This guide is for anyone new to the low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. If you’re wondering how to begin, this guide will provide all of the necessary information for you to get started, including explanation of a low carb diet and related terms, the reasons why it’s good for your health, and advice on when to start.
I’ll provide all of the background you need to understand nutrition labels and to calculate net carbohydrates. After reading this guide, you will have a good grasp of what kinds of foods you can eat, and what to avoid.
Preparation is key because the lack thereof will make this lifestyle transition unnecessarily difficult, so I also share tips on how to avoid common pitfalls like unbalanced electrolytes.
Quick summary of this guide:
- A ketogenic diet is a diet that restricts carbohydrate intake sufficiently enough to cause ketosis, which occurs when your body burns fat instead of glucose as its primary energy source.
- Science studies show that a low carb diet improves cardiovascular health and is effective for weight loss.
- Net carbs can be calculated as total carbs minus fiber, and represents the amount of carbs that your body can digest.
- To be in ketosis, staying under 20-50 g of net carbs per day is recommended.
- Track all of your foods and drinks in a log so that you can count how many net carbs you’ve consumed daily.
- Low carb foods include all meats and seafood, most dairy ingredients such as heavy cream and cheese, some vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and some nuts including almonds and macadamia nuts.
- Drink plenty of water and increase consumption of foods high in electrolytes (e.g., potassium, magnesium, and sodium).
Jump to section:
- What is a low carb or keto diet? What is ketosis?
- Why should I follow a low carb diet?
- When is the best time to start this diet?
- How do I read nutrition labels? What are net carbs and macros?
- How many net carbs per day can I consume?
- How do I log and track what I’m eating?
- What foods am I allowed to eat? What should I buy at the grocery store?
- How do I make sure that I’m getting enough water, electrolytes, and fiber?
- Can I follow this diet if I have an irregular schedule?
What is a low carb or keto diet? What is ketosis?
A low carbohydrate (“low carb”) diet is one that restricts consumption of carbohydrates. Some of these low carb diets are ketogenic (“keto”) diets because they sufficiently restrict carb intake to cause ketosis — for instance, the Atkins diet’s induction phase is considered a ketogenic diet. There is no strict threshold for a diet to be considered “low carb.” Some consider a low carb diet to be one where daily carb intake is between 50 – 150 g, which is above the level where most people will generate ketones, and a very low carb diet or ketogenic diet to be one where daily carb intake is below 50 g.
A ketogenic diet is one that causes the body to burn fats rather than carbs. Typically, carbs in foods are converted to glucose, which is used as a source of energy. When you restrict carb intake, your body will instead convert its existing fat into fatty acids and ketones, which replace glucose as an energy source. When you have a sufficient level of ketones in your blood, you are in a state called ketosis, which is also an effective way of treating difficult epilepsy in children. For most people, the maximum allowable amount of daily carbs is 20 – 50 g in order to stay in ketosis. Since carbs are highly restricted, the keto diet is considered a low carb, high fat, and moderate protein diet.
Why should I follow a low carb diet?
Before starting this diet, you should consider your motivations and reasons for doing so. For many people, it’s about weight loss so that they can be at a healthier weight, leading to improved cardiovascular health and lowered cancer risks. For others, it may be about diabetes or other complications. For me, I found mainstream advice from public health officials and so-called health experts to be confusing and conflicting, so I started investigating what actual science had to say about nutrition and health. You can read about my personal journey here.
To understand why a diet low in carbohydrates is beneficial for your health, I recommend going straight to the source — scientific papers with human trials published in peer reviewed journals. I’ve compiled a growing list of papers with short summaries of their main findings.
Your first task is to take a look at these papers to understand why a low carb diet is well supported by numerous scientific studies. These papers are also excellent material for sharing with vocal friends and family members who are unsupportive of your decision to try this diet.
When is the best time to start this diet?
The next step is to pick a start date, and the sooner, the better. The sooner you can start this diet, the sooner you can start reaping the benefits. Once you start this diet and experience positive changes, you’ll regret not doing so sooner.
Having said that, it’s better to start this diet when you have access to your own kitchen and are able to prepare your own foods. If you plan to travel soon for the holidays or you have a vacation coming up, it’s best to wait until after you return, as it can be challenging to find appropriate foods while traveling. For me, I started this diet the day after I returned from a short vacation. It worked out well because my refrigerator had to be purged of all (high carb) perishables before my vacation.
Once you’ve picked a start date, you should plan to rid your pantry of all high carb products that will tempt you. Either move the products to a higher shelf, give them away to other people, or throw them away. The same goes for anything in your refrigerator. Plan ahead so that anything high in carbs will either be gone or consumed by the time you plan to start this diet.
How do I read nutrition labels? What are net carbs and macros?
When you’re just starting out on a low carb diet, you’ll want to religiously read the nutrition label of every product at the grocery store before buying it. This is especially true at the beginning when you don’t yet have a good grasp on which foods have carbs and which don’t. For example, did you know that just 1 tablespoon of lemon juice has 1 g of carbs? Or that even dried spices have carbs? These things add up, and so you’ll need to know what is in all of your foods so that you don’t go over your daily net carb limit. Almost everything has some amount of carbs, unless they’re pure fats (such as oils) or protein. Moreover, different brands of the same foods can vary wildly in their carb counts, so always check the nutrition label before buying anything.
In American nutrition facts labels, total carbohydrates are provided, as well as a breakdown into sugar and fiber categories. Net carbohydrates are the relevant quantity for us because they represent the carbs that can be digested by the body. Net carbs are calculated as total carbs minus fiber. In cases where non-digestible sugar alcohols such as erythritol are used, net carbs are defined as total carbs minus fiber minus erythritol.
Since net carbs represent what the body can digest, I always use net carbs when calculating how many grams of carbs that I’ve eaten. Whenever I mention carbs on this site, I am almost always referring to net carbs. When you read a nutrition label, you should automatically mentally calculate the total carbs – fiber to figure out how many net carbs are in each serving.
Also, pay attention to the serving size listed on the nutrition facts label. A product may only have 0.5 g net carbs per serving, but if each serving is only 1 tablespoon and you need a whole cup, then you need to account for it.
The next step is to gain an awareness of how many net carbs are in typical foods. Check the nutrition facts labels of products that you currently have in your pantry and refrigerator. What foods surprised you? Next time you are in the grocery store, check the labels of some items to get a grasp of the kind of foods that are high in carbs.
Another term that you’ll hear often is macronutrients (“macros”). There are three primary macros in food that provide energy to our bodies: fat, carbs, and protein. In a low carb diet, you’ll be eating a lot more fat and protein to make up for the loss in carbs. Some people like to set daily macro goals and track their macros every day. Personally, I only track carbs, but you can experiment and see what works for you.
How many net carbs per day can I consume?
There is no single way to follow a low carb diet. Some people stick to a strict under-20 g net carbs per day, for others that number may be 30 or 50 g. Some people don’t count carbs at all and simply avoid sugars and refined carbs. To keep yourself in ketosis, staying under 20 g is the surest way, but limiting yourself anywhere from 20 g to 50 g a day means it’s possible to be in ketosis.
Pick a daily net carb limit that is feasible for your lifestyle. If 20 g doesn’t work for you, then pick a higher limit. Some people start off with a 20 g daily limit, and then slowly work their way up by adding 5 g to their daily limit each week. Do what works for you, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a low carb lifestyle.
How do I log and track what I’m eating?
You should track all of the food that you eat throughout the day so you know how many net carbs you’ve consumed. There are a variety of ways you can do this. You can use an app such as myfitnesspal, which has a large nutrition database and a food diary feature to log your meals. You can even use their app to scan barcodes of products, which will be automatically added to your log without having to manually enter macros. If you don’t like the idea of using an app, you can use a simple text file or take a pen-and-paper approach. Personally, I use a Google Drive spreadsheet to log my food and track my carb totals, which is synced across all of my devices.
I recommend starting a food log today so that you can start making it a habit as soon as possible. You don’t need to wait until the day you plan to start a low carb diet. Remember to track everything, even creamers that you put in your coffee.
Some people count and track calories, and some prefer a more relaxed approach. My suggestion is to skip calorie counting for at least the first week or two of the diet, as you’re still getting adjusted to this new way of eating. Afterwards, if you think calorie counting is both doable and useful, you can add that to your logs.
I also highly recommend buying a food scale if you don’t have one already. A food scale will allow you to get a weight estimate of your serving sizes, which will make your food logging and tracking much more accurate. You can get one on Amazon for less than $20.
What foods am I allowed to eat? What should I buy at the grocery store?
Strictly speaking, there are no forbidden foods on a low carb diet; after all, as long as something fits your macro goals (e.g., under your daily carb limit) then it is allowed. However, there are definitely some foods that are more amenable to a low carb diet than others because they are naturally very low in carbs.
Here are examples of low carb foods:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as the brassicacae cultivars, which include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens like kale and spinach
- Any kind of protein, like seafood, pork, chicken, beef, and turkey
- Eggs and high fat dairy items, including heavy whipping cream, butter, and most kinds of cheeses
- Snacks like roasted flavored almonds, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, and olives
- Basic cooking and baking ingredients, such as cooking oils, vinegars, mustard, mayonnaise, almond flour, coconut flour, and dried spices
You’ll want to avoid most processed foods, which are typically located in the center aisles of a supermarket. You should primarily shop along the edges of a grocery store.
I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of low carb foods in this handy grocery list. It is organized by section, such as fresh produce, meat, and dairy. The page also provides a PDF version for download and printing. Print this grocery list now, so you can start buying healthier ingredients the next time you’re at the store.
If you’re more of an online shopper, take a look at these pantry stuffers. I’ve organized the page by savory and sweet snacks, sweeteners, baking ingredients, sauces, flavored drinks, and more. These pantry items are invaluable for times when you don’t feel like cooking or if you need food that you can eat on-the-go. The list includes ingredients that are also important for anyone who enjoys baking, and links to my recommended low carb sweeteners and flours.
If you enjoy making new dishes, visit my Recipes section, which has categories of recipes organized by the net carbs per serving. All of these recipes have nutrition facts labels.
How do I make sure that I’m getting enough water, electrolytes, and fiber?
It’s important to make sure that you have enough water, electrolytes (including potassium, sodium, and magnesium), and fiber in your low carb diet. Often foods with high carbs also have high potassium and sodium levels; for example, a Russet potato has 25% of your daily recommended potassium and is very high in carbs (32 g), and the same goes for bananas — 1 banana has 12% daily potassium and 25 g net carbs. Many carb-heavy meals also use a lot of salt.
When you change to a low carb diet, you miss out on electrolytes that you normally would have consumed with carb-heavy meals, so it’s important to watch your electrolyte levels. Moreover, low carb diets can have a diuretic effect, which means you’ll lose fluids and minerals along with it. If you aren’t getting enough water and electrolytes, you might experience symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and muscle cramps.
I recommend drinking at least 4 liters of water daily. Personally, I track my daily water intake by using a 2-liter jug. I fill up the jug twice a day, and I need to finish all of it by the end of the day. To make water more palatable, you can make tea or add flavored powders.
For magnesium, take a daily supplement. I take a 400 mg capsule of triple magnesium complex that provides magnesium in the form of magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, and magnesium aspartate. You can buy this online or find it at your local drug store. Note that some magnesium supplements may have a laxative effect on you, which could be desirable or not. This page explains the different kinds of magnesium.
Potassium can be supplemented by using LoSalt (or Morton’s LiteSalt), which is reduced-sodium salt that has more potassium than you can find in potassium supplements. You can season your foods with LoSalt, or you can add a small amount to your drinks throughout the day. Each 1/4 teaspoon serving of LoSalt provides 450 mg of potassium, whereas potassium supplements are limited by the FDA to less than 100 mg.
For sodium, you can generously salt your foods, or use bouillon cubes, which are small cubes of dehydrated vegetables, sodium, and seasonings that are combined with hot water to drink. I prefer bouillon cubes as they contain about 2 g of sodium per cube.
Many people on a low carb diet notice that they have fewer bowel movements than before. Some find this to be convenient, and others find it disconcerting. If you would prefer to use the bathroom more regularly, I recommend adding more fiber to your diet.
Here are some low carb foods with plenty of fiber:
- 1 avocado has 52% daily recommended fiber
- 1 cup almonds has 44% daily recommended fiber
- 1 head of cauliflower has 48% daily recommended fiber
- manufactured low carb snacks like Quest bars or Costco’s protein bars — these bars have about 50-60% daily recommended fiber
Before you start this diet, make a mental note of how you plan to take your electrolytes. Buy the necessary supplements, bouillon cubes, etc. next time you are shopping.
Can I follow this diet if I have an irregular schedule?
Absolutely. If your job has an odd schedule or demanding hours that prevent you from bringing and eating low carb foods at work, you can simply fast while you are at work and eat when you are at home. I recommend intermittent fasting, which means a cycle of fasting and non-fasting. Some people fast for 16 hours and only eat in an 8 hour window (e.g., eating from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm). Others only eat every other day. You can do whatever cycle that fits your current schedule and is convenient for you. Fasting has many benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, better mental acuity, and higher insulin sensitivity.
Breakfast is not necessary. You can certainly eat breakfast if you’re hungry at that time, but you should not force yourself to eat breakfast if you’re not hungry. People who eat breakfast tend to overeat every day by an extra 500 calories. It’s better to eat meals during a shorter fraction of the day rather than spreading your meals throughout the day, allowing your body a significant period of time in which it is insulin deficient.
If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.