The traditional food pyramid, first published in 1974, has been a huge topic of debate over the last several years, Michelle Obama even introduced her own back in 2011. And studies are teaching us that everything we know about nutrition could be completely wrong. In the minds of low-carb dieters, the pyramid should be reversed, leaving whole grains to the smallest tier. For a restaurant owner like you, what does this mean for your restaurant menu? How can you respond to customers’ unique needs and dieting trends properly? 

First things first, let’s all come to an understanding of the word “carb”… so we can properly apply our knowledge to our restaurant menu items:

One thing most low-carb diets have in common is that they are avoiding sugar. Sugar has been linked to cancer and is the main culprit of Diabetes, and although the word “carb” is used to define the diet, it’s simply a more broad term that means “sugar”, since carbohydrates convert into sugar. Even complex carbohydrates. Some would even say there’s no such thing as “good sugars”.

A Restaurant Menu Designed For Low Carb Trends

Creative chefs who are up for the challenge can create low carb recipes that appeal to regular customers at the same time as those who are sick of ordering burgers without the bun and getting a big round, uninspiring white plate with a single hamburger patty sitting in the middle of it.

If you think you can handle the challenge, take a look at some traditional and some currently trending low-carb diets and the restaurant menu items that can be inspired by them:

Keto/ Ketogenic Diet

restaurant menu optionThe Ketogenic Diet only allows a person to consume between 20-50 net carbs (carbs minus fiber) per day. It calls for high healthy fat consumption (nut oils, organic butter, pork), adequate amounts of protein (chicken, beef, fish), and very low carbs in order to force the body to burn fat for fuel rather than carbs. This process is called ketosis and the diet has been medically proven to be effective in people with certain illnesses, mainly epilepsy in children.

It doesn’t eliminate fruits and vegetables but recommends berries over sugar-rich citrus fruits. Since vegetables are naturally high in fiber, most green vegetables are safe. Beans aren’t typically consumed because of their high carb count. There’s a huge community of people on Reddit who are popularizing this diet and praising Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat (which as you may imagine, claims sugar is the root of all evil).

This diet isn’t just for weight-loss, though. People have claimed that it alleviates anxiety, depression and other illnesses. The biggest one? Cancer. Since Cancer loves gluten, the Ketogenic diet is said to essentially “starve” cancer. I talked to a woman last week who has been suffering with a brain tumor since August and is using the ketogenic diet for that very reason.

Take-aways for your restaurant:

As for what you can do about it as restaurant owner, just know that anyone on the ketogenic diet is used to having limited options on the menu. If you’ve ever witnessed someone taking the bread off their sandwich, saying “no” to the bread bowl, or wrapping their burger in the lettuce it came with, you might be serving a ketogenic diner.

Since so few restaurants cater to such a restrictive diet, you’ll become their hero (and perhaps build customer loyalty long-term) just by offering a few basic accommodations. Most of them just involve not cringing when someone asks for them, like wrapping a burger in lettuce, serving unbattered wings and offering more sides than just mashed potatoes, polenta and french fries.

If you every wanted to try your hand at cauliflower crust pizzacream cheese pancakes or bacon tacos, here’s your opportunity.

Paleo/Paleolithic or Caveman Diet

paleo diet option The Paleo Diet consists mostly of animal proteins, vegetables, as well as most nuts and fruit.  They cannot eat grains (not just refined grains – but all of them), legumes, dairy, and refined vegetable oils. They can have coconut oils. When unpasteurized dairy is included, its often called the Primal diet. This diet is supposed to mimic what our ancestors might have eaten, completely devoid of artificial and processed anything like wheat and fake sugars. Living Paleo also notes that the reason why these major food types aren’t allowed:

  • Grains: “The paleo hunter-gatherer consumed a diet rich in raw foods including meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and plants, and avoided foods which involved cooking in order to be edible; this included grains.”
  • Legumes: “Legumes have a similar story to grains; they weren’t consumed by the paleo hunter-gatherer because they needed to be cooked in order to be edible.”
  • Dairy: “The reason dairy is not part of the paleo diet is because people did not eat dairy products before animals were domesticated.”
  • Sugars: “It is fairy easy to see how sweets weren’t part of the hunter-gatherer diet; most candies and desserts are the result of modern technologies and heavy processing combining sugars and chemical flavors together.”
  • Trans Fats: “The only type of fats healthy for the body is essential fatty acids; essential because the body needs them in order to stay healthy. These fats can be found in meat, nuts, seeds and some vegetables.”

Sauvage, a restaurant in Berlin, made waves as the “world’s first Paleo restaurant.” While other restaurants and food outlets might have Paleo-friendly dishes, Sauvage publicized themselves as a specifically Paleo restaurant, and it brought them worldwide publicity.

Take-aways for your restaurant:

Much like the ketogenic diet, it’s not difficult for a Paleo diner to find something they can eat at a restaurant, but it’s not always pleasant. They’re able to eat meats, poultry, fish and all of the usual proteins without a hitch as long as there’s no thick, carby sauce on top or infused. Emphasizing “farm to table” practices will attract these customers in flocks.

If you want to get creative, try Pesto Chicken Meatza or Honey Mustard Crunchy Chicken Plaintain Salad, both of which look delicious. Having Paleo Bread on the menu would certainly make you someone’s hero.

South Beach Diet

south beach low carb diet menu option The South Beach Diet is more of a low-glycemic diet, meaning those on the diet avoid foods that spike blood sugar levels.  The diet also became popular right around or right after Atkins diet, with a Kraft line of packaged foods released under the name that can be eaten as part of the diet. South Beachers opt for olive oils, nuts, heart healthy monounsaturated fats (but they steer clear of saturated fats), whole foods, lean meats, poultry and fish. The diet goes in stages where certain foods are removed and certain foods are reintroduced.

Oh, and one thing about desserts: South Beach Dieters can only have sugar-free when it comes to eating sweet treats.  During the initial phase they have to stay away from alcohol and later they can have wine.  There are no starches in phase one of the diet, but later starches are introduced as complex grains (not refined grains such as white rice or white bread).

Take-aways for your restaurant:

Since the South Beach Diet is so well branded, you can attract eyes by adding a South Beach section to your menu. To attract non South Beachers, simply describe what makes these recipes special. Just by having a diet section in your menu, doesn’t mean you’re excluding non dieters!

These Grilled Zuccini Slices look tasty, and so do these Asian Lettuce Cups!

The Atkins Diet

atkins diet menu optionThe Atkins Diet, though existing long beforehand, was popularized in the late 90’s into 2000’s and spurred the low carb diet trend. This diet goes in phases, like the South Beach Diet, but in addition to high protein and low carbs, includes high fats. The Atkins diet does not find fault with saturated fats. People on this diet will use heavy cream and eat red meats with saturated fat, but will pass on certain grains, starches, sugars, and even on certain high starch fruits like bananas (initially, though they can have them later on in the diet).

The induction period includes little to no carbs, although those who are well into Atkins often take in 50-100 per day.

The Eco-Atkins diet comes in vegan or vegetarian versions. In this diet protein comes mainly from gluten (protein extracted from wheat), soy, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. In terms of carbs, dieters can have oats, vegetables, cereals, and barley.  They can’t eat white bread, rice, potatoes, or most baked goods.

Take-aways for your restaurant:

You can have fun with this diet without even knowing it. The brand name of this diet is a household name, so when someone sees a menu labeled “Atkins-friendly”, they know it’s a low-carb, fatty dish and not necessarily traditional “diet food”, which can be appealing. Anyone on the Ketogenic diet would typically find an Atkins menu appealing.

Try creating chips made completely from cheese, or Squash Ribbon Pasta — yum!

The Gluten-Free Diet

The Gluten-Free Diet is, by default, fairly low carb. Gluten is not a carb, but is a protein found in carbs, namely cereal grains.  Those grains are wheat, oats, and barley. Eliminating all of those carbohydrate grains does create a low carb diet of sorts. The diet is on the rise due in part to the bestselling book Wheat Belly. The book reveals that wheat, along with other cereal grains, have been crossbred to contain super high levels of gluten. It says that the levels are much higher than previous generations ate, that the gluten is making people sick, and that cereal grains should be avoided for better health.

We’ve written about accommodating gluten-free guests a few times before:

Take-aways for your restaurant:

One challenge is identifying those customers that have a serious allergy from the hoards of people that are just going gluten-free as a diet choice. Most people who have an allergy will let you know ahead of time. It is necessary to find out if it’s an allergy because cross-contamination is a concern. It’s always necessary to mention if an item is gluten-free but is prepared in a kitchen with other gluten containing items, i.e. baking sheets were shared or the fryer. Savvy gluten-sensitive restaurants have a separate prep area, tools and fryer for gluten-sensitive patrons.

Specialty product suppliers are springing up, such as those that offer gluten-free pizza shells or gluten-free hamburger buns. Getting finished products from these suppliers prevents the risk of cross-contamination for those that are allergic. It also provides an easy solution for those millions without allergies that are still going gluten-free as a low carb diet of sorts.

How the big chains are handling low-carb requests

Fast food restaurants and mid-chain restaurants have released low carb options on their menus, including restaurants like Applebees and Ruby Tuesdays. As an independent restaurant producing food from scratch, you of course may not want to have prepackaged combos and diet options on a laminated picture menu.

Still, you want the customer to be able to enjoy your food, even if he/she is avoiding certain carbs.  And you want to manage customer expectations, i.e. the guest might expect low carb options because he/she is being offered low carb alternatives elsewhere. Read on to see what the chains have been doing for low carb dieters:

Ruby Tuesdays offers Spaghetti Squash Marinara and a mashed cauliflower side, rather than mashed potatoes.

Special low carb burgers are on the menu at places such as Red Robin, Jonny John’s, In– N- Out Burger and Hardees and include lettuce-wrapped burgers instead of the bun.

Cracker Barrel has an entire menu page devoted to low carb selections.

Panera has a behind the counter “hidden” low carb menu that customers can ask for. The Panera menu stays behind the counter and is not posted, because it is meant to satisfy the low carb niche, the company says.  It includes a power breakfast bowl with egg whites and roasted turkey sausage.  There is also a power chicken hummus bowl.

The Cheesecake Factory has low carb cheesecake options.

Chain restaurants offering gluten-free selections include Burger King, Panera, and 99 Restaurants.

 Create unique low carb choices

If you’re serious about appealing to the influx of all-natural, sugar and carb-free diners, you may want to consult a registered dietician or nutritionist to review restaurant menu design ideas. You can also use valuable restaurant analytics to determine which items actually do keep them coming back — like the data from your menu.

Chefs can also use online applications like caloriecount.com to input a recipe and measure the amount of carbohydrates it contains. Create unique or fun low carb menu options and your carb-shunning guests will keep coming back for more.

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As part of Upserve’s family of more than 10,000 restaurants, The Chef is Restaurant Insider’s secret weapon in the kitchen. As a restaurant expert in all things marketing, menu building, management, training and more, restaurateurs trust The Chef and the award-winning Restaurant Insider to dish out the ingredients needed to make your business a sweet success.