I don't like to put a label on my dietary advice. It is based on scientific research, not ethics, religion or a preconceived notion of what a healthy diet should be like.
But if you want to label it, call it a "Low-Carb, Real-Food" based diet (LCRF).
What Does "Low-Carb, Real-Food" Mean?
Let me start by explaining a bit of terminology.
A low-carbohydrate diet minimizes sugars and starches, replacing them with foods rich in protein and healthy fats.
"Real food" means choosing foods that humans had access to throughout evolution. Processed, unnatural foods with artificial chemicals are avoided.
LCRF is not a "diet." It is a way of eating, a lifestyle change based on bulletproof scientific evidence.
It is a way of eating that emphasizes the foods humans have evolved to eat for hundreds of thousands of years, before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
This type of diet is proven to work better than the low-fat diet still recommended all around the world.
What Not to Eat
You should limit the following foods.
Sugar: Added sugar is addictive, fattening and a leading cause of diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
Grains: Avoid grains if you need to lose weight, including bread and pasta. Gluten grains (wheat, spelt, barley and rye) are the worst (7, 8, 9, 10, 11). Healthier grains like rice and oats are fine if you don't need to lose weight.
Seed and vegetable oils: Soybean oil, corn oil and some others. These are processed fats with a high amount of Omega-6 fatty acids, which are harmful in excess (12, 13, 14).
Trans fats: Chemically modified fats that are extremely bad for health. Found in some processed foods (15, 16, 17).
Artificial sweeteners: Despite being calorie free, observational studies show a correlation with obesity and related diseases (18, 19, 20). If you must use sweeteners, choose Stevia.
"Diet" and "low-fat" products: Most of these "health foods" aren't healthy at all. They tend to be highly processed and loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Agave syrup is just as bad as sugar.
Highly processed foods: Foods that are highly processed are usually low in nutrients and high in unhealthy and unnatural chemicals.
You must read ingredient lists. You'll be surprised at the amount of "health foods" that can contain sugar, wheat and other harmful ingredients.
Healthy Foods to Eat
You should eat natural, unprocessed foods that humans are genetically adapted to eating. Research shows that such foods are great for health (21, 22, 23, 24).
For healthy people who exercise and don't need to lose weight, there is absolutely no proven reason to avoid tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes, or healthier non-gluten grains like oats and rice.
If you are overweight or have metabolic issues (low HDL, high LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, belly fat, etc.) you should restrict all high-carb foods (25, 26).
Meat: Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, etc. Humans have eaten meat for hundreds of thousands of years. Unprocessed meat is good for you, especially if the animals ate natural foods (like beef from grass-fed cows).
Fish: Fish is great. Very healthy, fulfilling and rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. You should eat fish (preferably fatty fish like salmon) every week.
Eggs: Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet. The yolk is the most nutritious and healthiest part. Omega-3 eggs are best.
Vegetables: Contain fiber and many nutrients that are essential for the human body. Eat vegetables every day.
Fruit: Increase variety, taste good, are easy to prepare and rich in fiber and vitamin C. They're still pretty high in sugar, so eat in moderation if you need to lose weight.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc. Rich in various nutrients, but very high in calories. Eat in moderation if you need to lose weight.
Potatoes: Root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes are healthy, but they're still high in carbs. Eat in moderation if you need to lose weight.
High-fat dairy: Cheese, cream, butter, full-fat yogurt, etc. Rich in healthy fats and calcium. Dairy from grass-fed cows will be rich in vitamin K2, which is very important for health (27, 28, 29).
Fats and oils: Olive oil, butter, lard, etc. Choose saturated fats for high-heat cooking like pan frying, they are more stable in the heat.
What to Drink?
Coffee: Coffee is healthy and very rich in antioxidants, but people who are sensitive to caffeine should avoid it. Avoid coffee late in the day because it can ruin your sleep.
Tea: Tea is healthy, rich in antioxidants and has a lot less caffeine than coffee.
Water: You should drink water throughout the day and especially around workouts. No reason to drink a whole ton though, thirst is a pretty reliable indicator of your need.
Carbonated soda without artificial sweeteners is fine.
Avoid sodas with sugar and artificial sweeteners, fruit juice, milk and beer.
Simple rule: Don't drink calories.
Consume in Moderation
These indulgences can be enjoyed from time to time.
Dark Chocolate: Choose organic chocolate with 70% cocoa or more. Dark chocolate is rich in healthy fats and antioxidants.
Alcohol: Choose dry wines and drinks that don't contain added sugar or carbs: vodka, whiskey, etc.
How Many Carbs Per Day?
This varies between individuals.
Many people feel best eating very little carbs (under 50 grams) while others eat as much as 150 grams, which is still low-carb.
You can use these numbers as a guideline:
10-20 grams per day: Very low, can't eat any carbs except low-carb vegetables. Appropriate if you have a lot of weight to lose or if you have diabetes and/or the metabolic syndrome.
20-50 grams per day: If you need to lose weight fast. You can eat quite a bit of vegetables and one piece of fruit per day.
50-150 grams per day: If you want to achieve optimal health and lower your risk of lifestyle-related disease. There is room for several fruit per day and even a little bit of healthy starches like potatoes and rice.
When you lower carbohydrates below 50 grams per day, you can't eat any sugar, bread, pasta, grains, potatoes and a maximum of one fruit per day.
I recommend creating a free account on Fitday to log your food intake for a few days. This is great way to get a feel for the amount of carbs you are eating.
Warning For Diabetics: Carbs in the diet are broken down into glucose in the digestive tract, then they enter the body as blood sugar. If you eat less carbs, you will need less insulin and glucose-lowering drugs.
It is very dangerous if your blood sugar drops below a certain level (hypoglycemia). If you have diabetes, consult with your doctor before reducing carbohydrate intake.
Why Does It Work?
Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years.
Our diet changed drastically in the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago.
However, this change is small compared to the massive transformation we've seen in the last few decades with modern food processing.
It is quite clear that humans today are eating a diet that is very different from the diet our ancestors thrived on throughout evolution.
There are several "primitive" populations around the world that still live as hunter-gatherers, eating natural foods. These people are lean, in excellent health and most of the diseases that are killing western populations by the millions are rare or nonexistent (30, 31).
Studies show that when people eat natural foods that were available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors (also known as the paleolithic diet), they lose weight and see massive improvements in health (21, 22, 23, 24).
The Hormone Insulin
The hormone insulin is well known for its role of moving glucose from the blood and into cells. A deficiency in insulin, or resistance to its effects, causes diabetes.
But insulin also has other roles in the body. Insulin tells fat cells to produce fat and to stop breaking down the fat that they carry. When insulin levels are high, the body chooses not to dip in to the fat stores to provide energy.
On a Western, high-carb diet, insulin levels are high all the time, keeping the fat safely locked away in the fat cells.
Carbs are the main driver of insulin secretion. A low carb diet lowers and balances blood sugar and therefore lowers insulin levels (32, 33, 34).
When insulin goes down, the body can easily access the calories stored in the fat cells, but it can take a few days to adapt to burning fat instead of carbs (35, 36).
Low carbohydrate diets are very satiating. Appetite goes down and people start to automatically eat fewer calories than they burn, which causes weight loss (37).
The main advantage of a low-carb diet is that you can eat until fullness and lose weight without counting calories. Eat low-carb and you avoid the worst side effect of calorie restricted diets: hunger.
Health Benefits of a Low Carb Diet
It is a common misunderstanding, even among health professionals, that low-carb diets are somehow bad for health. People who make such claims obviously haven't bothered to check out the research.
Their main argument is that low-carb diets are bad because they're high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol and causes heart disease.
But recent research suggests that there is nothing to worry about. Saturated fats raise HDL (the good) cholesterol and change the "bad" cholesterol from small, dense LDL (very bad) to large LDL which is benign (38, 39, 40, 41).
The fact is that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. This is simply a myth that has never been proven (42, 43, 44).
Low-carb diets actually lead to more weight loss and further improvements in risk factors compared to a low-fat diet (45, 46).
Body fat: A low-carb diet, eaten until fullness, usually causes more fat loss than a low-fat diet that is calorie restricted (47, 48, 49).
Blood sugar: One of the hallmarks of diabetes and the metabolic syndrome is an elevated blood sugar, which is very harmful over the long term. Low-carb diets lower blood sugar (50, 51, 52, 53, 54).
Blood pressure: If blood pressure is high, it tends to go down on a low-carb diet (55, 56, 57).
High triglycerides: These are fats that circulate around in the blood and are a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Low-carb diets lower triglycerides much more than low-fat diets (58, 59, 60).
HDL (the good) cholesterol: Generally speaking, having more of the "good" cholesterol means you have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Low-carb diets raise HDL cholesterol much more than low-fat diets (61, 62).
sdLDL (the bad) cholesterol: Low-carb diets cause LDL cholesterol to change from small, dense LDL (bad) to large LDL, which is benign (63, 64).
Easier: Low-carb diets appear to be easier to stick to than low-fat diets, probably because it isn't necessary to count calories and be hungry, which is arguably the worst side effect of dieting (65, 37).
The statements above have been shown to be true in randomized controlled trials - scientific studies that are the gold standard of research.
Common Low-Carb Side Effects in The Beginning
When carbs in the diet are replaced with protein and fat, several things need to happen for the body to efficiently use fat as fuel.
There will be major changes in hormones and the body needs to ramp up production of enzymes to start burning primarily fat instead of carbs. This can last for a few days and full adaptation may take weeks.
Common side effects in the first few days include:
Side effects are usually mild and nothing to worry about. Your body has been burning mostly carbs for decades, it takes time to adapt to using fat as the primary fuel source.
This is called the "low carb flu" and should be over within 3-4 days.
On a low-carb diet, it is very important to eat enough fat. Fat is the new source of fuel for your body. If you eat low-carb and low-fat, then you're going to feel bad and abandon the whole thing.
Another important thing to be aware of is that insulin makes the kidneys hold on to sodium. When you eat less carbs, the kidneys release sodium. This is one of the reasons people lose so much bloat and water weight in the first few days.
To counteract this loss of sodium you can add more salt to your food or drink a cup of broth every day. A bouillon cube dissolved in a cup of hot water contains 2 grams of sodium.
Many people say they feel better than ever on a low-carb diet, when the initial adaptation period is over.
If you don't feel good, adding more fat and sodium should take care of it.
A Meal Plan That Can Save Your Life
This is a sample meal plan for one week that supplies less than 50 grams of carbs per day.
Day 1 — Monday:
Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables, fried in butter or coconut oil.
Lunch: Grass-fed yogurt with blueberries and a handful of almonds.
Dinner: Cheeseburger (no bun), served with vegetables and salsa sauce.
Day 2 — Tuesday:
Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
Lunch: Leftover burgers and veggies from the night before.
Dinner: Boiled Salmon with butter and vegetables.
Day 3 — Wednesday:
Breakfast: Eggs and vegetables, fried in butter or coconut oil.
Lunch: Shrimp salad with some olive oil.
Dinner: Grilled chicken with vegetables.
Day 4 — Thursday:
Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables, fried in butter or coconut oil.
Lunch: Smoothie with coconut milk, berries, almonds and protein powder.
Dinner: Steak and veggies.
Day 5 — Friday:
Breakfast: Bacon and Eggs.
Lunch: Chicken salad with some olive oil.
Dinner: Pork chops with vegetables.
Day 6 — Saturday:
Breakfast: Omelet with various veggies.
Lunch: Grass-fed yogurt with berries, coconut flakes and a handful of walnuts.
Dinner: Meatballs with vegetables.
Day 7 — Sunday:
Breakfast: Bacon and Eggs.
Lunch: Smoothie with coconut milk, a bit of heavy cream, chocolate-flavoured protein powder and berries.
Dinner: Grilled chicken wings with some raw spinach on the side.
Do your best to include a variety of vegetables in your diet. If you want to stay below 50g of carbs per day then you can safely have one piece of fruit or some berries every day.
Organic and grass-fed foods are best, but only if you can easily afford them. Just make an effort to always choose the least processed option within your price range.
What About Snacks?
There is no scientific evidence that you should eat more than 3 meals per day. If you do get hungry between meals, here are a few ideas for snacks that are healthy, easily portable and taste good.
A piece of fruit
A handful of nuts
Some cheese and meat