“Low” is one of those words that usually doesn’t tell you much.
How much of a discount do you get when a store charges “low prices?” When a blender’s speed control is set to “low,” how long will it take to make a smoothie? How much fat is in low-fat salad dressing?
You don’t have to check dictionary.com to know that “low” is a relative term, which doesn’t give you exact numbers or measurements. If you did look it up, though, you’d see that “low” generally means “below normal levels.”
So how many carbs are in a low-carb diet?
By definition, the label “low-carb” only means that the diet calls for fewer carbohydrates than you’d consume in a normal diet each day.
That lack of specifics can be frustrating when you’re trying to decide on a diet – at least, until you realize that there are many different types of low-carb diets.
Some limit you to a specific number of carbs, or dictate the percentage of total calories that should come from carbs. But others simply tell you which carb-heavy foods to avoid, without getting into numbers at all.
To get a better understanding of these diets and their rules, let’s talk about carbs.
Carbs and the Normal Diet
Since “low-carb” means you’ll be eating fewer carbs than normal, it’s important to figure out how many carbs you normally eat in a day.
Every five years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updates its recommendations for the optimal percentages of micronutrients in a healthy diet. Their most recent benchmarks:
- 20-35% from fat (and less than 10% from saturated fat)
- 10-35% from protein
- 45-65% from carbohydrates
Let’s use an easy number to work with and say that 50% of a normal diet should come from carbs.
The FDA also estimates the number of calories, on average, that healthy adults need each day. For women it’s between 1600-2400 calories, and for men it’s between 2000-3000 calories. Specific numbers vary according to a person’s age, sex, weight, height and level of physical activity, but again, let’s choose an easy number to work with: 2000 calories per day.
Using these numbers, we find that 1000 calories of our hypothetical “normal” diet should come from carbs, and that’s equivalent to 250 grams of carbs per day. So by definition, anything lower than 250 grams of carbs each day would be considered a “low-carb” diet.
That’s not the end of the story, though. If you only slightly reduce the amount of carbs you eat each day, you’re not likely to lose very much weight.
Carbs and Weight Loss
The theory behind a low-carb diet goes something like this:
The body normally gets the energy it needs by converting dietary carbs into glucose. The more carbs you eat, the more glucose there is in your bloodstream, and the more insulin your body releases to help its cells utilize that glucose (which is also called blood sugar).
Not all of the glucose can be used, so the rest has to be stored somewhere. And one of the things insulin does is encourage the body to store glucose as body fat. That’s a primary reason why eating lots of carbs causes you to gain weight.
But by drastically limiting the carbohydrates you eat, you’re depriving the body of glucose while also lowering your insulin levels. That means the body is forced to burn stored fat, in the form of molecules called ketones, to get the energy it needs. (In the most extreme example, the keto diet, the body enters a metabolic state called ketosis and weight loss is extreme.)
To lose weight in a meaningful way, you can’t just cut your carbs from 250 to 200 grams a day. You have to go a lot lower than that.
The Accepted Definition of a Low-Carb Diet
Researchers and dietitians use different numbers to define a “low-carb” diet. Many say low-carb means anything less than 100 grams of carbs a day, others say it’s anything less than 60 or 70 grams, and still others define low-carb as eating less than 40 or 50 grams of carbs per day.
Diet Hive says there’s one thing they all pretty much agree on: a “very low-carb” diet consists of only 20 grams of carbs per day, the accepted maximum for most versions of the keto diet. The Atkins diet (no longer as popular as the keto diet but still very much in use) starts you out at 20 grams per day for a week, and you slowly increase from there.
How many grams of carbs per day are right for you? In general, 50-100 is fine for maintaining your current weight or slowly losing a little more; fewer than 50 is the right choice for steadier weight loss. 20 grams per day should lead to fast and pronounced weight loss.
If you’re going to be counting your carbs, we have one important caution: you should be counting net carbs, not total carbs. Total carbs include the dietary fiber that’s in a food, which isn’t digestible and can’t be turned into glucose – so it doesn’t really count. Look for “net carbs” on the label, or if it’s not listed, subtract “carbs from fiber” from “total carbs” and you’ll have the number you really need.
Many low-carb diets, however, don’t even mention numbers or percentages. They just want you to avoid the wrong types of carbs.
Low-Carb Diets without the Numbers
You’ve probably heard references to “good” carbs and “bad” carbs. A number of eating plans, like the low-carb versions of the Paleo and Mediterranean diets, don’t bother with counting carbs at all. They simply have you eliminate “bad” carbs from your diet.
Those carbs are usually made from refined grains or contain high levels of sugar, and they’re mostly low in fiber. All are quickly digested and turned into glucose – and you’ve already learned what happens when you pump glucose into your bloodstream.
That means these low-carb diets require you to put aside the white bread, white rice, pasta, cereal, soda, juice, sweets, processed and junk foods, and focus instead on proteins, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, natural oils, nuts and seeds. Some diets also limit food groups like dairy and starchy vegetables.
Very low-carb diets go a step further and also eliminate complex carbohydrates like whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes, as well as most fruits (which have high levels of natural sugar).
Which approach is better, counting your daily carb consumption or just eating the right types of low-carb foods? There’s no right answer. The first is a more precise way to do it, but not having to keep track of how many carbs you eat each day is, for many, a more palatable way to diet.
*This is a sponsored post by Diet Hive – Making Healthy, Easier