Low-carb diets have ebbed and flowed in popularity since the ’60s, when the Atkins Diet was created. In the past few years, the lifestyle picked up steam, but recently there’s been a shift in the dialogue about carb-cutting and a hesitancy among experts to promote it.
The main reason for this shift is that some low-carb diets villainize foods that can actually be very healthy, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. “Depending on the type of low-carb diet you choose, it may eliminate foods like grains, starchy veggies like potatoes, and even fruit,” she explains. “Often, these diets totally neglect the fact that carbohydrate foods are the most immediate fuel source for the body and provide a lot of nutrients, including B vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.”
As a result, people who severely reduce carbs may notice a drop in energy levels, amongst other not-so-great side effects. “I think that understanding the important role carbohydrates play in the body and realizing that carbs are not all ‘bad’ encourages people to take less restrictive approaches to weight loss and healthy eating,” Blakely says.
That’s not to say that lower-carb diets are without their potential benefits, though. Research has linked them with weight loss, better appetite regulation, increased levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and a reduced risk of heart disease.
So, if you’re all about low-carb living, how can you keep your nutrition and energy on-point for the long haul? Use these expert-backed tips to make your low-carb diet sustainable and nourishing.
1. Make sure the carbs you do eat are complex
Since you’re limiting your overall carbohydrate intake on a low-carb diet, prioritize nutrient-dense sources—like fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils—when you do eat them, suggests dietitian Gillean Barkyoumb, M.S., R.D., founder of Millennial Nutrition. “Skip out on the simple carbs like soda and sweets because they lack the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need,” she says.
2. Eat every three or four hours during the day
To ensure you feel energized throughout the day on a low-carb diet, Barkyoumb suggests following a consistent eating routine in which you eat at the same times and the same intervals each day to keep your body in a normal cycle of nourishment so it knows when to expect fuel.
“If you are not giving your body those carbohydrates for energy, you should have your breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner, etc. at the same time so you stay properly fueled throughout the day and don’t feel sluggish or weak,” she says.
She also recommends eating every three to four hours, which is the average time it takes for stomach contents to be emptied after a standard meal. “Eating every three to four hours can help you develop a routine so you don’t find yourself skipping meals or eating because of an emotional response (like stress-eating),” she says. “It also prevents you from going too long without nourishment and feeling lethargic or tired.”
3. Make room for some fruit
While it’s true that fruit is high in carbohydrates, it also contains an abundance of health-promoting nutrients and antioxidants. Giving yourself the flexibility to include it can make a low-carb diet sustainable over time. “The natural sugar from fruit can help satisfy the sweet tooth on a low-carb diet, while also helping you to meet your daily fiber needs, which supports weight goals and long-term health,” says Blakely.
As long as the fruit you choose fits into your total carbohydrate goals for the day, there’s no reason to exclude it from your low-carb diet. Just choose your fruit wisely, since some varieties are higher carbs than others. While one banana contains 24 grams of carbohydrates, an orange contains just 12, Blakely notes.
4. Make tweaks based on your workout routine
If you are exercising and low-carbing, you must (must!) factor your workout routine into your daily carb allowance. “As your physical activity and fitness increases, so does your need for nutritious carbohydrates,” says naturopath Tricia Pingel, N.M.D. “If you become hungry after working out, your body is asking you for fuel to build muscle and break down fat, so listen and give it high-quality fuel, including carbohydrates.”
Any time you work out at a super-high intensity or for longer than an hour, you’ll need to load up on carbs afterward—especially if you’re cutting them throughout the rest of your routine. On these days, Barkyoumb recommends incorporating 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight into your post-workout meal. For a 150-pound person, that’s 75 grams of carbs. It sounds like a lot, we know—but it’s a must if you want to restock your glycogen stores so that you can keep training hard.
5. Remember that “low-carb” doesn’t equal “healthy”
One confusing part of the low-carb diet world is the idea that you can replace your bread and bagels with endless amounts of low-carb indulgences like bacon.
“I’ve seen patients go keto and watched their cholesterol levels soar due to increased consumption of bacon,” notes Toronto-based naturopathic practitioner Rachel Corradetti-Sargeant, N.D. “When you emphasize protein, you can do it in healthy ways, such as with lean meats, free-range poultry, sustainable fish, dairy products, eggs, and more,” she says. “Bacon isn’t the only option, nor should it be.”
At the end of the day, heavily processed foods that just so happen to be low in carbs shouldn’t be what you reach for, whether you’re on a low-carb diet or not, says Corradetti-Sargeant. It’s always a must to choose whole, nourishing foods that are chock full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. If you want to make your low-carb diet sustainable long-term from an overall health perspective, then the quality of the foods you incorporate can’t be more crucial!
6. Consider taking a fiber supplement
That said, fiber is easiest to get from complex carbohydrates, you may be removing significant amounts of this all-important nutrient from your diet when you go low-carb, says Barkyoumb. Adding a daily fiber supplement to your diet can come in handy by supporting your digestion and gut health and helping to keep you feeling full for longer, research suggests.
The American Heart Association recommends adults consume between 25 and 30 grams of fiber per day. Ideally, you’ll get enough from whole foods (like fruits, vegetables, and beans) but adding a supplement that contains a gram or two can also help, Barkoumb says. Check out Garden of Life Super Seed Beyond Fiber or The Vitamin Shoppe brand Miracle Fiber.