A high-protein, low-carb diet isn’t a branded diet devised by a clever celebrity. It’s a way of eating loosely based on one’s macronutrient intake.
The macros that matter on this diet are—(obviously)—protein and carbs. Fat plays a role too, but it’s not the star.
In this article, you’ll learn the basics, benefits, potential downsides, approved foods, and meal plans for a high-protein low-carb diet. Stick around for 3 minutes. It will be time well spent.
What is a High-Protein Low-Carb diet?
A high-protein, low-carb diet is high in protein and low in carbohydrates. But what do “high-protein” and “low-carb” actually mean?
There isn’t a consensus definition, but high-protein generally refers to protein intakes above the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight.[*] For a 200-pound person, this is about 73 grams of protein per day.
But the RDA may be too low. For instance, one 2016 paper in the journal Food & Function suggests the following daily protein targets for “functional needs such as promoting skeletal-muscle protein accretion and physical strength”:[*]
- For sedentary people: 1 gram per kilogram body weight (90 grams protein for a 200-pound person)
- For moderately active people: 1.3 grams per kilogram body weight (120 grams protein for a 200-pound person)
- For very active people: 1.6 grams per kilogram body weight (150 grams protein for a 200-pound person)
What about low-carb? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines a low-carb diet as a diet that contains fewer than 26% of calories from carbohydrates.[*] (Note: diets like Keto that allow fewer than 10% of calories from carbohydrates are classed as very low-carb diets).
To recap, a high-protein, low-carb diet exceeds the RDA for protein and limits carbs to 26% of daily calories. Any remaining calories will come from fat.
A High-Protein Keto Diet
A high-protein Keto diet is a species of high-protein diet. Eating high-protein Keto entails eating 30 to 35 percent of your calories from protein, under 10 percent from carbs, and 50 to 60 percent from fat.
Won’t all that protein kick you out of ketosis? (ketosis is the fat-burning metabolic state for which Keto is named). While high-protein intakes aren’t recommended for therapeutic ketosis (to treat epilepsy, for instance), the research suggests they’re perfectly compatible with weight loss, muscle growth, and strength maintenance.[*][*]
Benefits of High-Protein Low-Carb
Why prioritize protein and limit carbs? Consider these potential health benefits.
#1: Weight loss
Both high-protein and low-carb diets are well-documented to help with weight loss and weight maintenance.[*][*][*] And the combination (as a high-protein Keto diet) has been shown to help obese folks with obesity shed pounds.[*]
One reason why? Satiety.
High protein intakes, it’s been shown, reduce hunger hormones and stimulate fullness hormones.[*] In other words, protein fills you up.
Both high-protein and low-carb diets may also increase calorie burn.[*][*] Protein-rich meals that are low in carbohydrates also slow gastric emptying and reduce postprandial glycemia, meaning you get less of a blood sugar spike after eating. Combine this effect with a smaller appetite and you have a formula for weight loss.
#2: Improved body composition
Improving body composition means reducing body fat in proportion to muscle mass. High-protein, low-carb diets can help on both counts.
First of all, getting enough protein is essential for building, maintaining, and repairing muscle. Case in point: older folks who don’t get enough protein are at higher risk for developing sarcopenia, a condition of age-related muscle loss.[*]
And when you dial down the carbs, eat enough protein, and strength train—you have a recipe for fat loss and muscle maintenance. This isn’t just true in obese and overweight populations but also resistance-trained athletes.[*]
#3: Other Health Benefits
Other potential benefits of this diet include:
- Ketosis benefits like reduced cravings, more stable energy, enhanced cognition, brain health, heart health, and reduced inflammation.[*][*][*]
- Blood sugar management. (When you limit carbs, you limit the macro that spikes blood sugar most).
- Hormonal health. (The amino acids in protein are required to synthesize hormones like serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine.[*])
Assuming you have healthy kidneys, there aren’t any drawbacks to getting enough protein. Protein contains the building blocks of life, and up to 2 grams per kilogram body weight (more than twice the RDA) is typically deemed safe for long-term consumption.[*]
Restricting carbs is also generally safe, but here are a few drawbacks to consider:
- It may reduce your intake of fiber, a beneficial nutrient for heart and gut health. (Favor non-starchy vegetables to compensate).
- It shrinks your menu options, which might make you sad.
- It may cause a temporary “keto flu” while transitioning to a low-carb diet.
In general, however, eating high-protein and low-carb is a safe and ancestrally-approved eating pattern.
Who Should Consider a High-Protein Low-Carb Diet?
Almost anyone can experiment with a high-protein, low-carb diet. The benefits are broadly applicable to most human beings.
It may be especially useful for folks looking to lose fat while maintaining muscle. Many people fall into this category.
Note that people with existing kidney disease should avoid high-protein intakes. If you have kidney disease, consult your medical professional about dietary management.
Foods To Eat and Avoid
Familiar with the Keto diet? The approved list of high-protein low-carb foods is similar and includes:
- Healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, and MCT oil.
- Protein sources like grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, eggs, organ meats, shellfish, collagen protein, and whey protein.
- Low-carb vegetables like kale, asparagus, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, watercress, and cauliflower.
- Nuts like hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and almonds.
- Flavorings and sweeteners like monk fruit, erythritol, stevia, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract.
- Beverages like coffee, tea, broth, lemon juice, and almond milk.
The list of non-approved foods is also similar to Keto. These foods include:
- Grains and anything made with grains (oatmeal, pasta, bread, rice, granola, etc.)
- Packaged foods with refined sugar
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and yams
- High-sugar fruits like bananas and kiwis
Let’s look at a sample meal plan now.
Sample High-Protein Low-Carb Meal Plan
Looking to experiment with a high-protein, low-carb diet? Try this sample 3-day meal plan.
Dinner - Keto Pork and Egg Fried Rice
Lunch - Keto Garden-Fresh Steak Salad
Dinner - Keto Enchilada Chicken
Breakfast - Keto Mocha Chia Protein Pudding
Dinner - Keto Jumbo Egg Rolls
Should You Eat a High-Protein Low-Carb Diet?
That’s up to you. This diet is safe and beneficial, but it won’t have a 100% hit rate.
If you had to choose between high-protein and low-carb, choose protein first. Protein is the stuff of life, and humans do poorly at low intakes. If your goal is muscle growth and improvement in your body composition, high-protein is key.
From there, you can experiment with different carb limits. Find what works for you, form a routine, and enjoy the benefits.