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.

Low carb is often defined as any diet of below 130 grams of carbs per day. Generally speaking, the fewer carbs the more effective it appears to be for weight loss without hunger, or for reversing type 2 diabetes.1 Eating fewer carbs can also make the diet more restrictive and possibly more challenging.

At Diet Doctor we recommend recipes and meal plans for up to 100 grams of carbs per day. Here are three examples of how a low-carb dinner 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

Moderate

20-50 grams per daymoderate low carb

Liberal

50-100 grams per dayLiberal low carb

 
 

Our definition

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

  • Ketogenic low carb <20 gram net carbs per day.2This level of carbohydrates is defined as below 5 energy percent (E%) carbs in our recipes or, if it is a meal, 7 grams of carbs or less. In our ketogenic recipes the amount of carbs per serving is shown in green balls.
  • Moderate low carb 20-50 net grams per day. This level is defined as between 5-10 E% carbs in our recipes and the amount of carbs per serving is shown in yellow balls.
  • Liberal low carb 50-100 net grams per day. This means 10-20 E% carbs in our recipes and the amount of carbs per serving is shown in orange balls.

For comparison, a regular Western diet can easily contain 250 grams of carbs or more in a day, most of them refined carbs, including sugar.3

A diet under 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates typically leads to nutritional ketosis.4 This level is defined as below 5 percent energy from carbs in our recipes. The limit of four percent energy from carbs means that you’ll stay below a maximum 20 grams of carbs on a 2,000-calorie diet, if you choose our 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 net carbs.

Note: Although our recipes are arranged by percent calories of carbs, protein, and fat, we do not feel you need to calculate these on your own. We provide them as a reference, but we recommend you limit your carbs, ensure adequate-protein, and adjust fat as needed for taste. That eliminates the need to constantly calculate “percent macros.”

Fiber

The above numbers refer to digestible carbs and discount the fiber.5 You can deduct them from your carb counts. For example, you can eat all the natural fiber you want from vegetables.6

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 can be misleading, and these products are often full of sugar alcohols with potentially negative effects on your weight and blood sugar.7 If in doubt, avoid anything with the words “net carbs” printed on it.

An effective low-carb diet is ideally based on fresh, unprocessed food.8 Learn more

Guide: Carbohydrates on a low carb or keto diet
 

 

Keto recipes

Moderate recipes

Liberal recipes

How to choose

Some people may need to keep the carbs very low for maximum effect – a keto low-carb diet. This includes many people with significant weight issues, diabetes (mainly type 2) and food or sugar addiction, for example.9

Others – less carb-intolerant people – do great on a more liberal low-carb diet.10 This also lowers the risk of any side effects.

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

We believe many people may do best starting out on a strict keto diet, to experience the power of it.11 Later, as you hopefully approach your weight and health goals, you can try adding more carbs to see how much you tolerate.

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

However, if avoiding most carbs does not feel possible for you, some health benefits can be had by just avoiding the worst carbs.12 Feel free to use the guide below for a more gradual start:

Eating better: Six steps down the carb mountain

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More

Low carb for beginners

Low-carb recipes – marked ketogenic, moderate or liberal

A keto diet for beginners (strict low carb)

Low-carb basics videos