A low-carb diet for beginners
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
- 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.
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:
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.
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 are grams of digestible carbs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), unless otherwise noted.
What to drink
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.
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:
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 courseHere’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:
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
- Brazilian Portuguese
- Bulgarian (different version)
- Chinese, Chinese (Taiwan)
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:
However, the reason many people keep eating low carb is more often the powerful health effects, like the following ones.
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
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
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.
The links below share inspiring testimonials and scientific research about low-carb benefits.
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:
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.
There are many other options – both delicious and fast
Check out this guide to learn to cook amazing low-carb meals
In short, there are lots of great low-carb alternatives to carb-rich foods that are both tastier and healthier
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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.
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:
- Light nausea
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.
Other common issues on low carb
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:
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.
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
What are you designed to eat, and why can sugar and starch be a problem? Essentially, how does a low-carb diet work?
Are you having problems on low carb? Are you not losing weight like you want to? How many carbs should you eat?
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.”
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:
You’ve reached the end of this page (congratulations!). Keep reading about what to eat on a low-carb diet
Have you tried a low-carb diet? Feel free to leave a comment below.
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:
- 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 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.
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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 ↩
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
E.g. one or two cups of bouillon per day. ↩