How to Quit Your Low-Carb Diet Without Regaining Weight

With the promise of rapid weight loss, the popularity of very-low-carbohydrate eating plans shows no signs of waning. The plans—which go by names such as keto, low-carb Paleo, South Beach and Dukan Diet—may each have their own twist, but they begin with the same premise: very few carbohydrates, usually less than 50 grams a day. Thus, the likes of sweets, grains, cereal, bread, pasta, chips, crackers, starchy vegetables, beans, lentils, fruit, milk, yogurt and alcohol are ditched in hopes that the sacrifice will be enough to deliver the body they desire.

While there are many pros and cons to a very-low-carb weight-loss plan, there are also a lot of misconceptions. For one, the reason many people experience a fast drop in pounds during the first week is due to water loss primarily, rather than fat loss. Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen along with water. Thus, when carbs are reduced, water is also lost from the body. Furthermore, many low-carb diets are not actually designed to be a long-term solution, but rather a kick-start to your weight loss.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I've discovered that many of these very-low-carb plans do not provide a transition phase, or the topic of transition receives minimal coverage. I've also found that even if there is a transition phase, most of my clients either don't read the information or follow the guidelines correctly. The end result is devastating—rapid weight gain, frustration and the feeling of failure.

Whether you're just getting started, feel bored with your very-low-carb eating plan, have hit a plateau or met your weight-loss goal, it's important to prepare for the day that you do return to a meal that includes carbs.

The Goal

With your low-carb plan, you were counting carbs. Now that you've achieved success, it's time to switch to counting calories for the transition phase and long-term weight maintenance. Your goal is to experiment and discover two things:
  • Your calorie range for weight maintenance.
  • Your carbohydrate range, not only weight maintenance, but also for keeping carb cravings controlled and hunger at bay.

Six Steps to Your Continued Success

1. Determine Your Numbers: Begin by updating your information in your SparkPeople program. Select weight maintenance as the weekly goal, and you'll receive daily ranges for calories, carb, protein and fat. The SparkPeople program sets the carbohydrate range at 45 to 65 percent of your total calories, but if you're coming off a low-carb plan, you will likely want a lower carbohydrate amount in the beginning. Start with the range of 30 to 45 percent of calories coming from carbs. Use the chart below to help with adjusting your Sparkpeople ranges.
Grams (g) of Carbohydrate-Protein-Fat on a Moderately Low Carb Transition Plan
  1400 calories 1600 calories 1800 calories 2000 calories 2200 calories
30-45% Carb 105-158 g 120-180 g 135-203 g 150-225 g 165-248 g
25-35% Protein 88-123 g 100-140 g 113-158 g 125-175 g 138-193 g
30-35% Fat 47-54 g 53-62 g 60-70 g 67 – 78 g 73-86 g
Note that a slow, gradual progression (outlined in step two) is crucial in reintroducing carbohydrates to your body. This will help limit weight gain as well as tummy trouble, such as bloating and gas. It will also allow you to become mindful of your body's hunger cues and carb cravings. 

2. Don't Begin with a Binge: Give yourself approximately six to seven weeks or more to gradually increase the carbohydrate amount in your eating plan. Each week add just 15 more grams of carbs per day to the amount you were following on your very-low-carbohydrate plan.  The chart below outlines a sample weekly progression for a person previously limited to 50 grams of carbohydrates.
  Previous Daily
Carb Amount
(50 grams)
Carb Amount
New Daily
Carb Amount
 Week 1 50 grams +  15 grams daily   65 grams
 Week 2 50 grams +  30 grams daily   80 grams
 Week 3 50 grams +  45 grams daily   95 grams
 Week 4 50 grams +  60 grams daily 110 grams
 Week 5 50 grams +  75 grams daily 125 grams
 Week 6 50 grams +  90 grams daily 140 grams
 Week 7 50 grams +105 grams daily 155 grams
3. Create an Individualized Weekly Progression Plan: At the end of every week, reassess how you are feeling overall. Become mindful of your body's hunger cues and your carb cravings and take time to think about your energy levels. Remember, this is your individualized plan—you can place the cap on your carb amount based on what you discover works best for you.

4. Portion Size Review: An important step in the process is reviewing the standard portion sizes for carb-containing foods. Use a carb-counting chart to determine the standard portion size equaling 15 grams of carbohydrates for a variety of foods. As you increase your carb intake, your fat and protein consumption will simultaneously decrease, so be careful to measure and weigh all your food selections as you transition. Do this diligently for the first three weeks to hone your skills and accuracy.

5. Carb-Quality Counts: Reintroducing carbs doesn't mean that you have a free pass to head straight for the junk food aisle and grab all the deep-dish pizzas, cookies and potato chips you've been missing. If maintenance is your objective, begin the transition back to carbs by adding high-quality carbs such as veggies and fruits, legumes and lentils, milk and yogurt, and whole grains. These foods are packed with needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber that your body was missing.  

For the next six to seven weeks, continue to avoid sugars and syrups, chips, snack crackers, candy, cookies, pastries, frozen treats, sugar-filled drinks and alcohol, as well as breads, cereals and pastas made with refined grains. When you decide to start including these foods, do so slowly. A general guideline is to limit to no more than two servings weekly. Just because your low-carb diet is coming to an end, doesn't mean you should give up your willpower to avoid foods that are not benefiting your body.

6. Make a List: No need to start from scratch every week with meal planning. Rather than going back to the drawing board week after week, keep a running list of meal and snack ideas that have about 15 to 30 grams of carb and refer to it often. Then, when you're looking for inspiration or feel tempted to indulge in something unhealthy, you can refer to the list for a quick and easy option. Start your list with these six meal ideas:

  • Two scrambled eggs with sautéed peppers, onions, and spinach, one slice of whole-wheat toast
  • A ½ cup of low-fat, plain Greek yogurt with ¼ cup blueberries
  • A large tossed salad with leafy greens and veggies, one hard-cooked egg, two ounces of deli turkey, ¼ cup black beans and two tablespoons of a low-calorie dressing
  • Four to five ounces of baked chicken breast, one cup of roasted broccoli and one small sweet potato
  • Four to five ounces of grilled salmon, six spears roasted asparagus and 15 grapes
  • A ½ cup of low-fat cottage cheese with ¼ cup cubed pineapple
Quick-fix diets are never sustainable, yet for some people, a jump-start with a very-low-carbohydrate diet may be helpful. The key to weight maintenance after using a low-carb diet is taking steps to ensure you do not return to your old habits that caused the weight gain in the first place. Take the time to discover the carb amount that works best for you, and design an eating plan so you can savor your favorite foods on occasion while still promoting sustainable habits for health.