If you’ve started looking into low-carb eating, you’ve certainly come across a variety of diets. The low carb diet, keto, and even paleo (though not technically a low carb diet by definition) have surely crossed your diet-searching path. Lucky for you, we’ve created a side-by-side comparison of these common diets—how they differ, how they’re similar, and most importantly, how to choose the right one for you.
We’ll also get deeper here into low carb eating, including what you can and can’t eat on a low carb diet, calculating net carbs, and other top tips for low carb dieters!
LOW CARB VS KETO VS PALEO VS OTHER DIETS
When you’re looking to start a new health journey, it can be difficult to know where to start. You hear about trending diets and the ones that have stood the test of time and wonder which one might be best for you. And the answer is going to be different for everyone! You have to consider all the different aspects of each health plan based on your current health, your long-term health goals, your eating habits, and what you think you can sustain long enough to get the results you want. Ultimately, the goal is to find the diet plan that works for you, so you can create a lifestyle that provides the health and energy you’ll need to live life to the fullest.
Paleo, keto, low carb...we’ve heard them all. Let’s break down each of these common diets in their simplest terms and then really dive into the low carb diet and some common questions every new low carb beginner needs the answers to.
What Is Paleo?
The paleo diet is the most different of the three discussed here. Paleo dieters will find themselves eating something akin to a “caveman” diet—any and all things that were available by hunting and gathering during the Paleolithic era (about 10,000 years ago). This means fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and plenty of protein. BUT, no dairy, grains, potatoes, sugars, or artificial sweeteners are allowed on the paleo diet.
While paleo dieters can follow a great whole foods-based diet, it can feel more restrictive in our modern world and lead to falling off the paleo wagon.
What Is Keto?
To really understand the basics of keto or the ketogenic diet, you have to understand the main objective of the diet: significantly limit the number of carbs you consume, while at the same time increasing your fat intake. Why? Because when your body begins to run low on carbs for energy, it turns to the fat in your diet, creating what are called ketones, and repurposes them for energy instead.
With the Keto diet, your caloric intake should pretty closely reflect these percentages: healthy fats (70%), protein (25%), and good carbs (5%). This will likely mean a significant decrease in carbs—including vegetables—and an even more significant increase in healthy fats, like avocado and olive oil, in the average diet. So how does keto differ from a low-carb diet?
What Is The Low Carb Diet?
It’s all in the name: the low-carb diet restricts carbs mostly found in foods such as sugar, bread, and pasta. This is great for some because it allows more flexibility than the keto diet when it comes to eating vegetables. While veggies do contain carbs, they come mostly in the form of fiber, which means you’ll be kept feeling full longer. That said, the main goal of a low-carb diet is similar to that of keto: keep carb counts low so your body works to burn fat instead.
Looking at calories for the low-carb diet plan, you’ll want to eat approximately healthy fats (40%-50%), protein (40%-50%), and good carbs (10%-20%).
Again, each diet is different and you’ll have to see which works with your lifestyle, habits, and goals. But if you’re leaning toward low carb eating, this is where we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the low carb diet, low carb foods, and the difference between total carbs and net carbs.
HOW MANY CARBS ARE IN A LOW-CARB DIET?
While the low carb diet does have some general standards for carb consumption, (remember: 40%-50% healthy fats, 40%-50% protein, and 10%-20% good carbs) the actual number of carbs each individual will eat daily depends on who you are and your particular wellness and weight loss goals.
The number of carbs you’ll consume on a low-carb diet will likely be between 50 and 100 grams of carbohydrates per day—again, dependent on age, sex, body composition, and goals. But just so you have a general idea of what it will take to get into true low-carb eating habits, note that a typical Western diet can contain around 250 grams of carbs each day. And most of that comes from refined foods and processed sugar—the worst kind of carbs for your body, and sometimes the most difficult to give up.
The kind of carbs you consume is nearly as important as how many on a low-carb diet. Picking unprocessed and slow-acting carbs full of fiber will not only keep you feeling full longer, to cut down on overeating and snacking, but are higher quality fuel for a more energetic, healthier lifestyle.
Try This: Low Carb Mexican Pizza Recipe
TOTAL CARBS VS NET CARBS: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
If you’re going to be keeping close track of how many carbs you’re consuming, you’ll need to be able to calculate the number of carbs in any given food. But should you be counting total carbs or net carbs? What’s the difference?
What Are Total Carbs?
Total carbs is the complete number of carbohydrates contained in a food. So reducing your number of total carbohydrates would be a great start to low-carb eating. However, it’s important to note that not all carbs are created equally. There are both simple carbohydrates—made up of just one or two sugar molecules which are quickly and easily digested—and complex carbohydrates—made up of a long chain of molecules that take longer to break down and create a more lasting source of energy. Fiber is one such complex carb.
So how does this relate to net carbs?
What Are Net Carbs?
Net carbs are the number of digestible carbohydrates in food. So, if there is plenty of fiber—a non-digestible carb—in the food you’re going to eat, which would typically fall under the “total carb” calculation, you’d need to subtract the number of grams of fiber from the total grams of carbs in the food.
For example, to calculate the net carbohydrates in a food item that had 11 grams of total carbs but 4 grams of fiber, you’d subtract 4 from 11 to get 7 grams of net carbs.
Counting net carbs as opposed to total carbs can be helpful for a few reasons. Tracking fiber intake can help you get the full benefits of that complex carb, like feeling fuller longer, as well as increased digestive health and regulated blood sugar levels. It can also increase the number and variety of foods available in a liberal low-carb diet, as opposed to a more restrictive version, like keto.
Try This: Low Carb Tropical Chicken Kebabs
WHAT CAN YOU EAT ON A LOW-CARB DIET?
While it may take a while to get used to cutting out many Western carb-heavy indulgences, you may be surprised by how many low carb foods and low carb recipes are out there. After a short transition period, you’re sure to see that low-carb eating is not as prohibitive as you may have thought. Read on for a big list of low-carb foods and a great free low-carb foods printable!
- Meat—Look for grass-fed beef and free-range chicken. The higher the quality of the food, the higher the quality of fuel for your body and brain! Remember to keep protein to about 40%-50% of your daily caloric intake.
- Fish and seafood—Salmon, mackerel, and herring are great options for wild-caught fish. Aim for healthy omega 3s!
- Eggs—Eggs are high in nutrients and a great source of protein on a low-carb diet.
- Fats and oils—Butter and cream are great ways to add flavor to a low-carb diet. Olive oil is also a solid choice. Just watch out for heavily processed and sugary sauces like ketchup and barbecue sauce, or sweet spreads like jam and syrup.
- Vegetables—Stick with veggies that grow above the ground to avoid higher, starchier carb counts (above 5 carbs per 100g serving). Some low-carb approved vegetables include spinach, lettuce, avocado, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and peppers. Carrots could be eaten with real moderation but most underground veggies like potatoes and beets are off-limits for low carb eating.
- Berries—Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, coconut, and cantaloupe are your best choices in the fruit + berries + melon category. Again, they have to be consumed in moderation but can make a great low-carb dessert, served with some freshly whipped cream.
- Nuts—Low-carb nuts such as almonds, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, and pecans are a good low-carb snack option, in moderation. Avoid pistachios and cashews, which are high in carbohydrates.
- High-fat dairy—As long as they’re higher in fat and low in sugar, you should be fine to incorporate them sparingly. High-fat cheeses, butter, and heavy cream are great low-carb options.
- Drinks—Water and unsweetened coffee and tea will be your main sources of hydration. Bone broth is also a good source of nutrition, and you can occasionally splurge on a small glass of red wine.
Click here for a complete list of low-carb-approved foods!
FOODS TO AVOID ON LOW CARB DIET
The number one enemies of low-carb eating are sugar and starch. This means there are some pretty clear no-nos while on a low-carb diet.
- Sugars—Soda, juice, candy, cakes, cookies, sweet rolls, ice cream, chocolate bars...you name it. Sugar is a simple carb that can wreak havoc on your health, not to mention your waistline. It quickly raises your blood sugar levels, leading to peaks and crashes common to almost any Western diet. Avoid sugar, and avoid the rollercoaster of energy dips and inflammation associated with its uncontrolled consumption.
- Starches—Flour, refined wheat, and other grains (even if gluten-free!), and potatoes are your top starch contenders. This means no baked goods (easy, since you already said goodbye to those on the sugar train, right?), pasta, crackers, chips, fries (even sweet potato), or popped corn or rice.
Now, before you lose your breath over what you can’t have, go back to the massive list of approved low carb foods and remember—there are tons of delicious low carb food options! And if you stick to your low-carb diet, you’ll feel better, you’ll look better, and you’ll be on your way to reaching the healthy lifestyle goals you’ve set for yourself!
And fear not, most low carb eating allows for a small cheat meal now and again—so you’ll at least be able to wave at that sugar train, if not take a short ride once in a while. :)
What Is The Best Bread Substitute?
One of the most common complaints in low-carb eating is that people miss bread. It’s such a staple in our diets that it seems difficult to go without. Thankfully, there are many bread substitute options available for low-carb eaters.
- Cauliflower—It makes delicious pizza crust and sandwich bread.
- Lettuce and leafy greens—Take this over a tortilla for your wrap or use it as a hamburger bun to add freshness and crunch.
- Eggplant—Perfect for when you’re grilling burgers as you can just throw a few slices of eggplant on the barby as well.
- Eggs—A fried egg with crispy edges also makes a great burger “bun,” complete with a rich, runny yolk.
- Cloud Bread—Cloud bread, also known as Oopsie bread, can be made with just eggs, cream cheese, and salt, but there are more flavorful low-carb recipes for cloud bread out there. It makes great sandwich bread, buns, pizza crust, or even becomes a cake substitute with some whipped cream and berries.
IS THERE AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO SUPPLEMENT A LOW-CARB DIET?
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