How Many Carbs Are in a Low-Carb Diet?

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The typical American diet is made up of mostly carbohydrates. If you are considering going on a low-carb diet, trying to reduce the largest source of calories in your diet may feel like a challenge. In addition, understanding how many carbohydrates are a in a low carbohydrate diet isn't always easy.

Before changing your diet, it is helpful to gather important information—such as the number of carbs you need and the best choices for healthy carbs. Answers to these questions can help you determine the best nutritional plan for you.

What Is a Low Carb Diet?

There is no official definition for a low carbohydrate or "low carb" diet. That means that there is no official number of carbohydrate grams in a low carb diet. Weight loss programs that restrict or require you to count carbohydrates are usually called low-carb diets.

Current dietary guidelines suggest that we consume 45% to 65% of our daily calories from carbohydrates. So if you consume 1500 calories per day, you would eat 675 to 975 carbohydrate calories or 169 to 244 grams of carbohydrate each day to meet that guideline. Technically, anything below that could be considered a low carbohydrate diet.

Some diets are very low in carbohydrates. The ketogenic diet, commonly called a "keto diet" is the lowest carbohydrate eating plan. The exact macronutrient balance can vary based on individual needs.

On a high protein keto diet you might consume as low as 5% of your calories from carbohydrates (60% from fat, and 35% from protein). On a standard keto diet, you're likely to consume 70% fat, 20% protein and only 10% carbohydrates. The diet is sometimes prescribed by physicians to manage seizure disorders, but some people are able to lose weight on the program. 

What Constitutes a "Low Carb" Diet?

Most low carbohydrate diets that you see advertised online or in magazines recommend that you limit your carb intake far below the guidelines recommended by the government. And when you see headlines about low carbohydrate diets in the news, the low carb diets studied are often much lower in carbohydrates as well. 

In one large study of diets, for example, researchers defined a low carbohydrate diet as any diet that allowed a maximum intake of 60g of carbohydrates per day. While another recent study defined a low carbohydrate diet as less than 40g per day.

Confused? You're not alone. I asked nutrition expert Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD to explain the low carb confusion in simple terms.

"There is no universal definition of a low carbohydrate diet. Instead, a low carbohydrate diet is sometimes defined by the amount of carbohydrate grams consumed and other times it’s considered as a percent of overall calorie intake. I generally define a low carbohydrate diet as one that contains 20 to 70 grams of carbohydrate per day. A very low carbohydrate diet contains less than 20 grams per day."

Low Carb for Weight Loss

If you decide to count carbs to lose weight, make sure you count them correctly. Remember that there is a difference between grams of carbohydrates and calories from carbohydrates.

On the Nutrition Facts label, food manufacturers are required to list the grams of carbohydrate in their product. Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories of energy. So a food that contains 15g of carbohydrate will provide your body with 60 calories from carbs.

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Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Low-Carb Diet

If you are serious about losing weight, you'll want to take your whole diet into consideration. Focus on choosing wholesome carbohydrates, such as a variety of non-starchy and starchy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fibrous fruits. You'll also want to educate yourself on portions and the importance of fiber. Try to limit your intake of refined carbohydrates, sugary beverages, and sweets. Instead, get your carbohydrate calories from fibrous vegetables and whole grains for the best results.

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