While low-carb diets have been shown to have many benefits, especially for those who can afford to kick a sugar habit or lose weight in order to improve their health, many are hesitant to try this way of eating out of fear of giving up many delicious foods. They wonder if low-carb foods will still be enjoyable.
Rest assured that when following a healthy low-carb diet, it’s still possible to keep enjoying all sorts of awesome recipes. Low-carb recipes include everything from slow cooker chicken and veggies to grass-fed burgers. And what about low-carb breakfasts or travel-friendly snacks? These can include green smoothies or protein shakes, low-carb desserts made from things like coconut or almond flour, 1–2 cage-free hard-boiled eggs, or newer varieties of grass-fed beef jerky, for example.
While eating a low carbohydrate diet might not be the “magic bullet” to lasting weight loss for every person, it’s very helpful for most people to cut back on added sources of sugar and carbs. Even if you only plan to reduce your sugar and carb intake for a period of time, perhaps to break a sugar addiction or kickstart a healthier way of eating that includes less processed foods, you’re likely to experience benefits relatively fast.
Removing foods such as bread, cereals, sweetened drinks, processed dairy and even whole grains or starchy veggies from your diet are important dietary changes that will result in your body releasing less insulin. This helps to balance blood sugar levels, reduce cravings and fatigue, speed up weight loss, leave you feeling more clear-headed (at least after you initially get used to the change) and even reduces your risk for things like heart disease and diabetes.
Replacing carb-heavy foods in your diet with low-carb foods like non-starchy veggies, healthy fats and high-quality proteins takes these benefits a step further: reducing hunger, making you feel satisfied and possibly even reversing certain nutrient deficiencies.
What Qualifies as “Low Carb”?
You may want to know what are carbs and how to avoid them. A diet that’s “low carb” can mean different things for different people. Generally speaking, however, what qualifies as a low-carb diet is one where you’re getting only around 20–30 percent (or sometimes much less) of your daily calories from sources of carbohydrates — such as added sugar, grains, fruit or starchy veggies. This usually results in about 50–100 grams of carbs or less. In some cases, for example if someone is following a ketogenic diet, also known as a low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet, they may choose to eat even less carbohydrates, only around 20–50 grams daily in order to “enter into ketosis” (the state of burning fat for fuel instead of glucose/carbs).
If you were to aim for about 100 grams of net carbs daily, split between three main meals, each low-carb meal would be around 30–35 grams of net carbs. What are net carbs? They are the amount of carbs left over when fiber grams are subtracted from total carbs.
In other words, fiber is not counted toward net carbs because fiber isn’t actually digestible once consumed, nor does it spike blood sugar levels like glucose does. For this reason most people eating even a very low-carb diet try to still consume some foods high in fiber, such as non-starchy veggies and sometimes nuts/seeds.
Even for those following a very low-carb/ketogenic diet (keeping carbs around 20–30 net grams daily or less), they can still eat all the non-starchy veggies they want — considering how they are filled with fiber, have a high nutrient and water content, are filling, and are very low in calories overall.
What would a low-carb meal that has 30–35 grams of net carbs look like?
Example of low-carb meals could include:
- A 3 ounce serving of protein (such as chicken breast) along with 2 cups of non-starchy veggies like broccoli and peppers, a side salad with mixed greens and 1–2 tablespoons of oil or dressing. This would equate to even less than 35 grams of net carbs. If you added a starchier veggie instead, such as beets or turnips, you’d be consuming more carbs but still not many. To be considered a moderate or “high-carb” meal you’d have to add something like grains, fruit, an added sweetener such as honey or potatoes– which tend to have in the range of 20–25 grams of carbs (or more) per serving.
- Lettuce cups, or a “collard wrap”, filled with things like veggies, sesame dressing and shredded chicken
- Fajitas made with a protein of your choice and lots of veggies
- Chicken or salmon burgers
- Empanadas or quesadillas filled with grass-fed beef and cheese, made with an almond or coconut flour crust
- Cauliflower crust pizza
- And many more options like smoothies, casseroles and crockpot recipes
Healthy Low-Carb Foods vs. Unhealthy Low-Carb Foods
You may be wondering what has carbs and what doesn’t. To be clear, just because a food or meal is low in carbs doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy! In many cases, the quality of the carbs you eat is even more important than the quantity. For the sake of keeping processed/synthetic ingredients out of your diet, I recommend avoiding low-carb packaged foods — like most commercial protein bars or meal replacement shakes. These may provide fat and protein, and be low in sugar or carbs, but they’re still not beneficial overall if they contain things like processed protein powders, refined oils and artificial sweeteners.
If you’re looking for healthy low-carb snack ideas to bring on-the-go with you, your best bet is to make your own. Low-carb snacks you can prepare yourself at home — using things like nuts, seeds, hummus, coconut flour or coconut oil, protein powders (like whey or bone broth), cocoa “energy bites,” cauliflower tots, and even low-carb “sweets” like cookies, muffins or donuts. And quickest of all are making up some low-carb protein shake recipes.
When cleaning up your diet and trying some new low-carb recipes, it’s also wise to steer clear of “diet” or “light” foods that have reduced or low fat and artificial ingredients. To make up for lost fat, these products are usually made with extra flour or carbs, thickeners, emulsifiers or artificial sweeteners. And although they may not high in carbs or cane sugar, I would definitely avoid foods made with trans-fats or hydrogenated oils, which is mostly junk foods, packaged foods or fast/fried foods.
The 50 Best Low-Carb Foods
Below are dozens of healthy low-carb foods to fill your diet with:
5. Chard or collard greens
9. Green beans
11. Leeks or onions
13. Brussel sprouts
17. Carrots (moderate carbs)
Eggs & dairy
18. Cage-free eggs
19. Full-fat unsweetened yogurt or kefir
20. Raw whole milk
21. Hard cheese, sour cream and heavy cream (all are low in carbs, but very importantly I recommend grass-fed and organic dairy whenever possible, ideally made from raw milk). Cheeses low in carbs include blue cheese, cheddar cheese, goat, feta, Swiss, parmesan and asiago.
Meat & seafood
All the foods below have zero carbs. Note that I recommend always looking for wild-caught fish and avoiding most shellfish such as shrimp, which tend to be higher in heavy metals like mercury. Grass-fed beef and other fatty red meats like lamb are also fine to include, as is poultry and cage-free eggs. While some ketogenic low-carb diets include pork and processed meats like bacon, I don’t recommend eating these unhealthy meats.
29. Tuna or cod (in moderation)
Nuts & seeds
30. Chia seeds
34. Pumpkin, sesame or hemp seeds
35. Cashews and Brazil nuts (and just about all other nuts or seeds too)
Oils & fats (all have zero carbs)
36. Coconut, olive, hemp, flaxseed, walnut or avocado oil
37. Butter or ghee
38. Palm oil
Condiments, herbs and spices
40. Herbs like turmeric, ginger, oregano, rosemary, basil, real sea salt, pepper, etc.
41. Hot sauces
42. Apple cider vinegar and most other vinegars in small amounts (balsamic, white, red, etc.)
43. Cocoa powder (raw and unsweetened is best)
44. Mustard (just avoiding high-sugar kinds like honey mustard)
45. Soy sauce, tamari or coconut aminos
46. Bone broth (whether to drink alone or use in recipes)
47. Teas including green, black, oolong or white
49. Herbal teas (ginger, chamomile, honeybush, peppermint, chai, etc.)
50. Fresh pressed vegetable juices or green smoothies
What About Starchy Veggies, Beans & Fruit: Can They Be Used In Low-Carb Recipes?
If you’re having trouble remembering which types of veggies are non-starchy, and therefore lower in carbs, here’s a good rule of thumb:
- Most veggies that are grown above ground are considered “non-starchy” and, therefore, have fewer carbs (cruciferous veggies like broccoli, leafy greens, peppers, chard and cabbage for example). Some squashes are also non-starchy, including spaghetti squash and zucchini.
- Veggies grown below the ground, also sometimes called “root veggies,” are usually richer in starch and carbs (like potatoes, carrots, turnips and beets, for example).
- This rule doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. For example, pumpkins grow above ground and are higher in carbs, but it’s a good place to start.
While most root veggies and fruits aren’t usually considered to be “low carb,” the majority are still very nutrient-rich, low in sugar overall, and good additions to any diet. In fact, puréed, shredded, “riced” or cooked root veggies and fruits can often sub for added sweeteners or even grains in many recipes. A great example is cauliflower rice.
The same can be said for some beans or legumes, such as chickpeas that can be made into flour, or hummus that makes a creamy addition to many low-carb recipes. These foods are high in antioxidants, provide much-needed fiber and help provide enough sweetness to kill a sugar craving without needing to add extra cane sugar. For that reason, fruits and starchy veggies I recommend including in your diet are:
- Berries — like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries or raspberries
- Tart cherries
- Citrus fruits
- Sweet or purple potatoes
Beans and legumes — such as chickpeas, black beans, mung beans, adzuki beans, etc. — are also not necessarily low carb, but still can be healthy in moderate amounts. If you do choose to eat legumes or grains, I recommend soaking and sprouting most first before you cook them. This helps release more of their protein, vitamins and minerals while also making them easier to digest.
The Low-Carb Diet: Overview of Benefits & How It Works
A large body of research shows that for those who make good candidates, following a low-carb diet has many health benefits. While it’s not always necessary to give up all unprocessed, whole-food sources of carbs (like fruit and starchier veggies mentioned above), cutting down on processed foods, added sugar and even grains can help many experience benefits like:
- Faster weight loss, and usually a easier time maintaining a healthy weight. Once glucose from carbohydrate foods are no longer available for energy, the body will use stored body fat instead, or fat and protein consumed from foods.
- Enhanced satiety from meals, reduced hunger and decreased cravings (especially for carb-heavy foods and sweets)
- Normalized blood sugar levels. This is due to better control over insulin and blood sugar (glucose) spikes. For those who are pre-diabetics or have diabetes, this is often crucial for preventing symptoms from worsening or complications.
- Neuroprotective effects and enhanced cognitive performance, including less “brain fog” or dips in energy, improved memory in the elderly and reduced symptoms of epilepsy
- Sometimes, improvements in hormonal balance. This often results in better sleep, less fatigue, reduced pain or muscle weakness, and more energy overall.
- Reduced bone loss or osteoporosis
- In athletes, possible favorable changes in body mass and body composition, along with increase in the relative values of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) and oxygen uptake at lactate threshold (VO2 LT)
- In some cases, lower risk for cardiovascular disease or metabolic syndrome, including normalizing factors like blood sugar or unhealthy cholesterol levels
Wondering what types of foods you really shouldn’t have when on a low-carb diet? Because they’re higher in things like added sugar and carbs from flour or thickeners, limiting the foods below will keep your carb intake on the lower end:
- If you’re intending to eat very low carbs, avoid all grains (including wheat, barley, oats, rice and other whole grains). This also includes all foods made with grain flour such as bread, cakes, biscuits, chips, cereal, muffins, pasta, etc.
- Sugar and foods that contain artificial or added sweeteners (honey, cane sugar, coconut sugar, etc.)
- Most commercial fruits and fruit juices (juice is high in sugar, with the exception of lime or lemon juice)
- Most pre-made condiments, sauces or packet mixes, which tend to be high in sugar
- Alcohol, soda and other sweetened drinks
- If you’re looking to drastically reduce carbs (such as following a ketogenic diet), you’ll also want to avoid most dairy products that contain milk, yogurt, ricotta or cottage cheese. Higher fat, low-carb cheeses are often included even on very low-carb diets because they have very few carbs.
Remember that regardless of what number of carbs you aim to eat everyday, the real goal is to consistently consume more real, whole foods and reduce intake of processed ingredients.
It can be wise to experiment with a very low-carb diet for a period of time, but once you’re working on maintenance (the way you intend to basically continue eating forever), aim to eat a variety of foods, including lots of different plants that will contain at least some carbs.
To sustain a healing diet long-term, develop a solid understanding of how many carbs daily from a well-rounded diet you can tolerate without gaining weight or suffering from other health problems. You use this information about your unique biochemistry to sustain a “normal eating pattern” — complete with things like healthy proteins and fats, along with fresh veggies, fruits and even some whole starchy veggies, legumes or grains if they work well for you.
Sample Meal Plans With Low-Carb Foods
Nutrition per serving:
- 151 calories
- 46.8 grams protein
- 10.4 grams fat
- 1.7 grams sugar
For breakfast, try a hearty meal of Huevos Rancheros. This classic Mexican dish includes ground beef, eggs, peppers and spices all served on a tortilla with fresh tomato, avocado and cilantro. With this low-carb meal, your day will be off to a healthy, protein-packed start, sure to keep you feeling full and energized until lunchtime.
Cauliflower Fried Rice
Nutrition per serving (1 1/3 cup):
- 108 calories
- 9 grams protein
- 3 grams fat
- 1 gram sugar
A quick and healthy alternative to fried rice, cauliflower fried rice will become your new go-to for a tasty lunch. Chop up some cauliflower and add it to a blender or food processor to create a fluffy “rice.” Add in eggs for protein, ghee as a healthier alternative to butter, onions and garlic, and you have an easy, delicious fried rice.
Pecan Pesto Salmon
Nutrition per serving:
- 140 calories
- 17 grams protein
- 5 grams fat
- 2 grams sugar
This quick and easy recipe takes just 25 minutes to prepare. Packed with omega-3 fats and healthy protein, pecan pesto salmon is an incredible dish you’ll want to make again. Serve it with a side salad of leafy greens and your meal is complete!
Final Thoughts on Low-Carb Foods
- Low-carb diets can help people lose weight quickly and potentially improve certain health conditions like sugar dependence, brain fog, fatigue, and risk factors for metabolic syndrome or diabetes.
- Low-carb foods include non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens or cruciferous veggies), healthy fats like coconut or olive oil, butter and hard cheeses, meat, seafood and eggs. Moderate sources of carbs are nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and some starchier veggies.
- Depending on your overall health and goals, it’s not usually necessarily to completely avoid healthy sources of carbs in moderation, like fruit or starchy veggies. In some cases, sprouted or soaked grains and legumes (higher in carbs) can also be included in an otherwise balanced diet that includes lots of low-carb foods.
- What can you do with low-carb foods? Low-carb recipes include ones that can be made without things like added sugars, refined grains or artificial sweeteners, such as protein shakes, smoothies, salads, slow cooker recipes, fajitas, burgers or meatballs, and many more.
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