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What Foods Have Zero Carbs?

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  • Post last modified:March 8, 2024

The No-Carb Diet: Everything You Need to Know
Looking to lose weight fast? Reduce your risk of chronic diseases? Or maybe kick your body into ketosis? The ultra-restrictive no-carb diet has gained popularity for its potential to move the needle on all of these goals. But is eliminating carbs entirely really a safe, sustainable approach? Let’s dive into the rules, benefits, and drawbacks of this extreme diet.

What is a No-Carb Diet?

A no-carb diet is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a way of eating that involves cutting out nearly all sources of carbohydrates from your daily meals. We’re talking zero bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, corn, beans, milk, fruit, sugar, and even veggies like carrots or peas that contain higher amounts of carbs.

The only foods allowed on a true no-carb or zero-carb diet are:

  • Meat (beef, chicken, pork, etc.)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Certain non-starchy veggies like leafy greens and cruciferous veggies
  • Small portions of nuts and seeds
  • Healthy fats and oils like olive oil, butter, ghee, etc.
  • Hard, aged cheeses
  • This extremely limited list of approved foods makes a no-carb diet one of the most restrictive eating plans out there. It’s essentially an amplified version of the ketogenic diet, which caps carbs at around 20-50 grams per day to induce ketosis.

But First, What Are Carbs?

Before we go any further, let’s quickly define what carbohydrates actually are. Carbs are one of the three main macronutrients (along with protein and fat) that provide energy in the form of calories. There are two main types:

Simple Carbs: Also called sugars, these are quickly digested and include things like table sugar, honey, fruit, milk, etc.

Complex Carbs: These are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules that take longer to break down. Whole food sources include whole grains, starchy veggies, legumes, etc.

While simple carbs aren’t very nutritious, complex carb sources provide essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that are crucial for overall health.

The Claimed Benefits of Avoiding Carbs

Proponents of no-carb diets claim that eliminating carbohydrate sources can provide a wealth of benefits, including:

Rapid Weight Loss: Without carbs for your body to use for energy, it is forced to burn fat stores instead. This can lead to a fairly rapid reduction in weight and inches, especially around the midsection.

Better Appetite Control: When you eliminate carb-heavy foods that are often less satiating, many find their hunger levels and cravings are more manageable.

Stabilized Blood Sugar: Carbs (especially simple sugars and refined carbs) spike blood glucose and insulin levels. Avoiding carbs can help those with diabetes or prediabetes maintain normal blood sugar.

Reduced Inflammatory Markers: Some studies associate low-carb diets with lower levels of inflammation which may benefit conditions like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

Lower Triglycerides: Cutting carbs has been shown to improve triglyceride levels, an important marker of heart health.

Potential Therapeutic Benefits: Some use very low-carb or ketogenic diets therapeutically for epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological conditions.

Of course, these purported benefits depend on individuals adhering very strictly to a zero or extremely low-carb intake, which can be exceptionally difficult long-term.

Why Experts Are Skeptical

While the potential upsides sound appealing, most nutrition professionals are highly critical of no-carb eating patterns for a few key reasons:

  • Increased Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies: Completely eliminating entire food groups like fruits, veggies, whole grains, dairy, and legumes makes it nearly impossible to meet all your vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient needs without supplements.
  • Lack of Fiber: With no whole grains, fruits, veggies, or beans allowed, getting adequate fiber is a constant struggle. Chronic low fiber can negatively impact gut and heart health.
  • Difficulty Sustaining Long-Term: Sure, some may be able to stick to a zero-carb diet for a while. But completely depriving yourself of entire food groups you may love is unlikely to be a lasting solution. This can promote a cycle of yo-yo dieting.
  • Digestive Discomfort: When you cut out pretty much all sources of fiber from fruits, veggies, grains and beans on a no-carb diet, gut issues are pretty much guaranteed. Without that roughage, many devotees report major constipation woes and other unpleasant GI problems like bloating, gas and diarrhea. “I had to start chugging Metamucil just to have a normal bowel movement,” admits Tanya P., who tried no-carb for 6 weeks.
  • Potentially Dangerous Side Effects: Aside from backing you up, avoiding carbs entirely can also come with a host of other nasty side effects. Fatigue, brain fog, bad breath, dehydration, headaches – even potential kidney damage from excessive protein intake. Basically, your body was designed to run on carbs as a primary fuel source, so completely depriving it of that can really mess with your system in multiple ways.
  • Lack of Research: Maybe some of those issues are just temporary while your metabolism adapts to using fat and protein for energy instead of carbs. But here’s the scary part – we really don’t have much long-term data on the prolonged impacts of sustaining a zero or extremely low-carb lifestyle for years and decades. Will it increase your risk of heart disease down the road? Cause nutrient deficiencies? Impact bone health? More research is definitely needed.
  • Obsessive Restriction: For many people, cutting out entire food groups like grains, fruits, veggies, dairy, and legumes promotes an unhealthy obsession with “good” vs “bad” foods. You start categorizing everything as being on or off limits, when in reality, pretty much all whole, minimally-processed foods can fit into a balanced diet. This black-and-white thinking around food can really mess with your mentality and opens the door for disordered eating patterns.

For these reasons, most nutrition experts and health organizations strongly caution against adopting a no-carb approach for the long haul. A more moderate, sustainable low-carb diet is generally recommended instead of total elimination.

The Slippery Slope of “No Carbs”

Here’s the tricky thing about true “zero-carb” diets – they’re pretty much impossible to follow to the letter unless you’re just drinking olive oil and water. The reality is that all whole, unprocessed foods naturally contain at least some carbohydrates:

  • Non-starchy veggies like spinach, broccoli and brussels sprouts pack 2-5g net carbs per cup
  • A single egg has around 0.5g carbs
  • An ounce of nuts or seeds ranges from 3-8g net carbs
  • Even a lean protein like beef or salmon contains trace carb amounts, usually under 1g per serving

So unless your diet consists solely of chugging olive oil, you’re definitely still getting a few grams of carbs per day from the natural sugars found in foods like meat, eggs and low-carb veggies. Most so-called “zero-carb” plans really allow up to 20g total carbs to achieve that coveted ketosis state.

Tips for Following a Low or No-Carb Diet

If you do decide to take the extremely low-carb plunge for rapid weight loss or other goals, here are some expert tips to make it more sustainable:

  • Stay super hydrated and get enough electrolytes like sodium, potassium and magnesium to avoid dehydration and cramping
  • Prioritize nutrient-dense protein sources like eggs, fish and lean meats along with low-carb veggie varieties you actually enjoy
  • Use fiber supplements to stay regular if you get badly constipated without grains, fruits and beans
  • Allow yourself small portions of higher-carb foods on occasion so you don’t feel deprived
  • Consider a more moderate low-carb or carb-cycling approach long-term for better adherence

At the end of the day, while brief stints of extremely low or no-carb eating can potentially provide a jump start for fat loss, completely eliminating carb sources is exceptionally challenging to sustain for the long haul. For lasting results and overall health, a balanced approach focused on whole, minimally-processed foods – with controlled portions of nutrient-dense carbs – simply tends to be much more realistic and advisable for most people.