Low-carb diets have gained popularity over the last several decades, offering weight loss and other health benefits in exchange for reducing your daily consumption of carbohydrates. Do you have to cut out carbs entirely, or do you still have options? Are low-carb diets effective? What if you’re craving a snack? Here’s what to know when considering a low-carb diet.
What are low-carb diets?
A low-carb diet limits your consumption of carbohydrates and typically encourages eating more protein and fat.[i] Many different versions of low-carb diets exist, each with slightly different guidelines regarding what you can and can’t eat. Carbs can be found in food like bread, pasta, and rice, but did you know that fruits, vegetables, and other items can also contain carbs? Beans, potatoes, corn, bananas, apples, and more are all high in carbohydrates.[ii]
Low-carb diets gained popularity when cardiologist Robert C. Atkins launched the Atkins Nutritional Approach, more commonly known as the Atkins Diet, in the 1960s. This diet aims to help you lose weight by helping you create healthier eating habits, including reducing the number of carbs you eat.[iii] Other popular low-carb diets include the Eco-Atkins diet (a modified version of the Atkins diet for vegans), ketogenic (keto) diet, Mediterranean diet, South Beach Diet, and Whole30.
Can you really lose weight by cutting carbs?
Your body uses carbohydrates for energy. By reducing the number of carbs you eat, low-carb diets aim to force your body to burn stored fat for energy instead of carbs. During digestion, your body breaks down complex carbs into simple sugars called glucose, which enter your bloodstream. With help from insulin, glucose enters your cells, where it can be used for energy. Excess glucose is stored in your muscles and liver and some is turned into body fat. If your body runs out of carbs to burn for energy, it may turn to this stored fat for energy, causing weight loss.[iv]
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple carbs and complex carbs (each of these can be further divided into natural vs. refined). Simple carbs, which are typically found in processed foods like cookies, candy, and sodas, have a big impact on blood sugar. Complex carbs like whole grains and beans are digested more slowly, don’t affect your blood sugar quite as much as simple carbs do, and also provide fiber.[v] Different low-carb diets allow different amounts of carbs, but most generally recommend getting your day’s allotted carb count from complex carbs instead of simple carbs.
What are the benefits of a low-carb diet?
If you’re considering starting a low-carb diet to lose weight, good news: low-carb diets may help you lose weight faster than low-fat diets. However, weight loss isn’t the only benefit. Low-carb diets can also help lower triglycerides, which carry fat in the bloodstream, lower blood pressure, boost HDL cholesterol, the “good” kind of cholesterol, and lower LDL cholesterol, the “bad” kind of cholesterol.[vi]
If you focus on getting protein and fat from healthy sources, following a moderately low-carb diet can also help reduce your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. [vii]
Reducing your carb intake can also help you experience steady energy levels due to blood sugar levels that don’t fluctuate as much as they do when you regularly consume a large number of carbs. You may also notice your skin looks better since you’re not consuming as much refined sugar, which causes inflammation.[viii]
Foods to eat
The number of carbs you can eat will vary depending on which plan you’re following, but low-carb diets typically allow 100 grams of carbs per day, with some going as low as 20-50 grams per day.[ix] You’ll want to eat plenty of protein and vegetables, and some fruit may be allowed.[x] When choosing vegetables, look for low-carb, non-starchy options like celery, spinach, kale, broccoli, zucchini, and cucumber. If you include fruit in your diet, look for low-carb picks like strawberries, raspberries, grapefruit, and watermelon. For protein, eggs, salmon, lean meat, cheese, and avocados make great options.[xi] When deciding which carbohydrates to include in your low-carb diet, try choosing healthy carbs like fruit and vegetables rather than sugary drinks and snacks.
Foods to avoid
When reducing carbs, try cutting out simple, refined carbs, including “junk food” like candy, cake, cookies, soda, and sugary beverages. These are high in sugar and don’t offer many nutritional benefits. You’ll also need to limit your intake of complex carbs, and deciding which foods to cut and which foods to keep will depend on personal preference and the number of carbs you’re allowed to consume. Bread and grains are high in carbs, so cutting or limiting these can help you reach a lower carb intake. Reducing the amount of pasta, cereal, sugar, chips, and beer you consume can also help you eat fewer carbs. Fruits like bananas, dates, and mangoes are high in carbs, so it’s better to choose lower-carb fruits like berries instead. Even some vegetables are high in carbohydrates, like corn, potatoes, and beets.[xii]
Low-carb snack ideas
Cutting carbs doesn’t have to mean cutting snacks. There are plenty of low-carb options that taste great and help keep you feeling full. For a colorful snack, place strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries in a small bowl. For a snack you can make ahead of time, pour scrambled eggs, ham, and cheese into a muffin tin and bake for an omelet in a cup. Cheese, pistachios, and celery with plain Greek yogurt also make great options.
If you’re craving something crunchy, try Sea Salt Keto Puffs from Biena Snacks. These little bites of delicious are completely plant based, have 5 grams of plant protein per serving, are made with whole-food ingredients, and contain only 5 grams of net carbs per serving. They’re also gluten free, peanut free, tree nut free, grain free, and dairy free, making them a great choice for a variety of dietary needs. Plus, you don’t have to cook anything - simply open the bag and enjoy!
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