A low-carb diet is low in carbohydrates, primarily found in sugary foods, pasta and bread. Instead, you eat whole foods including natural proteins, fats and vegetables.
Studies show that low-carb diets result in weight loss and improved health markers. These diets have been in common use for decades and are recommended by many doctors. Best yet, there’s usually no need to count calories or use special products. All you need to do is to eat whole foods that make for a complete, nutritious and filling diet.
Learn more about low carb and how to use it for your personal goals here.
1. What is 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 likely been a major mistake, that coincided with the start of the obesity epidemic. While this doesn’t prove causation, it’s clear the low-fat message didn’t prevent the obesity increase, and it is possible it contributed.
Studies now show that there’s no reason to fear natural fats. Instead, on a low-carb diet fat is your friend (here’s why). Simply minimize your intake of sugar and starches and you can eat all the fat you need to feel satisfied.
When you avoid sugar and starches, your blood sugar tends to stabilize and the levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin drop.
This increases fat burning and makes you feel more satiated, reducing food intake and causing weight loss.
Studies show that a low-carb diet can make it easier to lose weight and to control your blood sugar, among other benefits.
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 and stop when you’re satisfied. It can be that simple. You do not need to count calories or weigh your food. You don’t need low-fat products.
Below are examples of what you could eat, alternatively check out our 700+ low-carb recipes.
Who should NOT do a strict low-carb diet?
Most people can safely start a 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!
Disclaimer: While a low-carb diet has many proven benefits, it’s still controversial. The main potential danger regards medications, especially for diabetes, where doses may need to be adapted (see above). Discuss any changes in medication and relevant lifestyle changes with your doctor. Full disclaimer
This guide is written for adults with health issues, including obesity, that could benefit from a low-carb diet.
Controversial topics related to a low-carb diet, and our take on them, include saturated fats, cholesterol, whole grains, red meat and restricting calories for weight loss.
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.
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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.
Detailed low-carb foods list
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.
Detailed list of foods to avoid
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. A modest amount of milk or cream is OK in coffee or tea (but beware of caffe latte!).
The occasional glass of wine is fine too.
For more, check out our complete guides to low-carb drinks and low-carb alcohol.
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:
Browse our over 700 delicious low-carb recipes or head over to our 14-day low-carb meal plan for inspiration. You can always find our recipes under “Recipes” in the top menu. Here are a few popular ones:
Use our premium meal planner tool (free trial) to access tons of weekly meal plans, complete with shopping lists. You can adapt the diet plans to your liking, skipping any meal, choosing how many people you’re cooking for, and the shopping lists adapt. You can even start a new plan from scratch (of from pre-existing ones), tailor them completely and save them.
Here’s an example meal plan:
Check out the meal-planner tool
How low carb is a low-carb diet?
The lower your carbohydrate intake, the more powerful the effects on weight and blood sugar appear to be. For that reason 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 (although we find many people don’t 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 keto or ketogenic diet. It’s not a no-carb diet, but it contains less than 20 grams of carbs per day.
Here’s an 11-minute video course on how to eat low carb, high fat. Sign up for our free newsletter 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
We have written advice on a low-carb diet in 40 languages, including our full Diet Doctor site in Spanish or Swedish.
3. Health benefits of a low-carb diet
Why would you consider eating fewer carbs? There are many potential benefits, proven by science and supported by clinical experience, like these:
Most people start eating fewer carbs to lose weight. Studies have shown that low-carb diets are often more effective than other diets. Low carb makes it easier to lose weight without hunger, and without having to count calories.
According to new science, a low-carb diet can even result in burning more calories than other diets. Learn more
How to lose weight – the full guide
Why low carb can help you lose weight
How to lose weight with a low-carb diet
Top 10 weight-loss tips for women 40+
600+ success stories
However, the reason many people eat low carb is often the powerful health effects, like the following ones.
Reverse type 2 diabetes
Low-carb diets can help reduce or even normalize blood sugar, and thus potentially reverse type 2 diabetes.
200+ diabetes success stories
How to reverse type 2 diabetes
Low carb can also be helpful in managing type 1 diabetes.
A grateful gut
Low carb might help settle a grumpy gut, often reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such a bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramps and pain. Indigestion, reflux and other digestive issues can sometimes improve, too.
For some, 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
Reduce sugar cravings
Are you struggling to stay away from sweet foods, even though you try to eat them in “moderation”? Many people do.
A low-carb diet can often reduce and sometimes even eliminate 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.
But some people experience even more improvements, some of which can be life-changing: lower blood pressure and other improvements in risk factors for heart disease, less acne and better skin, fewer migraines, possibly improved mental health symptoms, better fertility, and more.
The links below share more inspiring testimonials and scientific research about potential low-carb benefits.
All low-carb benefits
We’ve been sent over 600 amazing low-carb success stories, and get more all the time. Here are a few, and links to all of them sorted by categories:
Eight years of zero-carb eating and "have never looked or felt better!" A low-carb diet: Maintaining a 70-pound weight loss for five years "I have so much energy"
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 healthy fats? And what’s important to think about when dining out?
Here are all the guides you need.
Breakfast is a great time to eat low carb. Who doesn’t love bacon and eggs? In the unlikely event that you answered “I”, there are even great options with no eggs at all.
Another strong option is to just have a cup of coffee, as many people get less hungry on a low-carb, high-fat diet and may not need breakfast at all. This can save you plenty of time.
There are many other options – both delicious and fast
So, What’s for lunch and dinner on a low-carb diet? You could have mouth-watering, delicious dishes full of meat, fish, chicken, vegetables and full-fat sauces. The options are nearly limitless as you will see by our variety of recipes and meal plans.
Check out our recipes to learn to cook amazing low-carb meals
Instead of potatoes, pasta and rice
Who needs starchy sides when you can have cauliflower mash or cauliflower rice instead? Not to mention butter-fried green cabbage, yum!
In short, we can show you plenty of great low-carb alternatives that are both tasty and healthy. You may even end up liking them better than their carb-heavy predecessors.
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 likely feel satisfied longer.
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?
You may not have to. Just be aware that there are good and bad low-carb bread 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
How to eat more fat
Fat can be both satiating and an amazing flavor enhancer. But how do you get enough of it in your diet? And how much fat should you really eat? Hint: enough to feel satisfied and not hungry.
Learn all about it in this guide
Avoid “low-carb” junk food
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 lacking beneficial nutrients and are often higher in carbs than their labels imply. We recommend avoiding them entirely if possible. Learn more
How to make low carb cheap
A low-carb diet doesn’t have to be expensive. In this guide, you’ll learn how to make it cheap.
With a little planning and preparation you could save a ton of money
Is it a good thing to occasionally stray from 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 some people these side effects are mild, while others find the transition more difficult. It usually lasts a few days, up to about a week, and there are ways to minimize it (see below).
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) may be 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 can still be great for motivation.
Here are side effects that may occur when you suddenly start a strict low-carb diet.
By far the most common short-term side effect is called the induction flu. It’s what makes some people feel really poorly for a few days (up to a week) after starting low carb.
Here are common symptoms:
These side effects rapidly subside as your body adapts and your fat burning increases. Within a week, they are usually gone.
The primary reason for this may be that carbohydrate-rich foods can increase water retention in your body. 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 at least 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.
Learn more about induction flu and how to treat it Other common issues on low carb
Beyond the induction flu, there are six more relatively common side effects on a low-carb diet. It seems like many of them can also be mostly avoided by getting enough fluid and salt.
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:
All low-carb side effects and how to cure them
Beyond the mostly transient side effects that may occur on a low-carb diet (see above) there are many controversies, misunderstandings and a few pure myths 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.
Read all about these topics on our low-carb controversies 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
How low carb works
What are you designed to eat, and why can sugar and starch be a problem? Essentially, how does a low-carb diet work?
Learn how low carb works
Scientific studies on low carb
Questions and answers
Are you having problems on low carb? Are you not losing weight like you want to? How many carbs should you eat?
Get answers to your low-carb questions
For extra support, join our Facebook community.
Why fat is your friend
A lot of people still fear natural fat. But really, the whole idea that we should fear fat is based on low quality science that does not support the broad sweeping conclusion. Recent research and many open-minded experts now agree.
Just witness the recent TIME cover to the right, with the text “Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”
Learn more about cholesterol and why fat is your friend
Upcoming low-carb events
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:
Got questions? Our Facebook group has answers.
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