. This was wrong. The truth is – as usual – more complicated.
More important than having a low cholesterol is to have a good cholesterol profile. To have a lot of the good protecting HDL-cholesterol, for example. And how do you get that? Well, the easiest way is to avoid sugar and flour, and instead eat enough fat to feel satisfied.
Avoiding fat and instead eating a lot of easily digestible carbohydrates often causes a dangerous cholesterol profile: small, nasty, dense LDL particles and a shortage of protective HDL-cholesterol. This is probably why low-fat foods seem to cause more heart disease.
Answers to Your Questions
Do you have questions about anything low-carb related? We have ready answers to all common questions – and more.
Keep reading about What to Eat on a Low-Carb Diet
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Here are two of the top studies showing more weight loss and improvements in risk factors on low carb:
- New England Journal of Medicine 2008: Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, mediterranean, or low-fat diet
- Annals of Internal Medicine 2014: Effects of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets: A Randomized Trial
Similar results have been found in meta-analyses of all studies, for example this recent analysis:
For many more studies on the topic have a look at our low-carb science page:
Does this sound to good to be true? Many people think so initially, and then they experience it for themselves.
The reason is that our weight is hormonally regulated. Eating fewer carbohydrates lowers blood glucose, lowering the fat-storing hormone insulin. This often makes it way easier to access and burn excess body fat, without hunger or calorie counting.