You discovered that a low-carb diet is a great way to lose weight. So you decided to try it out.
But there are so many options to choose from. Atkins, Dukan, Keto, LCHF… Which one is the best low-carb diet?
My answer to this type of questions is always the same. We are all different – there is no single “silver bullet” solution that works for everyone.
“Low-carb” is a very loose term. It covers several completely different diet plans.
This article presents the most popular low-carb diet plans, with a brief overview and pros/cons for each. So you can choose one that would work best for you.
Low-carb diets – quick introduction
Carbohydrates (“carbs”) are the main source of energy for your body. The only other possible energy source is fat: either fat reserves stored within your body or dietary fat you get with food.
Carbs are easier for your body to burn. When you cut down your carbs intake, you encourage it to burn fat instead.
How low is low-carb?
Generally speaking, any diet that includes less than 200g of carbs a day can be described as low-carb. Here’s a quick guide to different levels and diets.
20g-30g of net carbs a day: Ketogenic low-carb diets
Ketogenic diets are extremely low in carbs. The recommended level of carbs is only 20g a day. You would add a lot of fat to your diet instead of carbs.
After several days of reducing your carbs to this very low level, your body switches into ketosis. Ketosis is a natural metabolic state of burning fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. Once in ketosis, your body uses its own fat reserves for fuel.
Losing weight while in ketosis is easy – pounds just melt off. Your energy levels soar.
Best of all, you don’t ever feel hungry. You get to eat rich, mouth-watering low-carb foods.
But to stay in ketosis, you must follow the rules precisely, and all the time. There are no “cheat meals” or “being good most of the time” workarounds.
Ketogenic diets are extremely good for fast weight loss. But they are not easy, especially in the beginning, before you switch into ketosis. They get much easier after you switch, but you still need to stay disciplined and vigilant with your food.
Examples of ketogenic diets are Keto, LCHF and Atkins Induction.
30g-100g of net carbs a day: Moderate low-carb diets
You don’t have to be in ketosis in order to lose weight on a low-carb diet. Cutting out just some of your carbs helps to reduce your overall calorie intake and encourage fat-burning.
Weight loss won’t be as fast as on ketogenic diets, but it would be easier to stick to.
Examples of moderate low-carb diets are Zone and South Beach (phases 1 and 2).
100-150g of net carbs a day: Cutting out grains and sugar
Some people don’t set out to be on a low-carb diet as such. They just simply want to cut out refined sugar and grains from their diet, for health reasons.
Simply cutting out those two types of food would push your carb limit down to a level that’s technically low-carb. And it is very likely to result in at least some weight loss.
Most dieticians agree that white sugar is not good for anyone. The debate still rages on about whole grains. But plenty of people noticed health improvements after cutting our grains, especially wheat.
The most famous diet plan in this group is Paleo. Paleo aims to cut out all foods produced using modern industrial methods, reverting back to what our ancestors used to eat in the Palaeolithic age. Paleo doesn’t specifically try to be low-carb, but often is – due to the absence of sugar and grains.
Phased low-carb diets
Some low-carb diet plans are organised in phases. You would start with a very low level of carbs. You then relax and add foods back on, gradually increasing your carbs limit.
This approach allows you to find the level of carb intake you are most comfortable with. It is less monotonous than purely ketogenic diets.
Examples of phased diets are Atkins, South Beach and Dukan.
Popular low-carb diet plan in detail
Here’s a brief overview of five popular low-carb diet plans, across a range of criteria, to help you choose the most suitable one.
Atkins is still the best-known low-carb diet. Devised in 1970s by Dr Atkins, it has a track record of over years, with millions of devoted fans. Atkins consists of 4 phases, starting with the ketogenic Induction Phase at 20g net carbs a day, and gradually increasing. In this process, you find your own individual optimum level of carbs. More about Atkins Diet…
Dukan: very low-fat as well as low-carb and quite radical, starts with Attack phase of several days on protein-only foods, followed by protein-only days alternating with days on protein plus salad vegetables. More about Dukan Diet…
Keto: similar to Atkins Induction, daily carbs are kept to a minimum throughout the full duration of the diet. More about Keto Diet…
Paleo: although not specifically designed to be low-carb, Paleo excludes foods made available by agriculture and processed foods, cutting out grains and refined sugar, which results in lower carb consumption. More about Paleo Diet…
South Beach: low-fat as well as low-carb but a lot less radical than Dukan, with several phases. More about South Beach Diet…
Click on the diet’s name in the first row to see its overview and pros/cons, and click on the criteria in column one to see the full explanation below.
|1. Weight loss guaranteed1, 2||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|2. Easy to follow2||No||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|3. Phased structure||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes|
|4. Amount of fat||High||Very low||High||High||Low|
|6. Suitable for intensive exercise2||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|7. Requires carb counting||Yes||No||No||Yes||No|
|8. Sweeteners allowed||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|9. Easy for vegetarians2||No||No||No||No||Yes|
1 provided all the guidelines of the diet are followed fully and accurately
2 these criteria are subjective and a matter of opinion rather than fact. I provided my judgement based on my knowledge and experience, but other people may have different opinions (please feel free to share in the comments below)
1. Weight loss guaranteed / 2. Ease of following the diet
These first two factors are linked as a trade-off – stricter diets would enable faster weight loss BUT also require more effort and willpower, and you would be more likely to give up the diet. In either case, it is important to have realistic expectations and not expect miracles overnight.
Where weight loss is mentioned as guaranteed, this is only the case if you definitely stick with all the guidelines of the diet.
If you keep attempting strict diets and falling off the wagon after several days or weeks, I would recommend choosing a more moderate plan. It’s better to lose weight slowly and gradually than not at all! Read more on weight loss success tips…
3. Low-carb diets with phased structure
Some low-carb diets plans start out with a short strict phase (often ketogenic), designed to reset your metabolism and food habits, and then gradually move to longer but less restrictive stages. Phased structure is good if you are a beginner or if you can’t (or don’t want to) cope with restrictions for too long.
4. Amount of fat on a low-carb diet
Many low-carb diets are very high in fat (basically replacing your energy source from carbs to fat), whereas some other plans are also low-fat (most notably Dukan). It is difficult to get into ketosis if you don’t consume extra fat with your diet, and overall low-carb low-fat diets are much harder to stick to than low-carb high-fat (LCHF, e.g. Atkins Induction or Keto).
Health benefits of fat consumption. Although new research shows dietary fat is not quite the devil it was once thought to be (and in fact could have substantial health benefits), some people are still afraid of it, and so prefer to keep their fat intake low or moderate. Both low-fat and high-fat camps are passionate about their beliefs and have research to back them up, so you would have to make up your own mind about this aspect. (Personally, I believe that LCHF is the most effective and healthy way, but this is based on my own experiences and can’t be extrapolated on to everyone.)
5. Ketogenic low-carb diets
Ketosis is a natural state when your body starts converting fat for fuel instead of glucose. This occurs when carbohydrates are reduced to a minimum for a period of time, usually less than 20g net carbs a day for at least 5-7 days (e.g. Keto, Atkins Induction). Ketosis (not to be confused with ketoacidosis) is not unhealthy, and there are people who stay in ketosis for months and even years.
Getting into ketosis can be difficult – for the first several days, you might experience fatigue, headaches and general lack of energy. However, once ketosis kicks in, these symptoms disappear and you are likely to have more energy than before. Hunger and sugar cravings will go away, and you can achieve fast weight loss in this state. You will need to keep your carb intake to a minimum in order to stay there – eat something high in carbs and you will get knocked out and back to square one.
If you keep trying to get into ketosis but can’t cope with the initial symptoms, or if you keep getting knocked out after several days, then reconsider your plan and pick a diet that’s not ketogenic (e.g. South Beach).
6. Diets suitable for intensive exercise
If you are an athlete, or if you do regular high-intensity exercise such as weight lifting, bodybuilding or sprint running, your dietary needs will obviously be very different to those of sedentary people. This is really a specialist area but generally speaking, the two low-carb diets that are popular with this group of people are variations of Keto (CKD / TKD), and Paleo.
If your lifestyle is mostly sedentary, and your exercise levels are small or moderate, you don’t need to worry too much about the diet’s implication on your performance. All popular low-carb diet books usually include guidance and advice on exercising during that particular diet.
7. Low-carb diets that require carb counting
Some low-carb diets require counting of all net carbs consumed. This can seem laborious at first, but you get used to it quickly. There are special food tracking apps and tools available to help you. Keeping a food diary is actually supposed to be beneficial overall anyway – you are less likely to deviate from your diet if you have to make a note of everything you eat.
If you find the idea of food tracking a bit of a nightmare, opt for a plan that doesn’t include it. Typically, such plans will provide a list of permitted or banned foods and leave it at that.
8. Sweeteners and processed foods allowed on low-carb diets
Some diets (mainly Paleo/Primal plans) exclude all refined and processed foods, including artificial sweeteners.
Interestingly, Dr Atkins allowed sweeteners in moderation, but since his death Atkins Nutritionals corporation seem to disregard it all, and churn out masses of artificially sweetened Atkins bars, milkshakes, even breakfast cereals. Please stick with the advice given in the original book and avoid these products if you can. If you must have something sweet, make a low-carb dessert from scratch – at least you will know exactly what’s in it. Read more about sweeteners on a low-carb diet…
9. Low-carb diets for vegetarians
Apologies to vegetarians, but low-carb is extremely tricky to adapt to your lifestyle. It relies on protein and restricts consumption of grains, root vegetables and fruit, which all play a big role in vegetarian diets. The most well-known plan to have a specific vegetarian version is South Beach for Vegetarians.
10. Supplementation required on low-carb diets
Guidelines vary from diet to diet, but generally, dietitians do recommend taking supplements to support low-carb diets, especially during the really restrictive stages. Dr Atkins had some very specific recommendations with regards to Atkins Diet supplements. Some targeted low-carb diet supplements are available from our low-carb shop.
Final word of caution
Whatever you do, please always stick with well-known diet plans that have been tried and tested, and never resort to desperate measures that promise overnight results, such as diet pills – that’s just plain stupid and likely to damage your health.
Always consult your GP or another qualified medical practitioner before starting a new diet, if any of the following apply:
- you have a medical condition or are under medical supervision for any reason
- you are pregnant or breastfeeding
- your BMI is over 30
- you would like to lose over 25% of your current weight
- you are under 18 or over 60 years old
- you have any other concerns or questions about weight loss in general or low carb dieting in particular