There are endless diets to choose from, but perhaps one of the most hyped right now is the low-carb diet. (You can thank the Atkins, the Whole30, and ketogenic plans for that!)
If you’re wondering what all the low-carb fuss is about, here’s the deal: A study published in The New England Journal Of Medicine showed that over the course of six months, a low-carb diet produced greater weight loss than a conventional diet. Cutting carbs can be effective because if you’re eater fewer carbs you’re probably eating fewer refined carbs such as white bread, cookies, and crackers, says registered dietitian Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Those are the ones that hit your bloodstream like straight sugar.
“There are a few well-known low-carb diets, such as the Atkins Diet and South Beach Diet, but any diet in which carbs make up less than 40 percent of food consumed can technically be considered low-carb,” says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you’re following a 1,200-calorie diet (FYI, we don’t suggest going any lower!), that translates to less than 130 grams of daily carbs.
If 40 percent sounds higher than you were expecting, it’s worth noting that current federal guidelines recommend that the average person gets 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. And many of us are consuming way more than that. So, yeah, hitting 40 percent will likely involve a decent amount of carb-cutting. However, when you go low-carb, it’s important to make sure that you are getting those carbs from fiber-rich whole grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies, says Delbridge. Otherwise, your bathroom habits (among other things) could really take a hit!
When following a low-carb diet, aim to get 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein, and 20 to 35 percent from fat, recommends Valdez, because research has found that protein can help you retain more of your lean muscle as you lose fat—and the lower you go with calories, the greater your risk of losing weight from muscle.
That’s a lot, we know. And planning, shopping, and preparing your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks can be super overwhelming. So Valdez created a one-day low-carb meal plan that provides 1,220 total daily calories while crushing your carb-cutting goals.
For a quick and easy breakfast, mix 1/2 cup whole-wheat, fiber-fortified cereal (60 cal) into 1 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt (120 cal), and top with 1/4 cup blueberries or strawberries (12 cal).
Total: 192 calories
Note: Instead of adding agave or honey for flavor, top with cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla extract for a sweet kick, he says.
Want an easy-to-eat-at-your-desk snack that’ll tide you over until lunch? Eat 1 orange (63 cal) and 2 teaspoons nuts (32 cal).
Total: 95 calories
Note: The simple-carbohydrate, healthy-fat combination will help slow digestion, keeping you full longer, says Valdez. Plus, the nuts will help you feel full for longer than snacking on just a low-fat food like an orange or apple, he says. (Drop stubborn pounds for good with Take It All Off! Keep It All Off!)
Top 1 cup spinach (7 cal) with 3 ounces baked or broiled salmon (135 cal), sliced hardboiled egg (70 cal), 3/4 cup cubed avocado (176 cal), 1 ounce cheese (90 cal), and salt and pepper to taste.
Total: 478 calories
Note: This is a great protein-filled meal for people who love Cobb salad, but are tired of the same old formula, or who just think it can’t possibly be used on a weight-loss plan, says Valdez.
Nosh on 1 kiwi (60 cal).
Total: 60 calories
Note: Kiwi makes a great vitamin-C and fiber-filled munch, and, according to a studypublished in the World Journal of Gastroenterology can be used to reduce constipation, which, according to Delbridge is one of the possible consequences of a low-carb diet.
Top 1 cup spinach (7 cal) with 3 ounces grilled and trimmed steak (183 cal) and 1 ounce Gruyere cheese (90 cal). Pair with 3/4 sweet potato (135 cal).
Total: 415 calories
Note: No, you don’t have to give up steak to lose weight, says Valdez, just trim off the fat before cooking and lay it on a bed of lettuce for a steak salad Julie Childs would probably approve of.
Munch on 1/2 cup grapes (31 cal) for a phytonutrient punch.
Total: 31 calories
Note: Red and purple grapes are loaded with phytonutrients called flavonoids, which a study published in The Journal of Nutrition showed may reduce heart disease risk.
That wasn’t too hard, was it? And now that you’ve gotten a feel for what 1,200 calories looks like on a low-carb diet, you create your own plan without all of the calorie- or carb-counting. If you feel hungry or low on energy—and especially if you’re exercising as part of your weight-loss plan—add in a couple hundred extra calories, with a good chunk of them coming from energy-boosting carbs.