7 Steps to Make a Low-Carb Diet Work for You

Patient Expert

Can you really live a life without strawberries? Without bread? Or...gasp!...without chocolate?

Surely a low-carbohydrate diet doesn’t have to be this cruel, does it?

The answer is no, it doesn’t. In fact, reducing the carbs in your diet doesn’t mean you have to reduce them to zero in order to benefit. And finding that magical carb-quantity that truly works well for you is the secret to your long-term success.

Determining the right number of carbs for you is a bit of a science experiment - requiring patience, curiosity, and the ability to adjust and learn - but it’s pretty simple, too.

The secret, again, is about figuring out what works for you rather than trying to conform to something that works for other people.

Here are seven steps to reduce the carbs in your life, manage blood sugars, decrease insulin and medication needs, and feel more at peace with diabetes management around food:

1. How many carbs are you currently eating?

Knowing the answer to this is actually very important. If you’re currently eating 500 grams of carbohydrates per day, then starting with a reduced goal of 250 grams per day is a big change! Or maybe aiming under 100 grams is a challenging place to start. A low-carb diet does not have to be zero carbs in order to benefit your blood sugars! For some, aiming below 50 grams simply leads to binge-eating carbs and yo-yo dieting. For others, below 50 becomes a comfortable lifestyle. So, before you start your low-carb efforts, it’s helpful to spend a few days tracking what you currently eat and tallying up the carb quantities using apps like CalorieKing or MyFitnessPal.

2. When do you enjoy carbs the most?

Once you’ve started plotting and experimenting with a reduced-carb diet, the next helpful step is to figure out what time of day you naturally enjoy eating carbs the most. If you’re a morning person who loves her bagel and cream cheese, but you don’t care one bit about carbs at lunch or dinner, then you could create a plan to “save” your daily carbs for breakfast. Then, during the other times of day, you strive to eat far fewer carbs. This allows you to focus your carbs in one part of the day, which makes the other 2/3s of the day easier and more beneficial to eat low-carb.

3. What types of carbs do you love the most?

Maybe you’re a dinner roll with butter kind of gal...or a pizza-lover...or a homemade cookie fanatic? Or strawberries and freshly picked blueberries in the summer? Think about the carb-source that you can’t imagine living life without and figure out how to make that your primary carb in your reduced-carb diet. Maybe it’s just once a week that you need that pizza fix, and the other days will be far lower in carbs. Regardless, the goal is to be realistic and flexible so you don’t feel deprived, so you still enjoy the things you love, and you can sustain a reduced-carb diet for the long-term but ensuring that it’s reasonably flexible.

4. Pick five low-carb recipes to try right away.

If your idea of eating low-carb is just piles and piles of bacon and cheese, you’re going to get tired of that quickly, nor is it very balanced. There are so many great recipes out there for low-carb substitutes. Two of my favorite are this low-carb bread recipe and this muffin-in-a-mug recipe. I’m also crazy about this edamame pasta. (Even my husband loves it!) And you know, when you remove a lot of the sugar from your diet, your taste-buds start appreciating non-sweet things much more, like seltzer water and black coffee! Be open to exploring and experimenting and evolving!

5. Embrace the vegetables.

One of the other secrets to a successful and healthy low-carb diet is focusing on your vegetable intake. Not only will a low-carb diet lacking in veggies leave you incredibly constipated, it will also leave you lacking in critical vitamins and nutrients. Yes, meat is part of a low-carb diet but vegetables should be a huge focus in every diet, especially low-carb. Does broccoli have carbs? Sure, but unless you’re obsessively trying to reach ketosis (which simply isn’t necessary to benefit from eating low-carb), the carbs in broccoli are minimal and low-impact, and they bring with them calcium, fiber, and many other vitamins your body needs. Don’t shun a vegetable just because it contains some carbs (starchy veggies like potato, squash and corn being in their own category). Focus on getting your veggies several times a day and you’ll benefit no matter how much bread you’re still eating!

6. Focus on more whole foods!

Simply eating more whole foods automatically reduces the amount of processed carbs and junk in your diet that are contributing largely to higher blood sugars and weight struggles. How many meals or snacks in your day are processed items from a package or a box? How many of your meals or snacks come in a package that says, “Low fat! Whole-grain!” Most of the time, the foods with those labels are anything but healthy. Real vegetables and homemade meals consisting of whole foods and whole ingredients don’t come with sales pitches and health claims! In your pursuit to reduce your carbs, aim to reduce your consumption of processed stuff, too.

7. Forget about perfection.

If you succumb to the cupcakes your sister brought over to Sunday’s family dinner, don’t beat yourself up for it! You do not have to eat perfect seven days a week to be making progress and benefitting from your many other improve-ments and choices. Jennifer Smith, CDE & type 1 diabetic always says, “Think about the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of your day being really healthy choices with room for 20 percent to be a treat or a less than perfect choice.” Nobody is perfect 100 percent of the week. Find a balance that helps you stick to your bigger goals while ensuring that you don’t feel too deprived and you don’t find yourself binge eating whatever it was you tried to declare “off-limits.”

Make your low-carb diet work for you. Make it not just about reducing carbs but about eating more of the obviously healthy stuff, evolving your cooking skills, and improving your idea of what “real food” looks like to you. Think about the bigger picture, not the 2-week or the 30-day obsession, but the lifelong pursuit to improve your relationship with food overall.