How low carb is keto?
How few carbs are there in a keto 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). Note that only the left option is reliably ketogenic, for the majority of people.
Under 20 grams per day(this meal: 6 grams)
Moderate low carb
20-50 grams per day(this meal: 16 grams)
Liberal low carb
50-100 grams per day(this meal, including
sweet potatoes: 37 grams)
Here’s the way we define different levels of low carb at Diet Doctor:
- Keto 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.
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 keto diet should be based on real food. Learn more
Moderate low-carb recipes
Liberal low-carb recipes
How to choose
Should you do a keto diet, with below 20 grams of carbs per day, or would a more moderate low-carb diet be effective enough for you?
Some people need to keep the carbs very low for maximum effect – a keto 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 keto, I suggest starting out on the strictly keto 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.
Meal plansGet lots of weekly low-carb meal plans, complete with shopping lists and everything, with our premium meal planner tool (free trial).
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 percent carbs = max 27 protein
- 2 percent carbs = max 29 protein
- 1 percent carbs = max 31 protein
- 0 percent carbs = max 33 protein
If there’s too much protein in a recipe to classify it as keto, we instead classify it as moderate low carb. ↩