Low Carb Food Pyramid

An Illustrated Guide to Low Carb Eating

Laura Dolson's Low-Carb Food Pyramid

Illustration of Laura's Basic Low-Carb Pyramid. Photo © Karen Struthers

There is no one way of eating that is best for everyone. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognizes this by attempting to tailor guidelines to the individual.

Those guidelines, however, have too much carbohydrate for people who's bodies have difficulty processing sugar (all carbohydrate breaks down into sugar in the body). Many of these people are insulin resistant, have a diabetes diagnosis, or somewhere along the diabetes spectrum.

The pyramid presented here is not meant to give precise advice to anyone, but merely to be an illustrated eating guide for those whose bodies do better with less carbohydrate. It's meant to be a rough guideline as to the amounts of the different foods by volume, rather than by percent of calories.

This illustration gives you a general idea of how much of which foods to eat, but the exact amounts will vary per person. You need to zero in on your own optimal carbohydrate level.


low carb vegetables
Vegetables in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Olga Shelego

The largest food group of a low-carb diet should be low carb vegetables (excluding starchy ones like corn, potatoes, and beets). Ideally, at least half of your dinner plate should be covered with vegetables. A good lunch would be a large salad with protein and dressing added. Even breakfast can have vegetables included, for example in an omelet or another egg dish.

Select a variety of colors of vegetables and fruits, as the phytonutrients and antioxidants are different in the different color groups. Also, since each food contains a different combination of nutrients, you are more apt to get all your needs met when you eat a variety of foods.

Do you need inspiration? Explore easy vegetable preparation and more about greens, the low carb super food. And for those vegetables that are higher in carbs, see the carb counts of root vegetables.


Protein Foods
Protein in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Malcolm Romain

Low-carb diets are often thought of as high in protein, and indeed, getting sufficient protein is the foundation of most low-carb diets. However, this does not have to mean a diet very high in protein.

The National Academy of Sciences recommends an upper limit of 35 percent of calories coming from protein. This is generally in accord with the recommendations of low-carb diet authors. In fact, protein intake tends to be self-limiting—people would usually have to force themselves to eat too much protein. Explore lists of high protein food and foods high in protein and low in saturated fat.


low carb fruit
Fruit in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Most fruits are full of nutrients. However, some of them are also full of sugar, so people whose bodies don't process sugars well must choose wisely.

Fortunately, many of the low-sugar fruits are the highest in nutrients and antioxidants, such as berries and melons. Most low-carb eaters can eat one, two, or sometimes even three servings of these fruits per day unless they are very sensitive to sugar or are in a very low-carb phase of a diet such as the Atkins Diet or South Beach Diet; this is usually the first few weeks of such a diet


healthy fats
Fats in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Once you know how much carbohydrate and protein you need in your diet, the rest of the calories will come from fat. It is important to take care of your needs for essential fats, primarily Omega-3 fats, by eating foods such as fatty fish (like salmon) and flax seeds. Plant foods with a high amount of monounsaturated fat — such as olives and olive oil, avocado, and nuts—have been shown to have health benefits.

Even saturated fats, which have been considered to be a damaging type of fat, has not been shown to be detrimental in several large studies, and perhaps particularly for people eating a low-carb diet. Still, a balance of fats, with an emphasis on sources such as olive oil and Omega-3 fats, is a good idea.

Many low-carb authors have been speaking out against trans fats since the mid-1990s. They have always been ahead of the curve on this.

Dairy Foods

Dairy Foods in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Milk and other dairy products have a certain amount of lactose (milk sugar). People who are sensitive to sugar may have to be careful about the amount of dairy they consume, depending on their own personal carbohydrate level. Still, even for sugar-sensitive people, there are good choices of dairy products, including cheese, cottage cheese, and some yogurts.

If you aren't able to eat much in the way of dairy products, be sure to get adequate calcium in other ways by eating a lot of calcium-rich vegetables and/or taking supplements. See the carb counts of milk, soy milk, and other milk substitutes.


black beans
Legumes in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Beans and other legumes (such as lentils and peas) have quite a lot of carbohydrate. But the starch consists of types that, in most people, are either digested slowly or not digested in the small intestine at all (resistant starch). Therefore, in moderation, they can be excellent choices for people who don't process sugar well.

Whole Grains

Brown Rice
Whole Grains in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Karen Struthers

Whole, intact grains such as brown rice and barley are tolerated by some people as part of a moderately low-carbohydrate diet. The starch in intact whole grains is more slowly broken down into glucose than starch in refined grains (such as white rice) or grains ground into flour (even whole wheat flour).

Whole grain pastas are also more slowly digested. Pasta should be cooked "al dente" (slightly firm), as the more you cook it, the faster it is broken down into sugar.

A serving of grains is about half a cup. See more about how much grain good you should eat. If you love bread, learn how to find healthy, lower-carb bread.


special cake
Starchy and Sugary Foods - Treats in a Low-Carb Diet. Photo © Nimalan Tharmalingam

Foods that the body rapidly converts into glucose are not shown on the pyramid, but this doesn't mean that you can never have a piece of cake or an order of fries again. Rather, it means that foods that cause a rapid and high rise in blood sugar should be planned treats, which:

  • You do not eat often
  • Are very delicious (no stale cake, third-rate pie, or limp fries allowed!)
  • You enjoy every bite of. You should stop eating when you aren't enjoying your treat to the utmost (you may be surprised at how soon this is)

Foods that fall into this category include:

  • Foods made with a lot of sugar (candy, sugared soft drinks and other beverages with sugar, ice cream, etc.)
  • Foods made with a lot of flour (cakes, cookies, crackers, most breads, etc.)
  • Starchy foods, such as potatoes
  • Fruit juices
  • High sugar fruits. The fruits with the highest amount of sugar are any dried fruit (raisins, figs, etc) and tropical fruits such as bananas, mangoes, pineapple, and oranges.

Check labels for other foods with a large amount of carbohydrate (remember, all carbs turn to sugar in your body).

Low Carb Treats

On the other hand, delicious treats can be made from low-carb ingredients. Try recipes for low carb breads (including muffins, etc.), low carb desserts, and low carb candy.


Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 8th Edition. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.

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