The low-carb diet exists on a spectrum, and there are many health benefits to cutting carbohydrates out of our diet to varying degrees.
However, if your goal is to start the ketogenic diet, you’re probably interested in how many carbs for ketosis you need—to ensure you reap all the benefits of living a fat-fueled lifestyle.
We’ll explore the many options of low-carb eating below, but just note that to achieve ketosis a simple rule is that you’ll want to keep your carb intake toward the lower end of the range, around 20 net carbs or less per day.
Each person will require a different level of carb restriction to get into ketosis, but the following will outline the various iterations of the low carb and keto diet, to help you decide which is ideal for you based on your goals.
We’ll also touch on some common mistakes people make when starting keto, so you’ll know what to avoid.
How Low Carb is Keto?
Again, people’s carb threshold to achieve ketosis can vary. Some self-experimentation will help you find your sweet spot, but a carb macro limit of 50g a day or less is a great standard to use as a guideline.
Those transitioning from a standard Western diet may want to ease into the deeper levels of low-carb living to get into ketosis by reducing their carb macro limit over time as not to become discouraged and quit the diet, entirely.
Once fat-adapted, you can try eating different amounts of carbs and monitoring how you feel; fortunately, the many variations of the low-carb and keto diets make it easier for people to sustain a low-carb lifestyle.
Wondering How Many Carbs for Ketosis?
Essentially, ketosis is a state where the body converts from reliance on glucose-based fuel to running primarily on fat-based fuel through a biological process called ketogenesis—where fat is metabolized to produce ketones that the body can use quickly as a premium form of sustainable energy.
Ketosis has long been known to benefit those with neurological disorders like epilepsy, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Emerging approaches to cure cancer now tap the ketogenic diet as part of their healing protocol, as well.
Also, ketosis is known to boost mental clarity, physical performance, and acts as a natural appetite suppressant which results in a rapid loss of fat when eating few enough carbs to meet the limits often used on any version of the ketogenic diet—generally eating less than 50 overall grams of carbs per day.
How We Define Low Carb and Keto
There’s no definitive marker for what constitutes a low-carb diet, although the consensus is anything between 100-150 grams of carbohydrates per day or less.
For those reducing carbs to achieve ketosis, the macronutrient goal is commonly 50 total carbs, or 20 net carbs, or less per day—although those on a super-low-carb keto diet may restrict carbs to as few as 10g per day.
Knowing the different levels of the low-carb and ketogenic diet can help you determine how many carbs for ketosis is right for you.
Each modified version of the diet is geared toward specific results and suggests different macro compositions, so more detail on each version will prove helpful.
Here’s a breakdown of the different versions of the low-carb and keto diet:
Keto Low Carb
Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD)
The standard ketogenic diet is excellent for weight loss, and it also provides many therapeutic benefits. When on SKD, you will want to eat a macro mix that’s low carb, high fat, and moderate in protein—about 5%, 80%, and 15%, respectively.
The standard keto diet is proven to accelerate fat loss, regulate blood sugar, increase mental sharpness, and is perfect for those who want to lose weight even if they live a less than active lifestyle.
Calories are generally not heavily restricted on this version of keto, but that also depends on your end-goal.
Restricted Ketogenic Diet (RKD)
The name pretty much says it all. The RKD is a stricter version of the standard keto diet and is often used in medical settings to treat those with cancer and other diseases.
Overall calories are restricted on this protocol and carbs are usually capped at 12 net carbs a day.
Emerging research on the benefits of ketosis on those who have cancer or neurodegenerative diseases is promising.
The absence of glucose is proven to increase mental focus and assist in glucose regulation, even reversing type-II diabetes so people can become independent of medication—amazing!
Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)
The targeted ketogenic diet is ideal for athletes and those who exercise regularly as this style of keto is said to support physical performance and subsequently optimize workouts.
This model advises subscribers to schedule their carb consumption around high-intensity activities—either consuming carbs immediately before or following exercise—so the carbs eaten are used directly as fuel to support muscle tissue during periods of intense physical exertion, or to aid in post-workout muscle repair, and not banked in our glycogen stores.
Although it is still suggested to choose your carbs wisely, those eating a targeted keto diet often eat slightly more carbs than those on SKD, generally, 30-50 carbs per day—but the ideal amount will, of course, vary based on your exertion levels and exercise frequency.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD)
Like the targeted keto diet, the cyclical ketogenic diet is great for bodybuilders and athletes—especially more advanced and elite-level athletes.
The CKD is ideal for seasoned and professional athletes who require more carbs to support their intense activity level.
Part of the beauty of ketosis is metabolic flexibility. Once fat-adapted, the body can easily access both fat and glucose easily for energy as needed.
To this end, powerlifters, long-distance runners, and other professional athletes generally increase carbs for a couple of days prior to a game or competition to completely replenish their glycogen stores—the body is intelligent enough to know when to oscillate between its available fuel sources (r.e., when to access glucose rather than fat and ketones for energy, and vice versa).
While this approach may also result in some increased fat storage during this time, refilling the glycogen stores can also provide the appearance of increased muscle fullness, which may be particularly relevant to bodybuilders and figure competitors.
High-Protein Ketogenic Diet (HPKD)
The ketogenic diet is impressive for anyone living an active lifestyle, but the high-protein ketogenic diet is perfect for those looking to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
Although the premise of HPKD seems to fly in the face of the standard advice to eat moderate amounts of protein on keto, reducing consumed fat and increasing protein a bit has been shown to release body fat faster in some cases, even more so than the standard keto diet when people are very active!
As a guideline for your protein macros, it is suggested to consume about 1.5 grams of protein to each pound of lean mass—this range of protein consumption has been shown to increase the loss of inches and body fat while preserving muscle or supporting muscle gain.
Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF)
This version of the ketogenic diet is considerably more strict than the standard ketogenic diet overall, and it’s calorically restrictive, as well; those on this plan generally eat between 600-1,000 calories a day.
This version of keto primarily relies on lean protein, to preserve muscle mass while losing body fat. This version of keto is highly effective for fat loss but its only intended for short-term use—it’s not a sustainable lifestyle, long-term.
Although high fat intake is a hallmark of the standard ketogenic diet, this is not the case with the PSMF protocol.
People following this plan tend to steer clear of fatty meats and proteins and eat considerably lower fat macros than those on SKD, but their goal is still to keep carbs low.
This style of keto is incredibly powerful for fat loss because since you consume less fat, your endogenous ketones—those produced by the body—will be your primary source of fat, converted to ketones from your body fat, which can accelerate fat loss.
Moderate Low Carb:
The moderate low carb diet may be for you if you are slowly transitioning to a ketogenic diet or could be a dietary range you shift toward intermittently to allow more flexibility, so the low-carb lifestyle is more sustainable.
Those eating a moderately low carb diet tend to keep their net carbs between 20-50 grams a day.
Although probably not low enough to achieve ketosis for some, this level of carb consumption can still encourage fat loss, although likely not as quickly as if you were eating a standard ketogenic diet and eating less than 20 net carbs a day.
Liberal Low Carb:
This is the version of the low carb diet that is the most flexible and allows the highest carb macros. With a general range of 100-150 net carbs a day, ketosis is virtually not an option, but weight loss is still possible.
This version of low-carb living is ideal for someone looking to lose weight over time, but a more restrictive version of low-carb eating would be more effective if the goal is the therapeutic mitigation of disease or rapid fat loss.
5 Common Low-Carb Mistakes
Despite the many therapeutic, performance-based and fat loss benefits of ketosis and eating low enough carbs to produce increased levels of ketones, some may still find it difficult to sustain the low-carb lifestyle.
However, you can successfully live a low-carb lifestyle with some planning and an understanding of which version of the low-carb diet is best for you based on your health goals.
The following are five common mistakes people make when attempting a low-carb diet with tips to help you sidestep those errors and quickly determine which level of low-carb living works best for you:
Going too Low (Under 10g per Day)
If raised on the Western diet, our bodies are conditioned to run on glucose for fuel. If your diet before going low-carb was very saturated with processed foods and sugar, the transition to the low-carb lifestyle could be particularly tricky.
Your body has been used to running on sugar for decades and jolting it back to its original state of fat-adaptation and running on fat for fuel, or even cutting back to a moderately low carb diet, can be a challenge.
Drastically reducing carbs can produce physical effects (e.g., headaches, joint pain, lethargy, etc.) unless adequate fat, quality salt, vitamins and mineral, and electrolytes are abundant in your low-carb diet—particularly if following any form of the ketogenic diet.
However, there is a point where the carbs we consume are so low that it’s unsustainable and most will feel miserable!
Also, restricting carbs too low likely means you are causing malnourishment by eliminating virtually all fruits and vegetables.
Choose your carbs wisely and stick to cruciferous and leafy green vegetables (e.g., cauliflower, broccoli, spinach and kale, et al.) or low-glycemic fruits (e.g., strawberries, blueberries, etc.) for optimal performance.
Not Adding Carbs When Working Out
I think it’s safe to say that exercise is healthy and there are many well-known benefits to living a fat-adapted lifestyle, but there are some key points to address when exercising on a low-carb ketogenic diet.
While our bodies and brain thrive on fat and ketones, our muscles require glucose to perform high-intensity activities like powerlifting, sprinting or anything that needs high performance with few breaks (e.g., soccer, lacrosse, etc.).
Any activity we execute at maximum output for more than 10 seconds—and up to two minutes—requires glucose because our muscles begin to rely on glucose for energy via a metabolic pathway called glycolysis, as opposed to the phosaphen system (which is reliant on creatine phosphate and ATP, not glucose) during this initial phase of high-performance activity.
Mostly, although our bodies prefer fat for fuel in general, our muscles need glucose for fuel during every initial period of high-intensity exercise and it’s why those on variations of the ketogenic well suited for athletes (e.g., cyclical (CKD) and high-protein ketogenic diet (HPKD), etc.), often eat carbs immediately before or after an intense workout.
The idea that ketosis is negatively impacted or compromised if one eats a lot of protein via a process called gluconeogenesis appears to be a myth.
Also, protein is a building block of every aspect of human life from muscle growth and repair to the growth of lustrous hair and healthy nails—and, by the way, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that impacts ketosis.
For some perspective keep this in mind, gluconeogenesis (GNG) is a real, beneficial and naturally-occurring process.
How GNG works and its alleged impact on ketosis is where things often take a confusing turn. Ironically and contrary to a lot of information in circulation, the process of gluconeogenesis makes ketosis possible!
Gluconeogenesis is a metabolic pathway that enables the liver and kidneys to make glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. I know, who knew that was even a thing, cool right?
The word gluconeogenesis is comprised of three parts and when dissected the word means:
- Gluco — coming from the Greek root glukos – literally saying “sweet wine.”
- Neo — “new.”
Genesis — “creation.”
The process by definition means “creating sweet new wine” for the body, and it is a unique process because it’s the creation of glucose from any other source than carbs. If you think about it, gluconeogenesis is one of the body’s many ingenious survival mechanisms that help keep us alive via metabolic flexibility!
Remember, although we don’t need to eat high-carb foods to sustain life make no mistake: our body needs glucose and glycogen to survive.
We would all experience a life-threatening state similar to that of a person with type-1 diabetes without the presence of insulin—it’s essential for life.
What’s more, again, gluconeogenesis doesn’t negatively impact the metabolic state of ketosis.
Being Afraid of Eating Fat
This common mistake almost isn’t even our fault if we were raised on the Western diet.
Doctors and nutritionists have ingrained in our minds that all forms of fat make you fat, cause heart disease and lead to an inevitably shortened lifespan. It’s almost like we need a program to wean us from the bosom of the food industry and the USDA, as well as their flawed yet ubiquitous low-fat mindset.
The truth is that our health is likely being more detrimentally impacted by sugar than anything else in our diet.
Our bodies need and love quality fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats; and a balanced mix of fats from omegas-3&6 are excellent, too. Avocado, olive oil, eggs, and fatty fish and meats are also ideal food sources for optimal physical and mental performance, as well as body fat loss on keto.
Having quality sources of fat and protein as the centerpiece of a low-carb diet regardless of the iteration is essential.
The body needs fat and ketones for fuel in the absence of glucose, or you will experience a lot of undesirable results such as headaches, brain fog and feeling excessively tired.
Our bodies aren’t binary and need to utilize fat-fueled ketones and glucose to different degrees to function, and this becomes a more fluid process when the body is fat-adapted; therefore quality sources of fat are our friend.
Steer clear of trans fats and opt for the aforementioned healthy fats, even over most vegetable oils (e.g., canola, sunflower, corn, soybean, et al.).
Instead, gravitate toward coconut-based MCT oil; or salmon and other foods rich in omega-3&6 fatty acids; or fatty grass-fed meats or dairy to hit your daily macronutrient targets while enjoying every bite along the way.
Not Replenishing Sodium
Again, many guidelines we’ve been peddled for so long get turned on their head once you begin a low-carb, ketogenic diet—the proof is in the avocado-chocolate pudding!
Despite the rich minerals available in good quality sea salt, many people on a Western diet still avoid all forms of salt because of the negative rhetoric associating its consumption with increased blood pressure and heart disease.
On the contrary, unlike iodized table salt which is void of nutrition, sea salt with a high mineral and electrolyte content.
Himalayan or Celtic salt is excellent to use to replenish the system when on a low-carb, ketogenic diet because a significant reduction in carb intake causes the body to release increased fluid (water)—along with essential vitamins and minerals that require replacement throughout the day.
An increase in sea salt is recommended on a ketogenic diet to avoid the adverse side effects that can occur when trying to get into ketosis.
Adding adequate amounts of salt can stave off headaches, joint pain, exhaustion, and the other symptoms often associated with what we in the low-carb community unaffectionately refer to as the ‘keto flu.’
So, embrace quality salt and make sure to add some to your meals throughout the day.
What Carb Level Should I Choose?
Everyone will have a different ideal carb level based on who they are and why they’re embarking on the low-carb lifestyle.
As noted above, some versions of the low-carb diet that are calorically restrictive are best for those seeking to mitigate various forms of disease with the aid of the diet (e.g., cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.).
Other versions along the low-carb spectrum like the cyclical keto and high-protein keto protocols are better suited for athletes and those who live a very active lifestyle because of their suggested macronutrient profiles.
Those who primarily seek to lose body fat can find success with almost all iterations of the low-carb diet. However, the superior fat-burning and medicinal benefits of the ketogenic level of low-carb is shown to provide optimal holistic benefits.
Consider your goals and the requirements of each version of the low-carb diets noted to see which works for your current lifestyle and health goals.
If moving away from a diet filled with processed foods and sugar, maybe consider easing into a low-carb lifestyle starting with a moderately low-carb diet and then determine which level of low-carb living suits you best over time.
Figuring out how many carbs for ketosis that works for you will become simpler over time and when using the above tips.