A Low-Carb Diet for Beginners – The Ultimate Guide

One of the most popular diet plans is the low carb diet. There are quite a few to choose from, and each one is a little different. 

My approach to losing body fat and keeping it off has been using a low carb plan. It’s one of the most popular diet plans and it’s one of the most effective ways to lose fat. 

This guide will cover the low carb diet for beginners and tell you everything you need to know. Let’s get going!

What Is Low Carb?

Low carb means your diet consists of 100g or less per day of carbohydrates. 

For some, low carb can be as low as 50g or less per day. The number depends on such factors as body weight and goals. Also, the number of carbs that make up “low carb” will vary by diet. 

Many low carb diets cycle carb intake. In a case like this, low carb is usually 50g or less, but the number of carbs will vary during a week’s worth of eating. 

If you are on a diet that does not advocate cycling, your daily carb intake will be steady and should be tweaked to allow you to lose body fat consistently. 

So, if you are exercising and eating healthy, you will either be following a specific plan that dictates your daily carb intake or in some cases, you will adjust carbs as you go along. 

The key here is that you do not want to lose fat too quickly. Why? The answer is that fast fat loss means you are losing muscle, water, and fat. The net result is that you won’t look that much different, just smaller. 

On the other hand, if you focus on fat loss, and you are exercising as well as eating enough protein, you will lose fat and maintain muscle. Some may say you can gain muscle on a low carb diet, but usually muscle gain and calorie restriction don’t work well together.

When it comes to carbs, the most important aspect to look at is the type of carbohydrate. Is it a simple, sugary carb, or a complex, slow-digesting carb? 

If you are cutting carbs for the first time, you should begin by cutting sugar. Your daily gram total of carbs will drop just by reducing your sugar intake. 

Learn to read nutrition facts labels. If you see the sugar content is a double-digit number, you’re eating too much sugar. 

So, low carb is mainly a definition of the specific diet you are following. If carbs are low, you should be eating adequate protein and healthy fats.

Benefits Of A Low-Carb Diet

  • Fast Fat Loss – Reducing carbohydrate intake, especially simple, sugary carbs, is one of the easiest ways to get started on a fat loss program. A low carb approach helps reduce excess water weight, decrease cravings, and lower insulin spikes. Also, as the body uses up stored carbohydrates in the form of glycogen for energy, it switches to stored fat instead. (1, 2, 3)
  • Reduced Belly Fat – Often, belly fat is referred to as “stubborn” fat. This is because the type of fat stored in this area is different from other parts of the body. The two primary types of fat stored in the body are subcutaneous fat – the fat under your skin, and visceral fat fat stored in the abdominal region and is common in men that are overweight. A low carb diet helps target this area of stored fat. (4)
  • Decreased Cravings – Research suggests that when a person switches to more protein and fat in their diet, they eat fewer total calories. It’s also thought that low carb diets shut down a hormone called ghrelin, also called the “hunger hormone”. (5, 6)
  • Decreased Blood Sugar Levels – Low carb diets are effective in controlling insulin spikes. This is due to lower sugar intake. Also, a lack of carbs is helpful for diabetics and individuals that have insulin resistance. For reference, let’s define insulin resistance: This is when your muscle, liver, and fat cells do not respond well to insulin and can’t use glucose in the blood as energy. In response, your pancreas makes more insulin. Over time, your levels of blood sugar go up. Research suggests that a low carb diet can significantly lower insulin and blood sugar levels. (7, 8)
  • Reduced Risk of Heart Disease – Studies indicate that a low carb diet helps reduce the risk of heart disease. One way a low carb diet benefits heart health is by reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol. (9)
  • Improved Cognitive Function – Although the research is not conclusive, it’s believed that a low carb diet improves cognitive function. While it’s true your brain needs glucose, it will utilize ketones in the absence of glucose. Ketones are the energy molecules from fat and are a primary component of the Keto diet. (10)

Different Types Of Low-Carb Diets

The following are the current most common versions of low carb diets:

Basic Low Carb Diet

For many people, especially bodybuilders and athletes, a basic low carb diet consists of low carb/high protein/moderate fats. 

In terms of grams, as noted above, the number of carbs that can be considered “low” is based on such factors as weight and how active you are. 

Approximately 20% or less of your daily calories should come from slow-digesting carb sources, with at least 40% coming from protein, and 30-40% from fat. These figures are adjustable, you can eat more protein and less fat if you wish. 

For most people, this is just a starting point, and typically anyone beginning a low carb diet will start by reducing sugar. This step alone will also reduce total carb intake and calories.

The Atkins Diet 

This diet has been around since 1972 and was developed by Dr. Robert Atkins. 

The Atkins diet consists of 4 phases: The four phases include:

  • Phase 1: Carb total is 20–25 grams, plus protein, cheese, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
  • Phase 2: Carb total is 25–50 grams, followers begin eating fruit that’s low in sugar, as well as legumes, and other vegetables.
  • Phase 3: If followers are within 10 pounds of their goal weight, they can increase carbs to 50–80 grams, and begin eating starchy vegetables and whole grains.
  • Phase 4: To keep body weight stable, followers can steadily increase carb consumption by 5 grams at a time. They can consume any food they want as long as they stay within their daily carb total.

The Keto Diet 

The Ketogenic (or, Keto) Diet was created in the early 1920’s. Back then, it was used for epilepsy therapy. There are several variations of this diet, which we will discuss below. 

In general, carb intake on any version of the Keto is 20g or less. Some versions allow more carbs around the workout. 

The Standard Keto Diet is the classic version, and it’s a medium-high protein, moderately high fat, low carb diet plan.

This version is best suited for people  that lead sedentary lifestyles. If these users exercise, their exercise performance is not affected by a lower intake of carbohydrates. 

Modified Keto Versions 

There are several variations of the Keto Diet, as follows:

Targeted Keto Dieting (TKD)—This version allows followers to have planned periods of carbohydrate consumption. This is mainly in the hours that surround a workout to provide glucose for training energy.

One of the goals of the Keto Diet is that followers reduce carbs to the point of entering “ketosis”, which is the state where the body burns fat for energy.

This version of the Keto Diet is designed to boost workout performance. Also, it will not have an impact on ketosis beyond the length of the workout. 

Cyclical Keto Dieting (CKD)—This version of the Keto diet utilizes carb cycling. This approach is meant to restore glycogen stores which have been depleted from restricting your calories. For bodybuilders and athletes, this is the most popular version of the keto diet.

High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD) – This version is the same as the Standard Keto Diet, but it allows higher protein intake.

The Paleo Diet

Like the Keto Diet, there are several versions of Paleo. The basic version follows one primary rule: if it’s processed, don’t eat it. 

Paleo is sometimes known as the Caveman diet. It’s a high-protein, low-carb whole food diet that’s  based on the eating habits of our caveman ancestors. 

With Paleo, your macronutrient totals are not tracked. Any version of the Paleo diet is a lifestyle, not a short-term diet. 

Modified Paleo Versions 

The basic Paleo diet has quite a few limitations. For that reason, there are several versions of this diet. 

These versions allow healthy foods that are not allowed in the original version. These include dairy (yogurt, eggs, and cheese), multi grains, and beans . This makes Paleo less strict and more flexible. 

Whole30 

Whole30 is a one month program created in 2009 by two sports nutritionists, Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig. The diet acts as a detox, where dieters can only eat certain foods for 30 days. 

South Beach Diet

The South Beach Diet was developed in 2003 by a cardiologist, Arthur Agatston. 

It’s a three-phase high-protein, low carb diet that includes three meals and two snacks per day. Exercise is suggested. 

The diet is based on suggested foods, total grams are not typically counted. The three phases include:

Phase 1 – Followers eat specific high-protein, low-carb foods.

Phase 2 – Specific healthy complex carbs are slowly introduced.

Phase 3 – This is the maintenance phase. All foods are allowed in moderation with the emphasis on protein, and on the healthy food choices learned in the other 2 phases.

Carb Cycling 

This is common among bodybuilders and athletes. This approach is based around the typical bodybuilding diet approach of high protein. 

It will also include low to moderate healthy fats and complex carbs. Simple carbs may be used in moderation post-workout. 

Followers will use a low/moderate/high carb approach. This might mean 2 days 50g or less, 2-3 days 50-80g, and 1-2 days 100-150g. 

Some bodybuilders will replace carbs with fats, creating more of a Vince Gironda-like high protein, high-fat diet.

Intermittent Fasting 

This is less of a diet plan and more of a lifestyle. Followers eat within a predetermined time frame of usually 8 hours, followed by a fast of 16 hours. Typically, they will eat a low carb, high protein diet.

Low-Carb Tips And Guidelines

Read Labels & Count Macronutrient Grams – If you are trying to eat healthier and lose body fat, one of the best things you can do is learn to read the nutrient facts on every food you are considering eating. Know how much sugar it contains, how many total carbs, and how much fiber. Other important totals would be sodium content, fats, and protein. 

Track Grams Of Sugar – As noted above, sugar should be in the single digits for any food you plan to eat, and your total for a meal should also be in the single digits. This one step alone will go a long way in lowering your carb intake. Of the two kinds of carbs, simple and complex, sugar is a simple carb that causes insulin spikes. These spikes lead to any excess sugar in the bloodstream being stored as fat. Keep your sugar under 10g, and carbs will follow. 

Track Fiber – Fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates. As an example, if your food of choice has 20g carbs that include 7g sugar, check the fiber content. If there’s 5g fiber, that effectively reduces the number of carbs that the body will absorb. This means if your food of choice is double-digit sugar, say 10-15g, a good fiber content can help reduce the negative effect. 

Stay Active – One of the keys to fat loss is to be as active as possible. Losing fat begins in the kitchen, but can’t be fully accomplished without consistent exercise. This can be 3-4 resistance workouts in a week with extra cardio. It can also be a brisk 20-30 minute walk a few times a week, or just getting in a predetermined number of steps every day. Being active in these ways is helpful. It’s important to note that for best results, a resistance exercise program should be the cornerstone of any complete approach to being more active.

Drink Plenty Of Water – One of the easiest ways to reduce carb intake is to stop drinking soda, fruit juice, and even regular milk. All of these contain sugar. Increase your water intake to help you stay hydrated and control hunger. You can also drink coffee/tea with no sugar, or any of the low calorie, low carb milk alternatives. 

Plan Ahead – You know your schedule better than anyone. Plan your eating based on how your day looks. For some, a busy lifestyle may mean relying on protein shakes and bars instead of whole food meals. For others, you may be able to eat mostly whole food meals, but may have an occasional problem where you need something fast and easy. Again, a protein bar or shake, or maybe a single-serving package of nuts, can help if time is limited.

Don’t Starve Yourself – It’s easy to under-eat when you are dieting. If you have pre-planned totals for carbs, protein, fats, and total calories, don’t be afraid to eat, as long as you stay in your total carbohydrate range. Make healthy choices, and enjoy your food. If you’re always starving, you won’t last on a diet. 

Sample Menu Of A Low-Carb Diet

Here are some diet-specific examples of a menu plan for one day:

Atkins:

Breakfast – 2 scrambled eggs with low-fat cheese, peppers and mushrooms, and 1 slice of buttered whole-wheat toast

Lunch – Tuna salad and a green salad with low sugar/low carb dressing 

Snack – Celery with hummus 

Dinner – 6oz hamburger with low-fat cheese and 1-cup green beans 

Dessert – 1/2 cup of strawberries with 1 tbsp whip topping 

Keto:

Breakfast – 3-egg omelet with cheese and sausage, spinach optional

Lunch – A bacon (3-4oz), lettuce, and tomato salad

Dinner – 4oz Baked salmon with asparagus

Low Carb/High Protein:

Breakfast – 3 eggs scrambled with low-fat cheese; 1 slice whole-wheat toast buttered

Snack – Protein shake (20-30g protein, almond milk/coconut milk or cold water)

Lunch – Green salad with grilled chicken slices (3-4oz chicken)

Snack – Protein shake or bar (same as above)

Dinner – 6oz Turkey burger with cheese, 1 cup veggies

Summary

A low carb diet is one of the best ways to lose fat. It can also be a long-term eating plan that lets you look your best and feel great. The right low carb diet plan for you is always the one that suits your goals the most. Use this guide and see how effective a low carb diet for beginners can be!

References:

  1. Hu, T., Mills, K. T., Yao, L., Demanelis, K., Eloustaz, M., Yancy, W. S., Jr, Kelly, T. N., He, J., & Bazzano, L. A. (2012). Effects of low-carbohydrate diets versus low-fat diets on metabolic risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. American journal of epidemiology, 176 Suppl 7(Suppl 7), S44–S54. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kws264
  2. Tiwari, S., Search for more papers by this author, Riazi, S., Ecelbarger, C., Address for reprint requests and other correspondence: C. A. Ecelbarger, Irsik, D., . . . Carranza, A. (2007, October 01). Insulin’s impact on renal sodium transport and blood pressure in health, obesity, and diabetes. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajprenal.00149.2007
  3. Volek, J. S., & Westman, E. C. (2002). Very-low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets revisited. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 69(11), . https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.69.11.849
  4. Volek, J., Sharman, M., Gómez, A., Judelson, D., Rubin, M., Watson, G., Sokmen, B., Silvestre, R., French, D., & Kraemer, W. (2004). Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-1-13
  5. McClernon, F. J., Yancy, W. S., Jr, Eberstein, J. A., Atkins, R. C., & Westman, E. C. (2007). The effects of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet and a low-fat diet on mood, hunger, and other self-reported symptoms. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 15(1), 182–187. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2007.516
  6. Klok, M. D., Jakobsdottir, S., & Drent, M. L. (2007). The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 8(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x
  7. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/insulin+resistance
  8. https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-2-34
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4351995/
  10. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1474442208700929
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