High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet: What It Is + How To Follow It Healthily
The dieting world seems to thrive on extremes. From keto to Atkins, popular diets rarely provide moderate amounts of macros. Take, for example, the high-protein, low-carb diet—a way of eating that restricts carbs while emphasizing protein-rich foods.
Although this eating pattern may provide a few health benefits, more restrictive versions can be hard to follow and may lead to unpleasant side effects.
Here's what you need to know about the high-protein, low-carb diet, including health benefits, potential side effects, and how to follow this eating plan in a healthy, sustainable way.
What is the high-protein, low-carb diet?
A high-protein, low-carb (HPLC) diet is an eating pattern that emphasizes protein and restricts carbs. Unlike other diets, like the ketogenic diet, there's no set definition of a high-protein, low-carb diet, so people following this way of eating may take in different macronutrient ratios.
High-protein diets provide more protein than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), which currently sits at 0.8 gram of protein2 per kg of body weight or 0.36 gram per pound. This equates to 54 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person or 10% of total daily calories for a standard 2,000-calorie diet. Most high-protein diets provide between 1.8 and 3 grams3 of protein per kg or 0.8 to 1.36 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Let's translate this to what goes on your plate: A person following a 2,000-calorie high-protein, low-carb diet may take in 40% of their calories from protein, 25% from carbs, and 35% from fats. This would equate to 200 grams of protein and 125 grams of carbs per day and around 1.4 grams of protein per pound for a 150-pound person.
However, the high-protein, low-carb eating pattern is flexible, meaning some people may eat more carbs and less protein, while others eat fewer carbs and more protein.
The importance of protein.
Before we dive into the potential benefits of high-protein, low-carb eating patterns, it's important to note that some experts argue that diets that are considered "high" in protein should actually be considered standard protein diets.
That's because the RDA for protein is the absolute minimum amount of protein that most adults need to meet basic health requirements, like preventing muscle loss and meeting nitrogen needs.
"We find from a metabolic standpoint, working predominantly with women, that if they get below 100 grams per day5, they lose most of the benefits of protein: fatty acid metabolism, insulin sensitivity, weight loss, satiety," Don Layman, Ph.D., a leading protein and amino acid requirements researcher, says on the mindbodygreen podcast.
Limiting or at least cutting back on carb intake allows more room for protein-rich foods and usually leads to a reduced intake of ultra-processed foods rich in refined carbs like snack foods and desserts.
Benefits of eating high-protein, low-carb.
Here are the top evidence-backed benefits of high-protein, low-carb diets:
It may support weight loss.
For example, a 2020 study9 published in Nutrients found that people with obesity who followed a low-carb, high-protein diet providing 30% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 40% fat for four weeks lost 58% more weight than study participants who followed a higher-carb Mediterranean diet that provided 55% carbohydrate, 15% protein, and 30% fat.
It's helpful for blood sugar levels.
It could help reduce visceral fat.
It's effective for lowering triglyceride levels.
Triglycerides are a type of blood fat. When you consume too many calories, especially from carbs, your liver converts the extra sugar into triglycerides. Having high triglyceride levels increases your risk for heart disease15. Reducing overall carb consumption and increasing protein consumption could help reduce triglyceride levels16, as long as you're consuming an appropriate amount of calories.
It can help you maintain muscle mass.
Studies show that bumping up your protein intake when following a lower-calorie diet for weight loss can help prevent weight-loss-associated muscle loss.
Maintaining muscle mass is important for many reasons, including maintaining a healthy resting metabolic rate (RMR)17 or the number of calories you burn while at rest.
How it compares to other diets.
Because there's no set definition of a high-protein, low-carb diet, it's flexible and can fit into a variety of eating styles. But here's a bit more on how high-protein, low-carb diets compare to other popular eating patterns:
- Intermittent fasting: Intermittent fasting (IF), or time-restricted feeding, can be used with any diet, including high-protein, low-carb diets. For example, some people combine a low-carb way of eating with IF methods like 16:8, which entails eating within an eight-hour window and then completely fasting for 16 hours.
- Keto: The ketogenic diet has a very specific macronutrient ratio in order to reach and maintain a metabolic state called ketosis, where the body burns fat for fuel. Eating too much protein or carbs could interfere with this process. For this reason, carb intake is kept very low and protein intake is kept to a moderate level.
- Atkins: The Atkins diet is a type of low-carb diet. Although it provides more protein than the RDA, it's not considered a high-protein diet. In order to follow the Atkins diet, you must stick to specific macronutrient ranges, which change as the diet progresses.
- Mediterranean diet: The Mediterranean diet is not a low-carb or high-protein diet. It's rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods like beans, vegetables, and nuts, many of which are high in carbs. This way of eating is high in fiber, healthy fats, and an array of beneficial plant compounds, which is why it's been linked to a number of health benefits, like a reduced risk of heart disease20.
Foods to eat.
Foods to avoid or eat in moderation.
When you're on a high-protein, low-carb diet, you'll want to reduce your intake of high-carb foods. People following moderate versions of this diet can enjoy carb-rich foods more frequently, while people following stricter versions will want to significantly limit carbs.
Here's a list of carb-rich foods that should be limited when following a high-protein, low-carb diet:
- Breads and baked goods
- Sugar and sweeteners like maple syrup
- Grains and pasta
- Fruits and fruit juice
- Beans and lentils
- Starchy vegetables like corn and peas
- High-carb snack foods like chips and crackers
Your carb restriction will depend on your chosen macronutrient range. You can enjoy carb-rich foods like starchy vegetables, fruits, and beans in moderation as long as you're not exceeding your carb limit for the day.
A 3-day HPLC meal plan.
If you're interested in trying out some high-protein, low-carb meals or want to get started on a high-protein, low-carb diet, check out this three-day meal plan that's packed with nutrients like fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
Make it your own: When you're following a high-protein, low-carb diet, one of the easiest—and most nutritious—ways to start your day is with eggs. "To boost protein content I'll add a whisked egg into savory soups, or top just about anything with a sunny-side-up egg: salad, grain bowls, avocado toast, even pizza," Moon says.
Make it your own: "According to a recent meta-analysis21, the healthiest protein foods for heart health are high-quality plant protein foods and seafood," Moon tells mindbodygreen. To bump up your protein intake, try adding some of Moon's favorite sources like tofu, arctic char, seabream, and Alaskan cod to dishes like protein bowls.
Make it your own: To add another source of plant-based protein to your salad, Moon recommends adding nuts. "I top my salads with nuts instead of croutons to increase the protein content of the meal," she says. Not only will nuts add a satisfying source of protein, but they'll also add some crunch.
How to stay healthy on a high-protein, low-carb diet.
If you'd like to transition to a high-protein, low-carb diet, it's important to do it in a healthful way. It's not necessary to severely limit your carb intake or go overboard on protein-rich foods.
Here are a few helpful tips for staying healthy on a high-protein, low-carb diet.
- Don't forget about fiber: Make sure you're taking in plenty of fiber to support digestive health. Fortunately, many low-carb foods like nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds are high in fiber.
- Don't go overboard on protein: As long as you're incorporating protein-rich foods in all of your meals and snacks, chances are you'll hit your protein needs. It's not necessary to guzzle protein shakes multiple times per day. Here's a primer on how to add protein to your diet without going overboard.
- Pile on the veggies: Nonstarchy veggies like greens, broccoli, asparagus, and cauliflower are excellent sources of fiber and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Try to add a variety of nonstarchy veggies to most meals and snacks.
- Low-carb doesn't mean no-carb: If you're new to lower-carb diets, consider transitioning to a more moderate low-carb, high-protein diet. Even though very low-carb diets can benefit some people, they're highly restrictive and are more likely to cause side effects, like headaches and fatigue, compared to more moderate low-carb diets.
- Stay hydrated: Staying hydrated can help you feel your best and promote digestion, which is important when you're transitioning to a lower-carb diet. Make sure to sip on low-carb beverages like herbal tea, sparkling water, or water flavored with lemon or lime throughout the day.
What about if you don't eat meat?
High-protein, low-carb diets can be tricky to follow for people on plant-based diets. This is because plant-based proteins, like legumes, usually contain a good amount of carbs.
"It's challenging to meet protein needs on a vegan/vegetarian diet while also restricting carbs," dietitian and sustainability advocate Abby Cannon, J.D., R.D., CDN, tells mindbodygreen.
"Beans, lentils, peas, and whole grains are high in carbohydrates and typically form a large part of a vegan/vegetarian diet. In order to meet protein needs without them, you have to eat more soy products and nuts and seeds," she says.
Cannon says it's easier for vegetarians to follow a high-protein, low-carb diet if it includes high-quality dairy, which provides a good amount of protein per serving. Eggs are another high-protein option for people who don't eat meat.
Side effects and considerations.
High-protein, low-carb diets can cause some side effects. However, these side effects are usually related to more significant carb restriction.
In terms of protein, studies show that even extremely high-protein diets are generally safe and not associated with adverse side effects, even when followed for a long time period.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I lose weight on a high-protein, low-carb diet?
As long as you're in a calorie deficit, then yes. While some diets have been shown to be more effective compared to others for promoting fat loss, the most important factor in any weight loss diet is to take in fewer calories than you burn.
What are the side effects of a high-protein, low-carb diet?
If you're following a more moderate high-protein, low-carb diet, you shouldn't experience significant side effects. Those who follow a very low-carb diet may experience symptoms like headache, fatigue, and constipation.
Can I do a high-protein, low-carb diet with intermittent fasting?
Yes, IF can be used with any diet you choose to follow. If you're new to IF, consider starting with a shorter fasting window before moving on to longer fasts to see how your body reacts.
The high-protein, low-carb diet is a way of eating that emphasizes protein-rich foods and limits carbs. This diet is flexible and can be tailored to your macronutrient preferences.
It may be effective for weight loss, blood sugar regulation, and lowering triglycerides. Plus, it could help you maintain muscle mass during weight loss. However, like most diets, it does come with a few downsides, especially if you choose to significantly limit carbs or eat proteins that are taxing on the environment.
Jillian Kubala, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian based in Westhampton, NY. She holds a master's degree in nutrition from Stony Brook University School of Medicine as well as an undergraduate degree in nutrition science.
In addition to her private practice where she uses a unique and personalized approach to help her clients achieve optimal wellness, she works as a freelance writer and editor and has written hundreds of articles on nutrition and wellness for top digital health publishers.
Jillian and her husband have a backyard farm where they grow their own food and keep chickens. She runs a small cut flower business specializing in organically grown dahlias.