A low-carb diet is a clinically-proven way to lose weight quickly & improve the health of many people, but it’s also easy to get it wrong.
This article aims to help out by shining the light on 11 common low-carb diet mistakes so you can easily avoid them and succeed with your own weight loss goals.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
Common low-carb diet mistakes
(Blue numbers & words open the appropriate reference for that topic in a separate tab.)
1. Winging it without preparation or a plan
Going on a low-carb diet? Awesome!
Typical eating & drinking behavior here in the US is very high-carb and switching to a low-carb diet will be a big change for most people (5).
Trying to do it without the right knowledge or plan is a bad idea that will likely fail.
OK, so we need a good plan to succeed
In order to be successful at this it’s important to do a little preparing beforehand.
Consider the following as appropriate analogies to starting on a low-carb diet:
*A good coach has a game plan for achieving victory.
*A smart business traveler will have an itinerary of their appointments, flight & hotel arrangements, dining options, etc., so their trip will be smooth & productive.
*A workout program will have a schedule and a list of exercises to follow in order to achieve the best results.
*A new job will have a new set of responsibilities to learn & master in order to be successful in the workplace.
Embarking on a low-carb diet requires a similar mindset, and below are a few things worth becoming familiar with.
Reading food packaging & nutrition facts
Nutrition Facts labels
The Nutrition Facts label is printed on the packaging of most grocery store foods.
It’s a very good idea to become a whiz at reading these.
All of your essential numbers (carbs, protein, fat, calories, fiber, sugar) are listed in them.
Cool thing is, a Nutrition Facts label is a real easy thing to learn if you’re not familiar with it already.
This link here opens a helpful Nutrition Facts tutorial from DietDoctor.com.
Food manufacturers’ labels
The smarter we get at sifting through the BS on many processed foods’ packaging, the craftier some food makers are at hiding the junk they’ve put in that box of ___ you insist on buying for some reason. 😀
Learn what’s real & what’s not on food packaging.
For example, don’t fall for the forest green-colored “All Natural” banner on the front of the package; head straight to the Nutrition Facts instead.
You might be surprised at what passes for “All Natural” these days.
For more good insight on learning how to read manufacturers’ labels, check out this guide on that topic from Healthline here.
Know which food & drinks you can & can’t eat
Sounds obvious but people still miss the boat on this one.
It’s important to know which foods are low-carb-diet-friendly, and which one’s aren’t.
If you need a good place to start, here’s an informative “low-carb for beginners” guide from real doctors at Diet Doctor.
2. Not counting macronutrients & calories
Several of the common low-carb diet mistakes people make that are listed later in this article all stem from this Mistake #2, and that’s them not keeping track of their daily macronutrients & calories.
Think about it. If someone doesn’t know
- how much they’re eating,
- what they’re eating nutrient-wise, or
- how much they’re supposed to be eating…
…well, it’s easy to see how that person’s weight wouldn’t change at all.
Counting calories isn’t fun, but…
…it really helps with achieving aggressive weight loss (or weight gain) goals.
Still, calorie counting is a flawed process that can also be a royal pain in the petunia to haggle with all the time.
So Harvard Medical has a few tips here to make it easier to deal with.
(When I’m in a weight gain or loss cycle in my training program, I’ll track my calories pretty closely.
I usually jot down what I eat and enter all the numbers in later when I have some down time.)
There are online & phone apps galore to help you calorie count.
For some masochistic reason, I keep track of mine manually in a gigantic spreadsheet.
Figure out your daily calories burned
Get a rough idea of how many calories you’re currently burning per day by using an online calculator like this one from the American Cancer Society.
You bang in your personal stats and activity level guesstimate, and it spits out how many calories your body’s currently burning to maintain your current weight.
Despite being rough, this number can be helpful. According to the Mayo Clinic (9),
“to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week, you need to burn 500 to 1,000 calories more than you consume each day, through a lower calorie diet and regular physical activity.”
So if you know how many calories you’re burning before you start your low-carb diet, you’ll know what your new total calories per day should be in order to start losing weight.
Macronutrient tracking is real important for low-carb diets, because it’s real easy to go over your daily carb limit when you’re first starting out.
Most online calorie counting apps I told you about earlier keep track of your macronutrients for you too.
If this is new to you, your macros are your food’s:
When most people chat about macros, they’re referring to those three nutrient types.
I also track these two as well:
Carbs – Fiber = Net Carbs
The main reason I track my fiber is because
1) health-wise, you should NEVER skimp below your daily fiber requirement, diet or no diet
2) Net Carbs is a number needed to follow strict low-carb & Keto diet plans.
Net carbs is determined by subtracting your fiber grams consumed from your total carb grams consumed.
Googling Nutrition Facts
If you’re curious about a food’s macros or are tracking your numbers manually like me, just Google something like
4 oz. uncooked 90% lean ground beef nutrition facts
1 banana nutrition facts
and your answers will pop up.
Bottom line solution
Know your numbers.
Know what you’re eating, how much your body is burning, and how many carbs, protein, & fat grams you’re supposed to be eating each day.
Armed with that information makes it easy to dial up a great food menu with a lot of variety that still enables you to lose weight quickly & safely.
And you’ll never be clueless about where your low-carb diet plan is at.
3. Not eating enough fat
Some of us (like 60 year old me) have been around long enough to remember when low-fat diets were the craze.
It was when food first started showing up in grocery stores labeled “lowfat”.
Those foods were thought of as manna from heaven by lots of people.
Fat was an enemy of all things good in America it seemed at the time.
And even though low-fat diets failed for most of the people on them, the stigma that the word “fat” got from all of that is carried to this day.
And that now-debunked negative bias against healthy fatty foods can keep people who’re starting a low-fat diet from eating enough fat each day.
Then many folks turn their low-carb diet into a low-carb low-fat diet, and that’s not a healthy path to head down.
There are amazing nutrients our bodies thrive on that are found in healthy fat sources like salmon, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, nuts, & seeds.
These mega-good Omega foods provide super benefits (10):
- boost heart health & manage cholesterol
- help our brain & nervous system
- lower inflammation in our bodies
Plus, fatty foods keep you feeling full much longer than carbs ever will.
Not eating enough fat could give you cravings that are hard to ignore and could ruin your diet plans.
4. Eating & drinking too much protein
This one tags onto the previous low-carb diet faux pas.
A very common outcome from making the mistake of cutting both carbs and fat at the same time is eating too much protein as a result.
I mean, what else is left to eat? 😁
Our bodies can only use so much protein, and what we don’t use up will be converted to glucose and stored, just like excess carbs are (11).
Everyone knows how that looks, and it’s not muscular or toned.
Daily protein recommendations from the ACSM
If you’re not working out regularly, the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) says you ought to target 0.35 grams of protein per lb. of body weight (12). If you weigh 150 lb., that comes out to:
150 x 0.35 = 53 grams of protein per day, tops.
(That’s a pretty meager portion, by the way…)
And the ISSN (International Society of Sports Nutrition) recommends that if you’re looking to build muscle mass and are strength training regularly, your protein intake should bump up to 1 gram per lb. of bodyweight. I weigh about 185, so that looks like:
185 x 1 = 185 grams of protein per day for me, max.
I need to keep track of my protein because I can pound it all day if I don’t manage my bad self, and end up with well over 200 grams of protein in a 24-hour period.
Doing that on a regular basis is no good for a lot of reasons, so I corral my exuberance by honoring those ACSM guidelines.
5. Eating & drinking too many carbs
I wrote this a little while ago:
“It’s real easy to go over your daily carb limit when you’re first starting out.”
It’s so true too.
Many people fail with a low-carb diet simply because they can’t bring themselves to cut their daily carbs down to the level necessary to trigger weight loss.
Earlier in the article I mentioned how our society is very high-carb oriented when it comes to what we’re eating & drinking the most.
No wonder the American Medical Assn. calls obesity an epidemic in this country (13).
Dieting in general is a difficult challenge for many people, and a low-carb diet is even tougher due to our cultural upbringings.
And so a lot of people who try & go on a low-carb diet end up eating a lot more carbs than they should, despite the fact that their goals were to lose weight.
Without counting, it’s easy to overeat
Of course, by now you see how excess carbs could be caused by someone not counting their “carbs in” on a daily basis: they just didn’t know how far away from low carb they really were.
We need the fat to curb the appetite
Another reason for eating & drinking too many carbs could be due to Mistake #3, Not Eating Enough Fat.
As I said before, fat provides a satiated feeling that lasts longer than what carbs offer.
Plus, fat curbs our appetites by also reducing the craving signals that parts of our brain stir up that make us want to go munch on something.
6. Not drinking enough water
On a low-carb diet it’s very important to boost your daily water intake if needed, depending on how much you usually drink per day.
WebMD notes that people on low-carb diets should drink a minimum of 2 quarts (64 oz.) of water per day, as per low-carb diet experts (14).
This is because on a low-carb diet our bodies shift to a fat-burning process called ketosis, and this mechanism can cause dehydration.
Ongoing dehydration, such as in someone on a low-carb diet for the long haul, is a serious health risk with several bad potential outcomes, per Mayo Clinic (15).
7. Not eating enough salt
This can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, which is a health problem to definitely avoid.
And the easiest way to do that is to increase your daily salt intake to counteract what your body is shedding.
8. Not working out enough
It’s been shown many times in clinical research studies that diet plus exercise yields better weight loss results than either of those two activities alone (18).
If you remember back when we were looking at how many calories we burn per day, medical experts said that losing 1-2 lb. per week requires 500-1000 burned calories per day more than the calories we eat & drink (9).
An easy way to get to those numbers is to work out several times per week.
For example, 3 strength training days and 2 cardio days, or vice versa.
If you’re getting the right amount of protein & fat in your diet and you’re staying hydrated, you’ll have more energy to work out while on a low-carb diet than if you were consuming a high amount of processed & refined carb foods.
A great thing about strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is, they both boost your metabolism so that you’re burning more calories for hours after your workouts are over (19, 20).
9. Not eating enough vegetables
Some people avoid vegetables on a low-carb diet, since vegetables are made up mostly of carbohydrates.
And while those folks are correct in that vegetables are mostly carbs, avoiding many of them is a mistake for a couple of reasons.
Low-carb high-fiber helps with feeling full
There are lots of nutrient-rich high fiber vegetables that are also low carb.
Fiber helps you to feel fuller, plus it reduces your daily carb totals (remember, we’re counting net carbs).
This means you can eat as much as you want of these.
Keep the pipes clear
And given how much protein and fat you’re eating, having a lot of fiber pass through you is a great idea to keep your plumbing humming.
Constipation is not something a low-carb dieter should have to deal with at all, considering that a low-carb diet is challenging enough as is.
So just drink plenty of water and eat plenty of high-fiber, low-carb vegetables.
You’ll feel fuller longer, and your digestive system will operate smoother as well too.
10. Eating too much processed food
Diet & nutrition experts agree that eating as much real food, as opposed to food that’s been processed, offers a much better recipe for success when someone is dieting (25).
Processed foods are convenient, but many of them are laced with chemicals, like nitrates & nitrites found in most packaged meat products.
Or they have a lot of hidden sugars in them, like most granola bars and protein bars.
Many processed grain-based foods are carb-heavy too, but not because they’re loaded with “whole grain goodness”, or whatever nonsense the food manufacturer writes on the package.
They’ve actually had their nutrients refined right out of them in the food factory where they were made.
What you’re left with are a whole lot of “empty calories”(as Harvard Medical calls them) in the form of sugars & starches you just don’t want if you do want to lose weight and feel great (21).
11. Cheating too much
When you cut way back on your carbs, after awhile your body turns to your stored fat to burn instead.
This is great because it means you’re now eating less than your body is burning and it becomes easy to lose that 1-2 lb. per week over an extended period of time.
That’s IF you don’t take your body out of this fat-burning state by sneaking in one too many high-carb snacks whenever you cheat on your diet.
It’s the classic “Oh, one of these ___ won’t hurt my diet plan” that can easily turn into one every day that actually does hurt your diet plan.
So you need to be aware of your behavior tendencies, so that you can cheat a little when need be.
Leeway to cheat a little
Well, notice that Mistake #11 is called “Cheating too much” and not just “Cheating” period.
You can go “off plan” once every so often, say for a special occasion.
Or you could reward yourself with a little carb indulgence after hitting a diet milestone, like nailing 30 days of your low-carb numbers in a row.
Just know thyself
We’re not all wired the same.
Some of us can stay on track better than others, and can handle the responsibility (to ourselves) to insure a 1-day high-carb reward or detour doesn’t morph into a pattern that spirals into “diet fail” mode.
If you know you’re prone to a lack of discipline or overindulgence, that’s good that you’re aware of it.
So use that knowledge to manage your food & drink behavior as it pertains to your commitment to your diet, and how often you catch yourself trying to rationalize another high-carb moment.
Play with fire(water) and you might get burned
Then there’s alcohol.
Someone will say “Well, it is low carb”, and this is true for many types of alcoholic beverages.
But aside from carbs, the problem with alcohol is (at least) two-fold:
1. It causes your body to stop burning other nutrients.
In your low-carb diet state, this fact means the alcohol will stop your body from burning your fat.
The alcohol will make it deal with processing the alcohol first.
And with alcohol being a foreign substance to your body that processing will take a while (26), during which your body is not burning your fat.
And when your metabolism returns to its regularly scheduled programming it’s a little sluggish for a bit, thanks to – you guessed it – the alcohol.
2. Alcohol lowers inhibitions & the junk food bell rings
Here’s something that’ll surprise no one.
Research studies on alcohol consumption have shown that when someone has even a moderate 1-2 drinks, the alcohol triggers hunger signals in the brain (27).
And funny but unsurprising as well is the fact that the food type the people in these studies craved the most was high-calorie junk food.
Walk the line
We humans are so predictable sometimes, and falling off the wagon isn’t real hard to do on a low-carb diet.
Just remember that our bodies will switch off the fat-burning the minute that a lot of carbs are delivered, because they’re wired to deal with the “incoming” supply upon arrival in our tum-tums.
We can certainly get away with carb treats every once in a while, but you know how that goes.
Or could go, I should say.
So keep a diligent watch on any tendency to cheat too much on your low-carb diet.
Later on you’ll be proud you did, and rightfully so.
I hope this article on identifying & avoiding the most common low-carb diet mistakes is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.