A Beginner's Guide to Low-Carb Diets


T-Bone Steak on the Grill
Get Everything You Need to Know in This Mega Guide
Before Starting Your Low-Carb Diet!

If you're thinking about entering into the low-carb lifestyle, you are going to need a reliable guide you can depend on to help you get started.

Whether you want to shed the fat that's clinging to your hips and belly, lower your risk for heart disease, or eliminate those nasty cravings that always strike as soon as you sit down to watch your favorite television show, this easy guide to low-carb diets will eliminate a lot of the confusion and misconceptions you might have.

There are many low-carb programs to choose from, and each plan has different restrictions. That can easily get confusing, especially if you try to start a low-carb diet by just winging it, using the bits and pieces you've collected from various places. You can really get yourself into a mess.

Before you begin, you need a strong understanding of why carbohydrate restriction works and what you can expect to achieve in the first month or two.

In addition, this basic guide will clear up any misconceptions you may have about dietary ketosis, insulin, protein, and calories. It will walk you step-by-step through the foods you can eat and offer advise on how to incorporate each food group into your life.

While no single diet program is right for everyone, the following beginner's guide will give you a great head start on the basics of low-carb eating, so you can go on to fine-tune the diet to fit your particular needs later on.




What are Carbohydrates?


Carbohydrates are the sugars and starches you find in a wide variety of foods and beverages, such as:
  • fruits and fruit juices
  • sodas and other soft drinks
  • lemonade sweetened with sugar or corn syrup
  • breads and cereals, including whole grain varieties
  • milk products, such as yogurt
  • grains, like rice or pasta
  • potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams
  • starchy vegetables, like peas
  • beans and lentils
  • sugar, honey, syrup, and jam
In a typical diet, carbohydrates provide energy to your cells, muscles, brain, and body organs. In a low-carb diet, carbohydrates are carved down to a bare minimum, so your main energy source comes from fats.

What is a Low-Carb Diet?


A low-carb diet is officially defined as a diet that contains less than 120 grams of carbohydrate per day. At that carbohydrate level, the diet may or may not be ketogenic, depending on your metabolism and whether the carbs are low enough that your body begins making ketones.

In comparison, a very low-carb diet, such as the Atkins Diet or the Keto Diet, contains only 20 grams of carbohydrates per day in the initial stages of the program.

When you go on a low-carb diet, you restrict foods that contain a large amount of carbohydrate. Instead of eating lots of breads, cereals, rice, and pasta, you switch to eating protein foods, salads, non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits, and nuts. You can also eat plenty of healthy fats like coconut oil or real butter.

What is the Benefit of Going Low Carb?


A low-carb diet comes with many benefits. It works to correct:
All of these conditions have been reported to have improved after going low carb.

Low-carb diets do take a bit of pre-planning since you can no longer depend on carbohydrates to pad out your meals, but the feelings of well being and increased energy you get from using fat as your major fuel source makes these diets well worth the effort.


What Can You Reasonably Expect for the First Week?


Many people associate low-carb eating with quick weight loss. However, a low-carb diet is not magic. It works well, but not always as quickly as you might expect. There are very solid biologically reasons for this, which I will talk about in a minute.

Part of the confusion about how much weight you can expect to lose eating low carb comes from the drastic weight losses that some folks report experiencing during the first week or two. These losses rarely continue, for a very logical reason, but many dieters expect the weight to keep coming off at the same pace it did this very first week.

That's a dangerous mindset.

When the diet doesn't live up to those false expectations, you'll feel disappointed and hurt.

This is one of the main reasons why setting up expectations or weight-loss goals can be counterproductive. Frustration often leads to questioning the viability of a low-carb diet plan.

People want to lose their body fat quicker than they gained it, and even faster than their body can physically mobilize it and use it to fuel their daily activities.

That is not realistic.

What most people don't understand is that restricting carbohydrates works exactly the same way as any other diet but comes with additional health benefits and hunger-controlling perks that a high-carb, low-fat diet doesn't provide.

If you stick with the list of allowable foods, with no cheats, most people experience an initial drop of several pounds in scale weight during the first week. However, this drop in weight isn't body fat.

The weight you lose during the first week of carbohydrate restriction consists of:
  1. glycogen, your body's way of storing carbs
  2. water
  3. muscle tissue
A pilot study, partially funded by Gary Taubes' organization, Nutrition-Science Initiative (NuSI), and the National Institute of Health (NIH), which was published a few days ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, discovered that absolutely no body fat was lost during the first week of a low-carb diet.

There was a severe drop in water, due to the way the body processes stored carbohydrate in the liver, and an upswing in protein oxidation, but instead of burning body fat, participants in the study burned muscle tissue for energy instead.

This was a significant finding because it has always been assumed within low-carb circles that you burn a little bit of body fat along with those drastic water and glycogen losses, but the pilot study didn't find that theory to be true.

Participants were only eating 15 percent of their 2,739 calories per day from protein because the study diet was designed to reflect a Nutritional Ketosis low-carb diet program, so don't read too much into that part of the findings.

Eating an adequate amount of protein during the first week may, or may not, change that biological issue.

The important thing to take away from this is that if you don't see huge weight losses on the scale the first week, there's nothing to worry about. The body won't let you lose body fat that week, so it just means that you didn't dump as much water or burn as much muscle tissue as other people did.


What About Blood Glucose Levels and Insulin?


For a long time, low-carb advocates (including me) have theorized that since a low-carb diet causes your basal insulin level to plunge and blood glucose level to normalize, this made your body fat more accessible to the liver. 

I no longer believe that.

As predicted, insulin levels plunged during the first week of the low-carb diet at a shockingly fast rate. The consequence for insulin and blood glucose levels plunging so quickly is that you can easily slip into hypoglycemic episodes.

When blood glucose falls too fast, the body can interpret a normal level of glucose to be too low. You'll then experience all of the symptoms of hypoglycemia. This can make you feel quite shaky. Ordinarily, the problem only lasts for a few days, as the body readjusts to its new normal level, but if it doesn't correct itself, it's best to visit your doctor for advice.

What About Week Two?


Many people will begin to lose inches instead of pounds during the second week.

By then, your glycogen stores will have diminished and the body will have switched from predominantly burning glucose for fuel to burning fatty acids and ketones instead.

If you lost a lot of water during week one, you'll be at least partially dehydrated, so your body will begin to horde water by stuffing it into your fat cells. This is part of the normal adaption process your body goes through as you switch metabolic pathways.

While the body always stores enough water to process whatever fat it stores, if you're dehydrated, the body will store extra water, even without the fat.

In 2007, we used to call this water-retention period: waiting for the Low-Carb Whoosh Fairy to show up.

By week two, you'll stop burning protein for fuel and begin to burn fatty acids and ketones instead. This was another thing the Gary Taubes' study discovered. Fat-adaption didn't take several weeks. At least, not in the 17 men the study observed.

They were adequately using fats for fuel by week two. We know that because the 17 men had plenty of energy to use a stationary bicycle for 90 minutes per day.

Depending on how much you're eating and how overweight you are, you may or may not see lost body fat show up on the scale during this second week. People with a large amount of weight to lose are able to mobilize more body fat than those who are closer to their best weight, so they will lose weight quicker than others.

Try to relax your weight-loss expectation, and focus on what you can do to make a low-carb diet more enjoyable for you. If you stick to the plan, your body fat will come off, but not necessarily as quickly as you want it to.

What Causes the Body to Stall on Week 3 and/or 4?


Not losing weight in week three or four on a low-carb diet is extremely common. Due to the amount of water lost during the first two weeks, most people find themselves in what they assume is a stall. It's not really a weight-loss stall because most people haven't lost much body fat yet, if any.

That's how it feels. The number on the scale doesn't budge any more. If you don't understand the biology behind what is happening during this part of your first 30 days, it's going to look like the diet stopped working.

For some people, scale weight will begin to bounce up-and-down a pound or two, or you might even put back on some of the water weight you lost during the first week of the diet.

There is absolutely nothing wrong!

Water fluctuations are common on low-carb diets due to their dehydrating nature. It takes lots of water to process ketones and body fats, so the body gets more conservative with its current water supply. Some people continue to stuff water into their fat cells for several weeks before the body finally feels safe enough to let it go.

For me, I didn't lose weight for another 6 weeks! At that time, I dropped two more pounds. I did not see the huge weight losses that others get because it wasn't the first time I'd done a low-carb diet.

For yo-yo dieters, the water fluctuations are even more pronounced and stubborn. The only option you have is to keep eating your low-carb diet and patiently wait it out. Eventually, your body has to get rid of the excess water. It cannot hold onto it indefinitely.

The Truth About Fat Loss and Ketosis


Woman Flexing Her Muscles
If You Try to Force Your Body into Fast Weight Loss,
You'll Likely Burn Muscle Instead of Body Fat


The ultimate truth about low-carb diets is that fat mobilization is limited. Your body can only access and use a certain amount of body fat each day.

Expecting to lose more than one or two pounds of fat per week is unrealistic. You can't force your body to burn fat more quickly. If you try, you'll likely experience huge losses of muscle tissue instead.

Losing muscle is counterproductive to your aim because it will cause your metabolic rate to slow down. 

As a result, you'll lose less weight on the scale, rather than more. Large losses on the scale do not mean you are losing body fat. For that reason, slow weight loss is often the best way to go.

When you restrict your carbohydrate intake low enough, the body will use its glycogen stores to keep your blood glucose level steady. When it runs low on glycogen, it will convert available proteins to glycogen to keep up with its needed glucose supply for the blood and brain.

Although the brain can derive a large portion of its energy needs from ketones, it still needs a certain amount of glucose per day to function optimally. That glucose can come from:
  1. your carbohydrate intake
  2. protein not needed to repair body structures
  3. glycerol molecule attacked to each triglyceride
Once ketone production is in full swing, protein oxidation stops.

This fat adaptive process causes you to go into a state known as ketosis. Ketosis merely means that your body is making and using an above-average amount of ketones for fuel. 

There are three different types of ketones:
  1. acetoacetate
  2. beta-hydroxybutyrate
  3. acetone
Initially, these three ketones are used to maintain all body functions, but as your low-carb diet continues, your muscles will convert its acetoacetate ketones into beta-hydroxybutyrate, the type of ketone used by the brain.

At that point, most of your body functions will start using fatty acids for fuel, rather than ketones, leaving all ketones for the brain and other body cells that don't have mitochondria.

An important fact here is that ketosis is not essential for weight loss. It is merely a sign of ketone production. 

If you're eating less than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day, you are probably in the state of ketosis, and if you're only eating 20 carbs – the recommended amount for the first two weeks – you definitely are in ketosis.

Some low-carb diet plans encourage you to be in a deeper state of ketosis than others. Whether that is important for your personal situation, or not, depends on your individual metabolic defects.

The rate at which your body loses fat is not a result of being in a deeper state of ketosis. That's a myth. Deep ketosis is simply an excessive amount of ketones that have built up in the kidneys and bloodstream. 

In reality, they are unused ketones, ketones you haven't used yet, and as such have no bearing on your ability to mobilize and use fatty acids for fuel.

When too many ketones build up in the kidneys, the body dumps them into the urine because it doesn't have a way to store them.

When people talk about using Ketostix to test their urine for ketones, this is what they are doing. They are looking for ketones that the kidneys have gotten rid of.

When too many ketones build up in the bloodstream, the body secretes insulin to prevent further production until those ketones have been used. In many people, once insulin has been secreted by the pancreas, some of those excess ketones are delivered to the kidney.

When people talk about using a blood ketone monitor to measure their ketone level, this is what they are doing. They are checking out how many unused ketones have built up in the bloodstream.

Dietary ketosis is not dangerous for the average person.

Ketoacidosis is only a problem for those with Type 1 Diabetes. With Ketoacidosis, both blood glucose and ketones are high due to the lack of insulin. This creates a dangerous acidic environment. As long as your body is capable of producing and secreting insulin, the body will keep your ketone level within a safe margin.

For the average low-carb dieter, deep ketosis isn't necessary. In fact, when you consistently produce too many ketones, the body will simply begin making less. Balance is always the name of the game.


How a Low-Carb Diet Really Works


There are many theories within low-carb circles about the hormone insulin and the role it plays in low-carb diets. Most of what you hear is not based on facts.

To date, scientific research has not been able to support any of the theories that claim that low insulin levels unlock the doors to your fat cells. This theory is probably based on the observation that diabetics tend to gain weight once they begin using insulin.

The recent pilot study I talked about earlier in this post found the opposite to be true. While a low-carb diet does cause insulin levels to plunge drastically during the first week, that fall in insulin doesn't make body fat more accessible.

Neither did the participants in the study experience locked fat cells when at higher insulin levels. During the first 4 weeks of the study, they were given a normal diet at a 300 calorie deficit and actually lost MORE body fat than they did after moving to a low-carb diet containing the same amount of calories.

My perspective on the role of insulin in a low-carb diet is based only on what we now know:

When insulin levels are high, people tend to be more hungry because insulin is one of the stress hormones. When acting in conjunction with cortisol, your hunger level can go through the roof. You'll crave sweets and refined starches because the body can convert those foods into quick energy.

If you're used to eating mindlessly, you'll reach for carby foods without realizing this is what you're doing.

A low-carb diet reduces basal insulin levels quickly. They will plunge to very low levels within the first week or two. That plunge will eliminate any physical cravings you have for sweets and starches, as well as reduce your overall hunger level, leaving you with just your emotional attachment for certain types of foods.

Low-to-no hunger is a good way to judge whether you are in the state of ketosis, or not.

Since your overall hunger is greatly reduced when in ketosis, a low-carb diet makes it easier to eat at a calorie deficit than other weight-loss diets. In general, people on low-carb diets eat less than they did before, so initially, it is really not necessary to count calories. You will naturally eat at a deficit.

This makes it easier to focus on the diet itself, so you can give yourself time to adjust to the changes.

That doesn't mean that calories don't count. 

The closer you are to your best weight, the more you have to pay attention to the number of calories you're eating. To keep losing weight on a low-carb diet you have to continuously eat at a calorie deficit.

This is the main reason why most people fall short of the weight they want to be.

Between metabolic rate slowing down, due to dieting itself, and a disappearing calorie deficit, a by-product of the pounds coming off and your body's energy needs going down, you will eventually find yourself eating at maintenance.


A smaller body doesn't need as many calories as a larger body does.

When your weight plateaus, it's time to reevaluate how much you're eating, so you can find a way to eat less. Cutting down on carbs alone rarely works at this point because the amount of food you can eat to maintain the weight you want to be is less than you think.

Most people are shocked when they discover the amount of food it takes to maintain a normal weight. The fantasy of being able to eat a normal diet once you drop the weight is just that – pure fantasy.

What are Net Carbs?


In the 1970s, when the Atkins Diet first came out, there was no such thing as net carbs.

In 1996, however, Drs. Michael and Mary Ann Eades came out with a low-carb plan that allowed dieters to subtract the fiber from the total carbohydrate gram count. They called that new figure, net carbs. Since fiber is converted into a small amount of fat in the colon, and fats are carbohydrate free, the Eades feel those calories don't matter.

Fiber is metabolized as a fat, so Dr. Atkins adopted the net-carb trick in 1999 after being approached about it by one of his readers.

Fiber calories matter, but the amount is small that you can choose which way you want to do this. Those following the original Atkins Diet count total carbs, and those following later versions of his diet count net carbs. People on Protein Power or the Keto Diet also count net carbs.

Today, this net-carb calculation has been expanded to include sugar alcohols, glycerine, and other ingredients that supposedly don't raise blood glucose levels, but this is where the net carb thing gets sticky.

Many people cannot process sugar alcohols. 

The molecules wind up whole in the colon. Because the colon is not equipped to handle unbroken-down food particles, the undigested sugar alcohols often lead to intestinal distress, cramping, and other unsavory issues.

If you don't have a problem digesting sugar alcohols, you are not lucky. Your body is breaking them down and processing them exactly like sugar. 

While they may or may not raise blood glucose levels, depending on the type of sugar alcohol you're using, the calories are processed the same as any other calorie.

For that reason, many low-carb dieters prefer to count the carbs in sugar alcohols, or they will stay away from them completely. Others use only low-glycemic ones, such as erythritol, xylitol, and sorbitol.

How Many Carbs Per Day Can You Eat on Low Carb?


Individual low-carb plans have their own special food restrictions. Although Dr. Atkins 1992 low-carb plan gave dieter's the option of creating their own low-carb diet, provided they didn't go over 20 total carbs per day, that freedom was taken back with the advent of the Atkins Carbohydrate Ladder.

The carbohydrate ladder merely told dieters when they could or couldn't return a certain food category to their diet.

After starting off at 20 carbs, the Atkins Diet allows you to return a few carbohydrates to your diet every week until you find the upper limit of carbohydrates you can tolerate and still lose body fat.

Other low-carb diet plans, such as the Protein Power Life Plan or the Keto Diet, have set limits for carbs that you follow throughout your entire weight-loss phase. It is only when you get closer to maintenance that you have the option to play with a few more carbs when using those plans.

The consistency between all of these various low-carb diets is the drastic reduction in carbs when compared to the average diet.

Most low-carb plans allow less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day, with 20 to 35 net carbs being typical. If you plan on creating your own low-carb diet from the food lists below, it is best to start off at 20 carbs per day, and then slowly raise them up to fit your preferences and carb tolerance, once your body has adjusted to this new way of eating.

For counting, you'll need to pick up a good calorie counter that also lists carbohydrate and fiber grams. Alternatively, you can use one of the many online food trackers, such as Fitday or My Fitness Pal to keep track of your carbs and/or calories. There are also phone apps to help you do that, but since I don't have the type of cell phone that allows me to download apps, I'm not familiar with them.

Protein Sources: Meat, Eggs, and Cheese


Bacon and Three Fried Eggs
An Easy Low-Carb Breakfast with Very Few Carbs.
Meat, Eggs, and Cheese Form the Foundation of
the Atkins Diet.

Protein foods form the basic foundation of a low-carb diet because they are super low in carbs. Meat, poultry, and fish generally are carb free, but eggs and cheese have just a little. For a loose estimation, you can count 1/2 a carb for each egg and 1 carb for each ounce of cheese.

Some processed meats like sausage or lunch meat also have a few carbs, so make sure that you check the package for carb amounts and serving sizes.

In the beginning of your low-carb diet, you need to make sure that you eat enough protein. The standard thought of the day is that most people following a low-carb diet need to eat at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. In 2007, before the idea of reduced protein arose, we used to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass.

Severely limiting protein intake to deepen your state of ketosis is a relatively new idea.

While those who are sensitive to protein foods can over-secrete insulin in response to eating protein, the idea that protein is turned into glucose and can, therefore, kick you out of ketosis is just another myth that doesn't hold up to the science.

While protein can be turned into glucose, the process is very slow and the body prefers to use other sources of glucose first. What most low carbers don't know is that protein can be oxidized directly for energy. It doesn't have to be converted into glucose first.

Therefore, gluconeogenesis is demand driven. 

The body only converts protein into glucose if absolutely necessary. Most of the time, it is not. However, that doesn't mean you can gorge on protein foods and still lose weight. 

The Art and Science of Low Carb Living, by Dr. Stephen Phinney and Dr. Jeff Volek, recommends that protein intake consist of about 20 percent of your maintenance level of calories. If your maintenance level is 1800 calories (what your body needs to maintain ideal weight), your protein in grams should be about 90 grams of protein.

Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and hard cheeses are all suitable for a low-carb diet.

The only caution is to watch out for fillers in processed meats, such as:
  • sausage
  • hot dogs
  • lunch meat
  • imitation crab
Some low-carb dieters are super strict with sugar and look for sugar-free varieties of bacon, ham, pepperoni, and salami, but I've never found the sugar in processed meats to be a problem for me. While uncured meats are often thought to be superior, they are higher in bacteria, so might be problematic. They are, for me.

Many low carbers stick to super fatty cuts of meat and do a lot of deep frying, but you don't have to. I eat a variety of cuts, including chicken breast, pork loin, and ham, but I also buy chicken legs, chicken wings, and fatty pork shoulder.

The flat iron steaks I get are on the lean side, when compared to other cuts of beef, and the hamburger I pick up at Costco is pretty lean, but I also buy a fatty chuck roast when it's a good price.

If calories are a problem for you, choosing lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish will help keep them low.

Full-fat cheeses used to be preferred for low-carb diets because lower-fat versions often contain fillers. However, that too, is a matter of taste and calories. I prefer low-fat cottage cheese, but I can't eat mozzarella due to lactose intolerance.

Other cheeses I use are Parmesan, full-fat cream cheese, and name-brand hard cheeses like cheddar or pepper jack.

The caution on cheese is to beware of pre-grated forms. Make sure that the shreds haven't been dusted with flour or starches to keep the shreds from sticking together. Most brands are.

Also, keep in mind that cheese is very calorie dense, so even though it is super low in carbohydrates, it is easy to eat too many calories when your diet contains a lot of cheese.


Side Dishes: Salads and Vegetables


Sauteed Ham and Brussels Sprouts in a Skillet
Acceptable Low-Carb Side Dishes: Salad or Non-Starchy Vegetables

Next to protein foods, salads and vegetables are the mainstay of your low-carb diet. They will keep you from getting bored with just eating meat, and vegetables can be fixed in dozens of different ways

While the media often portrays a low-carb diet as heaps of bacon and greasy burgers, most low-carb dieters do not eat that way.

Initially, most of the carbohydrates in your diet should come from leafy greens and other low-starch vegetables, such as:

artichokes
asparagus
avocado
beet greens
bok choy
broccoli
brussels sprouts
cabbage
cauliflower
celery
chard
cucumber
eggplant
green beans
kale
leeks
mushrooms
okra
olives
onions, all types
peppers
pumpkin
radishes
sauerkraut
snow peas
spaghetti squash
spinach
summer squash
tomatoes
turnips
wax beans

In addition, fresh or dried herbs and spices are also acceptable. Just make sure that you keep an eye on the carb count. Some seasonings like garlic or onion powder have more carbs than you might think.

Also, keep in mind that some people have trouble losing weight when eating too many vegetables, but it isn't common to be that insulin resistant. Most people can handle 12 to 15 net carbs of vegetables per day, even those with severe insulin resistance issues like PCOS.

You do want to avoid vegetables that come with fake-butter sauces, due to their increased carbs, but most steamer varieties are fine. If you prefer processed vegetables, just make sure that veggies are the only thing in the package or can, except for maybe salt.

Fats, Oils, and Salad Dressings


Butter Fashioned into a Rose
Fats are Used to Control Your Calorie Intake.
Dr. Atkins Recommended You Eat Fat Found in Nature.



People who hang out in low-carb forums often praise the healthy benefits of added fats. Like protein foods, fat has little to no carbs, so many people on low-carb diets eat huge quantities of fat. While some of what they say is true, most of what you hear won't be.

For decades, people have swallowed the myth that increasing the amount of fat in your diet will set you up for heart disease and other health problems. On a high-carb diet, eating lots of fat will definitely do that. However, low-carb diets are different.

Since carbohydrate restriction causes the body to burn fat for fuel, your triglycerides will generally go down, your HDL will go up, and your total cholesterol number will improve.

You don't need to be afraid of fat, but that doesn't mean you can gorge on real butter, heavy cream, and cheesecake every single day and still shed pounds. Since adequate protein is a set amount and carbs are kept to your tolerance level, the best way to adjust your calorie intake is by upping or lowering your fats.

Most fats and oils are carb free and allowed on a low-carb diet. This includes:

bacon fat
butter
chicken skin
coconut oil
cream cheese
fish oil capsules
pork, beef, or chicken lard
pork rinds
mayonnaise
salad dressings, like ranch or Italian
sour cream
vegetable, seed, and nut oils

It is often suggested that salad dressings need to be free of added sugars. However, I have never been that vigilant myself. 

While I avoid sweet dressings, unless made with sugar substitutes, I don't worry about the small amount of sugar in mayo or a bottled dressing when I eat at someone's house. At home, I simply make my own salad dressings.

More importantly, in my own experience, is serving size.

Four to six tablespoons of salad dressing, unless you're eating a huge dinner salad, is far more than you need. Same goes for butter and other fats. A tablespoon or two per meal is plenty.

Fruits, Seeds, and Nuts


Strawberry-Blueberry Salad
While Low-Sugar Fruits are Acceptable on Low Carb,
It's Best to Wait and Add Them Later On

Since this is a beginner's guide for general low-carb dieting, you need to know that many dieters enjoy returning low-glycemic fruits, nuts, and seeds to their diet after the first few weeks. It is not recommended to eat them initially due to their addictive nature and the way the body processes them.

Some people find fruits and nuts will ignite their cravings for other sweet foods that are not on plan, while other people won't be able to control themselves and will overeat the foods themselves. I happen to fall in the second category. I cannot have mixed nuts in the house. Like that old potato chip commercial that says, "bet you can't eat just one," that's how mixed nuts affect me. I can't stop eating them.

For that reason, it is best to wait and experiment with low-carb foods one at a time, so you can carefully watch how your mind, body, and emotions react to each food individually.

Water, Diet Soda, and Other Low-Carb Beverages


Glass of Water with a Slice of Lemon
Drink Adequate Water,
at Least 8 Cups a Day
in Addition to Other Drinks




Water is essential to a low-carb diet. You need to drink a minimum of 8 cups of water per day, which doesn't include tea, coffee, or soft drinks. Many people believe you need a lot more.

The formula we used in 2007 was to drink one-half of your current body weight in ounces. Since I started the Atkins Diet at 256-1/2 pounds, a gallon of water was more than I could drink without triggering a vertigo episode. I did better on three quarts of water instead.

Diet soda and low-carb beverages also come with a cloud of controversy. Some people swear off all sugar substitutes and insist all low-carb dieters do the same. Others don't have a problem with them.

I drank diet sodas throughout my weight-loss phase and never had them affect my cravings or fat loss. There have been times that I stopped drinking them, to see if my health would improve as these rigorous dieters claimed, but after 3 or 4 years of being diet-soda free, my health still didn't improve, so I went back to drinking them again.

Although coffee and tea don't count as water, they are fine to drink on a low-carb diet. I have a large travel mug full of coffee every morning.

Just be careful about the amount of sugar substitute you use, since those little packets are not carb free. Also, be careful when you measure your heavy cream for your coffee. While the carton might say zero carbs, a cup of heavy cream actually has 6.6 grams of carbohydrate.

Some people have said that caffeine can cause hypoglycemic episodes, but I've never experienced that due to caffeine. I have heard that sugar substitutes can cause cravings in some individuals, and they do keep your sweet tooth alive, but I'm not convinced that is a bad thing.

The aim of going low carb is to turn the diet into a lifestyle, and living without ever having anything sweet just isn't living to me.

If you are dairy free, unsweetened soy milk, almond milk, or full-fat coconut milk is also fine. Just make sure that you keep an accurate record of the carbs.

Low-Carb Specialty Products


Low-carb products can really perk up your meals if you use them sparingly. However, most products like:
  • low-carb tortillas
  • pastas
  • bars
  • special mixes
are made with low-carb flours, so they can be a quick way to derail your diet before you get started.

While some low-carb flour alternatives, such as almond flour and coconut flour, are healthy options, it's best to save all low-carb products for later on, after you've adjusted to your eating plan. Get the basics down first before you start experimenting.

Most products are heavy on wheat protein or modified cornstarch, and if you have a wheat or corn sensitivity that you don't know about, the resulting inflammation will cause you to stall. In addition, trying to imitate your old diet can ignite cravings, although that never happened for me.

What did happen for me was that the upswing in gluten caused my celiac disease symptoms to really ramp up. I went from basically being asymptomatic (no obvious symptoms other than the associated conditions of vertigo and neuropathy) to complete digestive and intestinal distress.

You need to be very careful when returning any form of wheat to your diet.

Is Alcohol Allowed on a Low-Carb Diet?


I get this question quite frequently.

Since this is a beginner's guide to low-carb diets, you'll see the best results from your diet efforts if you can refrain from using alcohol for the first several weeks.

If you can't do that, which I completely understand, you'll have to accept the fact that drinking alcohol will cause your fat loss to stop until the body completely processes those alcohol carbs and calories. 

Many forms of alcohol, such as distilled spirits, are carbohydrate free. Other forms like wine or low-carb beer do contain a few carbs that you need to be aware of.

While alcohol won't kick you out of ketosis, all fat loss will completely stop until the body gets rid of it.


Putting Together a Low-Carb Meal Plan


When you're used to padding your meals with lots of carbohydrate foods, it can be difficult to figure out what to eat on a low-carb diet. You'll find a ton of resources for that here on the blog. From the easiest way to go low carb to choosing the best low-carb diet plan, we have a wide variety of:

menu templates to make planning easy

as well as a huge list of what I used to eat in 2007 and 2008 when I was in my weight-loss phase.



This beginner's guide to low-carb diets is quite lengthy, so If you can't find the help you're looking for, drop me an email or leave a comment in the comment section below.


Comments

  1. This article clears up so many issues and reinforces a major concept for me. The low carb diet is essentially a way of eating for other benefits than just weight loss. I think you've said this before in other articles.

    Because of the word "diet" in the marketing of this eating plan, many people see this diet as another in the quick weight loss phenomenon. I can see why people move from happiness with the initial weight( which is not fat loss) to thinking that they can manipulate the system for more weight loss, which isn't true.

    Since one of the benefits of this diet is that of feeling better, that could be a driver for people to stay on this diet. Yet when they start manipulating the diet( protein and carb recommendations) they mess up the effects of the diet which could lead to frustration or return to some health. Hence, they blame themselves or the eating plan.

    So the bottom line is that this diet is actually a physical lifestyle change which requires a higher level of awareness of the science of foods until one has mastery over the science which leads to fine tuning of the best eating plan for their biology.

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    1. Wow. Great insights. I appreciate all that you've shared here. The new research I've been looking at is really a game-changer for me, but it sure has other low-carb advocates struggling to breathe. You are so right that low carb has many heath benefits that make it worth looking into for reasons other than weight loss.

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  2. I really appreciate the info you provided. As someone who is very new to LC diet I have been innadated with information on Facebook which has left me confused with differences between terminologies such as PALEO, Low Carb, Keto diet etc & there didn't seem to be any base line for # of carbs, going from zero to over 100. Luckily obesity is my only (& I say that sarcstically) so I don't have the diabetic concerns. All my blood work is well within normal ranges. So if my main concern is my addiction to high carb foods & the fact I am 63 & have been dieting as long as I can remember, have severe osteoarthritis in both knees which are working bone on bone & advised I need knee replacement but they want some weight gone ...I presently weigh 296...what is your suggestion of how to star, # of carbs per day. Any assistance would be more than greatly appreciated.

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    1. Both the Atkins Diet and Keto recommend that you begin with 20 net carbs per day. This will help to curb your appetite and help with any cravings. Atkins doesn't have a calorie limit on what you can eat, they simply say to eat until you're satisfied, but you do have to stick with a list of acceptable foods.

      Phase 1 acceptable food list can be found at: https://www.atkins.com/how-it-works/atkins-20/phase-1/low-carb-foods

      You follow it for 2 weeks, and then if you're losing weight, you can go on to Phase 2.

      The Keto diet talked about on Facebook is probably Nutritional Ketosis, and not the real Keto Diet. Nutritional Ketosis is super high in fat and more appropriate for those with severe insulin resistance.

      I'd start with the Atkins Diet and see how you do. You can always cut down on fat calories if you need to.

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  3. I just ran across your blog as I was Google searching not losing on a ketogenic diet. I should add that I had gastric bypass in 2003, so I don't know if that has any effect on this. I was technically low carb at around 50 grams a day a few weeks before I dropped to 20 total carbs per day. Tomorrow will be the end of my 4th week. And my problem is I have only lost 2 lbs in 4 weeks! I am assuming I didn't have the water weight loss because I was lower carbs to begin with. I was previously on just a low calorie diet and have lost 45 lbs since February 17th 2016. Is this a normal thing? Weight loss is my goal, but I seemed to have greater success with a low carb (50 grams per day), high protein, and low fat. I know low carb is where I need to be, but I think the high fat of keto is keeping me from losing further. Do you have any insights that may help?

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    1. Two pounds in 4 weeks is slow, but normal.

      Moving from a low-carb diet of 50 grams per day to a very low-carb diet of 20 grams per day won't speed up weight loss.

      Carbohydrate restriction gets rid of cravings and excess hunger that makes low calorie dieting difficult, but it isn't magic. You still have to eat at a calorie deficit. On low carb, fats is what you use to control your calorie deficit.

      A 45 pound weight loss since mid February is good. That's 7 or 8 pounds a month. Are you eating the same number of calories you were eating then? Or are you eating more now, due to the higher fat? How quickly was the weight coming off at 50 carbs with lower fat?

      The bottom line is which way of eating to you prefer?

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  4. The low carb tortilla is not good to eat?

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    1. It depends on which low-carb diet you're following, and if you are just starting out or have been eating low carb for a while now. The ingredients in the tortillas matter too. Some have wheat, while others are made with coconut flour.

      The Keto Diet lets you eat low-carb tortillas right away. It doesn't matter what the ingredients are, as long as you can fit them into your personal plan. The Atkins Diet does not. The first 2 weeks is very restrictive. Atkins lets you add them back later on.

      In general, you need to be very careful with low-carb tortillas, as well as other low-carb products, because a lot of people are sensitive to wheat but don't know it. Many low-carb products have a high amount of wheat protein in them, which is low in carbs, but not good if you're allergic to wheat or gluten intolerant.

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  5. I started low-carb 4 days ago because i was feeling bloated (esp face) and horrible in the morning. It would take hours to go away, sometimes would last all day. I'd be depressed and miserable. I felt poisoned. Figured it was the high-carb junk food I was eating esp after dinner and decided to try low-carb.

    I'm generally healthy, 54, female, 5'3", 130, would like to lose 10-15 pounds. I'm not a sugar addict, didn't eat a huge amount of carbs before and have never been overweight. I'm doing this more to feel better but I really do want to get rid of this fat belly and other excess poundage.

    I"m not fantatical about counting carbs, nor am I fanatical about sticking to 20 carbs/day. I refuse to give up milk (I prefer skim, and cannot drink fatty milk (stomach upset). I've cut back to 1-2 cups a day though. I think I'm probably eating, so far, around 30 carbs/day. (That's a guess, might be less).

    Will I lose weight seeing as I don't have a lot to lose? If I have to count calories, forget it. I'm not doing this! Cannot stand it, can't stay on it, and won't do it.

    Thanks for your very insightful blog.

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    1. Calories are always the driving force of any and all weight-loss diets, but there are ways to eat less without actually counting them. Have you looked into the possibility of gluten intolerance? If you were eating high-carb wheat-based junk foods after dinner, and bloated in the morning, you might have a wheat allergy or sensitivity. Inflammation can do some wacky things to you.

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  6. Hi Vicki, thanks for the reply. The crap I was eating wasn't wheat based. It was either pure carbs/fat (chocolate) or salty snacks (corn based). I wasn't a huge wheat or carb eater, but I did eat a fair share.

    I'm now on day 8 of LCHF. I've lost 2 pounds (I think, scale still fluctuates) but more importantly, I feel slimmer, and even more importantly, I feel so much better. Last night I made pasta sauce (puttanesca) (my favorite), at ca. 3 carbs/half cup. Had it on chicken instead of pasta. In the past if I had that on pasta I'd wake up totally bloated (big time). Blamed it on the salt in the sauce. Well..Nope!! This morning I woke up feeling great, not bloated at all!!! Only thing that had changed was no pasta.

    So, I suppose it's possible I have a wheat intolerance. Doesn't matter--I know I enjoy eating low carb so far because of how great i feel for most of the day.

    However--by 2-3 pm I start to feel irritable. And, working out I get tired really easily. This is something that didn't happen before I was eating LCHF. Will this pass since I just started? I don't like the fatigue and irritability since I feel so good otherwise.

    (Sorry for long reply lol).

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    1. Long replies are great, especially when you're sharing something so positive. If the bloating is coming from wheat intolerance, then you'll need to steer clear of wheat-based low-carb products is all. I talk a lot about Atkins and Keto right now, because I'm trying to get the links for those pages organized, but I do plan to create a page specific to LCHF too. Many people find that way of eating more successful. I just don't have a lot of experience with it since it didn't work for me. So I LOVE it when people share their success with it.

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  7. Hi Vickie, I'm certaninly not a beginner to low carb eating -- I've been following a LC eating plan for a year and 8 months, and lost 70 pounds. However about 6 months ago my weight loss stalled with 15 pounds still to lose. I'm 56, 5'6" and have no health issues except that I'm overweight. Since I still want to lose those last 15 pounds, I'm now ready to reevaluate what I'm eating and make changes so that I can achieve that. I stumbled on your article while searching and found it very beneficial to my "re-starting." I think what happened to me and why my weightloss stalled is because I read a book about LCHF and thought adding coconut oil to my diet would be beneficial. I did that without regard to counting calories. BIG mistake. Also, as I look back, I realize I was eating WAY too many nuts. Like you mention they affect you, nuts are something I cannot stop eating. I love them! So, no more nuts in the house! For the last three days, I've gone back to the basics -- weighing/measuring and recording everything I eat. AND not eating more than 20 carbs a day -- "actual" carbs, not net carbs. Alredy I've noticed how much better I feel. I think during these last 6 months (when my weightloss was stalled) I allowed some of my bad habits to creep back in. I do think I've got things under control again. Thank you for the article you wrote as it made many things about the biology of LC eating more clear to me. If you have time and wish to respond to my post, I'd welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

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    1. Congratulations on your 70 pound loss! That's fantastic! And, I am so glad to hear you found the article useful!

      Stalling shortly before reaching your target weight so common. Those last 15 pounds can be difficult, though, because your calorie deficit will be pretty small. Just make sure you have one, though.

      I think how you've chosen to handle the situation is great! Looking back over my own weight-loss journey, I really believe that Old-School Atkins is the way to go. Go back to the basics. No net carbs. See how your body responds.

      When you do try to add something back, start with only a very small amount, and pay close attention to how different foods affect you. Only add back ONE food at a time. Not an entire food group. We are all unique, so which low-carb foods you can eat will also be unique. I have a friend who had to drop cream cheese, pork rinds, Atkins bars, and even cut back on the amount of lettuce she was eating to get those last 15 pounds to go, so sometimes, even the basics are not enough.

      Insulin sensitivity gets better as you get closer to what you want to weigh, but calories really begin to matter a whole lot by then and most of what my friend cut out were the high-calorie foods she was eating. She's been maintaining since 2007, so it definitely works if you're willing to do whatever it takes.

      Keep in touch and let me know how it goes for you.

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    2. Thank you so much for your quick response, Vickie! When I get to maintenance, I will do as you suggest, add only one food back at a time and wait to see what happens.

      I do have a calorie deficit -- I used a calculator I found on-line. According to it, I'm to eat about 1400 calories on days I'm less active, and 1500 on the days I incorporate exercise. So I will keep that in mind as I'm losing weight. I mentioned above that I really didn't count calories which is what may have been a big part in my stalling.

      I will keep in touch! And again, thank you very much for commenting on my post. Your words of wisdom have given me great motivation!

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    3. You're very welcome. I've found that a lot of readers actually take the time to read through all of the comments, so my advice was for you as well as for them. I'm super short, only 5 ft tall, but found my magic number for fat was 60 grams. That was closer to 55 percent fat than the 60 to 80 that is commonly quoted within low-carb circles, but eating only 60 grams of fat also drove my total calories quite low. I've learned more from reading the "maintainers" at Low Carb Friends than I have from those struggling to get there.

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