Low Carb Diet 101: Benefits, Foods Allowed & Meal Plan

Clinical review: Tatiana Zanin
Registered Dietitian
March 2022
  1. Benefits 
  2. How to Start
  3. Meal Plan
  4. Foods Allowed
  5. Foods To Avoid
  6. Nutritional Info
  7. Recipes
  8. Contraindications

A low-carb diet involves reducing the consumption of foods that are high in carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, sugary foods and white rice. Instead, this diet involves higher intake of protein and healthy fats like nuts, olive oil, and avocado. 

This diet is a particularly attractive option for people looking to lose weight because it keeps you satiated and less hungry, while eating fewer calories.

Other than helping with weight loss, a low-carb diet is also free of processed foods and contains excellent amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It is beneficial for decreasing cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar levels levels, as well as preventing chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or obesity.

Main health benefits 

Following a low-carb diet can have several health benefits, such as:

  • Controlling hunger, as increasing protein, fibers, and fat intake promotes satiety for longer periods;
  • Reducing cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which reduces the risk of heart diseases;
  • Managing diabetes, as this diet helps regulate blood sugar;
  • Improving bowel function, as it's a diet rich in fiber;
  • Encouraging weight loss, due to the reduction of total calories and increase of fiber in the diet;
  • Fighting fluid retention, as it is a diet rich in water, and minerals such as potassium and magnesium, which increase the production of urine.

You should be monitored by a registered dietitian if you opt to start this diet, as the quantity and quality of carbohydrates may vary according to your individual needs and health status. 

How to start a low-carb diet

To start a low-carb diet, you must remove as many simple carbohydrates from your diet as possible. This includes sugar, white flour, white pasta, white rice and most processed foods. Depending on the number of carbohydrates in your diet, you may also need to restrict complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, oats or brown rice.

On average, a person will typically consume 250 grams of carbohydrates per day. In a low-carb diet however, carbs are restricted to 130 to 200 grams per day.

When the body is used to a daily portion of carbohydates, reducing amounts may result in some symptoms, like headaches, dizziness and mood swings. Therefore, low-carb diets should be gradually introduced to allow the body to adapt. 

A low-carb diet should be outlined with 3 main meals and 2 snacks, as frequent meals with smaller portions are much more optimal.   Breakfast and snacks should include eggs, cheese, nuts, avocado, or coconut. Lunch and dinner should be based on salads, protein, olive oil and only a small number of carbohydrates. 

3-day low-carb meal plan

The following table gives you an example of a 3-day low-carb meal plan:

Meal

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Breakfast

200 g (1 cup) of Greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon of honey + 1 slice of whole grain bread with one slice of mozzarella cheese + 3 tablespoons of mashed avocado 

1 cup of sugar-free coffee with 200 mL (1 cup) of coconut milk  + 2 scrambled eggs with a medium tomato and 1 tablespoon of basil 

1 cup of sugar-free coffee with 200 mL (1 cup) whole milk + 1 slice of wholegrain bread with 1 slice of smoked salmon  + 1/2 papaya

Morning Snack

1 sugar-free coffee with 1 cup coconut milk + 20 almonds

200 g (1 cup) Greek yogurt with a tablespoon of chia seeds  + 1 tangerine

1 medium apple + 10 almonds

Lunch

200 g (1 cup) of zucchini noodles with 50 grams (¼ cup) of homemade tomato sauce + 150 g (2/3 lb) minced meat + a salad made with lettuce, carrot, onion, topped with 1 tablespoon of olive oil + 1 large orange

150 g (2/3 cup) roasted salmon + 3 tablespoons of wholegrain rice + 1 cup of sauteed peppers, carrot, eggplant, and broccoli + 1 tablespoon of olive oil  + 1 medium slice of (90 g) melon

150 g (2/3 lb) grilled chicken breast  + 150 g (2/3 cup) of sweet potato puree + salad made with lettuce, tomato, onion, 3 tablespoons of avocado, seasoned with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and vinegar 

Afternoon snack

1 cup of sugar-free jello  +  50g (1/4 cup) of peanuts

Smoothie with 1/2 avocado, 1 tablespoon of oats, and 200 mL (1 cup) coconut milk + 10 hazelnuts

1 green smoothie prepared with 1 cabbage leaf, ½ lemon, 1/4 cucumber, 200 mL (1 cup) water and 1 tablespoon of chia seeds

Dinner

Spinach omelet with 2 eggs, 20 g (1/4 cup) sliced onion, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 125 g (1 cup) spinach, 50 g (1/3 cup) tomato, salt, and pepper  + a salad with 100 g (1/2 cup) of lentils, 50 g (1/4 cup) broccoli, and 50 g (1/4 cup) cauliflower + 1 medium pear (130 g)

2 medium eggplants filled with 150 g (2/3 cup) of tuna and 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese, grilled in the oven + salad with 100 g (1/2 cup) chickpeas and 50 g (1/3 cup) tomato

2 big red bell peppers (190 g) filled with 150 g mincemeat and 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese, grilled in the oven  + salad with 100 g soy beans, 50 g tomato, 50 g broccoli, and 50 g grated carrot  + 1 medium slice  (100 g) of watermelon 

Amount of carbohydrates

around 168 grams

around 142 grams

around 143 grams

The amount of carbohydrates included in this meal plan may vary according to age, gender, physical activity level, and health history. It's recommended to get a complete assessment by a dietitian in order to outline a more suitable meal plan for your individual needs.

There is another type of low-carb diet, know as keto diet, where the amount of carbohydrates is even lower, ranging from 20 to 50 grams a day, which makes the body go into ketosis, hence the name. This is when the body starts using fat as the main source of energy, helping burn fat more quickly. However, this diet is only indicated in some cases and should be done under medical supervision. Learn more about the keto diet.  

Foods Allowed

The foods that you can eat during a low carb diet include:

  • Fresh fruits (preferably unpeeled and in small quantities), such as apple, pear, kiwi, plum, orange, tangerine or papaya;
  • Vegetables (small portions), such as lettuce, arugula, tomato, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower;
  • Lean proteins, especially chicken and turkey without the skin;
  • Fish, preferably the fattier ones such as salmon, tuna, trout, or sardine;
  • Milk and milk products, such as cheese and yogurts;
  • Good fats, such as olive oil;
  • Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, and peanuts;
  • Seeds in general, such as chia, flax, sunflower, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds;
  • Water, sugar-free coffee and teas.

Milk can be substituted for vegetable-based drinks, such as coconut milk or almond milk.

Some foods have moderate amounts of carbohydrates, which may or may not be included by the dietitian in your low-carb diet plan. These include beans, lentils, wholegrain rice, sweet potato, yam, and pumpkin.  

Foods You Should Avoid

When following a low-carb diet, it's important to avoid foods that are rich in carbohydrates, such as:

  • Sugary foods: sodas, processed fruit juices, sweeteners, desserts;
  • Grains: white rice, white pasta, cassava, couscous;
  • Dried fruits: raisins, dried apricots, prunes;
  • Flours: tapioca, white flour, and foods prepared with flour, such as pancakes, cakes, and cookies. 

In addition to foods rich in carbohydrates, it's necessary to exclude most processed foods from your diet, since they tend to include higher amounts of hidden carbohydrates. It is also recommended to avoid having alcohol.

Amount of Carbs in Common Foods 

The following table contains some common foods and the amount of carbohydrates for 100 g:

Fruit

Amount of carbohydrates for each 100g

Avocado

6 g

Raspberry

5.1 g

Strawberry

6.8 g

Melon

7.5 g

Coconut

6.4 g

Grapefruit

6 g

Tangerine

9.6 g

Orange

8.9 g

Papaya

10.4 g

Pear

14 g

Blackberry

4.5 g

Cherry

13.3 g

Apple

15.2 g

Blueberry

6.4 g

Vegetables

Amount of carbohydrates per 100g

Spinach

2.6 g

Lettuce

1.7 g

Celery

4.3 g

Broccoli

4.4 g

Cucumber

2 g

Arugula

2.2 g

Watercress

2.3 g

Chicory

2.9 g

Zucchini

3.0 g

Onion

8.9 g

Tomato

3.1 g

Cauliflower

3.9 g

Cabbage

3.9 g

Carrot

6.7 g

Other foods

Amount of carbohydrates per 100g

Skim milk

4.9 g

Natural yogurt 

1.9 g

Butter

0.1 g

Pumpkin

10.8 g

Coconut milk

2.2 g

Yam

23.2 g

Wholegrain rice

25.8 g

Mozzarella cheese

3.0 g

Lentils

16.3 g

Potato

11.9 g

Black beans

14 g

Boiled rice

28 g

Sweet potato

18.4 g

Peanut

18.7 g

Healthy Low Carb Recipes

Here are some healthy and delicious recipes you can include in your low carb diet:

1. Zucchini noodles

100 grams contains about 59 calories, 1.1 g protein, 5 g fat, and 3 g carbohydrates.

Ingredients:

  • 1 small zucchini sliced into small strips;
  • 1 teaspoon of coconut oil or olive oil;
  • Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste;

Preparation method:

Slice the zucchini lengthways in the shape of spaghetti (there are also some slicers/peelers that can cut vegetables in the shape of spaghetti). In a frying pan, heat the coconut oil (or olive oil) and add the zucchini. Fry for about 5 minutes until the zucchini softens. Season with salt, garlic, and pepper. Turn off the heat and serve with tomato sauce, meat and vegetables.

2. Spinach tortilla 

A 80 gram portion provides approx. 107 calories, 4 g of protein, 9 g fat, and 2.5 g carbs.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups spinach or chard leaves;
  • 4 egg whites lightly beaten;
  • ½ sliced onion;
  • 1 teaspoon of spring onion;
  • Pinch of salt and pepper;
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil.

Preparation method:

Place the spinach leaves in a frying pan, cover, and keep on medium heat until they wilt (uncover and mix now and then). Then, remove from the heat and leave to rest for a few minutes on a plate.

In the same frying pan, place olive oil, onion, spring onions, salt, and pepper, and let the onion soften. Then add the egg whites and spinach, and leave to cook for another 5 minutes until the tortilla is golden on the bottom. Turn it and let it cook for another 5 minutes on the other side.

3. Stuffed cherry tomatoes

Four cherry tomatoes provides around 106 calories, 5 g of protein, 6 g of fat, and 5 g of carbohydrates.

Ingredients:

  • 20 cherry tomatoes;
  • 8 spoons (150 g) of ricotta cheese;
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil;
  • 1 crushed garlic clove;
  • Salt and pepper;
  • 6 basil leaves (to serve).

Preparation method:

Wash the tomatoes and cut a small lid on the top, take the pulp out using a small spoon, but be careful not to prick the tomato. Fill the tomatoes with the ricotta cheese.

In a separate dish, mix the olive oil with garlic, salt, and pepper and place over the tomatoes. Serve with the basil leaves.  

4. Sugar-free fruit jello

One portion of this jello contains approx. 16 calories, 1,4 g protein, 0 g fat, and 4 g of carbohydrates.

Ingredients (for 7 portions):

  • ½ cup of sliced strawberries;
  • ¼ chopped apple;
  • ¼ chopped pear;
  • 1 cup of boiling water;
  • 1 sachet of strawberry jello (without sugar);
  • ½ cup of cold water

Preparation method:

Place the jello mix in a pot and add hot water. Mix until it dissolves completely and then add cold water. At last, place fruit at the bottom of a dish and pour the diluted hello on top. Put it in the fridge and let it cool until it is formed

Who should not follow a low-carb diet

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children and teenagers are not advised to follow a low-carb diet. Older adults and people with a history of kidney or liver problems should also not partake in this diet without seeking medical approval first. 

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Atualizado por Tua Saude editing team, em March de 2022. Clinical review por Tatiana Zanin - Registered Dietitian, em March de 2022.

References

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  • DIABETES UK. Position statement Low-carb diets for people with diabetes. 2017. Available on: <https://www.diabetes.org.uk/resources-s3/2017-09/low-carb-diets-position-statement-May-2017.pdf>. Access in 28 Nov 2019
  • SCANNONE, Armando. Mi Cocina ligera. Caracas, Venezuela.: Arte S.A, 2011. 92, 106, 196.
  • UNIVERSIDADE ESTADUAL DE CAMPINAS . Tabela Brasileira de Composição de Alimentos – TACO. 2011. Available on: <http://www.nepa.unicamp.br/taco/contar/taco_4_edicao_ampliada_e_revisada.pdf?arquivo=taco_4_versao_ampliada_e_revisada.pdf>. Access in 29 Mar 2019
Clinical review:
Tatiana Zanin
Registered Dietitian
Graduated in Clinical Nutrition in 2001 and has a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition. Licensed to practice under the CRN-3 in Brazil and the ON in Portugal