March 1, 2019
By Anthony Auriemma, MD, JD
A low carb diet can be a powerful tool for treatment of excess weight. In addition to helping with weight reduction, a low carb diet can be helpful in treating conditions such as diabetes and sleep apnea. A low carb diet is typically defined as a diet containing less than 100 grams/day of carbohydrates. A low carbohydrate ketogenic diet reduces carbohydrate intake to 20-50 grams/day. Carbohydrates can be difficult to avoid due to the overabundance of carbohydrates in our food supply. However, with proper planning, knowing what to eat on a low carb diet can be simple. Additionally, many fast food restaurants now offer low carb options or modifications to their traditional food options.
What Are Carbohydrates?
The human body derives energy to function from fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. All food, except for alcohol, is made up of either one or some combination of these macronutrients. Carbohydrates are typically the predominant source of energy for the body. However, in the absence or reduction of carbohydrates, energy needs can be met by protein and fat.
Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars in the gastrointestinal tract which are then absorbed by the body. Once absorbed by the body, sugars enter the blood stream. The body uses a hormone called insulin to help regulate the amount of sugar in the blood stream. When carb consumption is reduced, the body creates less insulin. The reduction of insulin production is one of the major benefits of treating disease like diabetes and obesity with a low carb diet.
Low Carb Breakfasts
The typical American diet is loaded with carbohydrates and added sugars. Even “healthy” cereals or your morning “coffee” can be loaded with sugar and carbs. Breakfast is an important meal to get right on a low carb diet. Low carb breakfasts could include: Scrambled Eggs with Bacon, Veggie Omelet, Hard Cheese with Salami, Avocado with Smoked Salmon, Low Carb Pancakes.
My favorite low carb pancake recipe:
Low-Carb Oatmeal Pancakes
Ingredients (makes 8 small pancakes):
- 3/4 cups old-fashioned oatmeal (steamed and rolled oats)
- 1/2 cup cottage cheese (or Greek Yogurt)
- 4 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Butter for cooking
- Mix first five ingredients in a large bowl and use immediately or refrigerate overnight (refrigerating helps the pancakes stick together more easily).
- Melt butter in pan and pour a little less than 1/4 cup of the batter into pan. Spread batter evenly on pan and cook on medium heat.
- Cook until pancake is lightly browned on the bottom side (you will be able to see brown edges). Flip the pancake and cook until lightly browned on the other side.
Note: You can keep batter in the refrigerator for up to four days and make fresh pancakes each morning.
Nutrition Facts (per serving, 2 small pancakes): 234 calories, 11g carbs, and 12 g protein
Low Carb Lunches
The sandwich and burger have become the go-to lunches for generations. Even when we try to reduce carb intake by switching to a salad, many salads have even more carbohydrates than a sandwich due to the addition of dried fruits and salad dressing to the salad. Low carb lunches could include: unwich (sandwich wrapped in lettuce instead of bread), salad with a protein on top, burger without the bun.
My favorite low carb lunch recipe:
Zucchini Taco Boats
- 4 medium zucchinis, cut in half lengthwise
- ½ cup salsa
- 1 lb ground beef, chicken or turkey
- ½ small white onion, minced
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup Mexican blend, shredded cheese
- Optional toppings: salsa, guacamole, sour cream
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring large pot of water to a boil. Place ½ cup salsa in bottom of large baking dish.
- Using a spoon, hollow out the centers of Zucchini halves. Dice the scooped out zucchini flesh to use as part of the filling.
- Cook zucchini halves in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Remove from water and set inside baking dish.
- Brown and stir ground meat in skillet, until crumbled. When no longer pink, add taco seasoning and mix well. Add onion, reserved zucchini flesh, tomato sauce, and water. Stir and cover, simmering on low heat for about 20 minutes.
- Use a spoon to fill the hollowed out zucchini halves with taco meat. Press down firmly, and sprinkle cheese on top.
- Cover baking dish with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Use “optional toppings” of choice.
Nutrition Facts: (per serving, 2 zucchini halves): 300 calories, 15g carbs, and 31 g protein
Low Carb Dinners
Dinner can often be the easiest meal for compliance with a low carb food diet plan. Most dinners already include a protein, vegetable and starch. Therefore, for many a low carb diet is just a matter of eliminating the starch and staying away from starchy vegetables like corn and peas. Low carb dinners could include: steak with broccoli, chicken with riced cauliflower, broth based soup with a salad.
My favorite low carb dinner recipe:
Slow Cooker Spinach Artichoke Chicken
Ingredients (makes 4 servings):
- 8 cups loosely packed spinach leaves, chopped
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 4 (6 ounce) chicken breasts
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
- ¼ medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 Tablespoons cream cheese
- ¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 (14 ounce) can artichoke hearts
- 1 cup chopped grape or cherry tomatoes
- Place spinach, chicken broth, and chicken breasts in slow cooker. Sprinkle on garlic, onion, and salt/pepper to taste.
- Cover and cook on LOW for 6-8 hours, or on HIGH for 4-6 hours.
- Remove chicken breasts from slow cooker and place on serving platter.
- Stir cream cheese, parmesan cheese and artichokes into slow cooker until creamy.
- Spoon sauce over chicken.
- Top with chopped tomatoes.
Nutrition facts (per serving): 350 calories, 19g carbs, and 49 g protein
Serving Size: 1 chicken breast and ¼ spinach, tomatoes and artichokes
What to Avoid on a Low Carb Diet
One pitfall to avoid on a low carb diet plan is to understand net carbs. Many processed low carb diet foods advertise net carbs. Net carbs can be calculated by subtracting fiber from total number of carbs because fiber is not absorbed by the body. Additionally, in processed low carb diet foods, sugar alcohols (a sweetener) are only partially counted in total carbs. However, the utility of counting net carbs is not universally accepted and there is disagreement on whether some of these subtracted carbs are absorbed by the body. Therefore, I always recommend counting total carbs when following a low carb diet plan.
Another pitfall to avoid on a low carb diet plan is the focus on caloric dense foods like cheese and meats. Even though these foods are low carb, the high caloric density of the food can derail weight loss efforts. When eating mindfully on a low carb diet, your appetite is better regulated which can prevent overeating. A properly planned low carb diet plan should include a large amount of non-starchy vegetables. Vegetables are low energy density foods, therefore, can be consumed in a larger volume which helps with a sense of satiety/fullness when eating.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many carbohydrates should you be eating for weight loss?
There is not one set guideline for the exact number of "carbs" or carbohydrates a person should eat to help lose weight. What may work for one person will not work for others. An individual’s carbohydrate intake depends on several different factors: age, gender, physical activity, body composition, metabolic rate. Physically active individuals can tolerate more carbohydrates than those that are sedentary. Most individuals who remove processed or refined carbs out of their diet will notice a healthy change in their weight. It is recommended that individuals eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates, roughly 100-150 grams a day. Talking to a certified obesity medicine practitioner about appropriate diet and weight loss is one of the most effective ways to set up an individualized plan.
How many carbohydrates can you eat in a ketogenic diet?
A ketogenic diet is considered a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. Low intake of carbohydrates causes the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates to provide energy. In a typical ketogenic diet, carbohydrate consumption is limited to less than 50 grams per day. Daily dietary macronutrients in a ketogenic diet generally consist of 5-10 percent carbohydrates, 70-80 percent fats, and 10-20 percent proteins.
Which fruits and vegetables are lowest in carbohydrates?
Fruits are packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants essential for our bodies. Seasonal picks provide the most amount of nutrients. Low-carb fruits should be a part of the ketogenic lifestyle. Examples of low-carb fruits are raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, kiwi, peaches, clementines, and grapefruit. Vegetables contain fewer carbs, lower calories, and higher fiber than fruits. They are packed with phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and are an important part of any healthy diet. Low-carb vegetables include: alfalfa sprouts, celery, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, mustard greens, collard greens), broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, asparagus, and radishes.