A low-carb diet for beginners

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A low-carb diet is low in carbohydrates, primarily found in sugary foods, pasta and bread. Instead, you eat real foods including protein, natural fats and vegetables.

Studies show that low-carb diets result in weight loss and improved health markers, and just about everyone knows someone who has successfully tried it.1 There’s not even any need to count calories or use special products. So why is it still controversial?

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


1. Introduction to low carb

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

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 been a major mistake, that coincided with the start of the obesity epidemic.2

Studies now show that there’s no reason to fear natural fats. Fat is your friend (here’s why). On a low-carb diet, you instead minimize your intake of sugar and starches. You can eat other delicious foods until you are satisfied – and still lose weight.

How does it work? When you avoid sugar and starches, your blood sugar stabilizes and the levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin drop.3 This increases fat burning and makes you feel more satiated, reducing food intake and causing weight loss.4

Studies prove that a low-carb diet makes it easier both to lose weight and to control your blood sugar, among .

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, until you’re satisfied. It’s that simple. You do not need to count calories or weigh your food. And just forget about industrially produced low-fat products.

Below are examples of what you could eat, alternatively check out our 600+ low-carb recipes.

Who should NOT do a strict low-carb diet?

Most people can safely start any kind of low-carb diet. 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, you’re good to go. Great!

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 free membership trial.

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.

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

What drinks are good on a low-carb diet? Water is perfect, and so is coffee or tea. Preferably use no sweeteners.5 A modest amount of milk or cream is OK in coffee or tea (but beware of caffe latte and other specialty coffees!).

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 600 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 (free trial) to access tons of weekly meal plans, complete with shopping lists. You can adapt the 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.

Here’s an example meal plan:

 
Check out the meal-planner tool

 

How low carb is a low-carb diet?

The fewer carbohydrates you eat, the more powerful the effects on weight and blood sugar will be. 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).

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 ketogenic (or “keto”) diet.
 

 

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 newsletter6 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.

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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:

Low-carb-for-beginners_folder_1803-2

 

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. Potential benefits of a low-carb diet

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

 

Low carb and weight lossLose weight

Most people start eating fewer carbs to lose weight, a well-known and often highly effective method.7 Learn more

However, the reason many people keep eating low carb is more often the powerful health effects, like the following ones.


Low carb and diabetes reversalReverse type 2 diabetes

Low-carb diets can normalize blood sugar and thus potentially reverse type 2 diabetes 8

Low carb can also be very helpful in managing type 1 diabetes 9

200+ diabetes success stories

How to reverse type 2 diabetes


Low carb and a calmer stomachA grateful gut

Low carb can help settle a grumpy gut, reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such a bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramps and pain.10 Indigestion, reflux and other digestive issues can improve, too.

For many, this is the best part of going low carb and happens usually within the first few days, or first week, of starting the diet. 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”? Tons of people do.11

A low-carb diet usually reduces and sometimes even eliminates cravings for sweets


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.

But some people experience even more life-changing improvements: lower blood pressure, less acne and better skin, fewer migraines, improved mental health symptoms, better fertility, and even more.12

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

 

All low-carb benefits


Success stories

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

  • A low-carb diet: Maintaining a 70-pound weight loss for five years
  • Eight years of zero-carb eating and "have never looked or felt better!"
  • Low carb and me – my journey as a GP
 

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 fat? 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 don’t really need breakfast at all.13 This potentially saves you tons 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 for example have meat, fish or chicken dishes with vegetables and a rich full-fat sauce. There are a million alternatives.

Check out this guide 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, there are lots of great low­-carb alternatives to carb­-rich foods that are both tastier and healthier


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 feel satisfied longer.14

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?

There are good and bad low-carb 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 is filling and an amazing flavor enhancer.15But how do you get in 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 junk food, and often much higher in carbs than their labels try to imply. Preferably avoid. 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 super 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 cheat 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 most people these side effects tend to be mild and last a just few days. There are also ways to minimize them.

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) 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.

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 side effect is called the induction flu. It’s what makes some people feel really poorly 2-3 days after starting low carb.

Here are the common symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Light nausea
  • Irritability

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

The reason for this is that carbohydrate-rich foods may increase water retention in your body.16 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 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.

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 five more relatively common side effects on a low-carb diet. Many of them can also be mostly avoided by getting enough fluid and salt.1718

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 myths

Beyond the usually minor and transient side effects that may occur on a low-carb diet (see above) there are tons of myths and fears 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.19

There are many more unfounded fears about low carb, that are mostly based on myths and misunderstandings. Read all about them on our low-carb myths 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. Join free for a month

 

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

 

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 a scientific mistake, and most open-minded experts now admit it.20

Just witness the recent TIME cover to the right, with the text “Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”

Learn more about cholesterol and why fat is your friend

 

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:

 

Next

You’ve reached the end of this page (congratulations!). Keep reading about what to eat on a low-carb diet

 

Comments

Have you tried a low-carb diet? Feel free to leave a comment below.

  1. Scientific studies now prove that compared to other diets, low carb is more effective.

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

    Similar results have been found in meta-analyses of all studies, for example this recent analysis:

    PLOS ONE 2015: Dietary Intervention for Overweight and Obese Adults: Comparison of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets. A Meta-Analysis

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

    The science of low carb

    Hundreds of success stories: Low-carb success stories

  2. References:

    Open Heart 2016: Evidence from randomised controlled trials does not support current dietary fat guidelines: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    Annals of Internal Medicine 2016: Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    PLOS ONE 2016: Is butter back? A systematic review and meta-analysis of butter consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and total mortality

  3. References:

    Nutrition & Metabolism 2006: Comparison of isocaloric very low carbohydrate/high saturated fat and high carbohydrate/low saturated fat diets on body composition and cardiovascular risk

  4. Does this sound too good to be true? Many people think so initially, and then they experience it for themselves.

    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.

    Learn how low carb works

    Scientific studies on low carb

  5. References:

    International Journal of Obesity 2017: Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake

    The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2015: Effects on weight loss in adults of replacing diet beverages with water during a hypoenergetic diet: a randomized, 24-wk clinical trial

    Physiology & Behavior 2016: Recent studies of the effects of sugars on brain systems involved in energy balance and reward: relevance to low calorie sweeteners

    PLOS Medicine 2017: Artificially sweetened beverages and the response to the global obesity crisis

  6. Our weekly newsletter gives you the top low-carb news, recipes and tips without ads or industry influence. Your email is kept 100% private. To cancel press “unsubscribe” at the bottom of any newsletter.

  7. References:

    Annals of Internal Medicine 2014: Effects of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets: a randomized trial

    New England Journal of Medicine 2008: Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, mediterranean, or low-fat diet

  8. References:

    Diabetes Care 2014: A very low-carbohydrate, low–saturated fat diet for type 2 diabetes management: a randomized trial

    Nutrition & Metabolism 2008: The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus

  9. References:

    Pediatrics 2018: Management of type 1 diabetes with a very low–carbohydrate diet

    Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2016: A randomised trial of the feasibility of a low carbohydrate diet vs standard carbohydrate counting in adults with type 1 diabetes taking body weight into account

  10. References:

    Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2009: A very low-carbohydrate diet improves symptoms and quality of life in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome

  11. References:

    Childhood Obesity 2017: Food addiction: a barrier for effective weight management for obese adolescents

    Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 2013: Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit

    Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 2008: Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake

  12. References:

    Obesity Reviews 2009: Systematic review of randomized controlled trials of low-carbohydrate vs. low-fat/low-calorie diets in the management of obesity and its comorbidities

    European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013: Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets

    Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 2012: Nutrition and acne: therapeutic potential of ketogenic diets

    European Journal of Neurology 2015: Migraine improvement during short lasting ketogenesis: a proof-of-concept study

    Frontiers in Pharmacology 2012: The ketogenic diet as a treatment paradigm for diverse neurological disorders

    Appetite 2007: Psychological benefits of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet in obese women with polycystic ovary syndrome–a pilot study

    Nutrients 2017: The effect of low carbohydrate diets on fertility hormones and outcomes in overweight and obese women: a systematic review

    Nutrition & Metabolism 2005: The effects of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet on the polycystic ovary syndrome: A pilot study

  13. References:

    The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 2003: A randomized trial comparing a very low carbohydrate diet and a calorie-restricted low fat diet on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors in healthy women

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

    Obesity 2007: The effects of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet and a low-fat diet on mood, hunger, and other self-reported symptoms.

  14. References:

    European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013: Ketosis and appetite-mediating nutrients and hormones after weight loss

  15. References:

    Annals of Internal Medicine 2005: Effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance in obese patients with type 2 diabetes

  16. References:

    International Journal of Hypertension 2011: Insulin resistance, obesity, hypertension, and renal sodium transport

  17. E.g. one or two cups of bouillon per day.

  18. References:

    Nutrition & Metabolism 2008: The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus

  19. References:

    Critical Care 2011: Clinical review: ketones and brain injury

  20. References:

    Open Heart 2016: Evidence from randomised controlled trials does not support current dietary fat guidelines: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    Annals of Internal Medicine 2016: Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    PLOS ONE 2016: Is butter back? A systematic review and meta-analysis of butter consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and total mortality