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Low-Carb Diet Guide for Beginners

By Edited Sep 15, 2016 1 0

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Healthy Weight Loss Doesn't Have to be Complicated

Healthy Low-Carb Breakfast

Does all of the talk about ketogenic diets, Nutritional Ketosis, blood ketone levels, and macronutrient ratios have you confused? Have you tried to follow low-carb guidelines someone gave you, but find the targeted ratios – especially the protein and fat percentage – too difficult to meet? Maybe you skipped over reading one of the Atkins books and are using information you’ve pieced together from several different sources online, but you aren’t having much success.

Although the popularity of blood ketone meters, extremely high-fat diets, and lower protein consumption is steadily growing among low-carb advocates, these weight-loss ideas don’t reflect a typical, healthy low-carb diet. If you’re new to low-carb nutrition and dietary Ketosis, you don’t need to worry about the protein content in your chicken breast and vegetables. Nor do you need to figure out how to drive your dietary fat percentage higher, or whether you need to limit your snacks to fit within a particular calorie range.

Low-carb weight loss doesn’t have to be that complicated. This Low-Carb Diet Guide for Beginners offers low-carb diet basics that can set you up on the best path to successful weight loss.

Net Carbs

The first two weeks on a low-carb diet is referred to as Atkins Induction, or Phase 1. Although the Atkins Diet isn’t the only low-carb meal plan, it’s one of the more popular programs for weight loss. During these first two weeks, you eat from a list of acceptable foods with a few extra limitations. Induction is designed to keep your carbohydrate intake to about 20 net carbs without having to count them.

Net Carbs: Subtract Fiber from Carbohydrates

Although there is a lot of controversy surrounding the net carb calculation, its original meaning as introduced by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades in 1996 (effective carb count) was arrived at by subtracting the grams of fiber from the grams of carbohydrate. In the example in the picture at the left, this sprouted 7-grain bread has 3 grams of fiber and 7 grams of carbohydrates. When you substract 3 from 7, that leaves you with a net carb count of 4 grams.

Dr. Atkins Adopted Net Carbs From the Eades

Fiber is metabolized in the large intestine. It’s converted into a type of fat, and metabolized as fat, so it’s not really a carbohydrate, even though labeling laws in the U.S. require manufacturers to add it to a food label’s Total Carbohydrate calculation.

After the Eades’ book, Protein Power, was published, Dr. Atkins was asked about the legitimacy of subtracting the fiber from a food’s carbohydrate content. He agreed with the Eades that it was logical to do so.

In 1999, Dr. Atkins made that stand official when he republished his 1992 version of the Atkins Diet. Today, net carbs has been expanded to include sugar alcohols, glycerine, and other ingredients, but most sugar alcohols are metabolized the same as processed sugar. In those who don’t metabolize them, it produces intestinal distress, so they should be avoided. Sugar alcohols are not allowed on Atkins Induction.

Acceptable Foods for Low-Carb Weight Loss

If you haven’t read any of the Atkins or Eades books, you won’t have a clear understanding of the type of foods allowed on a low-carb diet. Although Dr. Atkins’ 1992 version gave dieters the freedom to construct their own weight-loss meal plans – provided they stayed at or below 20 net carbs during Induction – that option (along with indulging in a small baked potato occasionally) wasn’t offered in his 2002 version.

Apparently, there was a lot of dieters who misused this instruction because in 2002, Dr. Atkins went back to using specific acceptable food lists, provided 12 Rules for Induction, and gave specific instructions on dietary fats and oils, beverages, artificial sweeteners, and even low-carb convenience foods.

Meat, Eggs, and Cheese

High-quality protein foods have long been considered a staple of a healthy low-carb diet. Severely limiting protein to keep your blood level of ketones high is a fairly new idea. While those who are truly metabolic resistant or suffer from severe insulin resistance might need to lower their protein intake in order to lower their circulating insulin levels, for the average low-carb dieter, and especially beginners, this limitation isn’t necessary.

In fact, when you first restrict the carbohydrates in your diet, your liver will turn to protein sources to keep your brain, kidneys, and red blood cells supplied with the glucose they need. If your protein falls short of that need, the body will begin breaking down muscle tissue to make up for the shortage. For that reason, protein foods should not be limited during the first 6 weeks of a low-carb diet. Not until the body adapts to efficiently burning fatty acids for fuel.

One of the major mistakes that many low-carb dieters make is to turn to a high proportion of processed meats. Although most sources of fish, poultry, meats, eggs, and several types of cheeses are allowed from the very first day, imitation crabmeat, bacon, ham, sausage, pepperoni, salami, hot dogs, and other luncheon meats may contain sugar and fillers that will add additional carbs.

Cream Cheese Stuffed Chicken Cutlets

Also try to choose a wide variety of meat and poultry types, rather than just fatty cuts such as ribs, hamburger, porterhouse steak, and chicken wings. Our ancestors ate most of the animal, which means they didn’t shun the leaner cuts. While the health benefits of a low-carb, lower-fat diet might be debatable, wild animals are leaner overall than supermarket meats and poultry, so there’s no reason why you have to eat fatty meat if you don’t want to.

Full-Fat Cheeses Are Allowed On the Atkins Diet

In 2002, full fat cheeses such as Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Swiss, used to be counted as 1 gram of carbohydrate per ounce, no matter what the label said. However, the Atkins official website now lists several low-fat cheeses and gives the specific carb counts for each type of cheese. Blue cheeses, Feta, Parmesan, cream cheese, Gouda, sheep and goat cheeses are allowed along with traditional hard cheeses.

Although some cheeses come in a pre-grated form, grated cheese is generally dusted with potato starch or cornstarch to keep the shreds from sticking together. That makes them unacceptable. In addition, cheese is limited to no more than 4 ounces per day. Soft cheeses such as cottage cheese and Ricotta are not allowed during Induction due to their higher carbohydrate content, but they can be added back to your diet later on when you begin discovering your carbohydrate tolerance.

Vegetables and Salads

Vegetables and salads are a mainstay of a healthy low-carb diet. Although the Atkins Diet and other low-carb meal plans are often accused of being practically vegetable free, that isn’t true. In fact, Atkins requires you to eat a minimum of 12 to 15 net carbs of vegetables during Induction and 17 to 20 net carbs of vegetables once you move into the Ongoing Weight Loss Phase, or Phase 2. A low-carb diet isn’t just bacon and eggs, and greasy burgers. That’s an unjust accusation made by people who have never investigated low-carb nutrition for themselves.

Vegetables Help Make Low Carb Diets Work

In 2002, the Atkins Diet didn’t require 12 to 15-net carbs of vegetables. It allowed 2 to 3 cups of loosely packed salad vegetables, and 1 cup of slightly higher-carb fibrous vegetables – if your total salad for the day didn’t exceed 2 cups. Many dieters still follow that recommendation today. However, most dieters were choosing only extremely low-carb vegetables, rather than a wide variety. They wanted to spend the majority of their 20-net carbs on low-carb extras. That tendency is probably why the freedom to create your own low-carb Induction Diet was reversed.

To ensure a higher phytonutrient and fiber intake, the recommendation using cups was changed to more clearly define what Dr. Atkins had in mind when he said that “most” of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables. In addition, unless you are severely resistant to weight loss, vegetables and salads are not optional.

Fats and Oils

Pop into any low-carb forum and you’ll hear about the amazing benefits attributed to dietary fats. Some of it is true, but most of it is not. There seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding when it comes to saturated and polyunsaturated fats. Although Dr. Atkins has always cautioned the dieter to not be afraid of fat, that doesn’t mean you can eat all you want and still shed pounds. Even as late as 2002, sample menus and recipes in Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution used:

  • stewing beef trimmed of fat
  • ground turkey
  • round steak
  • turkey breast
  • and chicken sausages

Most fats and oils are allowed within reason. According to the Atkins official website, you need to “keep in mind that the serving size is approximately 1 tablespoon.” The best forms are:

  • cold-pressed oils
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • nut and seed oils
  • real butter
  • autentic lard that you render yourself
  • mayonnaise
  • poultry skin
  • fatty fish such as salmon

Trans fats (hydrogenated oils, partially-hydrogenated oils, margarine, and shortening) should be avoided as much as possible. While extra-virgin coconut oil is highly praised within the low-carb community, it was never recommended by Dr. Atkins, and is not on the accepted list of fats at the Atkins official website either.

In earlier versions of Atkins, salad dressings were limited to oil-and-vinegar varieties only, but today, you are free to use prepared salad dressings that don’t include any added sugar. All dressings must not contain more than 2 grams of carbohydrates per 2-tablespoon serving.

Low-Carb Beverages and Sodas

Low-carb sodas are another area of controversy. However, the Atkins Diet has never allowed diet beverages made with Aspartame. That eliminates most commercial sodas and kool-aid type soft drinks, except for those made with Splenda. Club soda and unsweetened sparkling waters are also allowed.

Traditional coffees and caffeinated teas are limited to 1 to 2 cups per day. The caution is that caffeine can cause episodes of hypoglycemia and cravings in some individuals. Decaffeinated coffee, decaffeinated teas, and herb teas that contain no barley or fruit juices are fine.

Unsweetened Almond Milk is Low Carb

Unflavored, unsweetened soy milk and almond milk are low in carbohydrates, so they are allowed even on Atkins Induction. But keep in mind that after fulfilling your vegetable requirement, that only leaves about 5 to 8 grams of net carbs per day for all extras until you begin returning more carbs to your diet. You are also encouraged to drink chicken broth to help keep your electrolytes balanced. Sodium should not be avoided.

Water is also extremely important for weight loss on low carb. Since a low-carb diet is dehydrating by design, you need to drink at least 8 cups of water per day, but one-half of your current weight in ounces is better. Not drinking enough water can disrupt or slow down your fat loss.

Special Low-Carb Foods and Convenience Foods

Although Dr. Atkins has recommended a variety of sugar substitutes in the past, currently, the only sugar substitute allowed on Induction is Splenda. Since Stevia is an herb, it's also fine, but look for a brand that's pure Stevia without the sugar alcohols. 

Special category foods include low-carb options that can add a touch of variety to your meals. These foods include 10 to 20 olives, one-half of a small avocado, 1-ounce of sour cream (2 tablespoons), and 3 tablespoons of lemon or lime juice per day. These low-carb foods sometimes interfere with weight loss in some people, so if weight isn’t coming off as fast as you think it should, try cutting out some of these extras.

Heavy cream is not carbohydrate free, no matter what the label says. Labeling laws in the U.S. allow manufacturers to claim no carbohydrates if the serving size contains less than .5 grams. Heavy cream has about 6.6 grams of carbohydrates per cup, and about 800 calories, so Dr. Atkins limits the amount of heavy cream you can have on Induction. Two or 3 tablespoons is the maximum limit. That includes the cream you put in your coffee or tea as well as any whipped cream you use to top a reasonable serving of Splenda-sweetened gelatin.

Low-carb convenience foods are one of the major downfalls for beginners and even those who return to low-carb dieting after a leave of absence or a maintenance break. Most of them are not allowed on Induction and should only be added to your diet after you have found your carbohydrate tolerance level.

While products such as tortillas, sandwich bread, Dreamsfield pasta, and Carbquick baking mix can certainly be helpful and wisely added to your diet, for many dieters, they are a major roadblock to healthy weight loss. In addition, most of these products are made with wheat, wheat gluten, and even modified cornstarch, so they can cause stalls or cravings in those who are sensitive or allergic to corn or wheat. Whole grains are also the last thing you add back.

Finding Your Personal Carbohydrate Tolerance

Many individuals choose to stay at Induction levels of carbs for more than two weeks. Although that isn’t a problem if you have a lot of weight to lose and need an extra boost of motivation, extremely low levels of carbohydrates are not what the Atkins Diet is all about. Despite the criticisms and accusations, a low-carb diet helps you find your personal carbohydrate tolerance. That tolerance level will not be the same for everyone.

Almonds and Other Nuts Are Added Back Later On

The object of Atkins Induction is to help encourage your body to enter into the state of Ketosis. For that reason, fruits, soft cheeses, nuts, and other healthy foods are not allowed until later on. However, once you have made the metabolic switch and your weight loss is going well, Dr. Atkins encouraged dieters to begin discovering their personal carbohydrate tolerance. You do that by returning additional foods to your diet and upping your carbohydrates from 20-net carbs per day to 25.

After staying at 25-net carbs per day for at least a week, you evaluate your progress. If you’re still losing weight, you add another 5-net carbs per day to your meals and snacks for a total of 30. After 7 days, you evaluate your progress again. As long as you’re losing weight and avoiding cravings, you can continue adding back carbohydrates at 5-grams per day in weekly intervals, until you reach a point where your low-carb weight loss stops. At that time, you subtract 5-grams from your daily total. That’s your personal carbohydrate tolerance level.

Use The Carbohydrate Ladder Wisely

Along with discovering your personal carbohydrate sensitivity, you can also begin adding new foods to your meals and snacks. That’s accomplished through the help of The Carbohydrate Ladder. The Carbohydrate Ladder was designed by Dr. Atkins to help dieters return additional foods to their diets in a careful, gradual way. This Ladder zeros in on specific food groups. You add those food groups back to your diet very slowly, so you can monitor and learn how your body reacts to those types of foods.

  1. More Salad and other vegetables
  2. Cheeses not on the acceptable list for Induction
  3. Seeds and nuts
  4. Berries
  5. Wine and other alcoholic drinks
  6. Legumes
  7. Fruits other than berries
  8. Starchy vegetables: peas, winter squashes, sweet potatoes
  9. Whole grains

Although earlier versions of Dr. Atkins' diet allowed you to return the foods you miss the most, those earlier diets were designed before any of the current low-carb products were available. With the abundance of today’s choices, dieters often need a little more guidance. Plus, the listing is ordered in such as way as to first introduce the foods that are least likely to cause stalls. Not everyone will be able to add back all of these foods, but when you add them slowly enough, you'll be able to spot your own personal problem areas and triggers.

Why Do People Fail On The Atkins Diet?

Not everyone achieves success with a low-carb diet. Some people don't take the time to adequately prepare. Others go into the diet with the mindset that it's only a temporary situation. In the following video, Ken Holston -- a man that lost over 200 pounds on the Atkins Diet and has kept it off for years now -- explains why he believes that dieters fail to reach their weight-loss goals.

Why Some People Fail To Achieve Their Weight-Loss Goals

Additional Advice

If you’re coming from a high-carb, low-fat diet it can be difficult to break the habit of counting calories, but Atkins Induction is not about restriction. The purpose of Induction is simply to get into Ketosis, so don’t go hungry. If you follow the plan as written, eat only the foods that are on the allowable list, don’t restrict your protein, and relax about your portion sizes, you can give your body the space it needs to convert from predominantly burning glucose for fuel to burning fatty acids.

It also helps to keep your first meals simple. Focus on meats, eggs, cheese, healthy vegetables and salads, and drink plenty of water. Once you’ve adjusted to this new way of eating, you can begin to add back some of your favorite foods such as strawberries, raspberries, mixed nuts or almonds, and perhaps some cottage cheese mixed with blueberries.

Keep in mind that as you transition from Atkins Induction to Ongoing Weight Loss and begin seeking your personal carbohydrate sensitivity that the speed of your weight loss will slow down. While that upsets many dieters, it’s the way that healthy weight loss, and especially the Atkins Diet, is supposed to work. The idea isn’t to find the fastest way to shed your excess body fat. The goal is to slowly create a low-carb diet you can live with and easily maintain for the rest of your life.



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  1. Michael R. Eades, M.D. and Mary Dan Eades, M.D. Protein Power. New York City: Bantam Books, 1996.
  2. Robert C. Atkins, M.D. Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. New York City: M. Evans and Company Inc., 2002.
  3. "The Program: Phase 1, What You Can Eat in This Phase." Atkins (Official Website). 27/01/2013 <Web >
  4. "Low Carb Diets: The Right Way to Go?." University of Maryland Medical Center. 3/04/2013 <Web >
  5. "Carbohydrates: Good Carbs Guide the Way." Harvard School of Publish Health. 3/04/2013 <Web >
  6. A. Adam-Perrot, P. Clifton, F. Brouns "Low-carbohydrate diets: nutritional and psysiological aspects." Obesity Reviews. 7 (2006): 49-58.

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