Cutting out carbohydrates can be difficult because this particular macronutrient is the base of common dishes and meals.
And when it’s not the main course, it’s a popular add-on.
Soup and bread are typical companions. Croutons enhance a vegetable-heavy salad. And even in unsuspecting places like a meatball, breadcrumbs lurk alongside the meat and spices.
So, when you make the decision to eat low-carb, you have to take a hard look at what you are eating and find the nooks and crannies where carbohydrates may be hiding.
With the holidays fast approaching and the promise of gravy-laden mashed potatoes and shortbread cookies on the horizon, eating a lighter diet to accommodate these special meals may be on your mind. Adopting a low-carb diet is one way to do that.
In that spirit, here’s a guide to eating a low-carb diet with an emphasis on creating new habits that still include beloved foods such as pasta and toast.
What is considered low-carb?
There’s not a universal definition of what is considered a low-carb diet. “Anything under 100-150 grams per day is generally considered low carb,” according to Healthline.
Low-carb is not the same as the keto diet. The keto diet is more restrictive and people who do this diet often eat fewer than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day. While the amount of carbohydrates a person eats on the keto diet differs from person to person (depending on overall caloric intake and other factors), a typical range for keto is 20 to 50 grams, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
So, while keto is a low-carb diet, not all low-carb diets are keto.
“The key component of a low-carb diet is the restriction or elimination of sugars; foods with added sugars; sugar-sweetened beverages; and highly refined, processed carbohydrate foods, such as processed flours, grains, bread, rice, pasta, pastries, ‘convenience’ foods, snacks, and starchy root vegetables,” Mary Jane Baladad wrote on the Obesity Medicine Association website.
A low-carb diet involves taking in notably fewer carbohydrates than the average American. Baladad said Americans’ average carbohydrate intake is around 250 grams per day, per the Obesity Medicine Association website.
What foods should you avoid on a low-carb diet?
If you’re trying to overhaul your diet and eat a low-carb diet instead, there are some foods high in carbohydrates that you may want to consider eating in moderation or eliminating entirely, depending on your specific needs.
All foods, depending on the amount you eat, can fit into a low-carb diet. Weighing out the portion that fits your goals can be a way to eat a high-carbohydrate food in moderation.
Here are some high-carbohydrate foods that you may need to portion out in order to meet your carbohydrate goal on a low-carb diet:
Pasta may be the first food you think of when you think about carbohydrates. As a grain, it’s rich in carbohydrates and flour is its primary ingredient. One way to eat pasta on a low-carb diet is to add vegetables to pasta. If you want to sit down to a piping hot bowl of pasta, consider halving the portion you would ordinarily eat and adding vegetables like broccoli, asparagus and tomatoes into the mix.
The pasta sauce you love also might have a significant portion of carbohydrates in it. Some sauces like Alfredo sauce are seen as keto-friendly because they are made with butter and cheese (two low-carb foods), but sometimes these sauces are made with a roux (i.e. they have flour). Other sauces like barbecue sauce can include brown sugar. Before you assume a sauce is low-carb, check to see its carbohydrate and sugar count.
Baked goods and packaged sweets
A cake filled with jam and piled high with frosting typically has carbohydrates from the flour, sugar and fruit. Packaged sweets like cookies also can have a high carbohydrate count. Eating these types of food in moderation can help you stay on track with your goals. You can also explore low-carb alternatives like swapping out wheat flour for almond flour and using stevia instead of sugar. Check out All Recipes for some inspiration.
Beans are a go-to source for plant-based protein. They’re a nutrient-dense alternative to meat, but they also are filled with carbohydrates. Instead of making beans the star of your dish, you can make them an accent. Throwing them on top of a salad or mixing them into a chili or soup can help you enjoy beans while still meeting your carbohydrate goal.
Rice is high in carbohydrates, whether it is white or brown rice. If you still want to eat rice in your diet, you can plan for it by eating lower carbohydrate meals throughout the day or you can mix riced cauliflower in with the rice, so you can eat the same volume of food at a lower carbohydrate count.
- If you are trying to meet a specific carbohydrate goal, weighing your food is the way to go. When you weigh your food, you will get a precise amount that you can track, rather than guessing or estimating how many carbohydrates you are eating.
- Aim for progress not perfection. If you love pasta, giving up all pasta might not be the best option. Instead of ridding your diet of all carbohydrates, find ways to eat a smaller portion of what you love while adding fiber-rich vegetables into the mix.
What foods are low-carb?
Low-carb foods include eggs, chicken, beef, salmon, shrimp, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, kale, cauliflower, cucumber, bell peppers, celery, cabbage, Swiss chard, mushrooms, zucchini, squash, bok choy, blueberries, strawberries, avocado, green onions, asparagus, green beans, sugar snap peas, cottage cheese, most kinds of cheeses, walnuts, almonds, apples, milk, olives, kefir, cantaloupe and more, according to health experts.
To find out if a food is low in carbohydrates, look at the nutritional label or search it online.
How do I start a low-carb diet for beginners?
Here are five tips for starting a low-carb diet.
- Start by tracking what you eat now. Using a pen and paper, write down everything that you eat in a day for a week. Eat like you normally do and weigh out how much food you are eating, so that you can have good data on your typical carbohydrate count. Once you have an understanding of what you eat in an average day, set a daily goal that’s less than your current average. If you eat around 200 carbohydrates on average, start by aiming for 180 and then gradually decreasing to your ultimate goal.
- Replace half your grains with vegetables. An easy way to eat fewer carbohydrates is to replace them with something rather than just getting rid of them. When eating pasta, switch out half of it for broccoli. When eating toast, eat one piece instead of two and add some roasted or steamed vegetables on the side. Load your rice with cauliflower and bell peppers instead of eating it plain. As a bonus, you’ll take in more nutrients, too.
- Make one meal a day a low-carb meal. We all have little habits involving foods we love. If you love eating a couple pieces of toast every morning, continue that habit. Find a different meal where you cut carbohydrates. Maybe for dinner, you switch out your pasta or rice for some vegetables and salmon. The possibilities here are endless, but the point is to find one meal that you can change into a low-carb meal.
- Change out one dessert for a low-carb treat. Who doesn’t love a piece of cake for dessert? It’s a yummy treat. Instead of eating a piece of cake regularly to close out your meal, try switching it for Greek yogurt and berries. No, yogurt is not cake. It’s not even remotely cake. But it is a low-carb sweet treat. You don’t have to give up cake entirely (you could also eat a smaller portion of it), but making the switch on occasion can be helpful in the long run.
- Cut out sugary beverages. Beverages are an unexpected source of carbohydrates. That coffee drink you love might be packed with sugar and carbohydrates. Or that smoothie from the juice bar may just be the equivalent to half the carbohydrates you are aiming to eat in a day. Try to make drinks high in carbohydrates special occasion drinks rather than every day drinks. If you want something sweet and fizzy, try seltzer with berries. Or if you want a smoothie, be mindful of not adding additional sugar into the drink beyond the fruit.
How to lose weight on a low-carb diet
A low-carb diet may contribute to weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic. But that doesn’t mean weight loss will continue indefinitely.
To lose weight on a low-carb diet, consult your doctor to figure out an appropriate number of calories to consume and to see what the best plan is for you.
Here are 10 low-carb recipes you can try:
- Spicy coconut grilled chicken from Delish.
- Mediterranean turkey-stuffed peppers from BBC Good Food.
- Orange pomegranate salmon from Taste of Home.
- Ultimate chicken salad from Downshiftology.
- Asparagus noodles with pesto from Food Network.
- Zucchini lasagna from Downshiftology.
- Blackened chicken with fennel slaw from Country Living.
- Vegetables, steak and eggs from Taste of Home.
- Tuscan butter shrimp from Delish.
- Spaghetti squash, Brussels sprouts and crispy shallots from Downshiftology.