16 Low-Carb Diet Mistakes You Should Never Make
You're on a low-carb diet but weight loss has stalled and you're getting frustrated. These common mistakes might be sabotaging your health, energy, sleep, and weight-loss success.
How to eat low-carb
Carbs aren’t sabotaging your weight loss. In fact, carbohydrates are some of the healthiest types of food you can eat, considering that they are found in fruit, vegetables, and grains, and our main source of energy. Yes, you can eat carbs, be healthy, and lose weight at the same time.
Although you don’t have to go low-carb to lose weight, it is a popular choice thanks to the rise of the keto, Atkins, and paleo diets. Choosing to eat low-carb means limiting the number, and often the types, of carbohydrates you eat. Low-carb diets prioritize protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables and can help people stay in a calorie deficit and lose weight—if done properly. However, low-carb diets won’t work and could do more harm than good if you make the following mistakes.
Not eating enough
Cutting back on carb-rich foods typically means you’re eliminating some staples of your usual diet (bread, pasta, rice, cereal). This equates to eating less than you might normally, and therefore taking in fewer calories. In addition, protein and fat are more satisfying and filling than carbs, so you’ll feel less hungry.
Combine feeling more full and eating less overall and you could end up not eating enough. Here’s how to determine how many calories you should eat for weight loss. Calculate the calories you’re taking in and make sure you aren’t going below 1200 calories. You don’t want to go into starvation mode and lose precious muscle mass—that would slow down your metabolism, which would undermine your efforts. (Don’t miss: If you don’t stop eating these high-carb foods, they could kill you.)
Trying to go low carb and low fat
In an effort to lose weight more quickly, you might layer a low-carb diet on top of a low-fat diet. That’s a big mistake. Not only will your diet be bland and boring, but you’ll struggle to eat enough calories. You need fat as an alternative energy source for the carbs you’re skipping. In other words, don’t cut out even more foods or nutrients—or you’ll be headed for failure.
Eating too much unhealthy fat
All the bacon, sausage, cream, lard, butter, and cheese you could ever want? If that’s your idea of a healthy low-carb diet, it might sound too good to be true—because it is. While you are technically allowed to enjoy all of these foods that are packed with unhealthy saturated fat, you don’t want to make them the backbone of your diet. You won’t lose weight and keep it off in the long run by eating blocks of cheese and bacon all day long.
Use these foods judiciously as flavor enhancers, to increase your enjoyment of your meals, but make sure you’re emphasizing heart-healthy fats from foods such as oily fish, avocados, olive oil, chia seeds, and macadamia nuts. When researchers analyzed studies on heart health, they found that swapping out some saturated fats for unsaturated fats can lower the risk of heart attack by 14 percent.
Eating too much processed meat
Processed meats include deli meats, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs. These treats often contain nitrates and nitrites—preservatives that are linked to a higher risk of stomach cancer. Focus on eating minimally-processed meats like fresh chicken, fish, and beef; when you do want processed meat, look for versions that are free of nitrates and nitrites. Whatever plan you’re on, sticking to fresh, unprocessed foods—as close to their natural state as possible—will be healthier. (A little less carbs and a little more fat make these keto dinners right on point.)
Eating the same meals over and over
Chicken and salad. Repeat 200 times. Blah. No wonder you got bored with your low-carb diet and can never look at a chicken salad again. One of the keys to success is keeping meals interesting. Get creative in the kitchen and try some new recipes. Some of my favorite low carb recipes are my Eggplant Lasagna and my Thai Coconut Red Curry Chicken. And you need to try these low carb breakfast ideas and keto recipes that will make you forget you’re on a diet.
Not eating enough vegetables
Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, peppers, kale, asparagus, and more should be the foundation of every diet, including low-carb diets. They’re packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals, and disease-fighting and anti-aging antioxidants and phytochemicals.
I love throwing some spinach and tomatoes into scrambled eggs, adding onion, mushrooms and green and red peppers to ground meat, and having a large salad with a variety of colorful vegetables at least once a day. Vegetables can be great substitutes for higher-carb grains. Try subbing in zucchini noodles (aka zoodles) for pasta in your recipes and riced or pureed cauliflower instead of rice or mashed potatoes. (Here are 10 of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.)
Not counting net carbs
Limiting your total carbs instead of your net carbs could be causing you to eliminate some healthy, satisfying foods. Net carbs are the total carbs in a food minus the fiber. Looking at carbs this way helps you pinpoint the carbs that can that raise your blood sugar. And while two tablespoons of chia seeds have 10 grams of carbs—making them seem like a higher carb option—all of the seed’s carbohydrates are actually in the form of fiber; this is why chia seeds are a great choice for people on a low-carb diet. That means you can enjoy Coconut Chocolate Chia Pudding, a game-changing dessert!
Not getting enough fiber
When you’re focusing on protein and fat, you can miss out on fiber. You need 20 to 35 grams a day for digestive health and to help prevent colorectal cancer. Eat a variety of vegetables and be sure to include fiber-rich options such as asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and artichokes. Avocados are a fantastic healthy-fat choice because they’re also rich in fiber.
Including low carb, fiber-packed seeds such as chia, hemp, and flax in your diet will boost fiber along with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. You may also want to add in some bran or psyllium as a fiber supplement. Talk to your doctor first to make sure it won’t interact with any medications or supplements you’re already taking. (Don’t miss these 12 delicious kale salads you won’t be able to turn down.)
Thinking low carb means zero carb
You’re determined to succeed, so you eliminate all carbs—and now you feel weak and exhausted. If you feel lousy after a couple of weeks on your new low-carb plan, it could be a sign you cut too many carbs. Some low carb diets allow 20 grams of carbohydrates a day; others let you eat double that or more. Try increasing your carb intake by eating nutrient-dense foods that contain carbs such as berries. Some people do better with small amounts of starchy vegetables such as sweet potato, squash, corn, or peas, especially if you’re quite active. I’ve seen many clients succeed at weight loss by reducing carbs and focusing on nutrient-dense carbs rather than cutting out carbs completely. (Here’s what you need to know about the Whole30 diet.)
Expecting the dramatic weight loss to continue
In the first two weeks of low-carb eating, you may drop a lot of pounds in a hurry—that’s a big reason the plan is so popular. But don’t expect rapid weight loss to continue, says nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Franziska Spritzler, RD.
Depending on your initial weight, you may lose up to 10 pounds when you start—but a lot of that will be water weight. Your body stores glucose (sugar) in the form of glycogen in your muscles and liver. When you cut back on carbs dramatically, your body releases stored glycogen, along with water. For every gram of glycogen that is released, two grams of water are released, both of which you’ll excrete in urine.
Once your body adapts, your weight loss will slow down—but the losses will be mainly fat rather than water. Keep this in mind to avoid feeling discouraged, advises Spritzler. (Here are 10 things experts wish you knew about water weight.)
Doing intense workouts your first week
As your body adapts in the first week or two of your low-carb diet, you probably feel weaker, have lower energy, and even feel light-headed. It’s not a good time to go on a cycling trip or try a Crossfit class. It takes time for your body to switch over to using fat as a fuel source rather than primarily carbohydrates. Make sure you’re getting enough rest and do lighter exercises such as walking and yoga until you start feeling more energized. (Here’s what it’s actually like to follow a ketogenic diet.)
Eating too many calories
Although it’s easy to eat too little on a low-carb diet, overeating can occur as well. Many low-carb foods are also calorie-dense and easy to snack on. Nuts and cheese are the most common culprits. For example, a cup of macadamia nuts is 962 calories, leaving little room in your day for other foods and nutrients. A cup of shredded cheddar cheese has 460 calories—and you add easily add that much when sprinkling it over your eggs, vegetables, and low-carb pizza. Think of these foods as toppings to add flavor and nutrients to your meals and snacks rather than foods you can eat by the bowlful.
There are some types of alcohol that are lower in carbs, such as vodka and tequila. But while you can have some alcohol on a low carb diet, be aware that it will slow down your weight loss. Alcohol not only adds empty calories (zero nutrition), it also gets processed by your body ahead of other calories. Hormones and blood sugar levels can get thrown off, and alcohol can negatively impact your sleep. Beyond that, alcohol famously lowers inhibitions, so it could lead to you going off your diet or eating more than you planned. If your weight loss has stalled, take a look at your booze intake. (Lay off the booze and load up on these 15 Atkins diet foods you should put on your grocery list.)
Not getting enough sodium
You’re used to hearing that you need to cut down on salt, so why is not getting enough a concern? When your body starts burning fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates, your kidneys will dump more water and sodium. That means you’ll look less bloated—and if you had high blood pressure, it could come down a bit. But sometimes you lose too much sodium and you’ll end up feeling dizzy, fatigued, and headachy.
Talk to your doctor if you’ve been told to limit sodium. If you get the green light, try adding some salt to your cooking, as well as having some broth each day. Make sure you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. (Here’s what you need to know about trendy Himalayan pink salt.)
Believing low-carb food labels
You’ve loaded up on low-carb bread and cereal and you’re wondering why your weight loss has stalled. Even if a food says it’s a lower carb option on the package, you still need to look at the Nutrition Facts. The food could be lower than the typical version, but still have more carbs than you want. Don’t believe any blanket statements or claims that are on the front of the package or on a restaurant menu.
Over-doing the low-carb shakes, bars, and other processed products
With the increasing popularity of carb-restricted diets, dozens of new bars, shakes, treats, and other products are available. However, says Spritzler, many of them contain questionable ingredients and misleading information about their “net carb” content. For instance, one of the most common sweeteners used in sugar-free products is maltitol, which your body can only partially digest. (It’s a sugar alcohol, a type of sweetener that can increase the risk of diarrhea.) Another common ingredient in low-carb products is a processed fiber known as isomaltooligosaccharides (IMOs).
Unlike the fiber found in whole foods, IMOs can be partially absorbed by your body and may raise blood sugar levels, research suggests. Because food manufacturers subtract the carbs from sorbitol and IMOs when calculating “net carb” values, the amount you’re truly getting is unknown, says Spritzler.
When it comes to achieving a healthy low-carb lifestyle, it’s always best to stick with whole foods rather than packaged or processed items. Make your own sugar-free smoothies with plain Greek yogurt, almond butter, cinnamon, and vanilla. For a treat, have a couple of squares of dark chocolate (85 percent cocoa or higher) or 1/2 cup of berries topped with real whipped cream and chopped walnuts. Next, check out these 9 steps to a low-carb diet that are a good way to get started.