There are several health reasons to eat fewer carbohydrates. Many people do this to lose weight and gain lean muscle mass. You might think that eating less fat would be a better way to do this. In fact, too many of the wrong carbohydrates can actually cause weight gain. Refined carbohydrates turn to sugar and/or fermentable substances before our bodies are able to properly digest them. Sugar may feel like the fuel that gives you energy, but that is a short-lived feeling. High quality fats, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables may be a better option for controlling weight and building muscle.
There are several different diets that restrict the types of carbohydrates you eat. The Paleo diet does not allow any grains or legumes. The Ketogenic plan is a higher fat, very low carbohydrate diet. The GAPS diet restricts carbohydrates from grains and certain starchy vegetables to help control bacterial overgrowth from fermentable sugars. The Candida diet is similar in that it restricts sugar so as to starve the yeasts that are causing a leaky gut.
There is evidence that a lower carbohydrate diet is best for cardiovascular health. We have been taught that restricting fat intake is the key to lowering cholesterol. That theory has now been challenged by proponents of low carbohydrate and low sugar diets. Excess starch and sugar in our meal plans is likely what contributes to expanding bellies and clogged arteries.
If you are looking to improve your health and possibly lose a few pounds, consider cutting out refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, and starchy foods. This isn’t to suggest that you don’t eat any carbohydrates, as some are needed for energy. And, it is pretty impossible to completely eliminate carbohydrates 100%. It should be noted that you can reduce the net carbohydrates in a meal by adding more fiber to a dish that has carbohydrates. Let’s review some of the lowest carbohydrate foods.
If you are on a high protein diet, lean animals and fishes are likely your best sources of protein with little to no carbohydrates.
The breast is the leanest part of the chicken. It is high in protein and low in fat. Prepared grilled or baked, with seasonings, will provide the fewest calories. It can also be added to soups. Free range, organic chicken is the best option.
3 ounces of chicken breast has 0 carbohydrates, 30 grams of protein, and 110 calories.
Salmon is a fatty fish with many health benefits. It supplies us with the Omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids we all need for heart health. Omega 3s reduce triglyceride levels and blood pressure. It is recommended that you eat 2 to 3 servings of fresh fish each week. Wild caught is the preferred option. You can grill, bake, pan sear, or steam salmon.
4 ounces of salmon has 0 carbohydrates, 24 grams of protein, and 166 calories.
Bison gets a lot of credit for being a lean source of red meat. It is lower in fat than beef, yet can be prepared similarly. Bison are generally grass fed and pasture raised, making this a healthy source of animal protein and iron. It can be ground or sliced into steaks. You can grill it, roast it, or use it to make meatballs or loafs.
3 ounces of bison has 0 carbohydrates, 18 grams of protein, and 93 calories.
The tenderloin is the least fatty cut of pork. But, it is not shy on flavor. Care needs to be taken when preparing the tenderloin, as it can dry out from the lack of natural fat. It takes well to marinades and dry spice rubs. It is fine grilled or oven roasted. You can find heritage breed pork that has roamed freely and eaten a diet of mostly acorns. This is quite tasty.
3 ounces of pork tenderloin has 0 carbohydrates, 23 grams of protein, and 154 calories.
Eggs are not a significant source of protein, but they do contain a good amount of vitamin B12 that we need to turn the carbohydrates in other foods into the glucose we use for energy. The healthiest way to eat eggs is by poaching or hard boiling. Hard boiled eggs are an easy on-the-go meal or snack. Organic, free range eggs are preferable.
1 egg has less than 1 gram of carbohydrates, 6 grams of protein, and 80 calories.
Ground turkey is a great substitute for ground red meat. It has less fat and fewer calories. Turkey makes a good burger, meatballs, meatloaf, or an ingredient in chili. Organic and free range turkey isn’t always easy to find and is more expensive, but it is worth searching for. The flavor is superior in a bird that has been allowed to move around and eat the insects they use for their own protein source. The white meat is the leanest.
3 ounces of ground turkey has 0 carbohydrates, 23 grams of protein, and 200 calories (cooked).
There are a couple of categories of vegetables to consider. They are either starchy or non-starchy. We’ll take a look at the non-starchy vegetables, as the alternatives are higher in carbohydrates. The low carbohydrate vegetables discussed here show total carbs. The fiber in most of these vegetables reduces the total carb count to a much lower net carbohydrate count.
Watercress is a leafy herb that is ideal in salads or used as a soup base. Watercress is abundant in vitamin C and calcium. It has a distinctly, but subtle, peppery taste to it. It is wonderful for digestion.
1/2 cup of watercress has 1.29 grams of carbohydrates.
Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage, is a sturdy cruciferous vegetable that is ideal for stir fry dishes. It is loaded with vitamins A, C, and K. It is a good source of carotenes and antioxidants that we rely on to fight the free radicals that cause premature aging and disease. It is also a good source of fiber.
1/2 cup of Bok Choy has 2.18 grams of carbohydrates.
This is a leafy, bitter tasting vegetable that is best served wilted or sautéed with some garlic and lemon to temper the bitterness. It pairs well with protein and puréed root vegetables. Broccoli rabe is an excellent source of the minerals calcium, iron, and magnesium. It is quite high in fiber.
1/2 cup of broccoli rabe has 2.85 grams of carbohydrates.
While there are many varieties of lettuce, most are similar nutritionally, with the exception of iceberg. Iceberg lettuce is mostly water. Lettuce is best eaten raw in salads. Lettuce is a good supply of vitamins A and K.
1/2 cup of lettuce has approximately 2.87 grams of carbohydrates.
Also known as summer squash, zucchini can be either green or yellow, round or elongated. Like many of the vegetables listed here, zucchini contains no saturated fat or cholesterol. Zucchini is an important source of the electrolyte potassium. It is delicious sautéed, grilled, stuffed and baked, or added to soups and stews. It is a versatile vegetable.
1/2 cup of zucchini has 3.11 grams of carbohydrates.
Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that peaks mid-spring to early summer. It is a fibrous stalk with tiny leaves at the very tip. It is tender when lightly steamed or roasted. It is easy to overcook, so be mindful. Asparagus has a unique flavor that pairs well with heavier proteins or stir fry dishes. It is a great source of vitamin A and copper.
1/2 cup of asparagus has 3.38 grams of carbohydrates.
These small root vegetables are delicious in salads. The greens are also edible. Radishes are spicy and refreshing at the same time. Radishes contain an antioxidant called sulforaphane, which is known to aid in the prevention of various cancers.
1/2 cup of red radishes has 3.4 grams of carbohydrates.
Spinach is a versatile dark leafy green that can be eaten raw in salads, sautéed, or added to soups and stews. It is very high in vitamin A and a good source of calcium. Spinach contains 34% of the RDA of iron we need for red blood cell production.
1/2 cup of spinach leaves has 3.63 grams of carbohydrates.
Swiss chard is a leafy green with an edible fibrous stalk. Chard is a great source of the disease fighting vitamin K. You can eat this raw in salads, or steam it. The stalks and ribs are great pickled. This is one of the best greens for a low carb diet.
1/2 cup of Swiss chard has 3.74 grams of carbohydrates.
While technically a fruit, tomatoes are mostly used in savory recipes. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Tomatoes are typically the base for sauces in Italian and Mexican cuisines. They are a rich source of lycopene, a flavonoid antioxidant. Lycopene may help protect cells and other structures in the human body from harmful free radicals.
1/2 cup of tomatoes has 3.9 grams of carbohydrates.
As a general rule, fruits contain more carbohydrates than vegetables. They also contain more natural sugars. When restricting or limiting calories from carbohydrates, you might be inclined to eat less fruit. The trick with fruit is to choose higher fiber ones that yield lower net carbs. You also might consider limiting your fruits to 1 serving per meal or less. Always eat fresh, preferably organic fruits. Canned, jarred, and dried fruits often have added sugars.
Star fruit is the king of lower carbohydrate fruits. When sliced, it really looks like a star. It is very pretty just served that way. The firm skin is edible, and offers a good amount of dietary fiber. The inner flesh is sweet and tart. It is good by itself or it can be pickled. Star fruit has quercetin. Quercetin is an important flavonoid that is beneficial to cardiovascular health and seasonal allergies.
1/2 cup of star fruit has 6.73 grams of carbohydrates.
Watermelon is not a particularly great source of fiber. It is refreshing and filling because it is mostly water. Watermelon is a good source of vitamin A. And, it has lycopene, similar to tomatoes. Watermelon flesh is best eaten as is. The rinds are delicious when pickled.
1/2 cup of watermelon has 7.6 grams of carbohydrates.
These seedy little gems are sweet and tangy, easy to eat with one hand, and fabulous blended into smoothies or dipped in dark chocolate. Fresh berries have 98% of the RDA of vitamin C. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. Strawberries are quite low in calories, and are a favorite for those on a low carb or Ketogenic diet.
1/2 cup of strawberries has 7.7 grams of carbohydrates.
Avocados are such a unique fruit. The flesh is rich, creamy, fatty, and savory. Avocados are a great source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids that are vital to lowering LDL cholesterol. The flesh is wonderful eaten on salads, mixed into dips, and used to make creamy green smoothies.
1/2 cup of avocado has 8.53 grams of carbohydrates.
The flesh of cantaloupes is super sweet and fragrant. There is nothing like the scent of cutting into a fresh, ripe cantaloupe. This fruit is great by itself or in a fruit salad. It also pairs really nicely with cured meats as an appetizer or snack. Cantaloupes are an excellent source of both vitamins A and C. The orange flesh makes them high in beta-carotene, needed for cancer prevention.
1/2 cup of cantaloupe has 8.6 grams of carbohydrates.
Peaches are a staple in Southern US kitchens. They are often baked into pies or cobblers, and added to chutneys. Peaches are also used in braises of pork dishes and in barbeque sauces. They are fabulous eaten right off the tree when fully ripe. The flesh is super juicy. You would think these were higher in sugar than they actually are. Peaches are loaded with vitamins and beta-carotene.
1/2 cup of peaches has 9.54 grams of carbohydrates.
Blackberries are best eaten during peak season when they are just ripe. Otherwise, they are sour or mushy. They are terrific in pies, compotes, and jams. They are also great just by the handful. These berries are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber. This is great for digestion. They also supply a decent amount of copper.
1/2 cup of blackberries has 9.61 grams of carbohydrates.
Mulberries grow wild in North America and Asia. They are similar to a blackberry, and can be used in the same preparations. The berries contain resveratrol. Resveratrol protects us from strokes by reducing blood vessel constriction and lowering blood pressure.
1/2 cup of mulberries has 9.8 grams of carbohydrates.
These little berries are not always easy to find. They come in a variety of colors. Gooseberries are high in flavones and anthocyanins. These compounds are known to have numerous health benefits in fighting aging, cancer, and inflammation. Tart berries add flavor to cooked, savory, protein dishes. Ripe berries can be eaten just like grapes.
1/2 cup of gooseberries has 10.18 grams of carbohydrates.
This stone fruit is similar to a peach in texture and flavor. Nectarines have a smooth skin, unlike the fuzzy skin of a peach. They are very fragrant and are best eaten ripe just like you would an apple. The skin and pulp are both edible. The stone or seed is not. This fruit is a healthy source of B vitamins and vitamins A and E.
1/2 cup of nectarines has 10.55 grams of carbohydrates.
Dairy and Dairy Alternatives
Many people on a high protein, full fat, and low carbohydrate diet include dairy or dairy alternatives as a staple for getting the daily calories needed to sustain them. The carbohydrates in dairy are often surprising, as one might expect the higher fat products might also have higher amounts of carbs. That isn’t really the case. Let’s take a look at some of the lower carb dairy and dairy alternative products.
Your best bet with butter is to buy it made from grass fed cows, preferably cultured. Butter is considered a zero carb dairy product, in moderation. Butter used to get a bad rap for being fattening and for raising LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, the fat in butter has been found to be much healthier than the trans and hydrogenated fats that were used to make many margarines.
I tablespoon of butter has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
This Swiss cheese melts beautifully for fondues, in omelets, or melted over onion soup. It has a nice sharp flavor. Gruyere is a great source of protein and calcium, necessary for bone health. This cheese is another zero carb food.
1 ounce of Gruyere cheese has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
Grated parmesan cheese is a staple in most Italian kitchens. It is nutty and tangy and just so good melted or shaved over so many dishes. As with most cheese, this is a good source of protein and calcium. A little bit goes a long way.
1 tablespoon of parmesan cheese has 0 grams of carbohydrates. 2 tablespoons has .3 grams of carbohydrates.
Cheddar cheese is a nice hard cheese with a bite to it that makes your cheeks tingle. It is great on a meat or veggie burger.
2 tablespoons of cheddar cheese has .2 grams of carbohydrates.
Cream cheese is a favorite with the high-fat, keto community. A common recipe is a cheesecake breakfast smoothie made with full-fat cream cheese, stevia, and fresh fruit. Surprisingly, full-fat cream cheese has less carbs than the reduced fat version.
2 tablespoons of regular cream cheese has 1 gram of carbohydrates.
Unsweetened Almond Milk
Almond milk is a pretty good source of protein and has a decent amount of vitamin E. It is thinner than full-fat dairy, but still holds up well in baking and for making high protein smoothies. It has a nice nutty flavor. Brands vary in carbohydrate counts.
8 ounces of unsweetened almond milk has approximately 2.5 grams of carbohydrates.
Unsweetened Soy Milk
Soy milk has been used as a dairy alternative in vegan diets for decades. It is fairly low in fat and doesn’t have the body that animal dairy has. It works well for drinking, to put in coffee, and for smoothies. Different brands vary on the amount of carbohydrates depending on the additives used.
8 ounces of unsweetened soy milk has approximately 3 grams of carbohydrates.
Cottage cheese is making a comeback as a high protein diet food. It has 28 grams of protein per cup. It is fine eaten all by itself or blended smooth to resemble yogurt with fruit added for texture and sweetness. Cottage cheese has the added benefit of being a probiotic food.
8 ounces of cottage cheese has 6 grams of carbohydrates.
Coconut milk is naturally sweet and creamy. If you purchase creamed coconut milk, you can separate the thick, rich coconut cream from the water. The cream is perfect for making luscious desserts and shakes.
8 ounces of coconut milk has approximately 6.3 grams of protein.
It might come as a shock that heavy cream is one of the lower carb dairy products. It contains about 6 fewer carbohydrates than fat-free, skim milk. If you like cream in your coffee but are watching your carbohydrate intake, then go for the real thing. Use it for creamed soups as well.
8 ounces of heavy cream has 6.6 grams of carbohydrates.
Nuts and Seeds
Both nuts and seeds are encouraged when trying to cut back on carbohydrates. These are great sources of protein, high quality fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are good for snacking on, baking and cooking with, and as toppings for smoothies and desserts. When buying nuts and seeds, try to get them raw rather than roasted for more complete nutrition. Some nuts are quite high in carbohydrates. We’ll compare the ones that are lower in carbohydrates here.
This seed is almost miraculous. Central American cultures discovered that chewing on raw pumpkin seeds could expel parasites and worms from the body. Pumpkin seeds have tryptophan and glutamate, both of which are necessary for improved mood and quality sleep. The seeds are often toasted to eat as a snack or to toss on a salad for crunch. They are relatively mild in flavor.
1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds has 10.71 grams of carbohydrates.
Brazil nuts are large tree nuts grown in the Amazon region of South America. They are fairly high in calories. They are also quite high in Vitamin E and in selenium. They provide 3485% of the RDA of selenium. Selenium is an important mineral for cardiovascular and liver health.
1/2 cup of Brazil nuts has 11.74 grams of carbohydrates.
This nut is the odd man (or woman) out. It is the seed from the female cones of coniferous trees. It has a distinctive pine flavor. Pine nuts are oily, lending themselves well to pestos, savory spreads, and dense cakes shared at the end of a Mediterranean meal. They are also made into oil, which is purported to have amazing health benefits. These seeds are packed with vitamin E and manganese. Manganese supports bone health.
1/2 cup of pine nuts has 13.08 grams of carbohydrates.
Walnuts are intriguing because of their shape. They resemble human kidneys. Some say walnuts are essential to urinary health. That might be true because they are very astringent. Walnuts are an excellent resource for Omega 3 essential fatty acids. These nuts are extremely versatile. They are fantastic just raw right out of the shell. They are also great toasted, or tossed into sautéed dishes. They have nooks, crannies, and ridges that help all sauces to cling to them. They are great for absorbing bold flavors.
1/2 cup of walnuts has 13.71 grams of carbohydrates.
These are the delightful treats from Hawaii and Australia that we cherish. They are buttery and fragrant. They are also expensive. Macadamias aren’t shy on fat content. They are a terrific source of B vitamins, especially thiamin. Thiamin is essential for the breakdown of fat and protein in our bodies. Macadamias are an indulgent snack and a popular dessert topping.
1/2 cup of macadamia nuts has 13.82 grams of carbohydrates.
Who doesn’t enjoy a sweet sticky piece of pecan pie? It wouldn’t be a holiday celebration in the Southern US without pecan pie for dessert. Pecans have a really special flavor that is slightly naturally sweet. They go so nicely in wild rice dishes and in salads. Pecans are an excellent source of dietary fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids. They are also rich in many minerals that we need as electrolytes. A handful of pecans after a good workout won’t do you any harm.
1/2 cup of pecans has 13.86 grams of carbohydrates.
Peanuts aren’t really nuts at all. They are in the legume family. But, we treat and eat them like nuts. They are boiled or roasted, ground into a butter, and made into a flour. Peanuts, or groundnuts, are commonly used in West African cuisine and in Southern US dishes. Peanuts are packed with nutrition. They have B vitamins, vitamin E, copper, iron, manganese and resveratrol. Plus, they taste really good.
1/2 cup of peanuts has 16.13 grams of carbohydrates.
These nuts are also known as filberts. Hazelnuts are small with a concentrated amount of flavor. They are used in baking and often made into spreads, paired with chocolate or peanut butter. Hazelnuts are high in Vitamin E, a powerful lipid soluble antioxidant necessary for healthy and vibrant skin. They also contain large amounts of the minerals copper and manganese. These are high in fat, protein, and dietary fiber.
1/2 cup of hazelnuts has 16.7 grams of carbohydrates.
There are several zero carbohydrate beverage options. Here are the most common ones.
- Filtered and spring water
- Mineral and sparkling water
- Electrolyte water
- Black coffee
- Black, green, and herbal tea
You can make your own juices and smoothies from the low carbohydrate vegetables, fruits, and dairy options listed in this article. If you can afford it, investing in a juicer and a personal blender are well worth it. You don’t need the high end models. Discount and big box stores run specials, or offer coupons, on these all the time. Online auction sites are also great places to find well priced small appliances. You will get the most nutritional benefit from making your own juices, shakes, and smoothies.
There are some zero and lower carbohydrate alcoholic beverage options available too. For the most part, spirits have no carbohydrates and are approved for the keto diet. This is great if you drink your liquor neat. If you want mixers, you will need to stick with soda water or diet sodas. Diet sodas are not ideal nutritionally. If possible, try to stay with seltzer with a splash of cranberry or a lime wedge as your mixer. There are several low-carb and gluten free beers available. Most of these are labeled “lite” beers. A 5 ounce glass of wine is approximately 3.5 grams of carbs, which isn’t that bad. Just be mindful of moderation.
Condiments, Oils, and Sweeteners
As most of this category is comprised of packaged or bottled items, it is important that you read labels carefully to look for added sugars and grains. For this reason, the carbohydrate counts listed here are approximations. Every brand differs a little.
Mustard doesn’t really have much nutritional value. It is good for marinating meats and adding a little tanginess to dishes. It is quite low in calories. Look for mustard without sugar or honey added.
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar has many health benefits. It improves digestion, helps to lower blood pressure, is a good source of probiotics and potassium, and is low in calories. Use it on salads, in marinades, and add it to bone broth to pull the minerals from the bones.
1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
This condiment is a staple in most homes. It works well to thicken salad dressings and as a binder in certain dishes, such as fish cakes. Mayonnaise without sugar added is extremely low in carbs.
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise has .5 grams of carbohydrates.
Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride oil that is excellent for cooking. It has lauric acid, which is known to fight yeast in our guts. It is a favorite of those on the Ketogenic diet.
1 tablespoon of coconut oil has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This is such a healthy and useful oil. You can have it on salads, or cook with it. It is likely the most important ingredient in the Mediterranean diet. EVOO is rich in monounsaturated fats. You really can’t overdo it with olive oil.
1 tablespoon of EVOO has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
Stevia is an herb with very sweet leaves. The extract from this plant is exponentially sweeter than cane sugar. A little goes a very long way. It can be found in powdered or liquid form. It is all natural and pretty much the best option as a sugar, maple syrup, honey, or agave substitute. There are other sweeteners that are artificial or sugar alcohols that are not necessarily recommended.
1 teaspoon of stevia has 0 grams of carbohydrates.
A Word about Beans and Grains
There is no getting around the fact that most legumes and grain products are high in carbohydrates. This is why they are eliminated on a Paleo diet and greatly restricted on Candida and IBS diets. There are a couple of exceptions and substitutions that can be made.
Tofu, made from soybeans or edamame has only 5.3 grams of carbohydrates in a 4 ounce serving. This is a high protein, extremely low fat bean product that can be incorporated into a limited carbohydrate diet. Some people cannot tolerate soy very well, so use your judgment.
Most brans from grains are low in carbohydrates. Bran is the outer layer of a grass or cereal grain. The most common brans are from oats, rice, and wheat. Whole grains retain this outer layer. When grains are processed, the bran is removed. It is often sold separately and used in baking for added vitamins and for the digestive benefits of its high fiber. Brans are much lower in carbohydrates than whole or processed grains.
For baking breads, cakes, pancakes, muffins, etc. nut meals and coconut flour are a perfectly acceptable alternative to grains. The texture is a bit different. However, the carbohydrate count is much reduced. Fat and protein content are higher than grain flours.
Living the low carb lifestyle is a choice that comes with incredible benefits. Yes, there is some effort involved to make this happen properly. A good rule of thumb is to eat as fresh and naturally as possible. This is where shopping the perimeter of the market really makes sense. Processed foods are unpredictable. You will spend more time reading labels than benefiting from the convenience of opening a can or box.
Low carb diet advocates claim that weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, lower risk of diabetes, and optimal digestion are some of the key benefits. There have been studies and research to support this.