How many carbs in a low carb diet? This is a highly personal decision that depends on your own health, diet history and goals. Read on to find out!
Levels of low carb
How many carbs should you eat on a low carb diet?
Most writers on the subject define three levels of low carb:
Very low carb or ketogenic
Moderate low carb
Liberal low carb
How many carbs you should eat on each level is debatable, though.
Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt (“Diet Doctor”) defines a ketogenic diet as under 20 grams of carbs per day, a moderate low carb diet as 20-50 grams per day, and he thinks that 50-100 grams is “liberal.”
Mark Sisson defines anything under 50g carbs per day as very low carb, and favors the range of 50-100 grams per day.
And I’ve also seen sources who define 100-150 grams per day as “moderate low carb.”
I like Mark Sisson’s approach. I believe that for most people, under 50g carbs per day is very low carb and would give them amazing benefits (lack of hunger, stable blood sugar, weight loss). I believe that staying under 20 grams of carbs per day is extreme and could cause side effects for some people. I’m speaking from experience here.
My personal experience was that a year on an extremely low carb diet caused my hunger to vanish, and – I believe – helped me regain insulin sensitivity to the point that when I slowly started adding carbs back (up to 50-80 grams per day), I was still feeling wonderful. I still am!
But the reason I upped my carbs was that I developed some unpleasant side effects on the very low carb diet (read on to learn about them).
So an extreme low carb diet might have a place, but I think it should be limited in time – just like any elimination diet – and carbs should be very slowly and carefully reintroduced. Kind of like what Dr. Atkins advocated.
We are all different in terms of our metabolic dysfunction
Deciding how low carb YOU need to go will require some experimentation. We are all similar in the sense that I believe we can all greatly benefit from a lower carb diet, since that’s the diet we’ve evolved on. We’re certainly not suited to the extremely high carb modern diet.
However, we are also all different, because our levels of metabolic damage and carbohydrate sensitivity are different, depending on our age, gender, genetic makeup and past dietary habits.
So when it comes to how many carbs YOU should consume on a low carb diet, it’s not one-size-fits-all. You will need to experiment.
Two schools of thought
But where do you start? One school of thought, the Atkins diet, starts by cutting out pretty much all carbohydrates. The new Atkins says to eat under 20 grams of carbs per day during a 2-week induction period. The original Atkins diet’s induction phase was even lower in carbs – it was basically a zero carb diet.
The idea is that during these harsh couple of weeks, your body will be forced to wean off glucose and start burning fat for energy.
Then you slowly increase your carbs, until you reach the point where you start gaining weight again. A bit lower than that is your personal carb threshold.
Or you can go gradually
Another option is to lower your carbs gradually. So if like many Americans you’re used to consuming around 300 grams of carbs per day, you can start by lowering your carbs to 150 grams per day. That’s a moderate carb consumption, and for some people, that’s all it takes to start feeling better and lose weight.
Give it a month or so and monitor your blood glucose, your energy level and your weight. If you determine after 30 days that this is not low enough – you haven’t lost any weight, your blood sugar is still too high – you can then lower your carbs to, say, 100 grams per day.
The next step would be 50 grams per day, and the next step, only if necessary, 20 grams.
An advantage of this method is that it might help you avoid shocking your body into a slow thyroid and a lower metabolism.
My personal experience
When I started eating low carb, I was desperate to feel better. My weight was never an issue – my main motivation for going low carb was severe post-meal hypoglycemia. I was simply exhausted and needed to improve fast. So I cut out my carb consumption abruptly, from around 300 grams per day to 20-30 grams per day.
After a week of low carb flu (we’ll discuss this phenomenon in a separate article), I felt much better. So I stayed with a very low carb diet, until after a few months I started gaining weight. Alarmed, I increased carbs back up to 80-100 grams. This took care of the weight, but my hypoglycemia was back, much milder than before, but I wasn’t feeling as good as I wanted to feel.
Obviously, more tweaking was necessary. At this point, I decided to lower my carbs to around 50 grams per day, and make sure I eat a high-fat diet, to get plenty of energy. This strategy worked well. My weight was stable, my blood sugar was stable, and I was feeling good. Not perfect, but vastly better than I felt on a high-carb diet.
At some point in my low carb journey, I joined a Facebook group where people were discussing dietary ketosis. I was intrigued by the testimonials of boundless energy and a supercharged brain. At that point, I was doing pretty well, certainly better than my high carb days, but my energy levels weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, and I suffered from the occasional brain fog.
So I decided to experiment with lowering my carbs to less than 20 grams per day. In addition, I developed some digestion issues following a bout of food poisoning, and felt that my body needed a break from fibrous foods. So I followed an almost zero carb diet for about a year. I ate beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, aged cheese, supplementing my carnivore diet with a minimal amount of low starch veggies cooked in butter and olive oil.
My body seemed to thrive on the ultra low carb way of eating. My digestion improved; I had more energy than I had in years; I required less sleep – 6 to 7 hours instead of 9 to 10 – and I never got tired during the day. My brain was extremely sharp. I became incredibly productive. My mood was stable and I was feeling positive, likely a result of stable blood sugar.
The only problem? Blood tests revealed that unfortunately, I am a hyper responder, and developed very high LDL cholesterol on the extremely low carb diet.
Since we don’t know if this is dangerous or not (I have amazing HDL and extremely low triglycerides, so no one knows if under these conditions, the high LDL is problematic or not), I decided not to risk it, and increased my carbs back to a level of 50-80 grams per day, lowering my fat intake.
I might add that in addition to alarmingly high LDL levels, I also developed bothersome dry eyes, and dry mouth, while on a very low carb diet. These symptoms did not go away even after many months.
Interestingly, after a year on an extremely low carb diet, it seems that my insulin sensitivity has improved enough that I feel wonderful even on a moderate low carb diet.
You’ll need to run your own low carb experiment
As you can see, the answer to “how many carbs in a low carb diet” is not a straightforward one. I personally went through many phases in my five year long (so far) low carb journey. Things change – we age, or our job changes and our energy output is different. Maybe we start working out more.
There are many reasons to tweak your carb intake until you reach an ideal one – keeping in mind that what works for me may not work for you, and what’s ideal for you now may not be ideal in a year or two. And if you have a good, low carb friendly doctor that you can work with during this process, that’s priceless.