Low carb foods — particularly diets that focus on them — have earned a stellar reputation over the last few decades for being able to help with a number of weight-related health conditions.
That said, it isn’t always easy sticking to it, and it’s not without health considerations.
In the following article, we’ll be unpacking the foods that power these diets. We’ll be focusing on the theory behind it, the reported results, and some of the places/dishes you can be ordered to stick with your diet if you tend to eat out a lot.
We also will be discussing how too heavy of a focus on low carb foods can have unintended consequences, as well as what you can do to keep it working in your favor. Let’s get started!
Low Carb in Theory
The theory between focusing mostly on low carb foods for maximum health benefits goes something like this. Your body needs carbohydrates for energy. If it doesn’t get those carbohydrates, then it turns to the next thing that it can burn: fat.
Burning fat for energy can help you drop weight and inches pretty quickly. While rapid weight loss isn’t always a good idea, here’s why the diet has quite a bit of appeal to it.
If you suffer from conditions where weight is a factor — conditions like…
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
…then your life is in danger. Losing weight can greatly reduce the repercussions of having these conditions and, in some cases, almost completely reverse them, or at least get them to a manageable state that you can control for years to come.
Each day you’re overweight with one or more of these conditions, you’re a ticking time bomb. Low carb foods and their ability to slice off the excess weight help even the playing field when there’s not much time to spare.
That said, you have to be clear on what we’re talking about when we refer to carbs or carbohydrates.
Fiber vs. Sugar
Look onto any nutrition label or fitness app that logs food data, and you’ll see “Carbs” broken down into two additional categories: sugars and fibers. Both are measured in grams.
Your “net carbs” are what you get when you subtract the fibers and one-half the sugar alcohols (if over 5 grams) from the total carb count.
For example, if a food has 42 grams of total carbs and 10 grams are fiber while 20 grams are sugar, then you’re taking in around 24.5 grams of net carbs. Most low-carb diets demand a total net carb count of between 20-60 grams daily. So you don’t have a lot of room to work.
The standard recommended carb intake for weight loss is between 50 to 150 grams per day. Sadly, that puts a lot of delicious foods (mostly) off limits. Foods such as the following:
- Whole grains
- Some fruits
- Some veggies
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Virtually any edible yogurt: by this, we mean fruit-added or sweetened
Of course, the crazy thing about this is that many of these foods generally are considered “healthy.” So, in order to follow a strict low carb diet, you have to re-evaluate the way you think about nutrition.
In the next section, we’ll be getting into how this is possible. We’ll also be examining some of the food groups and consumer products you can buy to help in the effort. Let’s continue.
What Can You Eat on a Low Carb Diet?
It will almost certainly feel as though your options are limited on a low carb diet. But here’s a little secret. Your options are limited to any diet. No one can eat whatever they want (for very long) and expect their metabolism to take care of everything.
Your body needs carbs, fats, proteins, sodium, and all kinds of vitamins and minerals to survive. No one is telling you that you have got to live without carbs. But it can’t hurt to take a closer look at the amounts you’re consuming.
The simple act of scaling back intake can help you drop weight even if you don’t take it to the Atkins extreme. In this section, we want to show you how you can eat good food, not turn into a fanatic, and still manage to reap the benefits of low-carb foods.
1. Fruits and Vegetables
Hold on a sec. Didn’t we just put “some fruits” and “some veggies” on the no-go list above? Well, yes, we did. But the operative word is “some.”
Fruits, for instance, can be very high in natural sugars. Not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re trying to reduce the overall amount of carbs and you’re a fruit junkie. Grapefruits and bananas particularly are big offenders.
On the vegetable front, “starchy” vegetables like potatoes aren’t going to be doing you any favors. That said, there are some terrific options in the fruit and veggie category if the goal is to limit your carbohydrates. Try these instead:
- Summer Squash
- Chinese Cabbage
And that list isn’t exhaustive. So you see how you can keep your cupboards and refrigerator stocked with fruits and veggies without violating low carb principles?
2. Meat, Fish, and Eggs
Meats — particularly chicken, beef, and pork — as well as fish and eggs — all tend to be great low carb foods. While the fiber is nonexistent, so are the added sugars and net carbs.
At the same time, you can down a serving of grilled chicken or beef and feel full for several hours, thanks to the protein content.
Just how much protein do your favorite meats have in them? Let’s take a quick look.
- One three-ounce serving of beef has around 22 grams of protein with zero grams of carbohydrates. That same serving size is around 213 calories and features 13 grams of total fat.
- One 3.5-ounce serving of boneless and skinless chicken breast is even better with around 31 grams of protein and 165 calories. Fat content also is much lower at 3.6 total grams and one gram saturated. Again, no carbohydrates.
- Pork manages to be a protein-rich, calorie-low food as well, provided you prepare it in a healthy manner and are eating the right parts of the pig. (Same goes for chicken and beef.) With “the other white meat,” you get 34 grams of protein and 206 calories for a single 3-ounce pork cutlet or steak. The tenderloin is 122 calories and 22.2 grams for the same serving size. Neither contains carbs.
- Fish comes in a variety of types and nutritional makeups. All are great for the low carb diet. One of the best is salmon. A 178-gram filet of this fish contains no carbs, 39 grams of protein, and 366 calories.
Eggs aren’t quite as good as the others, but they still manage to pack a wallop in the protein-to-calorie ratio department. One large egg contains roughly 80 calories and features 6 grams of protein and only 0.6 grams of carbs.
A word of warning, though. What you do to prepare the meat will have a major influence on these numbers. If you batter and fry, prepare to up your fats and carbs and calories. If you eat a lot of fatty meats, calories and total/saturated fats will skyrocket. Olive oil elevates calories.
Just pay attention to all your add-ins and account for them when logging in your food for the day.
3. Nuts and Seeds
Pretty much any type of nut or seed is going to be a good bet when it comes to keeping your net carbs down for the day. These aren’t so much main course items, but they can make excellent snacks in between meals.
Some of the most popular (and best for you) are as follows:
- Brazil nuts
- Pine nuts
What makes many of these options so good for you isn’t that they have no carbs at all, but that they make good use of the carbs they have.
Chestnuts, for example, are somewhat high in carbs with about 29.7 grams per 100 grams. But 14 grams of those are fiber.
4. Dairy That’s High in Fat
Dairy often is described in somewhat broad terms despite having so many different “product” types. Milk, cheese, yogurt, butter — it’s all dairy, and the reason it gets grouped together nutritionally is that it’s all somewhat similar.
We won’t go into the nutritional profiles of each one, but just to give you an idea, here’s what you’ll get in one cup of 1 percent milk:
- 100 calories
- 8 grams of protein
- 2.5 grams of fat (1.5 of which is saturated)
- 12 grams of carbohydrates (0 grams fiber)
In short, dairy isn’t your best choice if wanting to limit calories altogether, but it does give you pretty good bang for your buck in the protein and calorie departments provided you stay at around one or two servings per day and monitor the rest of your diet.
5. Fats and Oils
Last but not least, fats and oils are great for individuals following the low carb diet plan. That’s because they provide excess energy to burn up when you’re not depriving the body of carbohydrates.
Five of the most popular oils, according to the Atkins website, are:
- Olive oil: The Atkins website points out that olive oil “is high in antioxidants called polyphenols, which offer additional heart-healthy benefits.”
- Canola oil: According to Atkins, this is a great choice because it contains “a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acid than most other oils,” adding that it will “lower blood pressure and heart rate.”
- Peanut oil: This option “contains heart-healthy phytosterols — plant fats associated with lower cholesterol and cancer prevention,” Atkins notes, adding it is “well-suited for deep frying, as well as roasting and sautéing, thanks to its high smoke point.”
- Grapeseed oil: This one is “high in polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E,” and, as the name indicates, extracted from the seeds of grapes.
- Coconut oil: very high in fats, can boost your metabolism on a low carb diet.
6 Best Fast Food Options on the Low Carb
Now that we know what kinds of low carb foods you can have, let’s see how it translates to the “real world.” More and more of us are relying on fast food restaurants for our dietary needs. Traditionally, that was a terrible idea. (And you could still do a lot better.)
But if you’re going to be eating out anyway, it helps to have some selections that’ll keep you on track. Food tracking apps have made it easier than ever before to keep up with this.
Most fast food chains have accurate entries in programs like MyFitnessPal and Lose It! Take advantage of that. But be warned.
The entries mostly are user-generated. Sometimes those users are committed to accuracy. Others, they’re not. And still, others will simply share calorie counts instead of calories and macronutrients.
Be choosy in how you look these foods up or link directly to the nutritional info provided by the restaurant on their website (if it’s provided on their website).
Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy! Now, with that said, let’s examine some of the best options for low carb foods that you’re likely to find.
1. Grilled Chicken
It once was virtually impossible to get chicken anything but fried from a fast food restaurant. Thankfully, that’s changed in the last 15 years as we learn more about the harmful effects of fried foods.
One big change-point was when KFC — Kentucky Fried Chicken — began offering the grilled option.
A KFC Grilled Chicken Breast has 210 calories compared to 510 for the crispy. It also has 34 grams of protein. But KFC doesn’t have the market cornered on a grilled bird.
You also can get healthier options at any of the following restaurants:
- Sonic Drive-In
- Charley’s Subs
Nutritional profiles will be comparable. You don’t even have to make a special point of asking, as many have moved to prominently feature grilled chicken options on their menus.
2. Best Sandwiches
Sandwich shops like Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, and Schlotzsky’s have lots of great options for those looking for low carb foods on-the-go. But wait — sandwiches!? Isn’t bread loaded with carbohydrates? Well, yes. But that’s why you ask for wraps.
Subway can do any of their sandwiches as a wrap. Jimmy John’s has the lettuce-wrapped “unwich.” Just ask your favorite sandwich shop what they have for the low carb fanatic. Most will accommodate you.
Getting a traditional burrito from Chipotle may not be your best bet as far as the low carb diet goes. But the fast-food chain — or, as the Seinfeld fan in us prefers “good food quickly” — has heard the cry.
Today, you can get the same great Chipotle flavor in a tortilla-less “bowl” format. This cuts down on carbs and calories without cutting into the fats and proteins necessary to sustain your body through ketosis.
If going this route, pay attention to your add-ins. While fajita chicken, steak, or pork may keep you full, you want to make sure you’re not blowing up your carb count with brown grains of rice and other easy-to-forget-about carb bombs.
4. Lettuce-Wrapped Burger Options
See the sandwich section. Apply to burgers instead. One of the most famous chains for offering lettuce-wrapped burgers is Freddy’s Drive-In. You also can get them from In-and-Out, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Five Guys.
5. Bowls and Smoothies
Similar to our Chipotle suggestion, Panera has gone to offering the “bowl” setup on their breakfast menu in case you need something substantive after that morning jog. Their great options include the following:
- Power Breakfast Egg Bowl with Steak
- Egg White Bowl with Roasted Turkey
- Chicken Hummus Bowl
If you can’t get to a Panera (or you simply don’t prefer it), fret not. You can still ask any local or chain breakfast restaurant about their “secret menu” options. Even if they don’t have one, many are willing to fix a traditional dish your way if you have something specific in mind.
One other restaurant that’s gotten in on the bowl act is Tropical Smoothie Cafe. Its chicken caesar bowl has less than 15 grams of total carbs in it. The company also specializes in smoothies and superfood smoothies.
One of its better options is the muscle blaster with whey protein. As a meal replacement offering, it only has around 42 grams of total carbs, not counting subtractions for fiber and sugar alcohols.
6. More Wings, Less Pizza
This one isn’t really restaurant-specific. Most pizza joints — from chain to local specialty — will sell wings along with their cheese-baked carb pies. Just pick one.
But if you have a weakness for pizza — as some of us have — don’t force yourself to not have any. Just mitigate it with wing options instead.
For example, let’s say you typically order a large pizza and eat most of it. Consider backing that down to the personal pan and throwing in a salad and an order of wings instead.
It’s not going to be your healthiest choice. But if you’re going to eat pizza anyway, it’s a great way of reducing your intake without walking away hungry.
Best Low Carb Snacks
If you’ve bought into the smaller meals and snacks throughout the day mindset, then you’re also going to need some good low carb snack options to tide you over until the next meal. To help you there, here are some of our favorite selections.
One 20-gram piece: 80 calories, 7 grams protein, 2.2 grams total carbs.
One tablespoon: 25 calories, 1.2 grams of protein, 2.1 grams total carbs but 0.9 of that is fiber.
3. String Cheese
One piece: 70-80 calories, 7 grams of protein, 1 gram of total carbs.
4. Cottage Cheese
One cup: 220 calories, 25 grams of protein, 8 grams of total carbs.
5. Atkins Treats
The Atkins diet label has inspired a wide assortment of off-brands, spinoffs, and knockoffs. Check the labels, but they all should be worthwhile provided the sugar content is kept to a minimum.
A typical Atkins chocolate peanut butter bar has 3 net carbs (12 grams of fiber), 16 grams of protein, and 250 calories.
6. Dave’s Killer Bread
Not all bread is off-limits when you switch to low carb foods. More and more brands like Dave’s Killer Bread are popping up. This particular bread makes good use of its carbs, and it features an assortment of seeds to help in the makeup.
7. Peanut Butter
Peanuts have long been considered a great snack option for lovers of low carb foods. That doesn’t change when you move it into its more buttery form.
All-natural types of peanut butter like Jif’s low carb option have 134 calories per 2-tablespoon serving, 6 grams of protein, and 7 grams of total carbs, including 2 grams of fiber.
Pair with Dave’s Killer Bread Powerseed thin-sliced (see above) for a solidly low-carb PB&J. (Well, maybe leave off the J.)
Low Carb Foods Can Act Fast and Make a Big Difference
Getting the benefits of a low carb diet means learning to love low carb foods. Chances are, you already do. It just takes a little bit to train your brain by noticing all the ways you’re inadvertently consuming carbohydrates in additive foods.
If you feel like you need to lose weight quickly, it’s a terrific option. But keep in mind your body needs a lot of different macronutrients and carbs are one of them.
Don’t be fanatical about it, but do try to incorporate a low carb mindset whenever you need to jumpstart your metabolism and get your diet back on the right track. Good luck!