Is eating less carbs always better?
The short answer is no. Most cells in your body can use fat or ketones as a source of energy instead of carbs. Only your brain, kidneys, or red blood cells need glucose to work. Your body is able to produce enough glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis, even if you eat no carbs. But you might not feel the best on zero carbs.
Low carb foods that contain some carbs, such as vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain valuable nutrients. They also provide fibre, flavour and texture. You need that to enjoy your diet. So, the goal is not to go as low as possible but to find your optimal own carbohydrate intake.
Low carb is anything below 130 g per day
What’s the max number of carbs you can eat? Unfortunately, low carb doesn’t have an official definition. Most low carb experts use carb ranges that are inspired by the work of Dr. Russell Wilder from the Mayo Clinic. He first used carbohydrate restriction and the ketogenic diet as a treatment for epilepsy (1) and for patients with diabetes (2) in early 1920s. Here are the numbers you can go by.
- Keto: less than 20 grams of carbs per day
- Moderate low carb: 21-60 grams of carbs per day
- Liberal low carb: 61-130 grams of carbs per day
Should you go keto or moderate?
The lower you go the more effective low carb or keto appears to be. Studies that use 50 g of carbs per day or less show excellent weight loss (3) and blood sugar results (4,5). If you want to maximize results you should stick to keto or moderate low carb.
Now, here is the problem. This approach won’t work for everyone. The less carbs you eat the harder and more restrictive your diet will be. This increases the chance that you will make bad choices or quit your new diet completely. If you want lasting results you need a diet that you can stick with. You should go for a liberal low carb approach if keto or moderate low carb are not sustainable for your lifestyle.
Less than 50 g - Stay in this range if you want to maximize weight loss and improvements in health markers. Be ready for a very restrictive diet, say bye bye to fruits.
Between 50 g and 90 g - This is the middle of the road approach. It will give you more options including some berries but results might be slower.
Between 90 g and 130 g - This range is best for weight maintenance and for those who do a lot of high intensity exercise. It gives you the largest amount of food choices.
What does 20 grams of carbs look like?
It might help to see what these numbers look like on your plate. Here are a few examples of some really tasty meals that you can enjoy on keto, moderate low carb, and liberal low carb. Just note that it all depends on other meals of the day.
For comparison, a regular Western diet can easily have 300 g of carbs per day! That’s a huge difference. Also, those are often not beneficial complex carbohydrates but rather sugar in a form of soda and candy. That’s a good reason to find a low carb diet you can stick with long term. Experiment to see what number of carbs works for you.
1) RM Wilder, MD Winter (1922): “The threshold of ketogenesis”, in: J. Biol. Chem https://www.jbc.org/content/52/2/393.full.pdf
2) RM Wilder (1922): “A Primer for Diabetic Patients” https://ia800907.us.archive.org/29/items/aprimerfordiabe00wildgoog/aprimerfordiabe00wildgoog.pdf
3) Y Hashimoto et al. (2016): “Impact of Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Body Composition: Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Studies”, in: Obes Rev. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27059106/
4) LR Saslow et al. (2017): “An Online Intervention Comparing a Very Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations Versus a Plate Method Diet in Overweight Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, in: J. Med Internet Res https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28193599/
5) EC Westman et al. (2008): “The Effect of a Low-Carbohydrate, Ketogenic Diet Versus a Low-Glycemic Index Diet on Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus”, in: Nutr Metab (Lond). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19099589/