Must-Have Items for Your Low-Carb Grocery List

You already know what to avoid—here's how to load your cart the right way.

grocery shopping
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As a low-carb dieter, the grocery store can seem like a wilderness of forbidden foods, especially when you are avoiding processed items and refined carbohydrates. Knowing what you have to limit or avoid on a low-carb diet is important, such as cookies, pastries, and bread, but walking through the aisles can be overwhelming when you're not sure what you should eat (hint: not just meat and cheese, and in fact, overdoing it with these foods can result in health problems).

Balanced meals consisting of proteins, fats, and some healthy carbohydrates are crucial to ensuring that your body gets all the nutrients it needs; remember, you're on a low-carb diet, not a no-carb diet. 

When you're building your low-carb grocery list, keep in mind the main categories of foods you can choose from: Protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables (no- and low-carb foods), and starchy vegetables, whole grains, and fruit (higher-carb foods to eat less of, but still include in your diet). 

Here is your template on what to pick up in each section of the grocery store. 

Produce Aisle

The produce aisle is really where you get to go wild. There are no limitations on how many non-starchy vegetables you can eat on a low-carb diet, which improves your health as a secondary benefit. Many studies show that a diet rich in dark leafy greens and other vegetables lowers your risk of all kinds of chronic disease, including heart attack, stroke, and some types of cancer.

 

Make sure to pick up green leafy vegetables such as arugula, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens; cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale; sulfur-rich vegetables such as asparagus, garlic, onions, shallots, and leeks; and other vegetables such as green beans, tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, peppers, eggplant, artichokes, and mushrooms.

 

Herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano, and others can add a ton of flavor to meals and beverages. 

Some fruits contain around 15 grams of carbohydrates per serving, so keep that in mind when scanning the fruit shelf. Berries and melons are the lowest sugar fruits, so you may want to pick up blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and cantaloupe or honeydew melon. 

Meat, Poultry, Seafood, and Eggs

On a low-carb diet, you'll most likely be including one of these protein sources at every meal. All of these animal products contain vital nutrients, such as essential amino acids, vitamin B 12, heme iron, and omega-3 fats. Eggs are an excellent low-carb diet breakfast food; they're inexpensive, quick, easy, and one of the greatest sources of B vitamins as well as choline, which boosts brain health.

When it comes to choosing meats, know that red meat, especially processed red meat, has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease according to research studies. So you may want to keep your steak-eating to a couple of times a month and have bacon as an occasional treat rather than regularly. Also important is how the animals were raised; grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, chickens, and turkeys will yield more healthy omega-3 fats than conventionally raised animals.

 

You may also want to pick up canned tuna and salmon, sliced turkey, or healthy jerky for quick on-the-go snacks. 

Dairy Case

Full-fat milk, cream, butter, cottage cheese, sour cream, cheeses, ricotta, and sugar-free yogurt are all permitted on a low-carb diet. Avoid all flavored milks, which contain sugar, and when it comes to drinking milk, know that one cup contains almost 12 carbs—so don't go overboard. Refer to this guide for more information on the carbohydrate counts in dairy products. 

Fats and Oils

Foods high in healthy, unsaturated fats such as nuts, nut butters, seeds, and avocados should definitely be on your low-carb grocery list.

Most low-carb diet authors argue that foods high in saturated fats (butter, coconut oil) are not a problem in the context of low-carb diets, while a few others avoid them. Most say to avoid oils that are high in omega-6 fats (soy, corn, most safflower, and sunflower). Partially hydrogenated oils should always be avoided as they contain trans fats, which increase harmful LDL cholesterol and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Frozen Foods

It's a good idea to have frozen meats, fish, vegetables, and berries handy so you never run into a food emergency—which sets you up for getting ravenous and placing a call to the pizza place. 

Grains and Legumes

Flax, almond, and coconut flour/meal are particularly good for baking. 

Grains, such as rice, oats, quinoa, millet, and amaranth, as well as legumes such as lentils, beans, and chickpeas, have a high carbohydrate count. One half-cup of cooked brown rice has a whopping 34 carbs! You'll want to keep these foods to a minimum on your low-carb diet, and when you do have them, have very small portions (1-4 to a 1/3 cup). 

Condiments and Shelf-Stable Items 

Mustard, full-fat mayo (preferably not made with soy oil), sugar-free ketchup and barbecue sauce, sugar-free salad dressings, soy sauce, pesto sauce, broth or bouillon, spices, hot sauce, sugar-free pickle relish, sugar-free jams, and preserves.

Some other items to have around include unsweetened soy, coconut, almond, rice, or hemp milk; olives; pork rinds; low-carb tortillas; unsweetened coconut; and unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder.

Sources

Harvard Health Publications. The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. February 2015. 

Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source: Protein.

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