There’s no official definition of a low carbohydrate (carb) diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025) recommends that adults consume 45-65% of total calories from carbs. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbs is 130 grams (or 26% of total calories) per day for adults. This means it’s been determined that 130g per day should be the average daily amount of carbs consumed to meet the nutrient requirements for most healthy individuals. Based on these recommendations, a low carb diet typically refers to a diet that consists of 10-26% of total calories from carbs per day, or less than 130g per day. Consuming below 50g carbs per day or getting less than 10% of your total calories from carbs is considered very low carb – this is where a keto diet falls on the carb spectrum.
Benefits of Eating a Low Carb Diet
If you’re looking to better manage blood sugar or weight, or improve heart health, reducing your carb intake might be right for you.
Managing Diabetes - Carbs have the biggest influence on our blood sugar out of the 3 macronutrients in our food (carbohydrates, fat and protein). Your body regulates blood sugar with insulin naturally. If you have diabetes, your body has a harder time bringing your blood sugar down to within a typical range. Eating a low carb diet can help keep your blood sugar at a safe level. Along with exercising and consuming an increased amount of protein, a low carb diet is often the first form of treatment for diabetes.
Heart Health - Eating a low carb, high protein, low saturated fat diet may improve heart health by improving lipid levels. Substituting lean protein for carbohydrates and unsaturated fats may reduce triglycerides, or fat, in your blood. A low carb lifestyle may also increase HDL cholesterol, which is protective of your heart and reduces LDL cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol is known to increase the risk for heart disease.
Weight Management/Loss - One of the most common reasons people choose to eat low carb is for weight management or to lose weight. Reducing carbs in your diet results in higher protein and fat intake. These macronutrients keep you feeling full longer than carbs, often resulting in eating less throughout the day. Not only can a low carb diet promote weight loss, but it’s also specifically associated with a reduction in abdominal fat, which is present with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
What Are the Different Types of Carbs?
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source and come from a variety of foods like grains, starchy vegetables, dairy, fruit and sweets. These foods provide energy and beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Carbohydrates are found in starch, fiber and sugar. Read about the different 3 kinds of carbs: starch, fiber and sugar.
Starch is naturally occurring and found in all carb foods, including grains, vegetables, legumes, dairy and fruit. These are often referred to as complex or better-for-you carbs.
Fiber is naturally occurring in plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Whole grains like oats, barley, whole wheat pastas and brown rice contain more fiber than refined grains. Fiber has many known benefits to your overall health, including heart health, weight control and blood sugar management. Examples of refined grains that lack fiber are white bread, white rice, sugar-sweetened sodas and desserts. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that all Americans make half or more of their grains whole.
Sugar occurs naturally in fruit, grains and dairy. Added sugar comes from sweetened foods like desserts, sodas, candy and cookies. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar consumption to less than 25g per day for women and 36g per day for men.
How to Reduce Carb Intake
Choose Non-starchy Vegetables Most Often
Leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, bell peppers, etc. are all non-starchy vegetables, which are low carb foods. Swap starchy foods like tortillas and bread for non-starchy vegetables by using lettuce leaves for tacos, sandwiches or wraps. Choose cucumber rounds instead of chips or crackers when you need something crunchy. Try riced or mashed cauliflower in place of rice and potatoes. Substitute vegetable noodles like zucchini for pasta.
You can get started eating low carb with non-starchy, veggie-packed recipes such as Lemon Garlic Zucchini Noodles (10g carbohydrates per serving) or Mashed Cauliflower with Browned Butter (7g carbohydrates per serving). Pair with a lean high protein food for a full meal!
Include Lean Protein & Healthy Fat Sources at Each Meal
Lean, high protein foods include chicken and turkey breast, fish, eggs and egg whites, low fat Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, soy, pork tenderloin, and sirloin or flank steak. Avocado, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds are healthy fats to include in a low carb diet.
Limit Added Sugar Foods
Soda, candy, cake, ice cream and cookies should be limited as these are high carb foods with concentrated sugar that offer minimal nutrition. Enjoy them occasionally. Look for packaged foods labeled No Added Sugar or options with 5g or less of added sugar per serving.
Choose Smart Carbs
When eating higher carb foods, make better-for-you carb choices. These include:
- Starchy Vegetables - Sweet potatoes, baked or roasted potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash and pumpkin
- Legumes - Beans, lentils, split peas and chickpeas
- Whole Grains - Farro, quinoa, amaranth, barley, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, buckwheat and oats
If eating a low carb diet is a good fit for you, use the strategies in this guide to reduce carbs and increase fat and protein in your meals. Eating a low carb diet could reduce the risk for and help manage conditions like diabetes and heart disease. It can also help you lose weight. If you need more help living a low carb lifestyle, connect with our telenutrition services. One of our registered dietitians can create a customized plan for you.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.