Developed by the National Health Service (NHS) in response to prevalent metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, and the need for effective weight management, the low-carb diet prompts us to reconsider our relationship with carbohydrates.
The NHS's low-carb diet recommends consuming foods that are whole, unprocessed, and low in carbohydrates, such as lean proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats.
The goal of this diet is to help you improve your health and lose weight by reducing your intake of sugar and carbohydrates, which are two food groups that can be addictive, as evidenced by recent research. These food groups activate dopamine release, causing cravings for unhealthy foods.
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What foods can I eat on the NHS low-carb diet?
The NHS low-carb diet encourages you to consume a variety of whole, unprocessed foods, emphasising lean proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats. Here are some foods that you can include in your meal plan:
- Lean meats such as chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef or pork.
- Fish and seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.
- Eggs, a versatile and protein-rich option.
Fruits and vegetables
- Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and lettuce.
- Cruciferous veg like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
- Colourful vegetables such as bell peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini.
- Berries like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.
- Avocados, which are rich in monounsaturated fats.
- Olive oil or margarine for cooking and dressing.
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, and chia seeds.
- Cheese, especially varieties like cheddar, mozzarella, and cream cheese.
- Full-fat Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese in moderation.
- Wholegrain varieties of starchy carbohydrates such as pasta and cereals.
- Potatoes (particularly when eaten with their skin on) are good sources of fibre.
- Rice such as basmati, brown, short grain and grains such as couscous and bulgur wheat.
- Bread, especially wholemeal, granary, brown and seeded varieties, are good choices for a balanced and healthy diet.
While these foods are generally suitable for the NHS low-carb diet, monitoring your portion sizes and consulting with healthcare professionals or nutritionists for personalised advice, especially if you have specific health concerns or dietary requirements, is important.
How many carbs am I allowed on the NHS low-carb diet?
The NHS low-carb diet limits carbohydrate intake to 50-130g per day. To put this in perspective:
- A 200g serving of cooked pasta contains approximately 35g of carbs.
- You get 20g of carbs from a medium-sized banana.
- A pint of Cola contains 55g of carbs.
- A medium slice of white bread contains 15g of carbs.
- A 45g bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate contains 25g of carbs.
You can find out more about the amount of carbohydrates in food here.
Why might I reduce my carbohydrate intake?
Carbohydrates are a vital energy source, so you shouldn't completely eliminate carbs from your daily diet. Instead, switching to a low-carb diet can support weight loss and aid in reducing cravings for foods that don’t have much nutritional value.
Healthcare professionals will usually recommend a low-carb diet to manage prediabetes and type 2 diabetes to help improve blood glucose levels. One review of nine studies reported that a low-carb diet helped improve long-term blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.
A low-carb diet can also possibly reduce the effects of metabolic syndrome (common in obesity) and improve your blood pressure, helping to minimise your chances of heart disease and stroke.
A low-carb diet isn't just if you have health implications; it can act like a preventative cure and aid your overall well-being. A low-carb diet can mean you eat a broader range of ingredients high in nutrients, such as fruits high in fibre, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
What foods are high in carbohydrates?
The glycaemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates. The GI outlines how quickly each food affects your glucose levels when consumed independently.
Below are some foods with a high GI you should avoid on a low-carb diet:
- Sugary drinks: High-sugar squash and fruit juices
- Refined grains: White bread, pasta, and processed cereals.
- Sweets and desserts: Sweets, cakes, cookies, and pastries.
- Processed snacks: Crisps, crackers, and sugary snacks.
- High-sugar fruits: Grapes, mangoes and dried fruits.
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes and sweetcorn.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas in large amounts.
- High-sugar sauces: Ketchup, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings (including low-fat versions).
- Alcohol: Limit high-carb alcoholic beverages such as beer.
- Highly processed foods: Fast food and heavily processed meals.
You shouldn’t assume all low-GI foods are healthy, as chocolate cake has a lower GI value than parsnips but is much higher in sugar and saturated fats. If you're unsure about the nutritional information of any food item, you can always look for it on the food label. By law, all food items sold in the UK must have a food label that provides important dietary information, such as the number of calories, fats, sugars, and salt levels in the food.
What are the benefits of the NHS low-carb diet?
Here is a list of the benefits that the NHS says you can get, plus some others that we have found for you, too:
- Blood sugar control.
- Weight management.
- Improved lipid profile.
- Increased energy levels.
- Enhanced mental clarity.
- Reduced inflammation.
Let’s explore these benefits in more detail.
1. Blood sugar control
By reducing your intake of carbohydrates, especially refined sugars, the NHS low-carb diet aims to regulate blood sugar levels.
If you have type 2 diabetes, this helps to reduce HbA1c and blood fats such as triglycerides and cholesterol. Diabetes UK suggests that a low carbohydrate diet can be an effective approach to put type 2 diabetes into remission.
If you have type 1 diabetes, it is best to contact your healthcare team for support to manage your insulin if you’re considering a low-carb diet.
2. Weight management
The emphasis on whole, nutrient-dense foods such as lean proteins and vegetables can promote a feeling of fullness, potentially reducing your overall caloric intake. This, coupled with controlled carbohydrate consumption, may contribute to weight loss or maintenance.
3. Improved lipid profile
Studies, such as this one published in the British Medical Journal, suggest that a low-carb diet may positively influence lipid profiles. An improved lipid profile signifies positive changes in cholesterol levels, including a decrease in "bad" LDL cholesterol, an increase in "good" HDL cholesterol, and a reduction in triglycerides, all contributing to better cardiovascular health.
4. Increased energy levels
Whole foods with a low glycemic index, such as sweet potatoes and quinoa, as encouraged in the NHS low-carb diet, provide a steady release of energy. This contrasts with the energy spikes and crashes associated with high-carb, sugary foods, giving you sustained energy levels throughout the day.
5. Enhanced mental clarity
Some people report experiencing improved mental clarity and focus when following a low-carb diet. Although this benefit depends on your individual lifestyle factors, stabilising your blood sugar levels and consuming nutrient-dense foods may play a role in enhanced cognitive function.
6. Reduced inflammation
Concentrating on whole, unprocessed foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, such as blueberries and fatty fish like salmon, can potentially reduce overall inflammation. As chronic inflammation is linked to a spectrum of health issues, including arthritis, adopting a diet that actively addresses and mitigates this response, such as the NHS low-carb diet, holds promising benefits for your overall well-being.
Can the NHS low-carb diet help me lose weight?
Generally speaking, yes. The NHS claims that the low-carb diet can be used as a successful diet to help with weight loss. The most crucial factor is that this diet focuses on a balance of food groups - carbohydrates and protein - rather than completely restricting yourself from carbohydrates.
Additionally, the NHS advises you to engage in physical activity by enrolling at the gym or taking daily walks to improve your overall health and reach and maintain a healthy weight.
As with any type of diet, its effectiveness can depend on your health status, adherence to guidelines, and overall lifestyle. Before making significant dietary changes, consult a healthcare professional or GP, especially if you have existing health conditions.
Making healthier, easier, low-carb choices
Rather than cutting out all carbohydrates from your diet, reduce them gradually and make healthier swaps. Here are some examples you can incorporate into mealtimes:
Cauliflower rice vs white rice
Cauliflower rice has 7g of carbs per 100g compared to 22g per 100g of white rice. The cauliflower alternative also has 3g of fibre to keep you feeling fuller for longer. You can buy cauliflower rice or make it yourself by purchasing a cauliflower head, chopping it up and placing it in the food processor to separate the pieces.
Lettuce wraps vs white wraps
Cut out an average of 12g of carbs by replacing white flour wraps with lettuce. This allows you to keep your delicious fillings while lettuce has a high water content for a hydrating, fresher alternative.
Plain yoghurt vs flavoured yoghurt
Fruit-flavoured yoghurts can be deceiving because they're often packed with preservatives and artificial flavours to replicate the sweetness of the fruit. Plain yoghurt has around 13g of carbs per 100g compared to fruit-flavoured yoghurt, which offers 47g. You can still up-level your yoghurt by adding fresh fruit, such as blueberries or raspberries.
Chickpea flour vs white flour
When cooking or baking from scratch, white flour is a staple ingredient. But this type of flour contains 48g of carbs per 100g. Reduce your carb intake by switching to chickpea flour, which only has 27g of carbs per 100g. Chickpea flour is also packed with protein to keep you fuller for longer.
What considerations should I keep in mind when following the NHS low-carb diet?
If you manage diabetes with insulin or certain medications, a low-carb diet might increase the risk of low blood sugar or hypos. Discuss this with your healthcare team or dietitian to adjust your medication and monitor your blood sugar more frequently.
Other temporary side effects like constipation or bad breath may occur with a low-carb diet but are usually not harmful. If you are worried, talk to your healthcare professional.
Is the NHS low-carb diet for me?
The decision to start the NHS low-carb diet depends on individual factors such as health goals, preferences, and medical considerations.
The NHS low-carb diet may be worth exploring if you're considering changing your eating habits. Start by reducing carb intake from unhealthy sources like sugary drinks, pizzas, cakes, biscuits, crisps, white bread, and fruit juices. Instead, choose carbs from nutritious, high-fibre sources such as pulses, nuts, vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains.
Remember to consult healthcare professionals for personalised advice, especially if you have specific health concerns. The key is to make informed choices that align with your well-being, ensuring any dietary changes contribute positively to your overall health journey.