Carbohydrates play an important role in our diets. They’re our bodies’ main source of energy. But cutting down on them has led many people to find weight-loss success over the years, making the low-carb diet popular for people trying to lose weight. That doesn't mean, however, that going low-carb is always effective, easy, or simple. Or always a good idea.
Our world is filled with endless options, and diet plans are no exception. (There’s even a taco diet .) There are lots of low-carb diet ideas out there, and while they can produce weight-loss results upfront, experts are skeptical about certain aspects of them. The key, if you want to try cutting carbs to lose weight , is following a plan that allows you to still get the right nutrients, is healthy and sustainable, and doesn’t leave you feeling deprived.
Everyone has their own dietary needs, and if you have certain medical concerns, cutting significantly down on a whole food group might not be the best plan for you. It's also important to note that weight loss as a goal isn't necessarily for everyone. For anyone who has a history of disordered eating, even if you're in recovery, you should speak with a doctor before you change your eating habits or pursue any weight-loss goal. Even if you don't have a history of disordered eating, it's really important to have realistic expectations and make sure you're approaching weight loss in a healthy way. Results can be incredibly difficult to come by, may take a very long time to achieve, and are also really hard to maintain. Many factors play into weight loss—like exercise, getting good sleep, managing stress levels, and genetics—so simply eating fewer calories may not bring the results you want. With so many factors at play, it's no wonder weight loss varies so much person-to-person.
But if weight loss is one of your goals and you’re considering cutting carbs to do it (and your doctor says that’s safe), there are some things you need to know before picking a method to try.
Cutting carbs is effective for losing weight, and it works for a few reasons.
First, if you’re cutting your overall caloric intake, you’re likely to lose weight. That’s just math. What’s more, eating fewer carbs also means you’re probably eating fewer processed, refined carbs. These are the carbs believed to be responsible for an increased risk of metabolic syndrome—a collection of symptoms like high blood pressure, high blood sugar , and excess body fat, which contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Carbs that are mostly just sugar and devoid of other nutrients can’t be used for anything other than quick, fleeting energy, and cause our blood sugar to spike and drop. Too much of this over time is connected to these markers of metabolic syndrome. So not only can cutting down on them help you lose weight, it can also be a boon for your health in the long run. That said, simple carbs aren't the only carbs there are.
Which carbs you cut and which ones you keep is very important.
Dietitians and nutritionists want us to eat fewer refined carbs, period. Think: white flour and bread, cereal, crackers, cookies, waffles, pies, bagels, and pastries. But as you’re cutting those less-than-wholesome ones, you should still be eating ones that have nutritional benefits. “It's key to note that many healthy vegetables and fruits contain carbs,” Isabel K. Smith, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. , tells SELF. If you cut these out in an attempt to follow a low-carb diet, you may miss out on key nutrients, she explains. Carbs from whole foods that are also high in fiber , like whole-grains, vegetables, and most fruits (some are just a little too sugary) should be staples of your diet in the long term, even while you’re low-carbbing it.
Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., L.D. , assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida, tells SELF that cutting out all carbs is a never recommended because, plain and simple, we need them. “Carbs are the main source of energy used by the body and the preferred fuel for the brain and muscles,” she says. If you’re not eating any, the brain and muscles can’t get adequate energy.
When it comes to low-carb diets, there are a handful of specific plans you can follow. Here’s the basic gist of the most common ones:
Atkins: For the first two weeks or so, you can only have 20 grams of carbohydrates per day, mainly from a limited list of vegetables. You’ll eat protein, such as fish and shellfish, poultry, meat, eggs, and cheese, at every meal . You can't have most fruits, sugary baked goods, breads, pastas, grains, nuts, or alcohol, but you can have as much oil and fat as you want. Over the course of a few weeks, you slowly add back most veggies, nuts and seeds, and then starchy veggies, fruits, and whole grains.
Dukan: For the first 10 days, you can only eat lean protein, oat bran, and water. In the next phase, you add unlimited non-starchy veggies every other day, plus more oat bran. The next phases let you add more veggies, limited fruit, limited whole-grain bread and hard cheese, and some starches. Eventually, you can eat whatever you want, except for one day a week when you eat nothing but protein and oat bran.
South Beach: The first two weeks involve cutting back on all carbs, including fruit and whole grains, and focusing on eating lean protein, non-starchy veggies, and healthy fats. The next part of the diet adds these back in. In the last phase, you can enjoy all foods in moderation, focusing on lean proteins, fresh veggies, and healthy fats .
Ketogenic: Following the standard ketogenic diet, a typical day of food consists of 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 5 percent carbs. With such a low-carb intake , the body is forced into a state called ketosis, where it turns to fat and protein for energy, and the liver forms molecules called ketones as it breaks down these macronutrients . For reasons experts don’t fully understand, this seems to promote weight loss.
Paleo: The caveman diet encourages eating meat, fruits, vegetables, roots, and nuts and excludes dairy and all grains. It’s low in refined carbs and added sugars .
The problems with most low-carb diets is that they cut out important nutrients, and are not sustainable in the long term.
All of these diets put an emphasis on cutting carbs and eating mostly lean protein and healthy fats. Some, like Dukan, Atkins, and ketogenic are more restrictive than others. Experts warn that cutting out fruits and veggies may make it difficult to get the right vitamins and minerals we need in our diets, including fiber, which is helpful for weight loss. Because of this, and the high intake of fats, these diets may not be so great for long-term heart health if you strictly follow them.
Since all of these diets (besides Paleo) involve cutting back on food in the first “phase” of the diet, weight loss up front is likely. “But the initial weight loss is generally from fluid and muscle loss ,” says Wright. The problem with all of these, except probably South Beach and Paleo, is that sticking to them long-term can be challenging and even unhealthy.
Wright says, “Of all the low-carb diets, South Beach is the healthiest,” because after the initial phase (which doesn’t cut out all veggies), it promotes a healthy way to eat for life. Smith says she recommends Paleo sometimes, out of all of them, because “its not really low in carbs, just low in refined carbs.”
Some health conditions may be improved by low-carb diets.
“Low-carb diets have been approved by the American Diabetes Association for use with type 2 diabetes,” says Wright. “Research has shown the low-carb diets can improve glycemic control for diabetics,” meaning, it helps keep blood sugar levels stable. It’s been suggested that the ketogenic diet can help those with epilepsy , Smith says. Some studies have also shown that moderately low-carb diets (ones that still include fruits and veggies) can improve heart health , as long as the protein and fats come from healthy sources.
In the end, cutting back on refined carbs and only getting carbs from fruits, veggies, and whole grains is the healthiest way to go low-carb.
“I recommend low refined-carb diets and LOTS of vegetables along with some fruit—so no, it doesn’t end up being low-carb, but ends up being low refined-carb,” says Smith. “No argument, more vegetables are better for your health!” For most people who want to lose weight, she suggests sticking to about 25-35 percent starches (veggies like sweet potatoes and unrefined grains), 40-50 percent non-starchy vegetables, and the rest protein . Wright also suggests avoiding refined carbs and eating more whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits, along with lean protein, healthy fats, and dairy (if you eat it) . Her recommendations lean toward a Mediterranean diet . Experts agree that instead of following a strict diet plan, it’s best to put together the pillars of healthy eating to create a sustainable plan that works for you and your life. Not only will you lose weight, but you’ll be healthier overall in the end.