Inside: Carb counting simplified. How many carbs are considered low carb, how many carbs can you eat on keto, and what is the difference between total carbs and net carbs.
Whenever I share a keto recipe, especially desserts, I’ll usually receive a few comments along the lines of:
That’s not keto! It has too many carbs!
And then usually there will be others who comment back to say just the opposite!
When it comes to counting carbs and figuring out how many carbs you can eat on keto, there are a LOT of differing opinions.
So how do you decipher what works?
Types of Low Carb Diets
The definition of “low carb” varies among diet plans and dieters.
My goal is to break it down into super simple terms.
I’m not a medical expert. I’m not a keto diet coach. I’m simply someone who has tried quite a few different low carb diets myself over the years.
Hopefully that helps me explain in a way that makes sense to the average person!
When I first started researching the keto diet, I had a lot of questions. These are the things that I wanted to know and the very basics for anyone looking to start the keto diet.
Strict Low Carb = less than 20 grams carbs per day
The purpose of this strict phase is to put the body into a state of ketosis and accelerate weight loss. In overly simplified terms, ketosis is a metabolic state where the body burns fat for energy.
If you’ve ever done a diet like Atkins or the South Beach Diet, you might recognize this as the initial phase of each respective plan. On the South Beach Diet, phase one lasts for two weeks. On Atkins, you can stay on phase one until you’re about 15 pounds away from your goal weight.
Many diet plans limit the amount of time spent on this strict low carb period, and restricting carbs to this degree may not be safe for everyone.
Who should NOT do a strict low carb diet:
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Anyone with Type 1 diabetes, kidney disease, or any pre-existing liver, pancreatic or kidney issues or conditions
- Anyone recovering from an eating disorder
Always consult with your health care professional to ensure that there are no pre-existing medical conditions or medications that may conflict with a strict low carb or ketogenic diet.
Moderate Low Carb = 20-60 grams carbs per day
Many keto diet plans recommend a more moderate low carb range for longer term maintenance or for persons that are not good candidates for a strict low carb diet.
Since ketosis can often be achieved by staying under 60 grams of carbs per day, you may not need to do a strict low carb diet to see substantial results.
Athletes and highly-active people may even be able to tolerate more than 60 grams of carbs per day.
Maintenance = 60-100 grams carbs per day
One of the reasons that dieters fail (in any type of diet, not just the keto diet) is that they have trouble sticking with a strict plan for weeks, months, and years.
That’s why it’s important to find a realistic way of eating that you can handle in the long term – more of a lifestyle change than a diet (which we often view as temporary).
Once you’ve reached your weight loss goals, you should be able to switch to a more liberal low carb diet, also known as a “maintenance” phase.
This higher amount of daily carbs won’t necessarily be enough to keep you in ketosis or cause weight loss. However, if you monitor carb intake, you should still be able to keep off the weight that you already lost.
Total Carbs vs. Net Carbs
Now here’s where it gets a little confusing…
When reading about keto or browsing keto recipes, you may see things noted as “net carbs” or “total carbs.”
Total carbs are the amount of carbohydrates in a food. Period.
If you see “Carbohydrates” listed on a nutrition label, this means total carbs.
Net carbs are total carbs minus the amount of fiber and/or sugar alcohols. Because fiber and sugar alcohols are thought to have a nominal effect on blood sugar, some interpretations of keto diets or low carb diets allow you to discount them.
Total carbs – fiber – sugar alcohol = net carbs.
Because there is no legal definition of “net carbs,” use discretion if you decide to go that route. This is not a term recognized by the FDA, and there is no way to be sure that this information is accurate if listed on a nutrition label.
Personally, I avoid sugar alcohols as much as possible anyway because they often come with uncomfortable digestive side effects. Use at your own risk.
However, I do note both total carbs and net carbs on all the recipes on this site.
How Many Carbs Can You Eat on Keto
Strict interpretations of keto usually set a limit of 20 grams carbs per day.
However, most research shows that a ketosis can be achieved and/or maintained within the range of 20-60 grams of carbs per day.
Different bodies responds differently to carbs, so what works for someone else might not work for you. It may take a little experimentation to find your “sweet spot” with carb intake.
Related: Is Keto Healthy for Women?
How Do I Know if I’m in Ketosis?
You’ve cut back on carbs, but is it enough? Here are a few ways to tell:
- Urine Test Strips – It may sound a little yucky, but if you want to know for sure, a test strip is a surefire way to tell if you’ve reached ketosis. This type of test kit is easier than a blood test and more accurate than a breath test. Click here to purchase ketosis test strips on Amazon.
- Bad Breath – If you think your breath smells like nail polish remover, you probably aren’t imagining it! That’s because when your body breaks down ketones, they release a byproduct: acetone. Yep, the same stuff that’s in nail polish remover.
- The “Keto Flu” – As your body adjusts to a drastic decrease in carbohydrate consumption, you may experience symptoms similar to the flu, hence the name “Keto Flu.” Symptoms include: headache, dizziness, changes in bowel movements, irritability, nausea, sugar cravings…just to name a few. Not everyone experiences these symptoms and they usually only last for a few days. If you do experience flu-like symptoms that last for longer than a few days or symptoms more extreme than the ones listed here, consult your doctor immediately. Click here to learn more about the keto flu.
- Increased Urination – In ketosis, your body uses up its stores of glycogen, which is a simple sugar and a reserve energy source. Since glycogen is up to 75% water, when your body burns glycogen, it sheds the excess water through urine. Be sure to drink plenty of water to stay adequately hydrated!
- Weight Loss – Whoohoo!
A Note About Protein…
Protein is an essential nutrient for a healthy body.
However, there is a bit of controversy about “too much” protein interfering with ketosis. Some dieters will monitor their protein intake in addition to carbohydrates.
If you’re eating a keto diet, you should be getting plenty of protein already through food alone. I generally leave it at that.
If you’re eating meals with plenty of good fats, low carb vegetables, and protein, you should be just fine.