The beginner's guide to a low-carb diet
Thinking about trying a low-carb diet? You’re not alone. With benefits like weight loss and better blood sugar control, it’s no surprise that an estimated 3 million people in the UK – approximately 7% of men and 10% of women – have tried a low-carb diet.
But if breaking up with high-carb foods (think pasta, bread, rice and potatoes) feels like an impossible task, you’ve come to the right place. This low-carb diet guide covers everything you need to know to take on a healthy low-carb diet, including what you can & can’t eat, what benefits you might experience and simple tips to get you on track.
What is a low-carb diet?
A low-carb diet means reducing your carbohydrate intake from refined and starchy carbs like pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, sugary foods and some fruits.
As a general guide, a low-carb diet should gain around 20-30% of total daily energy intake from carbohydrates. This means eating approximately 130g (or less) of carbohydrates per day.
In comparison, The National Diet and Nutrition survey states that the average daily intake of carbohydrate in the UK is around 252g for men and 198g for women. This accounts for 47.5% and 48.3% of food energy intakes.
Is a low-carb diet healthy?
A low(er) carb diet naturally means consuming more protein, fibre and healthy fats, which is key to long-term health. It’s also easy to follow for the long-term, meaning any weight loss or health benefits you experience can be sustained.
While low-carb diets have become a very popular weight loss tool, the focus shouldn’t only be on reducing carbs to a low number. Not all low-carb foods are healthy. Ultra-processed low-carb foods are increasingly common, but are often filled with additives and lacking in essential nutrients.
The solution? Focus on eating a quality diet of whole foods and reducing (or eliminating) your intake of ultra processed foods, as well as keeping your carb intake low. The good news is that unprocessed whole foods are naturally lower in carbs!
Is a low-carb diet different to keto?
Yes. A keto diet includes significantly more fat – and often less protein – than a low-carb diet.
For most people, a strict ketogenic diet is very challenging to follow in the long run. Even a small slip can mean that the diet is no longer keto, but rather, low-carb.
Strict keto diets can also be very low in fibre, which can have a negative effect on digestion. It can also lead to a reduced diversity of the gut microbiota, which may have detrimental effects on overall health and wellbeing.
In addition, extreme carbohydrate restriction can have a negative effect on overall diet quality and variety, as people may not consume a wide range of vegetables/fruits.
For this reason, a low-carb diet is a more sustainable option for most, unless you need to follow keto to manage symptoms of a neurological disorder or for other therapeutic/medical reasons.
Benefits & risks of a low-carb diet
Is a low-carb diet good for weight loss?
Yes, it can be! Plenty of quality research suggests that a low-carb diet is as effective for weight loss as other weight loss methods.
A low-carb diet means higher intakes of quality protein, fibre and healthy fats. These macronutrients are satiating and take longer to digest and can therefore help you to feel fuller for longer. Plus, by reducing the amount of carbohydrates you eat, you naturally reduce your calorie intake, which leads to weight loss.
In addition to this, a healthy, balanced low-carb diet leads to a lower consumption of ultra-processed foods and a higher consumption of whole foods. Research shows that a diet higher in unprocessed whole foods increases the appetite suppressing hormone PYY, whilst reducing the hunger hormone ghrelin.
Following a low-carb diet also means that less insulin is produced by the body. This is thought to help with weight loss because insulin is the hormone that is responsible for promoting fat storage in the body.
A meta-analysis that compared the effects of low carbohydrate non-calorie-restricted, vs low fat calorie-restricted diets found that, after 6 months, individuals who followed a low-carb diet lost more weight. However, after 12 months, both methods worked equally well.
Can a low-carb diet benefit those with diabetes?
Yes! Although there is currently no permanent cure for type 2 diabetes, it can be successfully put into remission with the help of weight loss (if overweight).
A low-carb diet is promoted by health authorities such as diabetes.co.uk, NHS and diabetes.org.uk as a safe and effective way for type 2 diabetics that are overweight to lose weight. And for people who don’t have diabetes, losing weight can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the first place.
Studies also show that a low-carb diet has additional benefits for both those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and those who have type 2 diabetes, including:
- Improved blood sugar control and reduced insulin fluctuations
- Improvement in the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other serious diseases)
Those living with type 1 diabetes may also benefit from following a low/moderate carb diet, as it can help keep blood sugar levels more stable and make the condition easier to manage.
However, it’s important to note that a low-carb diet isn’t recommended over a general, non-carb restricted healthy, balanced diet of whole foods for type-1 diabetics.
Are there any other benefits of a low-carb diet?
Alongside weight loss and benefits for type-2 diabetics, a low-carb diet can lead to:
Better blood sugar control
Carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels much more than other foods.
The body has to release insulin, which prompts your cells to absorb the sugar from the blood, and causes your blood sugar levels to drop. This rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels can lead to fatigue, hunger, mental fog and rollercoaster energy levels.
But studies show that reducing carbohydrates leads to better blood sugar control. That means more sustained energy levels, feeling fuller for longer, better focus and, often, an overall reduction in fatigue.
Improved overall diet quality
Approximately 56.8% of our total energy intake in the UK is from ultra-processed foods – and only 30.1% from unprocessed/minimally processed whole foods.
The good news? Low-carb diets typically lead to a reduced intake of ultra-processed foods like pasta and bread, with an increased intake of whole foods.
Naturally, this leads to a huge improvement in overall diet quality and nutrient intake. You’re likely to eat more quality protein, more healthy fats, more fibre, as well as more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
These nutrients keep your body functioning optimally and support your hunger/satiety hormones, as well as your gut microbiome, to make it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
It’s thought that a low-carb diet can help protect against heart disease by protecting the lining of the blood vessels.
Research has proposed that high carbohydrate intake (that subsequently results in high blood sugar) diminishes the protective layer – a slimy layer called Glycocalyx – that protects the underlying blood vessel from damage.
On top of this, the old myth that a diet high(er) in fat negatively impacts cholesterol levels and can lead to cardiovascular disease has been disproven many times. This meta-analysis concluded that there is no relationship between fat (including saturated fat) intake and CVD or mortality rates.
Are there any risks of a low-carb diet?
Yes – one word: fibre.
Fibre is so important for healthy digestion, a diverse gut microbiome and overall health. We should all be aiming to eat at least around 30g per day, but according to the British Dietetic Association, most people in the UK only average around 18-20g.
For this reason, it’s important to ensure that a low(er)-carb diet doesn’t eliminate beneficial fibre-rich carbohydrate sources (vegetables, fruits and small amounts of legumes/grains), as a lack of fibre can lead to constipation.
We’ve got some fibre tips coming up in our tips for a healthy low-carb diet section!
Who should avoid a low-carb diet?
A low-carbohydrate diet can be suitable for most healthy adults, but there are a couple of things to consider:
- For those who are on medication that can cause hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) such as insulin, sulphonylureas or glinides, it’s vital to speak to your doctor/dietitian before significantly reducing you carbohydrate intake.
- A low/modest-carbohydrate diet can be suitable for those planning on becoming pregnant and throughout pregnancy. However, a very low-carb/ketogenic diet may not be appropriate during these life-stages, as the safety of such diet in pregnancy isn’t established.
- Evidence shows that low-carb diets can affect growth in children, so it shouldn’t be recommended for them.
Getting started on a low-carb diet
Now that you know the ins and outs of low-carb diets, you’re probably keen to get started. Here’s everything you need to know a low-carb beginners, including what foods you can and can’t eat.
How many carbs should I eat in a low-carb diet?
There’s one size fits all when it comes to following a low- or moderate-carb diet.
But as a general guide, a low-carb diet should gain around 20-30% of total daily energy intake from carbohydrates. This means eating approximately 130g (or less) of carbohydrates per day.
The only exception to this is for those who are being medically supervised on strict ketogenic diet prescribed by their doctor/dietitian to manage a specific health condition, such as epilepsy. In this case, the carb allowance is much lower.
What can you eat on a low-carb diet?
Eat plenty of these low-carb foods
- Fish: Tuna, salmon, cod, bass, trout, prawns etc
- Meats: Beef, pork, ham, lamb, good quality bacon/sausages
- Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck
- Tofu & tempeh
- Full-fat cheese: Brie, camembert, cheddar, goats cheese, mozzarella, parmesan etc
- Cream, butter & lard
- Unsweetened dairy products: Plain whole milk or plain Greek yogurt
- Unsweetened non-dairy alternatives: Soy, almond or coconut milk/yoghurt
- Cooking oils: Olive, coconut or avocado oil
- Nuts & seeds: Almonds, brazils, cashews, chia seeds, flax, pumpkin seeds, walnuts etc
- Leafy greens: Card, chives, kale, lettuce, spinach, rocket, watercress etc
- Non-starchy vegetables: Avocado, asparagus, aubergine, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, celeriac, courgette, green beans, mushrooms, olives, peppers, tomatoes etc
- Low-sugar fruits: Blueberries, blackcurrant, strawberries, raspberries etc
- Complex carbs (in small amounts): Sweet potato, oats, quinoa
Find more ideas in our beginner's low-carb shopping list.
Avoid these high-carb foods
- Sugary foods: Fruit juice, smoothies, cakes, pastries, ice cream, sweets etc
- Starchy foods: Bagels, bread, beans, grains, flour, muffins, rice, pasta
- Processed oils: Sunflower, rapeseed & vegetable
- Low-fat & diet products: Margarine and low-fat milk/yoghurt etc
- Sugar alcohols: Check labels for sorbitol & maltitol
What can I drink on a low-carb diet?
- Water/sparkling water
- Unsweetened tea & coffee
- Herbal tea
It’s best to avoid high-sugar drinks such as orange juice, apple juice, smoothies, frappuccinos, fizzy drinks and beer, if you can.
Sparkling water with ice and a few slices of lemon and lime makes for a great soft drink alternative on summer’s days or for an alcohol-free evening out.
When it comes to alcohol, the most low-carb friendly drinks are wine, gin & slimline tonic, vodka & soda, prosecco or champagne. It goes without saying that these are best consumed in moderation.
Tips for staying healthy on a low-carb diet
These low-carb diet tips will help you stay healthy and feel your best, whilst keeping carbs down low.
1. Focus on reducing ultra-processed foods
Carbs come in many forms – and some are much healthier than others.
Instead of cutting out carbs completely, put your focus on reducing low quality, ultra-processed carbs, such as:
- White pasta
- White bread
- Pizza dough
- Ready meals
- Sweet desserts
- Cakes & biscuits
- Sugary breakfast cereals
But you can still fit plenty of fibre-rich carbohydrates, such as a vegetables, into your low-carb diet – which brings us to our next point:
2. Fill up on fibre
Including plenty of non-starchy vegetables (and some lower sugar containing fruits) will help you to reach the 30g/day fibre goal, whilst still keeping overall carb intake low.
Just aim to have 2 servings of non-starchy vegetables with each meal/half fill the plate, such as green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, cabbage, rocket), aubergines, broccoli, courgette, cauliflower, mushrooms, leeks, asparagus, garlic, onions, tomato, cucumber and radishes.
Even ‘complex’ carbohydrates can fit well into a low carb (<130g/day) diet. These examples provide around 15g of carbs:
- 80g sweet potato
- 25g jumbo oats
- 60g quinoa
- Half a tin of pulses in water (beans, lentils)
4. Try simple swaps
You don't need to miss out on any of your favourite meals if you use low-carb alternatives. Think broccoli or cauli rice in curries, cauliflower mash with sausages and celeriac fries instead of potato fries.
It's simply swapping out starchy and sugary carbs that are easy to overeat, for equally-delicious and ultra-filling high-fibre alternatives. Embracing these swaps is one of the fastest ways to improve your day-to-day diet we know – and it makes going low-carb so much easier.
Find all the recipes you need in our low-carb alternatives guide!
5. Don’t fear fat
If you’re following a low-carb diet for weight loss, you might be tempted to avoid fats in fear they’ll stall your progress. But you shouldn’t fear fat – if anything, you’ll want to be eating more of it.
Studies on fat and satiety have found that healthy unsaturated fats have a positive effect on satiety and help to regulate your appetite by regulating the release of appetite-reducing hormones. Plus, in the absence of refined carbs, fats add lots of flavour to your meals.
The take home? Make sure to include a serving of healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, olives and oily fish with each meal.
6. Prioritise protein
Protein is a key building block of your skin, hair, muscles, helps to make hormones and enzymes and carries nutrients through the body, alongside a long list of other essential functions.
Plus, if you’re looking to lose weight, protein is key. It’ll help you to feel fuller for longer, regulate your appetite hormones and help you retain muscle as you lose weight.
To ensure that you easily meet your daily needs, try to include 1-2 serving of quality protein with each meal or snack, such as:
- Red meat
- Dairy milk or vegan alternatives
- Greek yoghurt
- Tofu & tempeh
- Edamame/soy beans
- Nuts & seeds
- Good quality protein powders
7. Start meal planning
To make your transition to a low-carb diet as smooth and stress-free as possible, try meal planning.
Sit down with a notepad or meal planner and write down what you’ll eat for each meal for the next few days – and what ingredients you need to make those meals. Then simply head out to the shops and buy the ingredients you need. That’s it!
Most people try to meal plan weekly, but there are no rules. If you think meal planning every 3, 5, 10 or 14 days will work better for you, try it that way instead. There’s also nothing wrong with making 2 or 3 keto meal plans and alternating them week by week.
8. Try Purition
Purition can make your transition to a low-carb diet so much easier. It's a low-carb meal that's made with whole foods and ready in seconds.
By having Purition for breakfast or lunch, you'll get more protein, more fibre and more healthy fats into your diet, with just 2–4g net carbs per serving.
Even better? It's versatile – so you can keep your low-carb breakfast interesting:
- Low-carb shake: Blend with 250ml milk
- Low-carb yoghurt bowl: Stir into a serving of Greek, coconut or soy yoghurt
- Instant low-carb porridge: Add a dash of hot/milk water and stir
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Easy low-carb meals
Easy low-carb snacks
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Reasons & fixes
What you should do next...
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