How low carb is low carb?

How few carbs are there in a low-carb diet? It depends. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve and who you are.

Generally speaking, the fewer carbs the more effective it will be. Faster weight loss without hunger. More rapid and powerful reversal of type 2 diabetes. But also more restrictive and possibly more challenging.

Here are three examples of how a low-carb meal can look, depending on how many carbs you eat per day (the yellow stuff is delicious herb butter).

 

Ketogenic

Under 20 grams per dayStrict low carb(this meal: 6 grams)

Moderate

20-50 grams per daymoderate low carb(this meal: 16 grams)

Liberal

50-100 grams per dayLiberal low carb(this meal, including
sweet potatoes: 37 grams)

 
 

Our definition

Here’s the way we define different levels of low carb at Diet Doctor:

  • Ketogenic low carb <20 gram carbs per day. This is a ketogenic diet (if protein intake is moderate). This level is defined as below 4 energy percent carbs in our recipes, where we also keep the protein level low or moderate (excess protein is converted to carbohydrates in the body).1 Previously we often called this “strict low carb”, but as the word “keto” or “ketogenic” became commonly used we switched to only use this term, for simplicity.
  • Moderate low carb 20-50 grams per day. This level is defined as between 4-10 E% carbs in our recipes
  • Liberal low carb 50-100 grams per day. This means 10-20 E% carbs in our recipes

For comparison, a regular Western diet can easily contain 250 grams of carbs or more in a day, most of them bad refined carbs, including sugar.

Fibre

The above numbers refer to digestible carbs, and discount the fiber. You can deduct them from your carb counts, i.e. eat all the natural fiber you want from vegetables, for example.

Another word for digestible carbs, with the fiber deducted, is “net carbs”.

However, don’t be fooled by the label “net carbs” on processed products, like chocolate bars. That’s usually just a way to trick you, and these products are often full of sugar alcohols with negative effects on your weight and blood sugar. I suggest not eating anything with the words “net carbs” printed on it.

An effective low-carb diet should be based on real food. Learn more

 

Keto recipes

 

Moderate recipes

 

Liberal recipes

How to choose

Some people need to keep the carbs very low for maximum effect – a strict low-carb diet. This includes many people with significant weight issues, diabetes (mainly type 2) and food or sugar addiction, for example.

Others – less carb-intolerant people – do great on a more liberal low-carb diet. This also minimizes the risk of any side effects.

A third group of healthy, lean, active people may not even need to eat very low carb, as long as they mainly eat unprocessed slow carbs.

If you want to start doing low carb, I suggest starting out on a strict version, just to experience the power of it. Later, as you hopefully approach your weight and health goals, you can try adding more natural carbs to see how much you tolerate.

Here’s a two-week guide to a strict low-carb diet.

Meal plans

Get lots of weekly low-carb meal plans, complete with shopping lists and everything, with our premium meal planner tool (free trial).
 

 

More

Low carb for beginners

Low-carb recipes – marked strict, moderate or liberal

A keto diet for beginners (strict low carb)

Low-carb basics videos

Visual guide

Note

LCHF means low carb, high fat. It’s the only way to successfully do a low-carb diet long term.

  1. The limit of four energy percent means that you’ll stay below a maximum 20 grams of carbs on a 2,000-calorie diet, even if you only choose our very most carb-rich keto recipes.

    In most cases you’ll end up with far fewer carbs than that, as some of the keto recipes you use are likely to have significantly less than the maximum amount of carbs.

    Our keto recipes are also limited in protein. Our rule is that for keto recipes with 4 energy percent carbs we accept a maximum of 25 energy percent protein. For lower carb levels we accept slightly more protein:

    • 3 % carbs = max 27 % protein
    • 2 % carbs = max 29 % protein
    • 1 % carbs = max 31 % protein
    • 0 % carbs = max 33 % protein

     
    If there’s too much protein in a recipe to classify it as keto low carb, we instead classify it as moderate low carb.

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112 Comments

  1. Yuliya
    If you go for more carbs it can’t bring you any side effects
  2. Andreea
    Hello,

    I'm one month into a LCHF diet, but I am not counting very strictly, just trying to eat real foods until satisfied (+some slips, higher carb meals 1/week). I think I am usually having 50-60g net carbs a day. I started having side effects - low energy if I don't drink coffee, constipation and I think a gained weight + fat belly - started at 63kg and now am 65kg.

    So I wanted to start the keto diet plan (strict low carb) to have better control + for healing and mental clarity - I am currently recovering after a knee surgery and I am having 2h workouts with weights 6/7 days a week.

    The question is: is it ok to go keto and is it safe for recovering? My goal is to put on muscle, I don't want to lose weight, just get lean and get rid of my sugar addiction and low energy/mentally foggy periods.

  3. juanita
    Thanks for all you do! 18 months lchf and couldn't be better. Am working to spread the word... Have you considered making downloadable cards, pamphlets, or even bumper stickers that could be printed out and distributed?
    Thanks again:
    Juanita
  4. Cindy
    Hi, I will be starting my Ketogenic diet this Sunday! Is there a way I can get a custom plan?
  5. Terri
    Hey Lloyd. I did this diet in 06. I was 36, 240 and lost 70 lbs in one year. Just learn how to eat in moderation. Anyways, Im 48 now, insulin dept , heart disease with a CABG×4, 2 years ago and a stent in my RCA. I did this no carb diet for 4 years and cardio. I was in good shape as well but eventually it all came to an end. I do have to get back on the bandwagon.
  6. Michael
    Internet trolls advertising other diets. Wow you are amazing.
  7. Christy
    Thank you so much for this fantastic resource! Am curious if, on a moderate low carb diet (20-50 net carbs), are you supposed to keep the same nutrition stats that you have on keto? Specifically, 400mg magnesium, 3–7g sodium, and 3,000–4,700mg potassium?
  8. Alicia
    Is low carb 20 carbs or 20 net carbs in a day?
    Reply: #109
  9. Peter Biörck Team Diet Doctor
    Hi Alicia!

    20 Net Carbs.

    Is low carb 20 carbs or 20 net carbs in a day?

  10. Rebecca
    I have started the keto diet using the diet plans on the challenge. The first breakfast is scrambled eggs at 1g of carbs but the recipe uses 2 eggs. On mynetdiary it show's eggs as haveing 1g of carbs per egg and no fibre so net carbs. It suggested that I could add low card extras e.g. advocado and salmon. I also need a high fibre diet so I added 1/2 advocado, 75gm of smoked salmon and a cup full of fresh spinach. My tracker calculates this a 9g of carbs with 4g of fibres so a net carb count of 5g. Is this correct? Also, why is the tracker different than what is showing on here?
  11. Pepper
    I have seen one of my niece lose huge amount of weight on the keto diet I like to give it I try, but being 60 with heart problems might be in high risked.
  12. Rae
    I love this page.
  13. shirley
    This is an amazing site. So helpful - I love all the videos, all the information. It has really helped me stay on course and has put me right when I have stalled.
    Now on my 4th month. I have lost 2.5 stone or 35 pounds. I feel great - energy level was raised from early on. I am in my mid 50's and was worried that the low energy was here to stay - thought it was thyroid problems or psychological , what a relief - I was just eating all the wrong stuff!!
    I recommend this site to everyone - they all comment on how different I am now -for the better.
    Thanks to all who contribute to this site - it has given me a new lease of life!
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